Wednesday was a busy day for people who threaten violence against federal officials over public lands. As law enforcement officers surrounded the remaining occupiers at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, the man who started it all — Cliven Bundy — was arrested in Portland.
Now, Cliven Bundy didn’t physically start the now-infamous takeover of the Malheur refuge by an armed militia — that was his son, Ammon. But he did inspire the movement that led to the occupation. Bundy did that by forming a militia of his own — a much bigger, scarier militia that engaged in a stand-off with federal officials in 2014, essentially over Bundy’s unpaid grazing fees.
The elder Bundy was on his way to lend support to the occupiers in Oregon when he was arrested on Tuesday, over charges stemming from that 2014 stand-off. And in the formal legal complaint against him released Wednesday, FBI special agent Joel P. Willis recalled the day in 2014 when more than 200 armed ranchers threatened violence against him and his fellow officers if they did not return Bundy’s cattle to his ranch.
“The 200 followers … included a significant number brandishing or raising their assault rifles in front of the officers,” Willis wrote, describing a scene where men with guns “aimed directly” at his colleagues. “Some of the gunmen took tactically superior positions on high ground , while others moved in and out of the crowd, making their movements behind other unarmed followers.”
As the militamen surrounded the federal officers and demanded the release of the cattle, Willis wrote, the officers realized they were outnumbered by about four to one. Unarmed children were in the crowd of Bundy supporters, he recalled, so they decided to return the cattle and give up “to avoid a firefight.”
CREDIT: Screenshot of FBI legal complaint
Now, almost two years later, Cliven Bundy has been arrested over the charges in Willis’s complaint. His complaint charges Bundy of obstruction of justice; conspiracy to commit a crime against the United States; and assault on a federal officer, among other things. Multiple times, the complaint accuses Bundy of engaging in the “wrong use of force, fear, and violence.” It says Bundy “deliberately lied” to people about his situation in order to recruit, organize, and lead “hundreds of others in using armed force against law enforcement officers in order to achieve their criminal objective.”
That criminal objective, of course, was avoiding paying about $1 million in grazing fees to the federal government — something Bundy has yet to do, despite being under federal court order since 1998 to either pay those fees or remove his cattle from public land. Instead of doing that, Bundy chose to take up arms against law enforcement officers. Two years later, his son inspired a group of others to do the same at the Malheur refuge, over a similar dispute over public lands.
And now they’re both in jail.