James Yeager is calling from Cliven Bundy’s front yard, where he’s one of several (he won’t say how many) providing 24-hour security to the Bundy family. He and his friend packed up “a full medical kit and a camera” and drove 26 ½ hours from their home in Camden, Tennessee last week to document what he calls “a tremendous overreach of federal power.” He’s been posting daily videos to his YouTube site.
When asked if he also packed weapons, Yeager said, “of course. I’m always armed. This is not any different than any other day for me.”
CREDIT: photo provided by James Yeager.
Yeager is one of hundreds of supporters who journeyed to Bunkerville, Nevada in support of the rancher’s standoff with the federal Bureau of Land Management. Though federal agents released Bundy’s cattle over a week ago, many have remained on the ranch to protest and protect the rancher’s family. They’ve hailed Bundy — who owes the federal government over $1 million in unpaid grazing fees — as an “American hero.” The Mormon father of 14 has even inspired futuristic fan fiction from his most ardent admirers: “Yes, it’s been a great half-century for America, and we owe much of our good fortune to the bravery of Cliven Bundy.”
They call themselves militia members, oath keepers, protesters and patriots. Senator Harry Reid calls them “domestic terrorists.”
So which is it? In the background of the Bundy debate over federal land is a battle over image: protesters who want to paint themselves as American citizens defending the Constitution against a tyrannical government, versus groups worried about the extremist anti-government militia members among them, who may be more and more willing to take up arms in the fight for “freedom.”
Armed agents from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) seized Bundy’s cattle in early April, a move that brought protesters (and their guns) from all over the country to the ranch, demanding that his cows be released. The situation intensified when a video of BLM agents tasing Bundy’s son went viral. As more and more of Bundy’s armed defenders streamed into Bunkerville, the BLM released the cattle and said they were rethinking how to move forward.
The Southern Poverty Law Center released a report in 2009 on the resurgence of right-wing militia groups, like some of those that rushed to Bundy’s support. “This is the most significant growth we’ve seen in 10 to 12 years,” one law enforcement official told the Center. “All it’s lacking is a spark.”
Was the standoff in Bunkerville that spark the militias needed? Patriot groups are now claiming victory in their fight against the federal government. It’s unclear what that means for Bundy’s $1 million in unpaid fees, or for future dissenters that decide to flout federal law with a bevy of armed backers.
“The militia movement is back, it is here in force and they seem to be roving the country looking for opportunities like this to make themselves known,” said Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), who traveled to Bunkerville to cover the Bundy standoff. “As more people with anti-government views streamed into the area, the issue became more about federal tyranny.” Lenz said tension mounted until “it was literally just one wrong step away from going south.”
The showdown in the Southwest drew supporters from many different camps, not just militia groups or the far-right: Western ranchers angry over federally owned land (Bundy’s not the first to spar with the BLM over this issue). Free speech advocates upset by the “first amendment zones” roped off for protesters. Avid fans of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones who answered his call to “stand up against tyranny” by “standing with Bundy.” Far-right (and fully armed) militia members looking for a standoff with federal law enforcement. And state legislators from across the West who saw an opportunity to drum up support among Bundy’s biggest fans.
“For me, it really had not a lot to do with Bundy or the cattle. My interest in it was really the first amendment zone and that something like that could even be set up here in America,” said Robert Richardson, owner of Off Grid Survival. Richardson, who lives in Nevada, traveled to Bunkerville to cover the protest for his blog. “It’s not a left-right issue. It’s something that almost everybody should be pretty enraged about.”
Professor Jack Kay of Eastern Michigan University has studied militias and the “rhetoric of hate” for over 30 years. He said though many at the protest weren’t extremists, the far-right fringe could radicalize a bigger proportion of protesters. “There were far more people there than members of the militia — there were the cowboys, the neighbors, the women and children,” he said. “[But] these radical militia see this as an opportunity for confrontation, an opportunity to recruit, [and] an opportunity to get a lot of media attention. I see over the next few years for the number of radical militias to increase their enrollment.”
Many in Bundy’s brigade reject the notion that they’re anti-government. “If you set up a Facebook page, called yourself the “Greater Metro Citizens Militia”, and took a picture of yourself in Camo, Within six months, The SPLC will list you as an ‘anti-government patriot group,’” wrote Michael Lackomar of the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia, in an email to ThinkProgress. Lackomar coordinated communication between different militias during the Bundy Ranch protest from his home in Michigan. “It’s unfair to call us ‘Anti Government’…We are against over-reaching, unconstitutional government.”
Lackomar says his militia’s main focus is survival. “Our mission is to prepare ourselves and our families to help out at home and in our neighborhoods in times of emergency,” he said in an email. They’ve provided protection for other protests, including one over a Michigan teen’s arrest for carrying a rifle and one held by Qur’an-burning pastor Terry Jones.
Kay sees militia members who actually intend to use violence as a “very, very small minority,” he says. “Most of them are just weekend warriors who go out in the woods and do some paramilitary activity and some camouflage painting.”
