(As I See It)
Defend the Bundys! Defend ranchers’ access to
BY JOEL BRITTON
OAKLAND, Calif. — “In Defense of Ranchers’ Rights to Graze Cattle on Federal Lands” was the topic of the Militant Labor Forum here July 21. This writer was the speaker, on behalf of the Socialist Workers Party.
On July 17 Dennis Richter, from Los Angeles, and I attended the opening day of the frame-up retrial in Las Vegas of Scott Drexler, Richard Lovelien, Eric Parker and Steven Stewart, four men who participated in a protest three years ago demanding that Cliven Bundy’s cattle be freed from federal government impoundment. A number of other people who joined the protest, including Bundy and two of his sons, are in prison pending later trials on related charges.
This past spring a jury in the same courtroom had been unable to find the defendants guilty. The charges included “assault on a federal officer,” “threatening a federal law enforcement officer,” “interstate travel in aid of extortion,” and “conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States.” Judge Gloria Navarro declared a mistrial of the four, while two others were convicted on some of the charges.
The Bureau of Land Management seized 400 of Bundy’s cattle near his Bunkerville, Nevada, ranch in April 2014, and was preparing to take them to California and sell them. They claimed to be acting in defense of the environment, with court decisions backing them up.
The fact is the Bundys — like most farmers and ranchers — pride themselves on being stewards of the land, on which their livelihoods depend.
Hundreds of ranchers, family members and other supporters from all over the western United States rallied in defense of the right of the Bundys and all ranchers to graze their cattle on lands controlled by the federal government.
Federal agencies control nearly 87 percent of the land in Nevada. For generations Bundy family members paid grazing fees, until BLM bureaucrats arbitrarily limited Cliven Bundy to grazing 150 head on the land. He decided to ignore the order and continued to graze his cattle as his family had done for decades. By 2014, the family faced $1 million in unpaid fees, fines and interest, and a series of court orders to stop using federal lands near his small 160-acre ranch.
Following a tense standoff between the heavily armed Clark County police, sheriffs and BLM cops on one side, and Bundy family members and their supporters, a few of whom were armed, on the other, the cattle were released. As Lovelien’s attorney Shawn Perez said in his opening statement at the trial, “Not a shot was fired, not a bottle was thrown, not a rock was thrown.” Not by Lovelien, any of the other defendants or any other supporter of the Bundys.
After this victory, Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, at that time the majority leader in the Senate, threatened, “It’s not over!” And sure enough, the FBI went to work to cook up “evidence” for frame-up charges against Bundy, the current defendants and others. The defendants have been denied bail while awaiting trial.
When the prosecutors failed to get the four defendants convicted last spring, they pressed for a new trial and got Judge Navarro to bar defense attorneys “from referencing constitutional rights to freely assemble and to bear arms,” and “from mentioning alleged misconduct or excessive force by law enforcement,” as they did successfully in the earlier trial.
Working people should stand with the Bundys and the other defendants. The day before the trial began, Richter and I knocked on doors in a workers’ neighborhood in Las Vegas near the Nellis Air Force Base.
“We introduced ourselves as members of the Socialist Workers Party, explained our revolutionary perspectives and reported on protests in defense of the Bundys and the other defendants party members had attended the day before,” said Richter. “The four workers who we had the chance to speak with at length said they had heard about the ranchers’ protests and the trials. They expressed their solidarity and all got copies of the Militant.”
We explained, and I repeated it at the forum in Oakland, that a fighting alliance between workers and independent producers such as ranchers and farmers is necessary to end the dictatorship of capital and to make the revolutionary changes needed in this country. “The logic of workers, farmers and ranchers fighting in our interests — against the wealthy capitalist rulers and their government — is to mobilize in our millions to take power, to establish a workers and farmers government,” I told the forum.
Such a government would ensure that ranchers are able to continue to make a living and act as guardians of the land and the environment as a whole.