Rights Are for People Like Us

Those high-flown principles put forward by the militiamen defending Cliven Bundy’s rights … do they apply to anybody else?

The best summaries I’ve seen of the conflict between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the federal Bureau of Land Management are from the local St. George News and the Washington Post. Cutting it down somewhat: the BLM charges that Bundy has been grazing his cattle on public land without paying grazing and tresspass fees for 20 years. (They got their first court order telling him to stop in 1998; he ignored it.) The claimed fees now amount to over $1 million, and so April 5 the BLM started seizing some of Bundy’s illegally grazing cattle.

Self-appointed defender of Freedom.

Armed militiamen who support Bundy started gathering at a camp on April 10, and on April 12 the BLM backed down after what the Las Vegas Review-Journal described as “a 20-minute standoff … [w]ith rifles pointing toward each side”. The BLM released a statement:

Based on information about conditions on the ground, and in consultation with law enforcement, we have made a decision to conclude the cattle gather because of our serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public.

The Bundy Ranch blog described the scene like this:

The result was a group of Bundy’s family members and supporters making a slow advance on a line of armed agents who kept ordering them to halt. At one point, the protesters were even told “one more step and you’re dead,” but the group kept coming, eventually walking easily through the line of federal agents and SWAT members who obviously didn’t have the courage of their convictions. According to InfoWars, the BLM had already announced it was leaving, but the county sheriff refused Bundy’s demand to disarm the federal agents and return his cattle. Within about a half hour, the cattle were released from the federal pen.

In other words, federal agents tried to enforce the law, were met with armed resistance from a mob, and decided to temporize rather than start killing people. On the extreme Right, this was celebrated as a victory for Freedom. Bundy’s son said, “The people have the power when they unite. The war has just begun.”

And the mainstream Right went along. The Powerline blog wrote “Why You Should Be Sympathetic Toward Cliven Bundy” while admitting “legally, Bundy doesn’t have a leg to stand on.” National Review‘s Kevin Williamson made “The Case for a Little Sedition“, saying

Of course the law is against Cliven Bundy. How could it be otherwise? The law was against Mohandas Gandhi, too

Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano described the BLM (and not the miltiamen) as “a group of thugs dressed in military uniform with loaded M16s pointed at a rancher and his family.” Fox News produced this sympathetic segment, in which National Review editor Rich Lowry described the resistance as “in the finest American tradition of civil disobedience going back to Henry David Thoreau.”

To me, the Bundy incident has captured much of the basic sickness of conservatism in America: The rhetoric is full of high principle, but it’s hard to find any actual principle that would apply to anyone other than People Like Us — people like the people who belong to the conservative fringe.

It’s tempting to characterize this kind of thing as racism. Certainly that’s what the NYT’s Timothy Egan is suggesting with:

If you changed that picture to Black Panthers surrounding a lawful eviction in the inner city, do you think right-wing media would be there cheering the outlaws?

But it’s more subtle than that. Probably a black man who behaved like a far-fringe-rightist in all other ways could become People Like Us and come to have similar “rights” recognized. But the Black Panthers are clearly not People Like Us, so it would be an absolute horror if they were to arm themselves and resist the law. Likewise, it would be a horror if a Hispanic militia decided to liberate one of Sheriff Arpaio’s detention camps for immigrants. If some miltiamen got killed in such an attempt, I doubt Fox News would lament about “government overreach”. The Occupy protesters weren’t People Like Us, so they could be thrown off public land with impunity. Imagine the outrage if Occupy had militarized Zuccotti Park!

One of the reasons Bundy is supposed to deserve sympathy is that “his family has been ranching on the acres at issue since the late 19th century”. You can imagine how far similar sympathy would extend if armed Native Americans were threatening to kill whites over land their people had been hunting and fishing on for thousands of years. Hispanics have been wandering back and forth across the Rio Grande for centuries, but if they do it today, we have to enforce the Rule of Law. If people get killed, well, so be it.

But not People Like Us. When we feel wronged and take up arms, everyone should sympathize, the government should show restraint, and the media should re-litigate our case to the general public.

