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David Neiwert

Ammon Bundy is building a far-right theocratic army under the guise of defending ‘rights'

There's been a buffoonish quality to Ammon Bundy's brand of far-right "constitutionalist" politics over the past six months, primarily organized in a typically paranoid response to COVID-19-related public-health measures: Protesting at the home of a police officer who had arrested an anti-vaccination fanatic for violating the closure of a playground. Trying to bully his way inside a health-board meeting. Getting arrested twice in two days for ignoring his ban from the Idaho Statehouse. Going maskless at a Caldwell High School football game that forced the game to be called off, for which he was not only ejected but banned from future games by the local school district.

The endless antics, however, have always obfuscated a darker, much more dangerous agenda. A disturbing new in-depth report by Devin Burghart at the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights reveals that all the time that Bundy has been gathering media time and headlines, he's been building a massive army of volunteers—a network called People's Rights—intent on imposing a far-right authoritarian state, all under the guise of defending individual rights.

Bundy first announced the formation of the People's Rights network in March, when he held a gathering not far from his home in Emmett, Idaho, discussing plans to organize people to form ad-hoc gatherings to "defend" local citizens against COVID-19-related "tyranny." Bundy told the audience that they didn't need to obey the governor's stray-at-home or business-closure orders. And he pledged to bring fellow "Patriots" to the rescue if anyone felt pressure from "authorities" to comply.

"I will be there," Bundy told the Idaho Press. "I will bring as many people as we can. We will form a legal defense for you, a political defense for you, and we will also, if necessary, provide a physical defense for you, so that you can continue in your rights."

As it has played out on the ground, these gatherings have become bellicose, and frequently armed, mobs protesting police officers at their homes, breaking into health-board meetings that were being held online, and breaking down the doors inside the Statehouse and attending committee meetings unmasked in order to intimidate state legislators.

The incident resulting in the cancellation of the football game between Caldwell and Emmett high schools is emblematic of these anti-democratic intimidation tactics at work.

Bundy, whose son plays for Emmett High, showed up in Caldwell for the game without a mask—though one was required for entry—and refused to put one on, first taking a seat in the stands, then moving to a fenced area away from the stands. As he livestreamed the exchange, Bundy refused to leave when game officials asked him to.

Moreover, members of his network watching on Facebook sprang into action and began phoning 911 dispatchers in Caldwell—not merely to complain, but to threaten and intimidate. The flood of threats was so overwhelming and worrisome that at halftime, officials announced the game was being cancelled.

"The threats made to dispatch appear to have stemmed from the dispute between Mr. Bundy and the Caldwell School District personnel that requested he wear a mask while attending the game," a Caldwell police spokesman told the Idaho Statesman. "The calls did specifically reference the football game."

Ten days later, the district voted unanimously to ban Bundy from Caldwell school grounds for the next year.

The IREHR report explores how this is all being organized. The People's Rights network, it explains, has seen rapid growth fueled by "a fusion of Bundy's core of the far-right paramilitary supporters built up over years of armed standoffs with a mass base of new activists radicalized in protest over COVID-19 health directives."

Bundy devised a secure online system built on SMS text messaging to enable the network to organize without public scrutiny or exposure. IREHR managed to obtain access to the network, however, and reports that "Bundy has assembled a team of 153 'assistants' in sixteen states." It goes on to identify all of those people, and found that their backgrounds include significant activism in radical right causes—and that, somewhat unusually, the majority of those local assistants are women (though the national and state leadership remain dominated by men).

This network is not engaged in the usual far-right battle against "government tyranny," which is the usual rhetoric that surrounds "Patriot" groups. Bundy's network instead is pro-government—but one that has no compunction about erasing the rights of people its participants have deemed morally depraved:

Instead of a more traditional "anti-government" narrative, People's Rights leaders have expressed a desire for governmental power to be used to protect the "righteous" against "wicked" liberals, antifa, Black Lives Matter activists, and others. Several People's Rights leaders are running for elected office—to become the government. Absent that sort of intervention, leaders have proposed a type of armed enclave-style "neighborhood" nationalism, where "righteous" neighbors stand against the "wicked." People's Rights leaders have often defined the "wicked" using far-right conspiracism, racism, antisemitism, anti-indigenous, and anti-transgender sentiment.

