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Ammon Bundy Claims Covid-19 Safety Guidelines Exploited By Government To Attain More Power
April 5, 2020
Ammon Bundy Claims Covid-19 Safety Guidelines Exploited By Government To Attain More Power
Betsy Gaines Quammen wrote a book about the Bundys. In Part 2 of an interview with Rebecca Watters, she discusses militants, the search for truth and conservation-minded Mormons
EDITOR'S NOTE: One could say the genesis for Betsy Gaines Quammen's new book American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God, & Public Lands in the West involved a visit she had with Bundy and his wife in the living room of their ranch home outside of Bunkerville, Nevada. In the first part of Rebecca Watters' interview with Gaines Quammen, they explored the Bundys worldview that resulted in two different armed standoffs with the federal government. In Part 2, they go into more detail, exploring Mormon views about the US Constitution, come controversial episodes the history of the faith, and the views of Cliven Bundy's son, Ammon who recently shared his skepticism about the need to engage in social distancing to slow the spread of deadly Covid-19
Rebecca Watters: What’s the Bundy take on Covid-19?
Betsy Gaines Quammen: It’s really upsetting to Ammon. I talked to him the other night, and he believes that the disease is real and dangerous, but he also said that the government doesn’t have the authority to tell stores to shut down, or order people into lockdown. There’s a lot of agitation on those social media channels, with people saying that every time there’s a crisis, the government cracks down and seizes more power. And if you look at what’s happening with US Attorney General William Barr asking Congress to allow them to arrest people indefinitely without habeus corpus— that starts to get really scary.
What is the government doing behind the scenes to consolidate power while we’re all focused on Covid? We really need to pay attention to this. I mean, I can’t speak for Ammon, I don’t know what he’s going to do, but he has a huge problem with the lockdowns. He thinks that people need to act ethically to protect others rather than being told what to do by the government. He says he’s actually really enjoying his time with his family and he’s taking measures to be careful, but he doesn’t feel like the government should come in and try to lock things down.
Watters: I guess that’s the problem with ethics, though. If you have a society where everyone is ethical, you can rely on them to self govern. But if you have a society where only some of the people are ethical and the rest aren’t, you kind of need government to tell people what to do, at least some of the time.
Gaines Quammen: Yes. I’ve been incredulous at how people are so self-centered —for example, all of these people on the beaches in Florida and California. I really do not understand it. Why are they out there in the middle of a pandemic? It’s not just fringe right-wing militias that are anti-science. It’s proliferated across society.
Watters: People pouring out into nature illustrates the importance of public spaces to America, though. The first thing we want to do when we’re not allowed to do anything else is to get outside. In a weird, sideways way, this pandemic is emphasizing your point that public lands belong to all of us and that they’re important.
Gaines Quammen: I agree. You know, if you think about the idea that land needs to be utilized, I think we discount so much how much humans need to have open space and nature. When we talk about it this way, it seems so woo-woo, but what is people’s first reaction when they’re told they need to self-isolate? They go into nature. Although they’re all going at once, which defeats the purpose of isolating. But additionally, at this time of climate crisis, I think we also need to think about the fact that 25% of our carbon footprint comes from fossil fuel extraction on public lands. Public spaces need to be places that are not only refuges for personal peace and healing, but they need to be carbon sinks, because they’re also buffers for healing the planet, and they’re precious.
The Bundys have tried to delegitimize the power of the federal government to regulate their cattle grazing on public land. Just this week Ammon Bundy posted a message on Facebook that, basically, instructs people to ignore the stern advisements of epidemiologists to engage in social distancing and limit group sizes to stop the spread of Covid-19.
Watters: The incident at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is going to be known forever as the place where the Bundy conflict blew up, but before that, Malheur was really known as a place where collaboration between the Refuge and the local communities, including the Northern Paiute, was working well.
Gaines Quammen: Yes. For the last ten years, ranchers, the tribe, conservationists and other stakeholders have been working together to decide how to utilize the Malheur Refuge. They established relationships with each other that became really useful when the Bundys came to town. The people didn’t want the Bundys there. They weren’t super angry with the government, because they’d been working with the government so constructively. Not everyone was totally happy, of course, but in this context it worked to the benefit of getting the Bundys out of there.
These relationships were strong enough that people said, why in the world are we letting an armed takeover happen with these outsiders when we’ve been working together for ten years? There are collaborations that work. The Blackfoot Challenge ranching group in Montana would be another good example of a collaboration that’s functioned welI. I don’t think collaboration always works, and there can be some real problems, but in this case the collaboration worked because people were in relationship with each other. And they really didn’t want the Bundys interfering.
