We all know the issues swirling around Cliven Bundy, the Nevada poster boy for selfishness, ignorance, arrogance, and racism who instigated a modern-day Whiskey Rebellion: his refusal to pay grazing fees that are set so shamefully low that they amount to welfare for wealthy ranchers; his charges that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) shot his cattle from a helicopter and bulldozed the bodies into a mass grave; his insistence that the government of the United States is illegitimate; his resuscitation of claims of states’ sovereignty and the right of armed rebellion that were declared dead and gone with the end of the Southern insurrection; and his nostalgia for African-American slavery.
But I want to raise a different issue: the significance of the Bundy Rebellion for the animal rights movement.
Cliven Bundy’s cattle are not the issue here. Tragically, these cows are doomed whoever ultimately wins. No one involved is on their side. Bundy will send them to slaughter, and so will the BLM. Nor is the issue, at least from an animal rights perspective, the grazing fees that Cliven Bundy is refusing to pay.
The issue is that Cliven Bundy has challenged the authority of the federal government, he was backed up by armed “militiamen” who threatened to murder federal officers, and in the face of this armed threat the government of the United States backed down. Unless this turns out to have been a tactical retreat by the feds, I believe that we should regard this as a troubling outcome. At this juncture in the development of the animal rights movement, the attitude of the government toward animals is less important than the attitude of the government toward animal advocates. We are the only voice, the only support the animals have. All of society’s major institutions are against them: business, government, academia, the public, even most human rights groups. We are making significant inroads, but we still have a very long way to go. Apart from our advocacy, the animals have nothing. And our advocacy depends on the strength of our constitutional democracy, which assures us the right to freedom of speech and freedom of association. If that system breaks down, we will be silenced and the campaign for animal liberation will be over. What happened in Nevada was a direct assault on the rule of law by armed terrorists. When the BLM (and, by implication, the entire Obama administration) retreated in the face of an armed threat by militants who deny the authority of the government to enforce the law, they risked opening a crack in the system of Constitutional protections that makes an animal rights movement possible. The critical point here is that these were not peaceful protestors engaging in civil disobedience. They were armed to the teeth with assault weapons, sniper rifles and an assortment of other military hardware. They were shown on television training those weapons on federal agents and threatening to open fire If BLM staff and contractors attempted to enforce a court order. This was an armed, violent challenge to the system of Constitutional and legal protections that makes the animal rights and environmental movements possible. If people like Cliven Bundy, Mike Adams, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Megyn Kelly ever come to power we will all be dead or in prison and the animals’ movement along with the Earth’s movement will be crushed. We have a lot of issues with the federal government—their active support of the meat, egg and dairy industries, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, and a host of others—and we need to pursue these issues vigorously. But it is only the protections granted by our Constitution that make it possible for us to pursue them at all. Overall, from an AR point of view (which is my point of view) the BLM are not good guys, and I am by no means comfortable defending them, but out in the Nevada scrubland that weekend, they were wearing the white hats. And when they backed down, we lost—unless, as I said, it was merely a tactical retreat.
We must oppose the government’s role in a whole host of crimes, including the human enslavement and slaughter of animals, the agriculture and energy industries’ brutalization of the Earth, the campaign of big business and finance to impoverish the middle class and reduce the poor to destitution, the disruption of lives and destruction of families caused by our wars on women, young African-American men, and undocumented residents. But we must support our government against those on the right who try to tear down our Constitutional protections while claiming to defend them.
I worry that we may have entered an era of a double standard for protestors. Armed, right-wing protestors get their way, and peaceful, left-wing protestors (like Occupy) get rousted, arrested and prosecuted. And make no mistake, armed left-wing protestors, including AR and environmental activists, would be shot in a heartbeat. There is an Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act; why is there no Racist, Gun-Totin’, Right-Wing Militia Terrorism Act? None of this bodes well for animal liberation. Whether we think of ourselves as part of the progressive movement or not (and I do, although I know that many do not), that is the way government, business, academia, and the conservative movements (apart from Matthew Scully and a few other outliers) see us, and the Bundy Rebellion showed how they will treat us if they come to power.