“You work for us!” was heard as a crowd of extremists, angry at their government, broke glass as they stormed the Capitol building.
While this sounds like a scene from Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C., it actually took place in Idaho last summer. It wasn’t about an election or Donald Trump, but measures the state’s Republican governor put in place to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the center of the Idaho insurrection was Ammon Bundy, a familiar face in the anti-government movement who remains a force to be reckoned with amidst the growing national concern about right-wing extremist groups. This week it was reported that he has registered to run for governor in Idaho next year, “even though he’s not currently registered to vote or legally allowed to set foot on Capitol grounds.”
The Idaho protests were similar to the so-called “American Patriot’s Rally” that took place in Michigan’s state capital, which also involved armed protesters demonstrating against COVID restrictions. Both of these events were early warning signs of what was to come on Jan. 6. But for Bundy, they were nothing new. He has participated in other standoffs with the U.S. government that have channeled the same anti-government energy that fueled the violence at the U.S. Capitol in January.
Bundy first gained prominence in 2014 in a standoff with the federal government over his father’s use of federal land in Nevada to graze his cattle. The Bundys, who were among the first Mormon settlers in the area in the 1800s, were ordered to stop using the land for their cattle in the early 1990s, when the U.S. government decided to protect the area for conservation. In protest, Bundy’s father, Cliven, continued to graze his cattle there while refusing to pay grazing fees, accumulating over $1 million in unpaid fees and fines over the next 20 years. A years-long court battle culminated in 2014, when the Bureau of Land Management informed the Bundys that it would be impounding their cattle that remained on federal land. At that point, protesters gathered with the Bundy family, including out-of-state militia groups. The armed standoff with federal officials grew so tense, and the potential for violence so present – a video of Ammon being tased three times went viral – that the U.S. government backed down in the end. The Bundys were eventually charged with assault, making threats against the government, firearms offenses, and obstruction, but in 2018, a judge dropped all charges against them. The cattle continue to graze on government land and the fines owed have not been paid.
In 2016, Ammon Bundy became involved with another land dispute in the federal Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon. Bundy and others staged an armed takeover of the refuge to protest the arrest of Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, who were accused of committing arson on federal land near their ranch in Oregon. The standoff, which lasted 41 days, ended with the death of one of the protestors, Robert LaVoy Finicum, and the wounding of Ammon’s brother Ryan. While some of the militants were arrested, tried and found guilty, Ammon and his brother were eventually acquitted. In 2018, Trump pardoned the Hammonds, paving the way for their early release from prison.
These incidents made Bundy into somewhat of a folk hero among people concerned about government overreach, especially out West. He is an activist who combines a disregard for government authority — via a unique interpretation of the Constitution, which he believes doesn’t allow the federal government to own land — with a demonstrated willingness to respond with violence if necessary to those in government who challenge him. But his extreme tactics and his eagerness to insert himself into local disputes has also made him a divisive figure. When Bundy took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, militia leaders from the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters tried to distance themselves from his actions.
Still, as the recent COVID protest shows, Bundy remains an influential figure, and as Jan. 6 proved, the well of anti-government sentiment is deeper than many realized. In congressional testimony earlier this year, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the siege of the Capitol was not only criminal behavior, but constituted domestic terrorism. The threat of right-wing extremism is at its core a disregard for the law and government, particularly the federal government. This threat is manifested in different ways by different groups. QAnon sees a bizarre world run by corrupt, elite governmental pedophiles. Other groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys are taking up arms to prepare for the downfall of the existing government but aren’t clear what will take its place.
In Bundy’s case it is the People’s Rights movement, which he founded in March 2020 not as a response to grazing rights, but in reaction to what he perceived to be overreach by government efforts to control the spread of COVID-19. The wearing of masks, the closing of businesses, the prohibition on gatherings, and the effort to get Americans vaccinated is fodder for Bundy and his followers.
In each state he has assistants, estimated to be as many as 153, with whom he keeps in contact. While the movement may ostensibly be about protesting government efforts to fight the pandemic, the violent undercurrent that People’s Rights members embrace ties them to the larger right-wing extremist movement, which has come into greater focus after Jan. 6.
The connection between Bundy and today’s more militant right-wing extremist groups goes back to the 2014 confrontation between his father and the government. The elder Bundy called on militias to come to his aid, and right-wing militias responded. The relationship between People’s Rights and groups that espouse violence against the federal government, some of whom were an integral part of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, is a growing concern and should not be ignored.