A number of Bundy’s sympathizers are rehashing the bizarre claims he has made in court: that the federal government can’t own land inside a state, or that the federal government is itself illegitimate. Bundy repeatedly refers to the federal government’s ownership as “unconstitutional”, probably because his reading of the Constitution never got as far as Article IV:

The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States

This is why we have courts, to adjudicate disputes like this. Bundy made his argument in court and lost. Most people don’t then get to appeal their case to the Court of Nuts With Guns. But People Like Us do.

Whenever Bundy supporters are given media time, I would like to see them challenged to state their position in such a way that they would support similar rights for people not at all like them and not already part of the conservative movement. And I’d like to see mainstream conservative pundits confronted with a different challenge: Are there any limits to what you will support if the people doing it are on your side?

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  • donbi33  On April 21, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    Traditionally, armed gangs who defy the law were called “Outlaws”. Now, Fox News, and a United States Senator from Montana, calls them “Patriots”.

  • donbi33  On April 21, 2014 at 12:18 pm

    I just watched the Lowry segment. She talked about “Civil Disobedience” going back to Henry David Thoreau. There’s no comparison. Thoreau didn’t point a gun at anybody, and peacefully went to jail for his disobedience. That’s why they call it “Civil”. That’s the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Unitarian Universalist President Peter Morales recently went to jail in Phoenix in support of undocumented immigrants.

    Others have wondered why, if Bundy doesn’t recognise the United States Government, why we are seeing all the US Flags?

    • Anonymous  On April 22, 2014 at 3:41 am

      This is an issue of States rights vs Federal rights, a tension that is as old as the country itself. The issue here is federal ownership and management of a huge percentage of state land – essentially taxation without representation. The people do not have any recourse to a large federal bureau thousands of miles away. The BMI are not elected officials.

      Until you have a federal bureau breathing down your back and threatening your livelihood (with swat teams) and without any recourse as a citizen to challenge their position other that the courts which can only confirm that yes they own the land rather than should they own and run the lands (which is highly contestable), you might consider reserving your judgement on whether people have the right or motivation to protest.

      • donbi33  On April 22, 2014 at 5:01 pm

        If somebody points a loaded gun at me, it’s not a protest: it’s a threat.

      • weeklysift  On April 25, 2014 at 7:28 am

        The western states each have two senators. If getting federal land devolved to the states is truly a priority worth shooting people over, there is lots of recourse in the political system. In the Bundy case, he was offered grazing rights at rates far below what private land owners charge and refused to pay.

  • velvinette  On April 21, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    While your point about whether they would support similar rights for people “not like us” is valid, the main point at issue is the law, and what it means that Bundy doesn’t even recognize the United States of America. What does *that* say about *these people,* and future conflicts? They sound inevitable, considering his son’s comment that “the war has just begun.” Who are these people? They represent the edge of the push happening all over the country to eviscerate the federal government. Meanwhile, people like us (meaning you and me and most of your readership!) want the government to do what it needs to to keep things on track–keep health care affordable with the ACA, protect people’s rights, etc. The next generation is growing up Libertarian, in case people haven’t noticed, and many exist in our age group as well. Is there going to be a war or are we in one already? What are the consequences of the government backing down from a bunch of ranchers? What could be a future strategy? There is also a global political angle with the polarization between us and people like Putin, Russia and their friends taking advantage of anti-American sentiment and anti-interference philosophy to expand their own empires. What about the tax cheats in our country, to the tune of trillions of dollars? People who consider themselves people of God and of principle otherwise flaunt the law by not paying, and think it’s fine. (I know of some.) Reagan’s administration was the one that put in the tax on grazing this guy refused to pay. So how have things changed and where are they now on these issues?

  • TRPChicago  On April 21, 2014 at 12:39 pm

    A strong argument in favor of a well-regulated militia, rather than this band of gun-wielding poseurs.

  • Kelly Naylor  On April 21, 2014 at 1:29 pm

    “You can imagine how far similar sympathy would extend if armed Native Americans were threatening to kill whites over land their people had been hunting and fishing on for thousands of years.”

    The Western Shoshone didn’t threaten to kill anyone; maybe that’s why the contrast of Bundy’s story to the Dann sisters’ story has been largely overlooked outside Indian Country.

  • velvinette  On April 21, 2014 at 9:42 pm

    And here is what they are up to: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/04/19/1293168/-Tea-Party-Militias-plan-American-Spring?detail=email

  • Anonymous  On April 22, 2014 at 3:32 am

    People have the right to protest unjust laws.

