Confronting Racism and White Nostalgia on Cliven Bundy's Ranch
The Nevada rancher wants to break all the rules in a game that's been fixed for him.
I never thought I'd step foot on the infamous Bundy ranch, owned by Nevada "patriot" Cliven Bundy. But last summer, there I was with my traveling companions—a Muslim dude named Abdullah and a Spanish immigrant named Martina—about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas, in a place that looked like a set piece from Red Dead Revolver.
It was so hot that day, the heat waves radiated off the ground and the air was heavy with the odor of dusty cow shit. We were being escorted by a fat white dude nicknamed Booda who had what looked like swastikas tattooed on his eyelids and was strapped with a loaded 9mm. As he led us to the house, I tried to walk judiciously, so the desert dirt wouldn't ruin my Air Jordans.
This was clearly foreign territory for me and my cohorts. We were all from Brooklyn, but had been brought out to the middle of nowhere to shoot a new kind of journalistic reality show about America in the run up to the 2016 election. It's called VICE Does America, and the hook is, we drive across the country in a broken-down RV and meet a lot of people with controversial politics. We also weren't given the opportunity to prepare for interviews, forcing us to approach these stories in a more organic way than you might typically see on TV.
So all I knew about Bundy when I stepped onto that ranch was what I had gleaned from the headlines the previous year. The gist of it is that the Nevada rancher has been battling it out with the federal government since I was in diapers, in a dispute over whether Bundy could allow his cattle to graze on public land despite his refusal to pay grazing fees for more than two decades. According to court records, he now owes more than a $1 million in unpaid grazing fees.
His reasons for not paying are pretty convoluted, and involve some daft interpretations of American history and the interplay of powers between the federal and state government. Needless to say, the courts haven't agreed with this man's fuzzy logic, which is why the Bureau of Land Management has been trying to get his cash—which, as taxpayers, is really our cash.
The conflict culminated in the spring of 2014, about a year before I visited the ranch, when the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) tried to confiscate 500 of Bundy's cows that had been grazing on government land. The rancher—surrounded by more than 1,000 mostly white, mostly right-wing, and mostly armed militiamen—punked out the dozen or so federal agents sent to round up the cattle, and eventually forced the BLM to stand down and give the cows back.
The confrontation catapulted Bundy into the national spotlight. He was fawned over by Fox News and the rest of the right-wing media, as well as Republican politicians like Kentucky senator Rand Paul. Although Bundy had inherited a fortuitous livelihood and broke pretty basic laws to take public resources without paying his fair share, conservatives initially hailed him as a hero. That is, until he made some politically incorrect statements about black people.
In a celebration of his victory against the feds and his newfound fame, Bundy started holding town-hall-style press conferences at his ranch, in which he'd ramble about all kinds of shit a 70-year-old shit-kicker has no business talking about, like abortion, rape, and of course "Negro."
In one of these rants, captured in a now infamous video clip, the rancher talks about a housing project he'd driven by in North Las Vegas, where he saw "half a dozen [black] people sitting on the porch." According to him, these people "didn't have nothing to do. They didn't have nothing for their kids to do. They didn't have nothing for their young girls to do... they were basically on government subsidy. So now what do they do? They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?"
So when we finally got to Bundy's hovel and sat in his sweltering-ass living room, it was this wildly ignorant statement that I chose to discuss with the old-timer. In person, the man was not the guy I'd heard about or seen on TV. He was meek. I had to lean forward a bit to hear his voice over the fans spinning desperately to keep his place cool. He had that shaky old man walk that makes you worried when you see those rickety bones approach a set of stairs.
Honestly, Bundy is not someone I'd typically want to talk to about race, because, as Jay Z says, you shouldn't argue with fools. But I'm curious by nature, and I really wanted to find out if this guy honestly believed that blacks were better off picking cotton than they are today, in an age where they can—at least on paper—vote and read and own a gun and have a right to an attorney.
The general idea behind his comment is actually something I encountered again and again on my trip across the country shooting this TV show. It's this sort of nostalgia white men have for a time that they didn't even live through, but when other white men ran shit. There's a scary tendency among white people today, freaked out by our nation's shifting demographics and the rise of movements like Black Lives Matter, to look back fondly on the days when their racial supremacy was maintained without question or scrutiny. To justify this perspective, they tell themselves that that time was also better the people who were oppressed.
There's an audacity to Bundy's infamous comments, considering it's ridiculous for him to even play like he knows what it's like to live in American public housing today, much less what it was like to live through slavery. And to make light of the experience of slavery in general and say that it is better than anything, anything at all, shows a very clear misunderstanding of just how awful and heinous that practice was in this country.
I tried to convey that in our truncated conversation, as I sat on the couch between my two traveling companions. But it was a weird scene—the Bundy family offered me watermelon for crying out loud. Bundy even seemed to get a little teary-eyed when faced with the awfulness of his words, to the point that he gave me a slight apology.
Of course, it was an apology directed solely at me and my family—the very rare, hardworking black people who are the exceptions to the rule. He still reserved himself the right to judge and demean those lazy Negros loafing on the front porches of housing projects across America, sucking up hard-earned tax dollars, living their degenerate lives on a "subsidy."
That last bit is the part that still dogs me. It wasn't until we left the ranch that I started to think about the irony of Bundy calling out black people for living on welfare, considering that his whole dispute with the feds belies a sort of rancher welfare system that he has been steadily ripping off. According to New Yorker writer Jedediah Purdy, "The grazing fees that Cliven Bundy refuses to pay are so much cheaper than the market rate that they have been estimated as amounting to a 93 percent subsidy."
So while $1 million in grazing fees might seem like a lot to the uninitiated, Bundy's actually getting an incredible deal—a steal really, at the public's expense—but still insists he shouldn't have to pay. What makes that any different than the relatively rare instances of welfare fraud? He's taking something from the public—the land—without meeting the necessary qualifications—in this case, the fees.
Bundy's critique about poor blacks is also fascinating considering the place of privilege it comes from. He's not a descendant of enslaved people who, until recently, were second-class citizens by law. Instead, he inherited a profitable business that had been passed down through his family since the late 1800s—a time when blacks were just stepping out of legal enslavement and about to face the horrendous Jim Crow laws that kept the white supremacy of slavery intact.
His wealth and livelihood is the result of generations of Bundys having had the opportunity to build on one another. Bundy knows nothing of the adversity faced by the entire race of people that he discredited. The simple fact that we are still here, still surviving in America, despite everything that we've faced is an incredible feat. How can someone who has been given so much and has taken so much from others, look at people who struggle with such disgust?
Looking back on my day on the ranch, I know I definitely didn't change Bundy's mind on the issues of race, or the lunacy of his standoff with the government. Just a few months later his family and their militiamen got into another oddball skirmish with the feds, in which Bundy's son and seven other militants were arrested, and one guy actually got killed. Cliven himself was arrested in February and remains in federal custody, where he claims he's being held as a "political prisoner" by President Barack Obama.
As surreal as the whole experience turned out to be, though, it was certainly not the last time during my trip across America that I would come face-to-face with the sort of privileged narcissism displayed by Bundy. What became clear to me as I walked off his ranch was that people like him can't seem to stomach the idea that one day we might all have to abide by the same regulations. Instead, they want to break all of the rules in a game that's been fixed for them.
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