Nevada showdown

April 23, 2014

Bunkerville, Nevada

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.

9 comments

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This article is well written with supporting pictures to take the reader to the thrilling and dramatic scenes.

Posted by Aravind123 | Report as abusive

To me it is frightening as the article indicates. It also shows how words can influence those with preconceived ideas to stand up for causes they have no real understanding of. This range land that “Mr Bundy”, talks about,has been in his family since 1948 and not 1877. The family’s water rights were not used into 1954. “Mr. Bundys” ancestry rights are dating to only the early 50`s and he was born the same year that the “BLM” was enacted. These militant groups are supporting a greedy rancher who will not pay his bills plus violates “Federal Law” with illegal cattle grazing. Peace

Posted by silentsmile | Report as abusive

Great write up — gripping stuff. Glad you were there.

JSturr

Posted by JSturr | Report as abusive

We have been in contact with colleagues covering this story and, as ever, appreciate their hard work and dedication. We were struck by Jim’s commentary, and also wonder how we have gotten to this place – where Americans are once again ready and willing to aim their weapons at one another.

It seems that the country is at war with itself on several fronts. It also seems that people are willing to resolve these conflicts with the use of firearms.

Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail.

Posted by News24680 | Report as abusive

“Were we really at the moment where weapons were being aimed by Americans at other Americans?”

No, we’ve been there for far too long, we’re now at the moment where Americans are finally pointing weapons back.

Posted by SiNdin | Report as abusive

There’s going to be a major hollywood movie about this after all is said and done. I swear to god.

Posted by Baribault210 | Report as abusive

I find it very sad that it is 2014 and we are still so quick to resort to violence as a way to work out our differences.

There is absolutely no sense in this practice and it belongs in times long, long past (thankfully).

I, myself, have a license to carry a concealed handgun and do so when and where I’m legally allowed. I also enjoy shooting targets and have done so since I was around 12 and got sponsored into an Olympic-style pneumatic pistol team. But I whole-heartedly reject violence. My firearm is a survival tool that I keep for emergencies and it is NOT there for the purpose of hurting anybody or any thing under any circumstances other than someone’s life being in absolute and imminent danger. It is only for those situations when a firearm is the only thing that can stop a tragedy (hence why they call it “personal defense”).

Walking around with long arms (loaded or otherwise) and aiming them at PEOPLE is absolutely abhorrent and a disgrace to all of humanity. We are better than that. We are supposed to be civilized and intelligent; developed enough that we can work out our issues within the system and in a civilized manner. That is why we have the judicial system that we have in this country…

In my opinion, weapons do belong in the hands of law-abiding citizens, but not for the purposes that some are giving them.

And now that rancher is talking about slaves… Why? The last thing we need is more polarization. Keep your mouth shut unless you have something POSITIVE to say.

Posted by anonymoos | Report as abusive

From anonymoos post: “We are supposed to be civilized and intelligent; developed enough that we can work out our issues within the system and in a civilized manner.”

“Supposed” is the operative word, but it is obvious this is not how many people are.

Posted by ZenAce | Report as abusive

Always remember, the patriot snipers were in answer to the BLM’s snipers. The BLM sniped first.

Posted by citizenactivist | Report as abusive