Satellite image of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, site of an armed standoff of militants in 2016 led by Ammon Bundy and others. Figure 1 show the fire lookout used as a watchtower by those involved with the takeover. Figure two shows the refuges offices used as a headquarters by Bundy and others. Figure three shows the residential buildings used by militants as a barracks and canteen.
Watters: So the Bundys appeared and blew all of that up. In the wake of the occupation, how are people there doing now?
Gaines Quammen: I think they’re doing well, but the the Hammonds’ grazing lease is still up in the air. The Hammonds have a long history of an adversarial relationship with the managers at Malheur. They had their grazing allotment permit revoked because they were charged with arson, which is a felony. When they were pardoned by Trump, Zinke gave them back their grazing permit, and Wild Earth Guardians, a conservation organization, sued.
There have been a number of back-and-forth legal actions related to this, and in December of 2019, a federal judge overturned the renewal of the Hammond Ranch’s livestock grazing permit. I know that, in the absence of the Hammonds’ cattle, the land has really rebounded. But the truth is, the Hammonds are well loved in their community, and when they were arrested and the Bundys came to town, there were a lot of people who were upset about the Hammonds going to jail. They just didn’t take it to the extremes that the Bundys did. The people that the Bundys attracted to the refuge threatened Dave Ward, who was the sheriff. They really upset many in the community, even though the town was upset about the Hammonds being jailed. The Bundys did, however, find some community support.
Watters: The Hammonds themselves didn’t invite the Bundys up there, and didn’t necessarily want them there, right?
Gaines Quammen: They actually asked them to leave. Before the Hammonds were arrested, people on these militia social media networks were upset about what was happening, because the Hammonds were ranchers, this father and son who many believed were being sent to jail unfairly. There was a lot of rallying around them. There was a big march in the town and a lot of support for them before they were arrested. But they turned themselves in peacefully.
When the Bundys occupied Malheur, the larger militia groups, like the 3 Percenters, said that they weren’t supporting the action. It did seem like a big lurch to go occupy this refuge when people were there to support the Hammonds. There wasn’t a lot of initial support among the wider militia groups for the occupation. That changed when La Voy Finicum was fatally shot. Then all of a sudden, more groups supported the cause.
Watters: So there are differences between the Bundy militias and these other militias, in terms of what might trigger each to take action? Is this difference due to the theology?
Gaines Quammen: I think that at this point, there are non-Mormon militias that have affiliated with the Bundys that are operating on Mormon theology. They’ve been indoctrinated to a certain extent through the Bundys and the Bundys’ worldview. I think the Mormons have a history of a militant theology. When they were being persecuted, they really organized. It’s in the history of the church, this culture of militarism.
"...there are non-Mormon militias that have affiliated with the Bundys that are operating on Mormon theology. They’ve been indoctrinated to a certain extent through the Bundys and the Bundys’ worldview. I think the Mormons have a history of a militant theology. When they were being persecuted, they really organized. It’s in the history of the church, this culture of militarism." —Betsy Gaines Quammen
Watters: The first part of your book reads as this gripping epic of Mormon migration, which is tied to why Mormons have often felt so persecuted. Why is there so much militancy in the theology?
Gaines Quammen: This gets to the crux of it. There’s a real anger at the US government. It comes from the fact that here was this new religion, and it was seen as very odd by those outside the faith. The early Mormons were very clannish. They pulled together because they were ostracized. Joseph Smith thought that the Mormon homeland should be in Missouri, so the Mormons went there and started telling their neighbors, who were not Mormon, “Hey, this is our land. And if it’s not our land today, it will be one day.”
So it was rattling to people who were already there. But then abolition became the main point of contention. In Missouri there were slave owners, and the Mormons, for the most part, were abolitionists. That’s when it became violent. There was an execution order from the governor of Missouri, mobs attacked Mormon people, and 17 people, including children, were murdered at a place called Haun’s Mill. It was a terrible time for the Mormons, it truly was unfair, and they fled to Illinois, where Joseph Smith put together the second largest military body in the US, after the US army, to protect his people.
So ten years after the Mormons got to Utah territory, Buchanan sent troops, and the Mormons were just enraged after years of persecution and the death of their prophet. Brigham Young started saying that they wouldn’t protect wagon trains any more from raids by Native peoples, and at the same time he was encouraging Native peoples to attack non-Mormon settlers moving through the territory on their way west. That’s when the Mountain Meadows massacre happened, when 120 people were murdered by Mormons and some Paiute.
Some of the Bundys’ ancestors were involved. This is an early example of Mormon vengeance—when there’s an attack on homeland, the Mormon people have this militant theology that they use in response to these threats. It’s my feeling that this kind of cultural DNA is what’s encouraging these ongoing wars over public lands.
Watters: The Mountain Meadows Massacre is probably one of the more notorious incidents in the history of the western US. In the book, it’s one of the hardest scenes to read, with parents slaughtered in front of their children and those children too young to tell tales taken and indoctrinated into the church, and then Church leaders blaming the whole thing on the Paiute. For a long time, the Mormon Church denied that this happened, right?
