PARADISE — Wearing a pin that read "Not Guilty!" on his suit jacket, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy walked into the historic Old Paradise School Gym on Saturday night to wild applause from a crowd of nearly 200 people.
They were there to hear Bundy, his son Ryan and others speak about what they perceive as government overreach and a need to give states more power over public land.
Organizers made sure to express to the crowd that they wanted everyone to feel safe and respected and welcome, no matter their opinion. The entire four-hour event was organized by a group called Coalition of Western Property Owners. Bundy, who was once accused of leading an armed standoff against federal agents over unpaid grazing fees for using public land, recently had all charges against him dismissed due to what a district court judge said was multiple errors committed by prosecutors.
He delivered a long speech focusing on how he doesn't recognize the federal government's powers.
"Go and read your Constitution and start acting like you're a sovereign state," he told the crowd.
Bundy said he has a "15-second defense" for any charges against him.
"My 15-second defense is I only graze my cattle on Clark County, Nevada, land and I have no contract with the federal government," he said. "I haven't had a contract with the federal government in 25 years."
Bundy told the crowd that they should consider their county government the "government of the people." He also thanked everyone for sending him prayers while he was in jail for 700 days awaiting a trial.
Ryan Bundy delivered a long address about how he believed America's founding fathers meant for the states to have ultimate authority over the land within their borders.
"Does the state of Montana own 100 percent of its land and resources?" he asked. "No. So Montana must not be a state. It's more like a subdivision, like a province, like a district. We're being treated as provinces, not states. The central government is acting as an empire and not just as a central government to protect our rights."
Bundy said the land in the U.S. and its resources constitutionally, rightfully and biblically belong to the people individually, a statement that was met with many shouts of "amen" from the crowd.
"On our ranch in Nevada we saw the government was trying to run us out of business, our livelihood," he said. "They were trying to end it like we don't matter. They take it upon themselves to enforce with the barrel of a gun the things which they want to."
State Sen. Jennifer Fielder, a Republican from Sanders County, laid out what she said were the "facts" of the cases involving the Bundy ranch and the Hammond ranch in Oregon, which both involved standoffs with federal and state agents. Fielder painted a picture of ranchers being exploited and extorted by the government as well as misconduct, coverups and ethical and legal violations by federal agencies.
"For the rule of law to mean anything in this country it must be applied equally to everybody," she said. She is submitting a resolution called Supporting Justice for Western Ranchers to the President of the United States and Congress to grant a full pardon of the ranchers in Nevada and Oregon. She got a standing ovation for that announcement.
Rebecca Shoemaker of Arlee came with a friend to protest the event. She was holding a sign that read "Bundy equals white privilege."
"If it had been an African-American or a Muslim that led an armed takeover of federal land, they would either be dead or in prison for the rest of their life," Shoemaker explained. "That's white privilege."
Doug Ferrell of Trout Creek said he was opposed to the theme of the event and decided to attend.
"This gathering is a joke to many people but it's a bad joke," he said. "The idea that bands of armed men should be allowed to get their way by threatening violence and quoting scripture is a ridiculous idea. To use public resources while avoiding responsibility is not a courageous act. It is selfish and irresponsible to degrade public resources for private gain."
Ryan Busse, the chairman of the board of directors for the nonprofit Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said he was there to let it be known that "not everyone agrees" with Bundy's message.
"The federal government doesn't own an acre of land," he said. "The citizens of the U.S. own the land. And I think the federal government is the best entity to manage it. The precedent of even transferring it to the states is very dangerous. In every case where land has been transferred to the states, the land has eventually been sold off and commercialized and access is prohibited in many cases."