    The problem with large federal bureaus is that they have huge power and zero accountability to the people their regulations/taxation impact. You can’t kick them out of office – you have no recourse as a citizen when it comes to the massive machinery and regulatory power of federal bureaus.

    The issue at hand here is essentially taxation without representation. Local land belongs in the hands of local politicians who are accountable to the people that elect them – not to some lifelong bureaucrats thousands of miles away.

    The tree of liberty is refreshed with the blood of patriots. Protest is all American.

    • donbi33  On April 22, 2014 at 4:57 pm

      This country has a great tradition of peacefully protesting unjust laws. Showing up with a mob of armed men and threatening to shoot federal employees is not protest, it’s terrorism. This was federal land from the time of territory. People homesteaded it or bought it. Bundy did neither, he just moved his cattle onto it. As far as taxation without representation, aren’t there senators and representatives from Montana who, along with the rest of Congress, make the laws? I wonder if Bundy votes, since he doesn’t recognise the US Government.

      • Anonymous  On April 23, 2014 at 5:00 pm

        donbi33 The BMI swat teams arrived first.

        If you point guns at people who own guns, they will likely point them back – see 2nd amendment of the constitution. Congressmen do not run the BMI. The BMI is run by political appointees, who are not elected and yet levy taxes.

      • weeklysift  On April 25, 2014 at 7:31 am

        And if black people point guns back at federal agents who point guns at them, they get killed. And the conservative media gives them no sympathy.

        Congress has the power to devolve all the federal lands to the states, if that’s what the voters truly want to do. So far it doesn’t seem like the voters want that. But if you have guns and are white, you don’t need voters.

  • Anonymous  On April 22, 2014 at 6:20 am

    One aspect I find fascinating about this blog and the partisan Democratic chatter in general is the uniform belief in the inherent benign nature of government. That somehow although we all know power corrupts, it somehow cannot corrupt our federal government.

    That the feds or federal bureaus such as the BMI and the IRS are supposed to protect the interests of Americans, and so therefore they do. That they are incapable of abuse of power, they are incapable of targeting and harassing American’s for their political beliefs (despite all evidence the the contrary). That in fact any challenge to the blanket and increasingly autocratic authority of the federal government and bureaus is somehow un-American.

    And furthermore if the victims of said harassment don’t square with the appropriate “victim” racial profiling of the democratic party, then they can’t really be victims.

    Abuse of power can happen to anyone and everyone should join the protest when it does because you could be next.

    The democrats have a hugely naive position when it comes to government.

    Power always corrupts and it is our duty as Americans to constantly question authority because we are a government of the people.

    If the BLM isn’t working for the people who use their land, it just isn’t working – end of story. The BLM serves the people. It’s not the other way around.

  • Moose  On April 22, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    Grazing fees are not an abuse of power. Grazing fees are far lower on federal lands than are on private ones. If Bundy doesn’t want to have to pay grazing fees to the federal government, he is free to a) buy himself a ranch and graze his cattle there, rather than making me, a taxpayer, feed his cattle for him at my expense; or b) pay grazing fees to private landowners rather than making me, a taxpayer, feed his cattle for him at my expense.

    I’m expected to make a living without receiving freebies from the government, whether or not my family has lived in this area for a long time or not.

    • Anonymous  On April 23, 2014 at 5:09 pm

      Perhaps you understand the ins and outs of the business of ranching the commons in west where the feds apparently own a huge % of the land – and ranching the commons is a centuries-old practice.

      I suspect you don’t. I don’t either. But people who do and who are ranching the commons in the West seem to have a serious grievance with the BMI – your judgement is facile and your comparisons aren’t valid.

      BTW – you couldn’t even begin to number if you tried the freebies you (nothing personal) get from the gov’t.

  • donbi33  On April 22, 2014 at 4:47 pm

    Bundy says he doesn’t recognise the United States Government — he’s not a citizen. Deport him.

    • weeklysift  On April 25, 2014 at 7:35 am

      He says he recognizes the State of Nevada, but apparently he’s never read its constitution: “the Paramount Allegiance of every citizen is due to the Federal Government in the exercise of all its Constitutional powers as the same have been or may be defined by the Supreme Court of the United States”



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