Parked cars and trucks snaked down the side of the road leading to the old Paradise School gymnasium in Sanders County on Saturday night. Two parking lots were crammed full of vehicles from Idaho, Washington and various counties around western Montana. One sign atop a minivan displayed the seal of the federal Bureau of Land Management with a stark red line drawn through it.
Inside the gym, more than 200 people sat, stood or leaned against the walls awaiting the arrival of the evening’s star guest: Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. One man used the lull to sell red hats emblazoned with the phrase “Drain the Swamp Idaho” for $10. Others munched on pizza. Shortly after 5 p.m., Cliven strode through the front door sporting a tan cowboy hat and a pin reading “Not Guilty!” The room erupted in cheers.
Two weeks earlier, a federal judge in Las Vegas had thrown out charges against Bundy and three others—Bundy’s sons Ammon and Ryan, and Anaconda resident Ryan Payne—relating to the 2014 standoff against federal agents at the Bundy ranch. Now, in one of his first public appearances since his release from prison, Cliven took his place at a long table on the stage with the other panelists convened by the group Coalition of Western Property Owners. As the audience quieted, state Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, explained the ground rules for the night’s proceedings.
“Respect is what we need to have, no matter what our differences may be,” she said. “We’re all Americans.”
The panel worked its way through a number of topics over the next couple of hours. Ryan Bundy took the mic first, offering a lengthy lesson in American history and the U.S. Constitution. His reading of the latter was a familiar one, similar to what federal lands-transfer proponents in the West have espoused for years. The federal government disposed itself of all lands when it granted statehood to territories like Montana, Ryan said, but that’s not the reality he sees today. “Is Montana a state?” he asked. “I’m not too sure. Does it own 100 percent of its land and resources? Then Montana must not be a state. How does that make you feel?”
“Like a colony,” someone shouted from the crowd.
“Like a colony,” Ryan repeated. The argument proved central to his explanation for why he and dozens of other armed individuals (including his brother Ammon and Ryan Payne) took over of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for 41 days in early 2016. In Ryan’s view, the land and its resources “rightfully, constitutionally and biblically belong to the people.”
Cliven echoed many of Ryan’s points. In what he called his “15-second defense,” he claimed that he’d grazed his cattle on county land in Nevada, and had no contract with the federal government. (The 2014 Bunkerville standoff was triggered by Cliven’s legal dispute with the BLM over grazing fees.) Cliven went on to paint the counties and their sheriffs as the protectors of the people.
“Act like Montanians [sic],” he told the crowd. “Act like you have a county government. Act like you understand the constitution.”
Cliven may have been the evening’s headliner, but anotherr speaker commanded even more rapt attention from the room. Shawna Cox, who was acquitted by an Oregon jury in fall 2016 of charges stemming from her role at Malheur, recounted for several long, otherwise silent minutes her memories of the occupation’s climax. On Jan. 26, 2016, she and other occupation leaders loaded into several vehicles bound for John Day, a town in nearby Grant County where they were scheduled to speak. Cox described the scramble to roll out that morning, how 18-year-old Victoria Sharp fell asleep on Ryan Bundy’s shoulder in their truck, and how the conversation between Payne and Arizona rancher LaVoy Finicum in the front seat became increasingly tense as they realized federal agents were moving in to arrest them.
Aerial footage released by the FBI shortly after the incident showed Finicum stopping briefly after being pursued by federal vehicles, then speeding along the road before crashing into a snowbank next to a law enforcement roadblock. Finicum leapt from the truck, stumbled through the snow for several seconds, and was shot dead by an Oregon State Police officer. Officials have stated they found a 9mm handgun in Finicum’s coat when they examined his body. Video shot by Cox and released by federal investigators shows the car’s occupants ignoring demands to exit the vehicle during the initial traffic stop. In that same video, Finicum shouts to law enforcement, “This is going to get real. You want my blood on your hands, get it done because we got people to see and places to go.”
Cox painted the scene inside the truck as one of confusion and fear, punctuated by red dots from laser sights and a sense of urgency to get to John Day. Even after Finicum was killed, she said, shots at the vehicle continued for several long minutes. “I think I’m in a war zone,” she told the crowd. “And I say, ‘You have just killed an innocent man, and you will be held accountable. Every single one of you.’” Once they were in custody, she continued, they sang to Sharp for an hour to calm her down.
That Finicum emerged from the Malheur occupation as a martyr for the federal government’s critics in the West was evident not just in the standing ovation Cox received, but in the proliferation of commemorative pins and hats in the Paradise gymnasium with the initials “LV.”
Even so, Cox, the Bundys and the rest of the panel weren’t without detractors on Saturday night. Outside, two protesters greeted attendees with signs reading “Boo” and “Bundy=White Privilege.”
“This is a racial issue, not just a public lands issue,” said Rebecca Shoemaker, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services employee holding the latter sign. “If a group of black people or Muslims took over a national wildlife refuge, they would have been killed.”
Inside, the lands-transfer movement’s critics remained silent through much of the evening. Two rows near the rear of the gym were populated almost entirely by members of the nonprofit Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, recognizable only by their decision to wear shirts and hats from their organization with the words “Public land owner.” Their sentiments finally came out during a question-and-answer session following Cliven’s speech, when BHA National Board Chair Ryan Busse offered a measured response to the panel’s beliefs. To the Bundys’ assertions that the federal government owns no land in the United States, Busse said, “I couldn’t agree more.”
Then he offered a twist: “We the people own it.”