Moreover, in addition to building an "Uber-like" paramilitary response system that can be mobilized whenever people believe their rights are under attack from godless liberals, IREHR's report explains that discussion within the surreptitious network go well beyond such imagined "self-defense" measures.

Some of the People's Rights network participants are running for elective office, hoping to promote the group's theocratic-state agenda from within the halls of power. Mario Perea, a People's Rights assistant from Idaho, told would-be participants in a rally for a political candidate: "We claim, and we use, and we defend our rights. In order to defend our rights, we have to get people into these government positions. That is a form of defense because we're being attacked politically. So we need to fight back and resist politically."

The politics include a sensibility attuned to modern "Patriot" movement rhetoric, particularly the rising "Boogaloo" talk about broad social breakdowns and violence surrounding the coming election. Mostly, there is a fairly typical eagerness for the battle to begin.

"Are you ready for Civil War November 4?" asked People's Rights leader Tony Pellegrino in a Facebook post.

Michigan Republicans struggle with recognition of their own roles in fueling militia kidnap plot

Discovering that terrorists can look like the guys next door is a jarring thing, especially if that's not how you've been conditioned to think of such matters. In Michigan this week, cognitive dissonance has been thick on the ground—especially as public officials who came too close to the plotters and their incendiary rhetoric have tried to wrestle with the consequences of last week's arrests of 13 Michigan militiamen who schemed to kidnap and assassinate Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

A local sheriff who had appeared onstage at an anti-Whitmer rally this spring suggested to a TV interviewer that maybe the plotters—some of whom he knows personally—were just trying to make a citizens arrest. A Republican state legislative candidate opined that the arrests were "a totally bogus sham." And the state's Republican Speaker of the House, who has helped stoke the incendiary "tyranny" rhetoric that fueled the plotters, chastised Whitmer for pointing out the connection between the plotters' actions and the rhetoric used by Donald Trump and Michigan Republicans.

Michigan sheriff who rallied with militiamen soft-pedals FBI arrests

Dar Leaf, the sheriff of Barry County—where two of the accused domestic terrorists, William and Michael Null, reside and were arrested by the FBI Thursday—told a Grand Rapids interviewer that he believed the men might have been within their rights.

"It's just a charge, and they say a 'plot to kidnap' and you got to remember that. Are they trying to kidnap? Because a lot of people are angry with the governor, and they want her arrested. So are they trying to arrest or was it a kidnap attempt? Because you can still in Michigan if it's a felony, make a felony arrest," Leaf told Fox17 reporter Aaron Parshegian.

He added: "The two gentlemen that I know of from my county, were they involved in that? I don't know. They're innocent till proven guilty. And we really, really should be careful, trying to try them in the media."

The evidence unveiled by the FBI included multiple instances of surveillance of Whitmer's summer home, where the militiamen—who called themselves the Wolverine Watchmen—planned to abduct her, as well as multiple instances in which the men discussed killing her. The evidence also showed that not only had the men originally planned a paramilitary assault on the state Capitol, they also made plans to kill law-enforcement officers. The discussion of a "citizens arrest" of Whitmer was largely rhetorical.

Leaf's comments created an uproar. Shortly after the interview aired, Michigan's attorney general, Dana Nessel, ripped into him on Twitter:

As Michigan's top law enforcement official, let me make this abundantly clear-Persons who are not sworn, licensed members of a law enforcement agency cannot and should not "arrest" government offficials with whom they have disagreements. These comments are dangerous.

Leaf tried to defend the remarks subsequently by insisting that he only wanted to ensure that men weren't being "tried in the media."

"I don't want anybody to think I'm sympathetic towards these charges, right, these are very, very serious charges," he said. "What I don't want is I don't want us to be trying it in the media and we mess it up in the justice system somewhere, 'cause they can't get a fair trial."

Leaf told MLive: "The governor has the right to govern and also the right to be safe." Yet he went on to criticize officials like Whitmer and Nessel for blaming people like Trump and himself for creating an atmosphere empowering fringe groups. Leaf said the militia movement "has been brewing for quite some time" over what he described as "a gradual and growing loss of rights."

In fact, as Jen Hayden explored earlier, Leaf is a member of a law-enforcement organization closely aligned with the "Patriot" militia movement with which the plotters identified. He also was an outspoken critic of Whitmer's anti-COVID-19 pandemic orders.

