The next insurrection
The January 6 siege of the United States Capitol was not an isolated incident. It is the latest in a series of attacks by violent extremists seeking to undermine federal and state governments. Now, a new organization called "People's Rights" seeks to bring more sophistication and efficiency to these anti-government efforts. And it is already having considerable success.
The leader of People's Rights, which was founded last March, is Ammon Bundy. He was the infamous "leader of the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon — a deadly 41-day standoff between federal agents and militants who rejected the federal government’s authority over public lands across the West. " Bundy and his heavily-armed associates seized the refuge to protest the conviction of two Oregon ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, who were "sentenced to prison for setting fires on federal lands." Bundy demanded "that the government relinquish ownership" of the refuge and "free the Hammonds."
The standoff ended when Bundy was arrested at a traffic stop outside the refuge. Bundy was tried in October 2016 on federal weapons and conspiracy charges but, astoundingly, was acquitted by a jury.
In 2018, Trump gave Bundy what he wanted, pardoning the Hammonds and releasing them from federal prison. "The Hammonds are devoted family men, respected contributors to their local community, and have widespread support from their neighbors, local law enforcement, and farmers and ranchers across the West," the White House said.
Bundy's new organization is even more ambitious. People's Rights wants to enable people to "call a militia like they’d call an Uber and stage a protest within minutes." Bundy claims People's Rights has 50,000 members in 35 states. The goal, according to Bundy, is to be able to "dispatch 10 protesters to a scene in 10 minutes, 100 in 100 minutes and 1,000 in 1,000 minutes."
Bundy did not travel to DC on January 6, but urged his followers to go. In a video posted at the end of December, Bundy said he wanted to "express his support for what is happening in Washington on January 6." Bundy called it an "opportunity to stand for a Constitutional republic." He also viewed it as a recruiting opportunity for People's Rights. He told members traveling to DC to "spread the word" and download banners from the People's Rights website to take with them. "Don't wear a mask. Stand for freedom," Bundy concluded.
Jennifer Rokala, who runs the Center for Western Priorities, called Bundy's 2016 occupation of the refuge a "dress rehearsal" for the January 6 siege. "The extremist ideologies and tactics that led to the violent occupation of public lands in Oregon are the same ideologies that President Trump has stoked among his supporters,” she said in a statement Thursday."
Bundy and People's Rights have also engaged in more recent violent activities that mirror what happened on January 6. In August, for example, Bundy and other members of his group used force to enter a closed portion of the Idaho Capitol.
House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel (D) was in her office on Monday when she heard a deafening sound. She ran out to see dozens of protesters charging into the gallery overlooking the floor of the House of Representatives — a group of protesters that she said included Bundy.
The gallery had been cordoned off, Rubel said, to allow state lawmakers to remain socially distanced rather than have members gather in large groups on the House floor. But now the protesters had broken down the gallery door, ripped up signs and pulled down the rope that was meant to reserve distanced seats for legislators.
“Guards were charged, the gallery was overrun,” she said.
Bundy was at the Idaho Capitol to protest a special session to address the coronavirus pandemic. People's Rights has successfully used opposition to public health measures as a recruiting tool.
This week the Senate is considering whether to hold Trump accountable for inciting the January 6 insurrection. But the next attack on a government institution could be better organized and more violent.
Leveraging the pandemic
In October, the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (IREHR) reported that People's Rights had "20,000 members in 16 states." By January, Bundy told the Los Angeles Times that his organization had 50,000 members in 35 states.
Bundy has been able to grow his organization by tapping into anger about measures put in place by the government to combat the pandemic. People's Rights' first event, held last March, was to defy Idaho Governor Brad Little's stay-at-home order. Bundy "held an Easter service for about 60 people." He has subsequently grown the group by featuring "aggressive, belligerent non-compliance with the COVID-19 health directives."
In July, Bundy disrupted a meeting of local officials in Caldwell, Idaho who were discussing a potential mask mandate. "You're gonna cancel the meeting, or you're gonna let us in, or you're gonna call the officers to arrest us," Bundy says in a video of the incident. The event was open to the public, but Bundy was not allowed inside because he was not wearing a mask. At one point, Bundy shoves an official blocking the entrance to the meeting. Later, Bundy can be seen "pushing the man, yanking the door out of his hands and grabbing him by the shirt." Officials eventually canceled the meeting due to "safety concerns."
Last month, People's Rights descended on a medical facility in Vancouver, Washington "to protest the quarantine of Gayle Meyer, a 74-year-old patient who had refused to take a test for the coronavirus." Her daughter, Satin Meyer, is a member of People's Rights and an anti-mask activist. Dozens of protesters showed up, some of whom were "carrying firearms and gas masks." The group attempted to force entry into the facility but was turned back by the police. Eventually, Gayle Meyer was released to a crowd of cheering protesters.
Initially, Facebook played a key role in organizing People's Rights chapters. But last fall, Facebook designated People's Rights a "militarized social movement," and removed most of the organization's pages.
Today, People’s Rights primarily communicates with its members via mobile messaging. Members submit their cellphone numbers and receive text messages or voicemails on upcoming People’s Rights events from local leaders. The network’s phone-tree style of communication makes it harder to monitor and disrupt.
But it has run into some problems. According to Kelli Stewart, the leader of Washington’s People’s Rights, the organization’s website has been blocked from “communicating with phone providers." So the group has been asking new members to download Signal, an encrypted messaging app, to register. Its reliance on encrypted, non-public communications will make the group's activities more difficult to monitor in the future.
Ties to the far-right
Bundy describes his militia network as a “neighborhood watch on steroids.” But this analogy masks the group’s violent intentions. According to Bundy, People’s Rights’ members are like a “den of rattlesnakes.” He states that “...if our rights are even threatened one bit, we will be venomous.”
This extremist mindset has made the group a magnet for the far right. In November 2020, IREHR found that “state and area People’s Rights leaders have been members of at least 31 different Militia-type Facebook groups.” IREHR reported that over 750 members of People’s Rights Facebook groups were also members “of one or more of 203 different militia-type Facebook groups.” (Since the report’s publication, most of these Facebook pages have been taken down.)
Before creating People’s Rights, Bundy had ties to some of the most prominent far-right extremist groups –– including the Oath Keepers, a group with roots in white supremacy and whose leader was charged with coordinating the January 6 insurrection. In 2016, the Oath Keepers was one of several paramilitary groups that helped Bundy seize the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Bundy's group at the refuge also included white supremacists.
While People’s Rights claims to be colorblind, the group’s state and assistant leaders have openly expressed racist views. Several leaders, as the IREHR notes, are fiercely opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement. In July 2020, however, Bundy shared that he was joining a Black Lives Matter rally. Yet, in that same speech, he equated wearing masks to slavery and defended his father’s infamous 2014 comment that perhaps Black people were “better off as slaves.”