Gaines Quammen: They did, but another Bundy relative, Juanita Brooks, wrote about the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1950, and forced the church to finally recognize their role. The Church has owned it, and they’ve taken steps to reach out to descendants of the children who survived the attack. But there’s a continued aversion among some church members to concede the crimes of their foremothers and forefathers. There was another massacre against the Southern Paiute at Circleville, Utah, where the Mormon people killed men, women, and children. They finally erected a monument there, in 2016, and the monument stated that Mormons had killed Southern Paiute in this spot in Circleville, and it was so controversial that the mayor lost his reelection bid for allowing this monument to go up. And this was only a few years ago.
Watters: So the church is taking steps to acknowledge some of this violent history, but what is their stance on these militant movements within Mormonism? Are they being embraced by the LDS church?
Gaines Quammen: No, and this is a really important point. The Church came out and said, basically, “Don’t say that you’re doing this in the name of our religion.” That’s a paraphrase, but they disavowed the Bundys’ actions. There are certain pockets within Mormonism that are more aligned with early Mormon theology. Salt Lake City is a very different place and a very different kind of Mormonism than these really rural places that are disconnected from the way the Mormon Church has modernized. People in these rural areas are bound to the land in a different kind of way, because their grandparents and great grandparents settled the area, the same families are there, and there’s a real sense of entitlement. And also a lot of anger.
"The Church came out and said, basically, 'Don’t say that you’re doing this in the name of our religion.' That’s a paraphrase, but they disavowed the Bundys’ actions. There are certain pockets within Mormonism that are more aligned with early Mormon theology. Salt Lake City is a very different place and a very different kind of Mormonism than these really rural places that are disconnected from the way the Mormon Church has modernized." Gaines Quammen
Watters: The Constitution is important in this story, and there’s a man named Cleon Skousen who played a particular role in spreading beliefs about the White Horse Prophecy and Mormons’ special understanding of the Constitution. Could you talk a bit about that?
Gaines Quammen: The idea that the Constitution is important to Mormonism predates Skousen. Joseph Smith asked his followers to “be friends with the Constitution.” It had a special place in the Mormon canon from the beginning. It became almost like a sacred document, because the Mormon people, even though they hated the government, felt like the Constitution protected them by protecting freedom of religion.
The White Horse Prophecy is probably apocryphal, but allegedly Joseph Smith said that there will come a point when the Constitution is hanging by a thread, the Mormon people are going to be the ones who will protect it, for the betterment of everyone.
That has been used to justify the actions that Cliven and his sons Ammon and Ryan are taking, Cleon Skousen brought back a lot of that early church theology. People have been motivated by his beliefs, including the belief that the government can’t own land. He was part of the John Birch Society, he was this guy who really talked about the importance of freedom, the dangers of Communism, the importance of the Constitution, and the importance of Mormon prophecy. He was a real folk hero, he started the Freeman Institute, which later became the National Center for Constitutional Studies – the organization continues to issue those pocket constitutions that everyone is walking around with at Bundy rallies.
Watters: Towards the end of the book, you bring up the way that this mix of prophecy and guns becomes toxic for a pluralistic democracy and the idea of truth. From a governance perspective, what do you do with that?
Gaines Quammen: I really don’t know. We’re seeing it right now with Covid. You see Trump getting up and recommending an unproven remedy, cholorquine, and saying, “It’s still being tested, but I have a gut feeling that it will work.” I mean, you see it everywhere. Why are we so anti-science? Why do we value gut feelings over hard data?
Watters: I don’t know. That’s the big question, and it’s more acute than ever when it’s a public health crisis and you can’t gut-feel your way out of it. People are going to die.
Gaines Quammen: Exactly, and I think the Bundys are symptomatic of this much larger problem in our country. We do not trust facts. We do not trust fact tellers. We do not trust the media. We do not trust scientists. We do not trust our politicians. So when you have a crisis, like the one now, we don’t have a trusted channel of information. It’s a huge problem if you’re trying to address a situation like this.