Bundy’s supporters are also adamant that they love America — they just don’t agree with (or in many cases, even recognize as legitimate) its government or the laws it passes.
Writings by many militias discuss the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, or any of the Founding Fathers’ words with an almost religious reverence. At a recent “Patriot Party” hosted on the Bundy ranch, Bundy greeted his fans with a copy of the Constitution tucked in the breast pocket of his button-up. A George Washington impersonator, clad in a full white wig and navy coat with tails, showed up to eat barbecue beside Bundy and his wife.
“I am the furthest thing from an insurrectionist,” said Yeager from Bundy’s yard. Yeager owns a gun store and training center called Tactical Response which, as it says on his Facebook page, “trains good people to kill bad people.”
“I love this country. Love it. Top to bottom. When I say the pledge of allegiance, I mean it. It’s funny that the word patriot has been turned into this negative thing.”
Yeager mentions he made the cover of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s quarterly intelligence report for being an anti-government threat, but says they’re not “a credible source.”
He drew the SPLC’s attention last year for calling on fellow “patriots” to rise up against gun control. “If that happens, it’s going to spark a civil war, and I’ll be glad to fire the first shot. I need all you patriots to start thinking about what you’re going to do,” he said in a video posted on his personal YouTube page. “If this goes one inch further, I’m going to start killing people.”
He later apologized, saying he did not “advocate the overthrowing of the United States government, nor do I condone any violent actions towards any elected officials.”
Like many of Bundy’s fans, Yeager objects to being labeled as conservative or far-right. “I believe there is a slow train to the demise of this country and there’s a fast train to the demise of this country,” he said. “The slow train is the Republicans and the fast train is the Democrats. But they’re both wrong.”
As Christian Kerodin of the III Percent Patriots put it, “No existing political party represents genuine Liberty today.”
Harry Reid’s moniker of “domestic terrorist,” however, is a title many have ironically embraced. Photos of the “Patriot Party” showed many wearing “Hello my name is…” stickers with the line scribbled on. The group responded with cheers when Bundy asked, “Are you guys domestic terrorists?”
“Because my views are not popular with this administration, I had a US Senator, label me as a Dangerous radical and domestic terrorist,” Lackomar wrote to ThinkProgress. “If you don’t agree with him, like many oppressors of history, you need to be locked up, or… worse yet… Killed. Now, Has Harry said I need to die? No. But when you label people as criminal…then it’s not a real stretch.”
Though federal BLM agents released the cattle, many still fear a raid on the Bundy family’s home. “We are concerned that the domestic enemies of the Constitution that infest the federal government might try to take advantage of folks going home, and attempt to make a move on the Bundy family,” wrote Stuart Rhodes, founder of patriot group the Oath Keepers. The organization, made up of military and law enforcement members that pledge allegiance to the Constitution but not to the government, has been a leader among Bundy supporters. The Oath Keepers say they’re sending another team of people to the ranch later this week.
Kay monitored a 24-hour public phone line manned by Bundy’s militia backers and heard many express suspicions that the Obama administration had drones following protesters as they moved across the country. Others have repeated rumors that the BLM had paid mercenaries on the ground in Nevada. Fear over the National Security Agency spying on their communications was also frequently referenced.
Militia experts say furor over issues like gun control, NSA surveillance and the IRS’ treatment of Tea Party PACs has spurred more interest in militias and patriot groups.
Publicity over the Bundy Ranch may spark even more enthusiasm. Kerodin of the III Percent Patriots, which gets its name from the claim that three percent of Americans fought in the American Revolution, said interest had “dramatically increased” since the Bundy Ranch gained national attention. “The number of people finding us through Google keyword searches is stunning,” he said in an email.
The group’s Colorado chapter used the events to recruit new members. “I think it is time for all of you to Join the Militia!” they wrote in a Facebook post. “Look what is happening at The Bundy Ranch in NV. That could happen here next!” On April 15, the Arizona State Militia wrote they were flooded with new applications, receiving over 100 in 72 hours.
“It is absolutely a recruitment strategy,” said Kay. “Now that the government stood down on this one i think they’re going to claim this as a huge victory. It really is to me the perfect storm for the militia to increase their attention and increase their recruitment and get ready for the next standoff.”
Lenz agrees. “We’re in a moment of critical mass. We have so many anti-government groups who believe the federal government is working against them, who believe Obama is secretly a Muslim, a communist, or not even an American,” he said. “There are people who will stand up to the federal government and risk their lives to do so.”
Bundy’s supporters say they would not have pulled the trigger unless fired upon. Many assert they won the battle with protest and publicity, and not through force. But there’s no question that as tension rose, perceived threats on either heavily-armed side could have easily ended in bloodshed.
“Violence is only acceptable in self-defense and in defense of innocent people from tyranny,” Kerodin said. “There will be violent clashes in our future between those who mean to be Masters, and those who refuse to be ruled.”
As Yeager sees it, “if the BLM would have fired a shot, that would have been the second shot heard round the world.”