Yesterday, Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials backed down from an ongoing standoff with supporters of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who allegedly owes more than a $1 million for allowing his cattle to graze on publicly owned-land. The impetus for this de-escalation is not breaking legal developments – courts have already authorized seizure of Bundy’s cattle, which have in fact been returned to him – but rather the increasing likelihood of violence between law enforcement and the hundreds of “States Rights advocates” who have flocked to Bundy’s ranch in his support. These supporters include numerous self-appointed militia, many in full tactical gear and open-carrying assault rifles, men like Jim Lardy of “Operation Mutual Aid” in Montana, who commented to reporters that “We need guns to protect ourselves from a tyrannical government.” Bundy, for his part, says he “doesn’t recognize the United States Federal Government as even existing.”
Clearly, the specter of a Waco or Ruby Ridge-style siege is horrifying and unthinkable, and the BLM’s move towards de-escalation seems entirely appropriate and sane. But let’s pause for a moment and consider the double standards at play here. Heavily armed private actors, many from out of state, come to the brink of pitched battle with government agents over a white rancher’s million-dollar-plus tax bill, and the government backs down. And not just that. Despite the fact that Bundy’s status as a States-Rights poster-child claims fly in the face of Nevada’s own state constitution, and despite the fact that his supporters have already blockaded a Federal interstate and vowed to resist BLM intervention by “doing whatever it takes,” his cause is hyped in certain segments of right-wing media and lionized by GOP political figures including Mike Huckabee.
Now imagine if the scenario were a little different. What would be the law enforcement and GOP response if instead of drawing upon his ancestral claim as the descendant of 1880s Mormon settlers (Nevada gained statehood in ’64, BTW), Cliven were a Native American, say, a Tuscarora Iroquois, contesting a Federal claim of eminent domain on his tribal land? What if instead of being a white rancher who owed the Feds over a million dollars for use of vast tracts of public land, he were a 76 year-old African American Vietnam Veteran who forgot to pay $134 in property taxes on his Washington DC home? And what if in each instance militant supporters of similar complexions and dubious political affiliations were to gather en masse in the name of “Freedom,” toting sniper rifles and assault weapons, standing off with police, shutting down roads, and vowing to “pull the trigger if fired upon”?
Clearly, in our democracy, different folks are allowed to stand up for freedom … differently. And one of the ways you know that some Americans are apparently uniquely privileged when it comes to such expressions of freedom is that when they open-carry military-style weapons in public – in high-tension confrontations with police, even – they can do so with impunity. They’re not threatening you – in fact, it’s you who’s threatening them by questioning the appropriateness and prudence of their doing so. And if you do feel threatened, well, it’s your problem, not theirs. It’s guntrolling, pure and simple. And while the situation in Nevada may appear farcical, now of all times – in a week already marred by a horrifying act of violence perpetrated by a racist paramilitary – we would do well to consider how far our tolerance of trolling, and our own double standards, extend.