By Jim Urquhart
“I’ve got a clear shot at four of them,” the man with a rifle beside me said, as he aimed his weapon in the direction of U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officers.
We were on a bridge in southern Nevada in the midst of a tense standoff between the BLM and a group of angry ranchers, milita-members and gun-rights activists. It seemed as if we were a hair’s breadth away from Americans killing Americans right in front of me.
This showdown had come after the BLM started rounding up cattle belonging to rancher Cliven Bundy, who had been letting his animals graze illegally on federal land for over 20 years.
Bundy had stopped paying grazing fees in 1993, and said he didn’t recognise the government’s authority over the land. When the BLM came to take his herd, many people, furious at federal government or wanting to express their gun rights, rallied to Bundy’s cause.
My colleague Jennifer Dobner and I had originally set out several days earlier to cover a story involving the BLM and ranchers in southern Utah, but as tension rose between Bundy’s supporters and U.S. officials here in Bunkerville, Nevada, we headed over to document the story.
About 1,000 people had come to this corner of the desert to support the cattle rancher, many of them woman and children. None seemed concerned about the number of firearms being brandished.
After I arrived, I took pictures of Bundy at his home and returned the following day when the local sheriff announced what looked like a tentative resolution to the immediate dispute.
I decided to leave the protesters’ rallying point and drive several miles to where BLM and National Park Service (NPS) officers were holding Bundy’s impounded cattle but when I got there, there didn’t seem to be anything new to report.
I was making my way back to the protest site when Jennifer called me. She said the demonstrators were coming in my direction to go to the BLM facility and demand that Bundy’s cattle be released. My heart skipped a beat and anxiety set in, as I realised the armed group was heading this way looking for a showdown.
The convoy arrived just a few moments after I did and began to clog lanes of traffic on the south side of the interstate, the opposite side to the BLM base.
I found myself in the photographer’s typical position when covering standoffs – behind law enforcement. But just as I started feeling comfortable with my surroundings, a woman yelled out that there was an incident taking place below the bridge a couple hundred meters to the east, and I began sprinting that way with other members of the media.
The weight of my camera gear slowed me down but I told myself I needed to keep running. I had to be at the scene as fast as possible.
Upon arrival I saw men on horseback, without weapons, in the dried riverbed below. Armed militia took their positions up above, where they had a clear view of BLM officers guarding a gate to their facility below the lanes of traffic.
The officers were heavily outnumbered and probably out-gunned. I watched several media workers make their way down into the wash, but I felt staying up on the high ground of the bridge was going to be the best vantage point to document events ahead. I had to work hard not to develop tunnel vision and keep a wide view of the scene.
Several armed men came to where I was taking pictures and stationed themselves on both sides of me. As I began transmitting photos of them to my editor he told me to fall back if I felt threatened, but I explained that I seemed safe.
It was already a surreal moment, here on a random stretch of highway in the Nevada desert, where men with weapons had taken up tactical positions on government officers – something not seen in this country in decades – as traffic whizzed by unaware. Sometimes cars would stop and people would step out to take pictures of the scene with their phones, as if it were just another roadside attraction.
Then I heard the words, “I’ve got a clear shot at four of them,” and to my right found one of the men pointing his weapon in the direction of the BLM. For me, time had stopped.
“I’m ready to pull the trigger if fired upon,” said another man on the bridge. That was what other Bundy supporters said too – they wouldn’t shoot first, but they would return fire.
Were we really at the moment where weapons were being aimed by Americans at other Americans? I grew up hunting and for the most part of my adult life I have owned a firearm. Guns are a fact of life in the American west. But I have never found myself in a situation where I was next to someone pointing a firearm at law enforcement.
After a while it became apparent that the BLM was going to release the cattle to the protesters. Given the circumstances, I don’t think they had much choice. The animals were freed, and no shots were fired.
As I sent off a message to an editor, I noticed my hand trembling. The reality of how close to gunfire the situation had come sent a chill through me which I will never forget.