"I think the Bundys are symptomatic of this much larger problem in our country. We do not trust facts. We do not trust fact tellers. We do not trust the media. We do not trust scientists. We do not trust our politicians. So when you have a crisis, like the one now, we don’t have a trusted channel of information. It’s a huge problem if you’re trying to address a situation like this." Gaines Quammen
Watters: To go back to the earlier point about Emerson and Smith, the current environmental movement is pushing back against the idea of measuring productivity solely in terms of economics. There’s an argument that public lands are productive in terms of spirituality, mental health, relationships. You see that argument coming from certain parts of the Mormon community too – notably people like Terry Tempest Williams, who is such an advocate for the spiritual and relational value of the natural world. She’s at one end of a spectrum of beliefs within the church. Then you have people like the Bundys on the other end. Is there a possibility of transformation, both in the American West more broadly and within Mormon communities? "
Gaines Quammen: I hope there’s a possibility of transformation. There are so many Mormons who are advocates for conservation of public lands and wilderness areas and National Parks. I think this is a really important thing to ask. You can’t say that there isn’t an environmental ethic within the Mormon Church. The church has gotten more serious about it over the past few years. They talk a lot more about Creation Care, the idea that the land doesn’t have to be productive for humans, in the cultivated sense, to feel a deep sense of, and call for, collective stewardship.
There are church members right now who are really focused on climate change and conservation. Terry of course is one of the strongest voices in the entire country for conservation of public lands – Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante, standing up against fracking and extractive industries . On the other hand, there are a number of Mormon politicians who are trying to undermine laws that protect public lands. County commissioners, state legislators, and representatives, who are really anti-environment. It’s something that goes back to this proprietary idea of land – “you can’t tell us what to do.” And money, of course.
Grazing doesn’t make money, actually. It’s the mining companies that want to keep the land open for exploitation. But a cowboy makes a better emblem to fight for than a mining company—especially a mining company that isn’t American.
"There are so many Mormons who are advocates for conservation of public lands and wilderness areas and National Parks. You can’t say that there isn’t an environmental ethic within the Mormon Church. The church has gotten more serious about it over the past few years. They talk a lot more about Creation Care, the idea that the land doesn’t have to be productive for humans, in the cultivated sense, to feel a deep sense of, and call for, collective stewardship." —Gaines Quammen
Watters: One of the tidbits I was surprised to learn from the book was the fact that Brigham Young was opposed to mining. He thought it was bad for the character.
Gaines Quammen: Yes. There were a lot of 19th century miners who were living these lives that weren’t wholesome in comparison to the Mormon farming life, and Young did not approve. He actually said something along the lines of, “I pray that God hides away all the treasure.” He wanted the gold and silver hidden away so that it wouldn’t tempt and corrupt Mormons. That’s changed now, of course. There’s a value placed on “real jobs” amongst Mormons – mining, ranching, logging. There’s a real aversion in some of the more rural Mormon communities to working in tourism or service jobs. It’s considered demeaning.
Watters: In the first part of our interview, you mentioned that Ammon Bundy is enjoying time hanging out with his family during this quarantine. We all watched him orchestrate an armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge. Why isn’t he in jail?
Gaines Quammen: Basically, the prosecution mismanaged the case. In Oregon, they were overly confident on the conspiracy charges against the Bundys, and they weren’t able to convince the jury on those charges. In Nevada, the prosecutors withheld evidence, so Gloria Navarro, the judge, declared a mistrial. And a main witness, BLM agent Dan Love deleted emails, and he was the one who was in charge of the whole Bundy roundup in Nevada. He was later fired.
(NOTE: In video below Cliven Bundy says he still refuses to pay fees to the federal government for grazing his cattle on land owned by the public. Critics say he needs to be held to account for being delinquent in paying his fees and the federal government needs to do its job, otherwise it is condoning anarchy).
Watters: What does the future look like for public lands?
Gaines Quammen: We need to fight to keep public lands in public hands. Right now we have a director of the BLM who doesn’t even think that the government should own lands. So it’s going to be a tough fight, and we need a coalition that’s willing to fight hard. We may find that our coalition includes people we disagree with about other things, but we’re all going to have to go to bat for public lands, especially against this administration. And we need to be extremely vigilant while everyone is distracted by Covid-19. I end my book by saying that right now, at this point in time, public lands are in public hands.
We also have to be really aware that these lands are also traditional Native lands, and we need to build coalition with Native leaders. They’re excellent partners and leaders for determining what should happen. Under this administration, public lands are more threatened than they’ve ever been. We need to be more aware than ever, but right now, those lands are still in public hands. Those lands mean so much on every level. Ecologically, historically, spiritually, and now as carbon sinks and buffers against extreme weather in a time of climate crisis.
Watters: Maybe there’s an opportunity in this Covid19 crisis, too, though, to think through what our values are and what we want in the wake of this enormous disruption.
Gaines Quammen: That’s something we have to think about. What do we want to look like on the other side of this? What are the lessons we’re learning right now, in terms of our social safety net, in terms of a Green New Deal, in terms of social justice? What do we want our country and our world to look like? Whether we want this or not, this has to give us pause. It is giving us pause. How are we going to use that pause to imagine what we want?
EDITOR'S NOTE: Read part 1 of the Watters interview with Gaines Quammen—The West In A Time Of Conflict: The Bundys, Public Lands And Covid-19