A WVU professor’s latest book covers the Bundy family’s challenge to the government and the rise of the Patriot movement.
➼ Dust swirled across the Nevada desert as the showdown began. On one side, cattle ranchers and the informal militia who had assembled in aid of their fellow citizens bristled. On the other, the government—local sheriffs and federal agents. Both sides heavily armed. This scene isn’t from the wild, wild West. It’s April 2014 and, with their arms, the militia carry cell phones to document the conflict.
Investigative journalist and West Virginia University journalism professor John Temple explores the standoff in his new book, Up in Arms: How the Bundy Family Hijacked Public Lands, Outfoxed the Federal Government, and Ignited America’s Patriot Militia Movement. Temple’s narrative details the political, social, and economic underpinnings of the confrontation and the Patriot movement that followed, crafting a multi-perspective understanding of the highly publicized event.
In 1993, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) dedicated hundreds of thousands of acres to conservation—acres Bundy family cattle had grazed since the family’s Mormon predecessors settled in the region in the 1800s. Cliven Bundy declined to pay the resulting fees and fines. To him, the feds were infringing on his Constitutional rights. Twenty-one years later, the BLM decided to seize his herd.
That’s when the Bundys sent out the rallying cry that united strangers from across America.
At the time of the 2014 standoff, Temple was working on a television pilot script set in a fictional world of a militia movement. The real-life Bundys and the Patriot movement came to fascinate him. Cliven Bundy’s son Ammon was transformed by the situation from a successful businessman to a leader of the Patriot movement. And as the presidential campaigns of 2016 increasingly divided the nation, Temple saw that the Bundys checked the two boxes that, for him, point to a good story: a character who takes an interesting journey and is changed by it, and a situation that sheds light on larger issues. He started reporting for Up in Arms in the fall of 2016. “The tendency is to say those people are crazy. That’s reductive,” Temple says. “It’s way more interesting to talk to people.”
Temple’s half-dozen trips out West ranged from a few nights to a few weeks—on-the-ground reporting that animates the book’s vivid descriptions. He slept in a tent at a protesters’ camp outside the jail where Ammon Bundy awaited trial. He interviewed many Bundys and key militia members. Some, unsurprisingly, suspected he worked for the federal government. Others enjoyed chatting about their beliefs. “I never go on a reporting trip without feeling worried about how it’s going to go, and I never come back from a trip without feeling exhilarated,” Temple says.
The resulting book interweaves multiple perspectives so that no group is labeled hero or villain. Readers witness Ammon Bundy’s growing passion for bringing attention to issues he saw as government-inflicted injustices. They plumb the mindsets of BLM workers and sheriffs whose job it was to enforce the law. Participants come off neither as exaggerated caricatures nor as one-dimensional characters. They’re simply human. That lesson is crucial for today’s polarized society. “The more we know about each other and the more empathy we can garner for each other, the better off we are,” Temple says.
In an epilogue, Temple recounts his interview with Cliven Bundy. “I’ve been a journalist for more than 25 years, and I’ve never had anything quite like that interview,” Temple says. Bundy asked the questions and led the conversation. “It was really on his terms.” That exemplifies the man. As Temple’s first chapter reads: “For decades, when Cliven Bundy was asked what he would do if the feds came for his cattle, the rancher gave the same answer: Whatever it takes. The phrase was pure Cliven—vaguely challenging, maddeningly ambiguous. Cliven liked to test people.”
Before penning Up In Arms, Temple had already published several nonfiction books. Extensive research was familiar to him, but the Patriot movement proved unique. Militia members had created their own media bubble consisting of cell phone videos and online postings. Temple’s book, in part, became a study of what happens when people disengage from mainstream media and rely on information from each other.
Whether readers followed the protests and trials as they happened or this is the first time they’ve heard of the Bundys, Up In Arms is an enthralling story. Every reader will benefit from Temple’s ability to present the complexities of a modern showdown that shocked the nation.
Written by Jess Walker
Photos courtesy of John Temple