By his own account, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy never wanted to start a war with the federal government.
To hear him tell the story, he is a folksy, rural Nevada rancher trying to eek out a living on a piece of land near Bunkerville.
But in 2014, on the same piece of land Bundy claims is so peaceful, armed militias showed up and pointed guns at Bureau of Land Management agents who had come to round up his cattle because of Bundy’s unpaid grazing fees.
During the chaotic events that were broadcast on national television, Bundy took to the stage and gave a list of demands. He wanted federal parks officers to turn over their weapons to the crowd. He wanted federal buildings demolished. He wanted all public lands in Clark County, Nevada, turned over to local control.
“If they’re not done, then we’ll decide what we’re going to do from this point on!” Bundy said.
It was a stark contrast to the image Bundy paints of himself. Far from peaceful, Bundy was calling for an armed rebellion if he didn’t get his way.
And that’s essentially what happened. Militia members pointed their guns at BLM agents, and those agents backed off after being surrounded in a river wash near the ranch.
Bundy got his cattle back and for years faced no consequences for his actions. He had, it seemed, beaten the federal government.
Two years later, in 2016, Bundy’s sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy gathered a posse of men and took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon.
They said they were taking the federal facility away from the government as a way to protest the imprisonment of Harney County ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond.
Again, the militias came to the Bundys’ side. A 41-day standoff ensued at the refuge.
It ended with Cliven, Ammon and Ryan Bundy in handcuffs, and one of their followers — an Arizona rancher named Robert ‘LaVoy’ Finicum — dead. Finicum was with Ammon and Ryan Bundy when Oregon State Police arrested them, and he reached for a loaded handgun multiple times before officers shot him at a traffic stop.
Many people thought the Bundys would go to jail for their actions against the government. And they did while they awaited trial.
But over the next two years, something remarkable happened.
In Oregon, Ammon and Ryan Bundy were acquitted by a jury of all charges. In the Nevada trial for the Bunkerville incident, the judge threw the case out because she said prosecutors withheld key evidence from the defense.
Government hubris and possible corruption had allowed the Bundys to walk free in January 2018.
One thing has been clear since the Bundys returned to their homes earlier this year: They are emboldened. They feel their views have been legitimized — and their fight against the federal government has just begun.
“Bundyville” is a joint podcast by OPB and Longreads, hosted and reported by award-winning freelance journalist Leah Sottile. It is produced by Peter Frick-Wright and Robert Carver of 30 Minutes West Productions, and OPB’s Ryan Haas.