Freedom Fighter 

When rancher Cliven Bundy engaged in a standoff with the BLM, a Montana man initiated a call to action to militia across the country. He considers it just the first battle in a war to reclaim America.

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That "buy-in" was the high cost of purchasing a dynamometer, a machine that tests emissions, or of paying a lab to do the emissions tests. Unable to afford the price of complying with the new regulations, SoCal Sand Cars closed down.

"And that's what we see in the entire country," Payne says, "that specific entities are being given certain privileges by government regulation and the inability of the little guy, the small business owner, to really keep his head above water. There has to be purpose in this. They claim to have all the answers, they claim to be taking us down the correct path, and yet it seems like there's a lot of destruction and pain and suffering going on. ... Here's the way you have to look at it. Either they're not smart, they don't know what they're doing and they're just downright incompetent. Or they have a plan, and they're doing these things on purpose."

Payne came to believe the latter, that the government uses regulations to deliberately undermine the average American, "that they are purposely destroying industry, they are purposely taking this land from people." The more he looked, the more he saw a deliberate and nefarious plan being orchestrated by a small number of people wielding enormous power. He saw a pervasive conspiracy to control all aspects of the media, the financial system, the entertainment industry, the military and the government.

More specifically, he came to believe that slavery never really existed in the United States and that African Americans in the antebellum South "didn't view themselves as slaves." He came to believe in "an effort by some Jews to control the world." He came to believe the founders of the United States intended for the states to act as sovereign countries. He came to believe taxes are a form of "legal plunder." He came to believe names are spelled in all-caps on driver's licenses because U.S. citizens are actually "corporate entities." He came to believe U.S. courts are actually foreign admiralty courts. He came to believe that "in most states you have the lawful authority to kill a police officer that is unlawfully trying to arrest you." He came to believe when a newborn child's footprint is made on a birth certificate, that child is effectively entering a life of servitude to the U.S. government, which borrows money from China based on that child's estimated lifetime earning potential.

He came to see all aspects of government, culture and society as mechanisms of control. "And they've set everything up so they can maintain that control," Payne says, "because they believe they are God."

As Payne became convinced that conspiracies exist to control the world's people, he also moved from agnosticism to a deep belief in a Creator. "I'm a Jew," Payne says. "A Messianic Jew. A Kabbalist, even." These mystical and often controversial traditions of Judaism accommodated his faith as well as his suspicions of religion, which he considers "clothing for the truth."

With faith, rebelling against control became a matter of fighting to bring about the utopian world God wants for us, a world of complete and perfect liberty.

"The point is," Payne says, "communism is a utopian society. There is not government in communism. The government is the people. So, in order for that to exist, mankind has to reach a state where he is—where he, as a whole, has the responsibility and the morality to control himself. Self-government. Communism is full self-government. What is this an experiment in, America? Self-government."

Payne remained on the Bundy ranch for nearly a month, organizing the militia elements to defend against any potential efforts by the BLM to return and clashing with other supporters. Then, in early May, a man and his family came and asked for Payne's help. Payne was "ungodly sick at the time," he says, but he listened while the man requested he come to Utah and help the people of Blanding, near the Four Corners, open an ATV trail that the BLM had closed.

The trail ran through Recapture Canyon, an area rich with Ancestral Puebloan ruins and artifacts, with ancient cliff dwellings and a prehistoric village. The trail was created illegally in 2005 and severely damaged the valuable archaeological site. Local ATV riders, however, had been campaigning the BLM to reopen it. While the agency conducted environmental and archeological assessments to determine if there were a way to do so, people became restless. San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman responded to this restlessness by organizing a protest.

On May 10, locals would push past a BLM gate and drive the 11-mile Recapture Canyon loop to protest the closure. The man from Blanding wanted Payne to come and do what he'd done for the Bundys: protect the ATV riders from the BLM.

Payne agreed to do it. He and some others from the ranch, including Ryan Bundy, drove east to Utah. The BLM, meanwhile, decided to avoid confrontation, pull its agents back and allow the ride to proceed. In a statement, the agency's state head, Juan Palma, assured the public, though, that "BLM-Utah has not and will not authorize the proposed ride and will seek appropriate civil and criminal penalties against anyone who uses a motorized vehicle within the closed area."

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  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Payne joined the U.S. Army at 17. He served in a long-range surveillance unit that moved far behind enemy lines during and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Though he considers himself a fervent patriot, he now sees the government he once served as a threat to the Constitution he pledged to defend.

With no ostensible need to protect the protest, Ryan Payne participated that Saturday, May 10, driving the loop with everyone else.

"So here's another win," he says.

Days after the Recapture ride, Payne finally returned home to Anaconda. His wife, his infant daughter, his 4-year-old son and his elderly grandparents had been making do without him for more than a month, living off the grid. Payne had lots to catch up on around the house, but he wasn't leaving the last month behind. The proof was in his driveway, where an RV was parked. Josh "Pony" Hartle, an itinerant militiaman from Minnesota, and another man, an amateur geologist and confirmed Patriot who does not want to be named, were staying inside. They were here to help keep the effort that had begun on the Bundy ranch moving forward.

"One of the things that the powers that be—and I say that as meaning all those that desire control over mankind—really, really hate about the Bundy situation is that it brought a bunch of people that all have the same ideas but have been moving in different directions together," Payne says, with Hartle and the amateur geologist sitting on the couch beside him. "And now, we'll all focus our energies in this way or that. Or utilize our different skills to approach the entire battle in a full manner, encompassing every avenue of engagement: legal, financial, military, every single aspect of it is being put together now on how to counter this control mechanism that's been set up. This is what they fear the most."

The geologist is committed to staying in the area; he believes he's found valuable meteoritic rocks near Payne's house and is hoping to have them verified. Hartle is planning to return to Minnesota, sell his house and then move with his wife back to Anaconda. They would live, Hartle explains, in a 32-foot school bus he's converted into a mobile home, so he could keep working with Payne. Meanwhile, Payne is training with the West Mountain Rangers and pursuing a philanthropic business venture that would employ out-of-work and homeless veterans. He is also trying to get back to his normal life as a father and an electrician.

"They want to paint militia in this light of complete insanity and extremism," Payne says, "but you see my house. You see my family. I live with my grandparents. My wife's at work. My kids are here. I live in this place, this beautiful place. I would much rather work as we were intended. You should be working for your own prosperity, shouldn't you?"

While Payne says he would rather not leave his family again, it seems inevitable that he will. He could be forced to leave, if charges against him are pursued and he's arrested for his part in the Bundy standoff. Or he might leave of his own free will, to respond to OMA's next request for aid. Either way, Payne says he's willing to lay down his life to resist and defend against tyranny.

"Not only would we take a shot for each other," he says, "we'd take one for you. If somebody infringed on your rights, you call me up. I'll come stand in between you and the police. It doesn't bother me, if they're infringing on your rights. Whoever it is. If somebody's threatening your life, if somebody's trying to say, 'You're not allowed to do this because we're the authority'—no. You're the authority. You're free to do whatever you want in your life as long as you don't take your brother's feet out from under him. That's what freedom is."

Though Payne keeps talking for another hour or so, eventually he has to go. He canceled plans earlier in the afternoon to shoot gophers with visiting relatives, and he can't be late for dinner. His family is counting on him being there.

This story was updated June 12 to correct a date in Payne's military experience.

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