Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy made headlines in April when he stood up to what he claimed was an oppressive federal government. Bundy, a 60-something rancher, had allowed his cattle to graze on federally protected land for 20 years in violation of the law. He had received over $1 million in fines and refused to pay. When the feds from the Bureau of Land and Management came to collect, Bundy—along with some 1,000 armed supporters who had converged on his ranch—prepared for a potentially deadly standoff with BLM agents decked out in riot gear. The confrontation ended when the agents backed down.
It was hailed as a huge victory for “anti-government patriots,” the name for a loose coalition of citizen militia groups. But a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center claims that the Bundy ranch standoff wasn’t an organic uprising, as it was initially portrayed in the media, but instead a “highly coordinated” confrontation.
“The Bundy ranch standoff wasn’t a spontaneous response to Cliven Bundy’s predicament but rather a well-organized, military-type action that reflects the potential for violence from a much larger and more dangerous movement,” says Mark Potok, an SPLC senior fellow. “This incident may have faded from public view, but if our government doesn’t pay attention, we will be caught off guard as much as the Bureau of Land Management was that day.”
Some of the new details contained in the SPLC report come from 30-year-old Ryan Payne, a co-founder of Operation Mutual Aid, one of the interstate militias that supported Bundy. News reports at the time of the incident in April suggested that Operation Mutual Aid, which includes patriots from California to Missouri, rushed to Bundy’s ranch after he made a public plea for help. But according to the study, Payne and Bundy scouted locations around the ranch—before the arrival of militias—to achieve “overwhelming tactical superiority.”
Payne told SPLC researchers that “in the days before the standoff, he and Bundy toured the public lands the rancher was using, looking for ways to defend them. Payne had snipers in position when the standoff came to a head.”
“Not only did they take up the very best position to overwatch everything, they also had the high ground, they were fortified with concrete and pavement barriers,” Payne said. “They had great lines of fire. …[The BLM agents] were completely locked down. They had no choice but to retreat.”
Other Bundy supporters, however, dispute Payne’s version of events. Mike Vanderboegh, founder of an anti-government group called the Three Percenters, was at the Bundy ranch in April. He previously spoke to Vocativ about whether or not citizen militias are coordinated across state lines.
“Coordination? I have to laugh,” Vanderboegh told Vocativ in May. “The independent-minded folks attracted to the various resistance groups wouldn’t be there unless they were independent, with all that word means. Getting the members of even one group together and moving in the same direction is like trying to herd cats and chickens at the same time.”
After the report was published, Vanderboegh wrote a blog item calling the SPLC the “Southern Preposterous Lie Center.” He also called Payne a “sociopath” and claimed that he’s trying to take all the credit for Bundy ranch victory. (The Operation Mutual Aid Facebook page, meanwhile, doesn’t have any posts about the study.)
Vanderboegh and other militia leaders haven’t addressed the SPLC’s warning about potential future standoffs. To underscore the connection between extremist rhetoric and extremist action, the report cites the case of Jerad and Amanda Miller, who showed up at Bundy’s ranch two months before they shot and killed two police officers in Las Vegas. The Millers, who died during the Las Vegas shootings, left “a Gadsden ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag, a note saying the revolution had begun and a swastika on the officers’ bodies,” notes the study.
Though Vanderboegh and his freedom-loving brethren are quick to distance themselves from the Millers—Vanderboegh claims he helped usher them off the Nevada ranch—they do believe Bundy has helped mobilize their movement. “The more oppressive the federal and state governments become,” Vanderboegh told Vocativ, “the more we grow.”