At a May 18 "Michigan Patriots Rally" held at Rosa Parks Circle in Grand Rapids, Leaf had appeared onstage with several militiamen, including Michael Null. In his speech, he compared Whitmer's stay-at-home orders to being held unlawfully under house arrest. Leaf had also described Owosso barber Karl Manke—who had defied the governor's order by opening his shop—a "little version of Rosa Parks."

Meanwhile, Republican legislative candidate Paul Smith of Sterling Heights angrily denounced the arrests on Twitter.

"What a totally bogus sham," Smith commented. "These citizens never did anything illegal. Law enforcement is employed to punish people who COMMIT crimes, not people The Governess simply HATES. You can legally hurt Whitmer by voting out her minions."

State Republican leaders were appalled, and announced they had withdrawn financial and other support for Smith's candidacy, calling the remarks "conspiracy theories and hateful remarks."

"If you can't denounce the evil plans and actions of these white nationalists, we don't want you in our caucus," Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield said. "In fact, if there's any 'Republican' who thinks like this guy, we don't want your vote either. We don't support domestic terrorism."

Chatfield, however, also chastised Whitmer for her remarks laying some of the blame at Trump's feet that week: "Just last week, the president of the United States stood before the American people and refused to condemn white supremacists and hate groups like these two Michigan militia groups," Whitmer said, adding that extremists had "heard the president's words not as a rebuke but as a rallying cry—as a call to action."

In a Twitter thread, Chatfield criticized Whitmer, claiming she had kept the investigation under wraps: "Why weren't we warned of the plot to take hostages at the Capitol? The plot by these terrorists was against us too. Why weren't House sergeants warned? You knew and we weren't even given a warning. We had people working in the building and their lives matter too." However, it was the FBI, and not Whitmer, who had overseen the sharing of information with potential victims.

Chatfield also suggested that she shared in the blame: "Hatred and violence are wrong, and that's why I've continually denounced it," he wrote. "And I agree, it's time to tone the partisan rhetoric and 'the heat down.' Will you do the same for President Trump? Will the [lieutenant governor] do it to the entire GOP? We have to make this decision together."

However, Chatfield and other leading Michigan Republicans, had played their own not-insignificant roles in whipping up anti-Whitmer hysteria, as Michigan journalist Joshua Pugh pointed out on Twitter. When "Patriot" protesters had locked down Lansing with an anti-Whitmer protest on April 15 that featured Confederate flags and incendiary rhetoric, Chatfield had greeted them by waving a flag out his window and tweeting out encouragement.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey had been even more incendiary. On the floor of the Senate during a subsequent Lansing protest—during which armed militia members were watching from the gallery above—Shirkey had called the governor a tyrant: "If she does not recognize the end of the emergency declaration, we have no other choice but to act," he said, not clarifying what kind of action he intended.

After Thursday's arrests, Shirkey was defiant: "This is no time to be weak in our commitment to freedom," Shirkey told a "Let MI People Go" rally at the Capitol. "We need to be strong…and not be afraid of those who are taking our freedoms away from us."

Shirkey also told the crowd at Thursday's rally that they were not the same people involved in the plot to kill the governor. However, the Detroit Free Press identified several of the arrestees as participants at the earlier protests against Whitmer's orders.

In Barry County, Leaf's remarks sparked calls for his resignation. Local residents organized a protest demanding he step down or face a recall movement—but that protest was called off when organizers became concerned about the safety of participants amid the likelihood of armed right-wing counter-protesters.

"Whereas I truly believe in the statement we were trying to make, I cannot in good conscience compromise the safety of my fellow Barry County residents," organizer Olivia Bennett wrote on the event's Facebook page.

"I have come to this conclusion for a couple reasons. First, there were many concerns about confrontational counter protesters. Second, this protest garnered enough attention this weekend that crowd size was a concern given short notice, security, and capacity at the commissioners' meeting."

Bennett tried to clarify that she and other protesters aren't suggesting the sheriff was a participant. "We are not accusing him of having known about the kidnapping plot and we are not accusing him of being a part of it at all," Bennett told MLive. "What I am suggesting is his actions and his words embolden people who would attempt to do such things."

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