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"We're just a little farm family down here," says Ryan Bundy, who is one of Cliven Bundy's sons and who lives and works on the family's ranch, in an interview with the Indy. "We have a few hunting rifles and so forth, but we don't have military training, we don't have military equipment, we don't even have a decent shotgun that works right. And so, what are we gonna do against the might and force of the federal government and their paramilitary agents? So, when Ryan Payne shows up and the militia starts showing up, we can finally have a sigh of relief, a ray of hope that we have a little bit of defense."
The Bundy family's conflict with the federal government had been brewing for 20 years. It began in 1993, when the BLM eliminated some grazing privileges of Bundy and other local ranchers in order to protect the threatened desert tortoise. Cliven Bundy refused to obey, calling the action a "land grab" and letting his cattle graze on the now protected area. He was fined repeatedly for doing so but steadfastly refused to pay. Bundy wasn't the only rancher to clash with the BLM, but he was notable for his persistent defiance and his threats to resist enforcement, should it ever be attempted.
In April, in response to a federal court order, the BLM finally acted to stop Bundy's illegal grazing. The agency shut down 322,000 acres of public land and began rounding up his "trespass cattle," which would be auctioned off unless Bundy paid his fees. By the time Payne arrived on the ranch, cowboys working for the BLM had gathered around 100 head of Bundy cattle.
Bundy wanted them back, and Payne outlined a plan for retrieving them. The plan would require a strong response to OMA's call for militia support. Payne was confident it would come.
"We sat down and we discussed three objectives for the militia effort there," Payne says. "And I presented these objectives to him, and he agreed that they were good. He liked them. The first objective was the safety and security of all people involved—the Bundy family, the supporters and all of the law enforcement and pseudo law enforcement that was involved. ... The second objective was to reopen all public lands that had been shut down by the BLM. They had their signs up everywhere. You heard about the First Amendment Zones [designated protest areas], I'm sure. What a ridiculous notion that is. ... And the third one was the return of all stolen cattle and infrastructure."
As they waited for more supporters to arrive, tensions built. On April 9, they erupted. That Wednesday, members of Bundy's family and a small contingent of supporters clashed with BLM agents outside the ranch. Smartphones and cameras recorded as armed BLM agents pushed a woman to the ground, allegedly threatened a pregnant woman with a police dog and tasered Cliven's son Ammon Bundy.
The footage went viral. Then mainstream news outlets began to cover the rising tensions, some casting Bundy as a brave and righteous rebel fighting the brutal and impersonal government machine. Meanwhile, OMA's call for support spread in message boards and elsewhere online. Militia members, Patriots and other sympathizers from around the country responded, flocking to the ranch with weapons and supplies, forming encampments and preparing for a bigger confrontation with the BLM.
As people came, Payne emerged—reluctantly, he says—as the militia's de facto leader.
"I'm an advisor and coordinator for OMA," Payne says, "and I was Mr. Bundy's militia liaison. He would tell me what he had planned, and then I would advise him as to what the militia could accomplish in support of that."
He organized the militia into units and pursued the objectives he and Bundy had agreed upon. As he set about planning a strategy for accomplishing those goals, Payne drew heavily on his Army experience.
"It's all in the Ranger handbook," he says. "The Ranger handbook is like the quintessential fighting man's story. You know, how to do this—everything to be a fighting guy. And having served in that type of unit, that was my Bible. I carried it around on me everywhere I went."
Twenty years ago, when Ryan Payne was 10 and living in Southern California, the American militia movement was emerging just 240 miles northwest of Anaconda, in the town of Noxon.
"Beginning on February 15, 1994, the organizers of the Militia of Montana—John, David, and Randy Trochmann—used gun control as fuel to launch America's first active militia group," writes Kenneth S. Stern in A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate.
The Trochmanns, Stern continues, effectively argued "that gun control is not really to control guns, but for 'people control' by an evil government." The message resonated in Montana. Crowds came to hear the Trochmanns speak about foreign control of the federal government, the "banking elite" that controlled the world economy, the need for a return to constitutional principles, and the American citizen's right and duty to stop the tyranny of the federal government by organizing into armed militias. The Militia of Montana added members, and similar groups emerged in other states.
As the militia movement grew in the mid-1990s, federal ownership and regulation of public land became another prominent source of anti-government anger, especially in Western states, where substantial amounts of land are federally owned. "As with gun control," Stern writes, "the issues around land use were made for militia. Not only did they involve strongly felt concerns, but also the question of who was 'in control' was meat and drink to conspiracy theorists." Environmental laws, the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM all became sources of suspicion and conflict.
The rapid growth of the American militia movement culminated on April 19, 1995, when Timothy McVeigh, a veteran from Michigan, detonated a truck bomb outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The explosion collapsed the building and killed 168 people.
All of the movement's theorizing, organizing and threats had led to a horrific act of terrorism. Though the bombing inspired many extremists and instigated a brief surge in militia growth, it also created polarization within the movement and marginalized militias from mainstream American political culture. According to data complied by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes civil rights, combats hate groups and monitors militias, the number of Patriot groups in the United States peaked in 1996, when 858 militia and other extremist groups existed. That number dipped to 149 in 2008.
The election of Barack Obama, however, triggered a resurgence in militia activity and sympathy. SPLC counted 512 Patriot groups in 2009, 1,018 in 2011 and 939 in 2013. In a recent article for The New Yorker, Nadya Labi wrote, "The times are conducive to extremist anger: there is a black President, a sputtering economy, a disappearing white majority, and recurring talk of stricter gun laws." Another important factor in the revival of Patriot groups is the growing population—and disaffection—of veterans who served in the War on Terror.
In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Intelligence and Analysis produced an assessment titled "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment." While the report was never officially released due to objections from politicians about the focus on domestic rather than foreign threats from radicals, it was leaked. The report warned that "rightwing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat. ... The willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned or suffering from the psychological effects of war is being replicated today."
On the morning of Saturday, April 12, Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie showed up at one of the First Amendment Zones the BLM had established near the Bundy ranch. Cliven Bundy had invited him there to give him an ultimatum, but Gillespie preempted Bundy with news intended to diffuse the increasingly hostile situation. Gillespie told Bundy and a crowd of his supporters the BLM was going to end its roundup.