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Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center discusses the Bundy Ranch standoff’s far right connections and scholar and activist Mark Mason says this is embodied in the goal to privatize the commons

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

A Nevada rancher who threatened a range war with the federal government has declared victory after officials backed down from an effort to collect over $1 million in unpaid grazing fees. Cliven Bundy, the rancher whose cattle fed on federal lands for two decades without payment, says he doesn’t see the U.S. government as existing, received the support of hundreds of armed militiamen, who trained sniper rifles on Bureau of Land Management agents. They subsequently backed down, they said, to avoid escalating the conflict.

Now joining us to discuss this is Mark Potok. He’s a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center and is one of the country’s leading experts on the world of extremism.

So, Mark, the Southern Poverty Law Center had a reporter on the scene during this tense standoff. Describe what happened.

MARK POTOK, SENIOR FELLOW AT SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER: Well, as you mentioned in your intro, our reporter was very close by when some of these camouflage-clad militiamen were actually looking through scoped rifles, pointing their weapons at the heads of law enforcement officials. It was absolutely amazing. You know, it was a dangerous enough moment that we asked our reporter to pull back. It seemed very obvious that at any moment a shot could go off and that–you know, who knows what would have happened? Blood would certainly have flowed. It was really quite something. These snipers were set up on a kind of highway overpass looking down at the great bulk of people, kind of hundreds of militiamen, versus these federal agents. And, you know, I guess at the end of the day the federal agents did what they had to do in order to avoid real bloodshed.

NOOR: And just who is Cliven Bundy and the groups that have rallied behind him? And what is the significance of the federal government backing down in this case? And what’s your assessment of it?

POTOK: Well, let me say, for starters, that in my mind, Cliven Bundy is a thief, a man who has stolen $1 million from you and from me, from the United States government, which, at the end of the day, is us. You know, he has been through the courts, going all the way back to ’96. He has refused to pay any of these fees that every other rancher in America must pay. And so, you know, it’s nothing but highway robbery. You know, so I think that’s the bottom line.

Bundy we certainly did not know before this standoff developed, but he has clearly adopted some very radical ideas from the extreme right in this country. He’s made statements that essentially endorse the idea of county supremacy–the county rules, the federal government has no legitimate role whatsoever. And, you know, this is a doctrine that began with the Posse Comitatus, violent anti-Semitic and racist groups that really roiled the Midwest in the late ’70s and 1980s. The people who are joining him are, as you mentioned in the introduction, militiamen. They are coming from radical right-wing groups all over the country, bringing their weapons, bringing their camouflage fatigues, and bringing their hatred of the government.

NOOR: And, Mark, you know, your group has taken a leading effort in tracking these sort of extremist groups around the country. And, you know, as you’ve noted, there’s been an explosion of such groups, especially since President Obama was elected. Now, put this in the bigger–the context of rising extremism across the country. In the latest incident, we just saw three killed at Jewish centers in Kansas recently. [Note the original transcript has been corrected]

POTOK: Yeah. I mean, the context is we have seen an absolutely amazing, explosive growth on the part of the radical right that coincides precisely with the rise to power of Barack Obama. The so-called patriot groups or militia groups, which are the ones that are flocking to the Bundy ranch, numbered a mere 149 in 2008. By 2012, four years later, there were 1,360 of these groups, by our count. So the proliferation has been staggering. We’ve never seen anything like it.

NOOR: Bundy has been championed by the right-wing media. And, you know, Media Matters even, you know, reports in this headline I’m looking at that the right-wing media are throwing gas on the ranchers’ violent threats against the government.

And, you know, there’s another point that I think should be mentioned, you know, [incompr.] the comparison between how federal authorities treated the Occupy movement versus the Tea Party movement. The Occupy movement was violently dismantled, versus the Tea Party movement, which, you know, wasn’t–when they had, you know, thousands of armed followers in Washington, D.C., there was no such actions taken. And, you know, the comparison’s already also been raised, you know, how would have the federal government acted if these ranchers were African-American?

POTOK: Well, I think the answer to that question is obvious. You can imagine if a standoff like this developed in some inner-city neighborhood in a large city. I think we can all agree that it would not have ended with law enforcement backing off.

On the other hand, as a practical matter, I think they did what they had to do. I mean, at that point they were looking at the potential for really massive bloodshed. So I think that’s important.

NOOR: I want to bring Mark Mason into this conversation. He’s a scholar and activist. I want to talk about the question of, you know, whose interests this is really serving, because, you know, as you mentioned, Bundy is a wealthy rancher, and he is, you know, making money off this. But it’s also–you know, he’s also tapping into this sense of broad dispossession with the federal government, and he’s kind of appealing to this populist anger against the direction of the country.

MARK MASON, CULTURAL ANALYST: Americans don’t know what their own government is doing. Americans simply don’t have the information available to them, either through the schools or through the mass media, to even know what the federal government is doing. So we have a population that supports public lands, and yet we see here this context where public lands are really under attack by the extraction industries. Behind this is ExxonMobil and other corporate interests, the corporate powers that want to privatize or push property down into the state and local levels.

NOOR: And, Mark, we’re almost out of time, but I wanted to ask you one final question.


NOOR: So, you know, you’ve seen Fox News, the Tea Party latch on to this. And aren’t their interests really turning America back into the 19th century, taking it back to the Wild West, unbridled capitalism, where workers have no rights and billionaires and corporations have all the rights?

MASON: Deregulation and class warfare–that’s what it’s all about. We are engaged in a socioeconomic experiment. Western Europeans, colonial powers invaded the Americas 500 years ago, and we can see the results of it. We have global warming and we have species being driven to extinction. And we have the context where the working class is under constant attack, economic attack, direct attack–destruction of unions, destruction of collective bargaining. All this is connected together. It really is. We need to talk about class warfare.

NOOR: Okay. Mark Mason and Mark Potok, thank you so much for joining me.

POTOK: Our pleasure.

NOOR: And you can follow us @therealnews on Twitter, Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor. We’d love to hear your thoughts about this segment.

Thank you so much for joining us.


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Mark Potok is a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). He is one of the country’s leading experts on the world of extremism and serves as the editor-in-chief of the SPLC’s award-winning, quarterly journal, the Intelligence Report, its Hatewatch blog, and its investigative reports. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Mark has appeared on numerous television news programs and is quoted regularly by journalists and scholars in both the United States and abroad. In addition, he has testified before the U.S. Senate, the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights and in other venues. Before joining the SPLC staff in 1997, Mark spent 20 years as an award-winning journalist at major newspapers, including USA Today, the Dallas Times Herald and The Miami Herald. While at USA Today, he covered the 1993 Waco siege, the rise of militias, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the trial of Timothy McVeigh.