Cliven Bundy, a rancher in Nevada, has been grazing his cattle on public land in Clark County for free for more than twenty years. (The story is all over, but you can find a succinct summary at the new site, Vox, which surely seems great on everything so far.) Or maybe he’s been freeloading; livestock degrades the land and ranchers are supposed to pay for that privilege. Bundy, noting that his ancestors have grazed their cattle on this land for generations, claims that he’s entitled to continue doing so–without costs. He adds that he doesn’t recognize the authority of the federal government, only the state of Nevada which, rather explicitly, recognizes the supremacy of the federal government.
Even if Bundy’s legal claims are weak, his commitment is not: he wants to continue grazing his cattle for free. The enemy is the federal government, and particularly, the Bureau of Land Management, which has been trying to collect the fees. Really trying. Bundy has offered legal arguments in several courts over many years, always losing, and has refused to comply with court orders to pay and/or stop grazing. On April 5, under the authority of a federal judge’s order, the BLM began confiscating the cattle. Armed federal officers arrested one of Bundy’s sons for trying to interfere, and tased another one (video widely available).
Whether or not Cliven Bundy is a good guy, there are committed people who know that the BLM and the Feds are the bad guys. A stalwart collection of supporters from around the United States has rallied in Nevada to protest the cattle confiscation and showed armed support for the Bundy family. At peak, it looks like no more than 150 people from the photos I’ve seen, but they seem committed–and armed. There’s a somewhat larger cheering section, fed by Fox News and scores of other sites on the web. TeaParty.org, for example, presents evidence that the BLM slaughtered some of Bundy’s cattle.
BLM backed down, at least for now, releasing the cattle and no doubt trying to figure out another way to manage the situation. It’s a victory for the protesters, but probably a temporary one.
While some Tea Partiers are ready to sign onto a campaign against the government, somewhat fewer are willing to a campaign for Cliven Bundy and his legal theories. Prominent conservatives in office and in media, ready to nurse their grievances against the government, are nonetheless distancing themselves from the Bundy battle. Glenn Beck has criticized the armed struggle, identifying a portion of Bundy’s supporters as truly frightening, and warning that the whole affair could be the right’s version of Occupy Wall Street (don’t waste a chance for a dig).
So, what does this mean?
Protest effectively deployed polarizes; it forces people to take sides. How those sides break depend on the issues, the tactics, and the players involved. Ideally, the organizer wants more people to support his side than the opponents–or at least more powerful or committed people. Thus far, it doesn’t look like things are breaking very well for the anti-government campaigners.
What could change it all is the conduct of the BLM. If the government backs down and allows the free lunch (for cattle) to continue, the protesters win and slip a victory into their efforts for mobilization. What would be even worse, however, is police conduct that makes the Bundy family sympathetic–like the tasering. BLM bureaucrats should now be strategizing a way to end the conflict without allowing Cliven Bundy to emerge as a hero to his supporters, and to avoid making a malcontent (e.g., David Koresh, Randy Weaver) into a martyr.