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Politics & Government

More Than 1,500 Utahns Have Joined Ammon Bundy’s Anti-Federal Government Movement, New Report Finds

A road sign bearing the name “LaVoy Finicum Road” stands under a bright sun in Southern Utah.
Wikimedia Commons
Anti-government activist Ammon Bundy is the leader of the “People’s Rights” movement. He has been arrested twice at the Idaho State Capitol this year for protesting the state’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Utah is one of the stronghold’s of a growing anti-federal government movement. That’s one of the many findings of “Ammon’s Army,” a report released earlier this month by the Montana Human Rights Network and the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, or IREHR.

The 13-chapter report details the inner workings of “People’s Rights,” an organization that anti-federal government activist Ammon Bundy publicly launched in April, when coronavirus restrictions began going into effect across the country.

As of Sep. 1, the group had registered more than 20,000 members nationwide — 1,517 of whom reside in Utah. That statistic renders the Beehive State one of the group’s strongholds, alongside Washington, Oregon and Idaho. While militia movements have gained widespread public attention in the run-up to the 2020 election, there are several factors that make People’s Rights stand out. Those include its level of interstate organization and its movement towards de-platforming from major social networks, though it has used Facebook groups to gather supporters and spread its message, said IREHR Research Director Chuck Tanner, who helped author the report.

Tanner added the study’s authors gained access to the group’s internal records to calculate membership totals. The move also allowed the researchers to map out the network’s leadership structure, ranging from Bundy himself down to state and local organizers.

“It’s a level of organization that seems a little more sophisticated and far-reaching than some of the other militia groups,” Tanner said, warning the level of coordination is especially dangerous for a group like Bundy’s. “It doesn’t take massive numbers to cause the kind of conflict that the Bundy family’s been involved in historically.”

The Nevada rancher burst onto the national stage in 2016, when he and his far-right supporters engaged in a 41-day standoff of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon. That action resulted in charges against many of its participants and the death of the occupation's de facto spokesperson, Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, a Kanab-born rancher who was shot by law enforcement officials after fleeing a traffic stop and allegedly reaching for his weapon. Seven of the occupiers, including Ammon Bundy and his brother Ryan, were acquitted of all charges pertaining to the occupation. Four participants were sentenced to spend time in prison, and 14 more accepted plea deals.

The pandemic has allowed Bundy’s message, which originated with a protest against federal control of public lands, to expand rapidly to a broader audience. The organization’s embrace of bigoted ideas and vehement anti-government positions pose a threat to social norms and democratic institutions, Tanner said.

“With Bundy’s track record, there’s always a possibility of these organizations resorting to armed conflict — or displays of arms and weapons — as a means of advancing their cause,” he said.

In Utah, law enforcement has special task forces dedicated to monitoring groups like People’s Rights and other militias, said Lt. Nick Street, a spokesperson for the Utah Department of Public Safety.

Militia members are within their constitutional rights to speak out, bear arms and assemble. But they will be investigated and charged if they commit criminal acts, Street said, adding that the groups are not sanctioned by law enforcement, he added.

“We aren’t asking for their help. We aren’t asking them to take up arms,” Street said. “In fact, quite the contrary: we would prefer that they allow the system of government that’s in place to handle that.”

The Department of Public Safety conducts background checks to ensure that its personnel do not belong to groups with anti-democratic aims, Street said. However, he noted he has seen instances in which local law enforcement agencies in Utah have not conducted additional background checks after hiring personnel.

Updated: November 14, 2020 at 6:05 PM MST
Clarification: The photo in the story was changed to reflect that the late Robert “LaVoy” Finicum has no affiliation with the “People’s Rights” movement. Information on the legal outcomes of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation was added.
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