People’s Rights has a simple approach to their view of government. They want it to protect so-called “righteous” people from those who are deemed “wicked.” The wicked are, generally speaking, those who are not the same as them, for example, minority groups or activist groups on the left. While there is a view that Bundy himself is not racist because he has reached out to Black Lives Matter in a show of anti-government solidarity, a closer examination of him reveals, at the very least, a pattern of racism denial, which is rooted in the belief that racism does not exist. An excellent report from the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights and the Montana Human Rights Network (IREHR/MHRN) thoroughly investigates People’s Rights and what they call “Ammon’s Army.” The report points out the violent side of the group:
Despite all the talk of “rights” and “freedom,” a culture of violence and fear lies at the center of the People’s Rights message. As Bundy told the crowd at the third meeting of the group, if local, state, or federal officials attempt to enforce laws that the group doesn’t like, People’s Rights is prepared to adopt a violent posture.
The report goes on to discuss the appeal of this more violent side of the group to militias like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters. Leaders in People’s Rights have been members of militant groups, local and national. The movement is leavened with racism, anti-Semitism and the belief that, if need be, the government should be undermined and if needed, overthrown. They are ready, at Bundy’s direction, to use violence if necessary. One characterization of this network is that it is an “Uber” for militias ready to respond on short notice when called upon.
Bundy and People’s Rights followers are also part of a dangerous anti-vaxxer movement. There was a burning of a giant syringe recently in Utah, which Bundy attended, as part of a “Night of Liberty” designed to undermine COVID-19 vaccinations. The anti-vaxxers are not a fringe concern, but a very real problem for the effort to manage the spread of COVID-19 and its variants. In a recent article in Nature, Dr. Peter Hotez of Baylor University’s Medical School wrote:
Today, the anti-vaccine empire has hundreds of websites and perhaps 58 million followers on social media. The bad guys are winning… The United States hosts the world’s largest and best-organized anti-vaccine groups… Global anti-vaccine messaging around the adenovirus vaccines means that more people will die and the pandemic will be prolonged.
Because of the connection between Bundy and the Sovereign Citizen movement, which reflected his father’s previous protests against the government, he may seem at first look to be a somewhat less threatening figure than the leaders of groups like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, or Three Percenters. Sovereign Citizens are largely viewed as obstructionists of the legal system, tying up the courts with spurious lawsuits. That is not the case with Bundy. He and his followers have shown a willingness to use violence, as they did in Idaho in 2020, and as he did in 2014 and 2016.
It is worth considering, as the pandemic subsides and the economy returns to a more normal state, whether Bundy and People’s Rights will continue to be a viable threat. Is he looking to change the system from within, as his potential run for governor suggests? Or, is Bundy looking for confrontation with the U.S. government as a means to keep his movement relevant? The answer may be that he understands that the administration’s successful response to the pandemic, including getting the economy moving again, will undermine People’s Rights, and confrontation will help to keep it alive. There is, however, another important way to view Bundy. He has proven himself to be willing to use causes as he has done since 2014 to confront government, federal and state. He has shown a willingness to use violence when he believes it is necessary, as have his right-wing allies. He is more than a Western state reactionary, and it would be a mistake to underestimate him. People’s Rights is becoming a national movement, and if it evolves beyond its present pandemic focus, which is a distinct possibility, the threat it poses will only increase.
The question of how to respond to right-wing extremist groups like People’s Rights is complicated. As Wray said in his congressional testimony earlier this year, “We need more agents. We need more analysts. We need more data analytics, et cetera.” The good news is President Joe Biden said in his recent address to a joint session of Congress that dealing with this threat right-wing extremism is a priority, and he is right to make it a priority. It is a threat to U.S. democracy, and in the case of Bundy and People’s Rights, it is a threat to the fight against the pandemic.
The response to this extremism cannot simply be from the Biden administration. Active support from communities, organizations and individuals who are willing to stand up to Bundy and all of these groups, is needed. For example, the IREHR/MHRN report discusses efforts made by community leaders pushing back against the radical Posse Comitatus movement which promoted paramilitarism and racism during the farm crisis in the 1980s. It worked. It can work again, particularly if it is done in combination with the Biden administration’s efforts to join the fight against right-wing extremists. This means responding to Bundy and those like him as a dangerous threat that has to be dealt with immediately before it gets further out of control.
As Yeats wrote in his poem “The Second Coming,” which seems apropos to present struggles against Bundy and those like him, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity…” This is not the time to lack conviction. It is the time to stand up to Bundy and other extremists. There is too much at stake to do any less.