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A single text message could activate a network of 5,377 anti-government activists should their de facto leader, Ammon Bundy, call for it. And that’s only in Oregon.
Over the course of the pandemic, Bundy—known for showdowns with federal authorities and anti-government extremism—quietly organized the innocuous-sounding “People’s Rights,” a rapidly growing, far-right, Christian movement composed of anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, gun rights activists, and militia types.
The purpose of People's Rights, according to Bundy, is essentially a neighborhood watch system that could mobilize on a moment’s notice if someone’s “rights” were being infringed. The group ballooned from a few dozen people in Bundy’s Idaho warehouse last March to around 20,000 in October, and are now estimated to be about 35,000-strong across at least 16 states, according to the Missouri-based Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (IREHR), who’ve been closely tracking People's Rights.
“We could have 20, 30, to a hundred people, within just a few minutes at my place protecting my rights.”
But a simmering conflict over water in the southwest of Oregon may soon test the network. Bundy and People’s Rights have teamed up with local irrigators in the Klamath Water Basin, where a severe drought led federal authorities to impose historic limitations on water used to irrigate crops.
The irrigators are threatening to seize control of the federally-run water supply, turn it on, and stand off with federal authorities.
Bundy originally made a name for himself through armed standoffs, first at his father’s ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada, in 2014, when the Bureau of Land Management attempted to confiscate his cattle after he broke the rules by letting them graze on public land without a permit. Bundy led his own standoff in 2016, occupying the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon to protest the treatment of two ranchers who’d been convicted of federal land arson.
But in the last year, Bundy saw an opportunity to make his anti-government rhetoric appeal to a much broader swath of the public, including QAnon conspiracy theorists, anti-vax moms, and local business owners. Bundy rebranded himself as a renegade freedom fighter in the pushback against lockdown and local mask ordinances and even tossed his hat in the ring for governor of Idaho.
“Let’s face it, our governmental systems of defense are deteriorating quickly,” the People’s Rights website warns. “Government officials, more and more, are becoming the type of people we must defend ourselves from… We must not be left defenseless!”
But with lockdown restrictions easing and mask ordinances lifting, Bundy needs a new cause célèbre to galvanize his base through shared grievances over unspecified government tyranny. The escalating dispute over water in southwest Oregon could very well be it.
As of Tuesday morning, the situation in Klamath remained extremely volatile. Faced with historic drought conditions, the Bureau of Reclamation shut off the water supply in May for the Klamath Project water infrastructure, which provides irrigation water downstream for farmers and fishing resources for Native American tribes. The shutoff was meant to improve emergency conditions upstream, specifically to avoid massive die-outs of the endangered suckerfish in the reservoirs, which have spiritual significance for Klamath Tribes.
The federal government’s decision has angered irrigators and farmers in the area, who want to reopen the flow of “A Canal,” a waterway operated by the Bureau of Reclamation that controls the amount of water flowing into the system of irrigation canals.
Local irrigators, who’ve teamed up with Bundy and People’s Rights, say they’ve explored all legal options and are left with no choice but to take control of the canal by force.
“We’re going to turn on the water and have a standoff,” Greg Knoll, an irrigator, told Oregon Public Broadcasting last week.
Knoll helped purchase a vacant lot adjacent to the federal waterway, where he and other local irrigators erected a big red-and-white-striped tent dubbed “Water Crisis Info Center” and tapped the People’s Rights network to organize meetings there. One meeting last week included two local mayors and a police chief.
Another irrigator, Dan Nielsen, told the local paper Record Searchlight that seizing control of the water supply would entail “breaking the lock on the gates to the facility and using a crane to remove the large metal bulkheads that keep the water from flowing into the canal.”
But he wouldn’t say when that was going to happen.
“You never tell your enemy when you’re going to attack,” Nielsen told the Searchlight.
Twenty years ago, drought conditions sparked a similar conflict between irrigators and the federal government.
That, too, became a flashpoint for anti-government extremists, who conjured up vivid fantasies about overthrowing federal agents. Over the course of five months of protests, as many as 1,300 people showed up at the headgates that controlled irrigation waters at Klamath Falls, according to a 2001 report by Southern Poverty Law Center.
Bundy, for his part, is already spinning the current conflict in Klamath as being about much more than just water—it’s about life and death.
“Who cares if there is violence,” he told the New York Times. “At least something will be worked out. “‘Oh, we don’t want violence, we’ll just starve to death.’ Heaven forbid we talk about violence.” (Protesters’ placards at the “Water Crisis Info Center” promise “Ammon Bundy Coming Soon,” but according to the Guardian, he hasn’t yet made the trip to Klamath.)
These life-or-death stakes, however, are how Bundy has managed to build and maintain People’s Rights, according to a joint report called “Ammon’s Army,” by IREHR and the Montana Human Rights Network. Even more people have joined since. In the group, 153 “assistants” around the country disseminate information through telephone-tree style mass texts or emails, or their own People’s Rights online portal, IREHR wrote in a recent report.
“When it is no longer ‘legal’ to grow your own food, educate your children, or operate your own business, who will you call?” People’s Rights states in their pitch on the website. “Who will you call when the law mandates that unknown chemicals be injected into your body or the bodies of your children? Who will you call when street criminals roam your neighborhood, threatening your family, and the police will not respond?”
Bundy explained in a recent video streamed on Rumble, for example, that if Child Protective Services came to your door and were going to take your kids, you could send an SOS via text to the local network.
“We could have 20, 30, to a hundred people within just a few minutes at my place protecting my rights,” Bundy said in the video.
The People’s Rights website is also devoid of any iconography you might associate with Bundy or the militia movement; it features a stock image of a white family strolling through a field of wheat, gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes.
“What they’ve done is used the last year to indoctrinate a much larger group of activists, and teach them the ways of this kind of confrontational politics that's new to a lot of these folks,” said Devin Burghart, executive director at IREHR.
Burghart pointed to examples of activists affiliated with People’s Rights targeting the homes of public officials, including police officers, about COVID-19 restrictions, or threatening health officials involved in vaccine distribution.
“They’ve learned the blueprint for a kind of confrontational politics that can be applied to any issue set, whether it be water rights, land use, or parking tickets.”