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.
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