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Bundy responded not with conciliation but by setting some conditions. He wanted the BLM agents disarmed, public land access restored and his confiscated cattle returned—and he gave Gillespie one hour to make it happen. When it didn't, Bundy told his supporters it was time to act. "Get it going cowboys," he said from a stage decorated in red, white and blue and heavily guarded by militia. "Let's go get 'er done."
A throng of militia, Patriots, ranchers, supporters and observers rushed off to the area about two miles away where his cattle were being held behind a fence. When they arrived, they encountered a group of BLM and law enforcement agents positioned to protect the livestock. A standoff ensued, and Payne took charge of organizing the militia forces and acted, he says, "as a kind of on-the-ground commander."
"We locked them down," Payne says. "We had counter-sniper positions on their sniper positions. We had at least one guy—sometimes two guys—per BLM agent in there. So, it was a complete tactical superiority. ... If they made one wrong move, every single BLM agent in that camp would've died."
Craig Leff, deputy assistant BLM director, denies the BLM employs snipers. "The BLM went through extraordinary lengths to avoid coming into contact with the Bundy family and protesters," he writes in an email.
Whether or not anyone was aiming back at them, the militia members believed they were being targeted. The perceived threat was defused, according to Payne, Ryan Bundy and other supporters present that day, by the providential appearance of thousands of cranes flying low and circling over the situation several times.
"And literally people that were on the ground were saying, 'Look, we've got air support,'" Payne says. "And people felt like everything was going to be okay. ... Right after that, the BLM started backing their vehicles up and let [the Bundys' cowboys] in to get the cattle.
"Was it an omen? Well, who knows," Payne continues. "People say that's superstitious and blah blah blah. Well, I've had way too many coincidences happen in my life to believe in coincidence."
"What does it mean to have 'a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence'? Do you know?"
Ryan Payne is sitting on his couch, in the living room of his family's log cabin near Anaconda. At his request, a guest has just read aloud the first half of the last line of the Declaration of Independence: "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence. ...
"'Divine' obviously means 'the Creator', but what is providence?" Payne asks. "Providence is the Creator's plan, his involvement with every aspect of every part of the universe. Thus, we are moving along a plan and the only reason that we feel discomfort is when we are not in line with that plan and He gives us pain or evil to make us feel uncomfortable. But when you're completely in line with the Creator's plan, there's no discomfort, there's no pain, there's no suffering.
"You see, these are the concepts that are talked about in the Bible that people have lost," he explains. "But how did the Founders, who all knew they were signing their death warrants—why were they comfortable with this? Because they had a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, that they were in line with the plan. And you can kill me, you can take all of my money, you can steal all of my possessions, but as long as I know that I'm moving in the right direction, that I have maintained the moral high ground, that I focus on truth, love and unity at all times, there's no fear. There's no suffering. I enjoy the pain that happens, because I know that it's for the right reasons. A greater cause than myself."
Payne then moves to the second part of the sentence: "... we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."
"So what are you willing to pledge your life to?" Payne asks. "Your life, your fortune and your sacred honor—are you willing to put it up for freedom? That's the question that people need to ask themselves."
On April 17, five days after the BLM drew back and the Bundys recovered their cattle, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said of the Bundy supporters, "Those people who hold themselves out to be patriots are not. They're nothing more than domestic terrorists."
For Payne, the Bundys and the hundreds of others who had engaged in the standoff with the BLM, the comments were an affront and a terrifying escalation in the terms of the conflict.
"Why it is an escalation?" Payne says. "Because we know how the government deals with terrorists. They don't negotiate, do they? They kill them. ... So that's a gigantic escalation. That's a statement of war. You have made yourself my enemy now. If I'm a domestic terrorist, then you're my enemy, right? Because you want me dead."
Soon after Reid labeled the Bundy supporters "terrorists," the FBI began to investigate militia members and protesters involved in the standoff for making death threats, intimidation, weapons violations and pointing loaded weapons at federal agents. Those investigations are ongoing.
Asked how he's able to continue living his normal lifetaking care of his kids, working on his house, going out for dinner, visiting with relatives—amid the seemingly inevitable threat of arrest and prosecution, Payne says, "If you were planning to go rob a bank, you'd be scared the whole time. You'd be making sure there wasn't infiltrators. You're always looking over you're shoulder. But, if you were protecting a bank, wouldn't you go home and sleep peacefully at night? Okay. Well, that's why we're so calm. 'Cause we're doing the right thing and we know it."
The SPLC's Ryan Lenz was on the Bundy ranch on April 12, and he later spoke at length with Payne and others involved in the standoff about their beliefs and their motivations.
Lenz says Bundy supporters relied on a convoluted conspiracy to justify their aggression against the BLM in Nevada. The conspiracy was based, Lenz says, on a web of premises that simply aren't true: that the BLM isn't part of the government but is rather "a private corporation employed by the federal government to enforce federal rules;" that the BLM introduced non-native desert tortoises in the early 1990s in a deliberate effort to justify closing the land for grazing and recreational use; and that Sen. Reid orchestrated this closure in order to make possible a profitable deal to sell the land to Chinese developers seeking to develop solar farms on the land.
While Lenz acknowledges the room for legitimate policy debate about the BLM and public land policy in Clark County and elsewhere, he says such conspiratorial beliefs and the taking up of arms undermine any possibility for productive discussion.
"It's no longer just a debate about policy," he says. "The debate is null and void, because you believe the debate exists on a premise that's a lie ... and that's where things get really complicated, because this issue about federal lands being managed by the BLM and being managed poorly, that's one for those who debate policy to discuss. But once the militias come in and threaten violence to the federal government if they dare do anything, the discussion is over. The debate is done. What happens at that point is, the only debate that's going to be had is going to be had at the barrel of a gun."
After five years and two tours in Iraq, Payne returned home to Southern California in 2006. He was 23 and married. Later that same year, he and an uncle started a company, SoCal Sand Cars. They built custom, high-end dune buggies that sold for between $40,000 and $100,000. When the housing market started to falter late in 2006, so did the once-booming dune buggy and sand car market. Though they started losing money, Payne and his uncle kept their business going until the California Air Resources Board implemented stricter emissions regulations on dune buggies in the state.
"When they redefined the criteria that sand cars and desert race cars fell under," Payne says, "it destroyed turn-key builders like myself, unless you had a giant buy-in."