WVU Professor’s Book ‘Up In Arms’ Takes a Look At Militia Uprisings
Morgantown author John Temple watched from afar more than five years ago as a standoff over federal grazing fees in a barren corner of Nevada became a flashpoint for the militia movement.
The West Virginia University journalism professor, who has published three other non-fiction books over the past decade, thought the story had “intrigue and characters who jumped off the page” as the drama unfolded in April 2014.
“It was looking at something that was an issue that wasn’t just a crime of the week, said Temple. “It was a story that had some relevance and (explains the) division in the country.”
In his newest book, “Up In Arms: How the Bundy Family Hijacked Public Lands, Outfoxed the Federal Government, and Ignited America’s Patriot Movement,” which will be released Tuesday, Temple offers an expansive look at this political war simmering below the surface between militias and the federal government that many Americans didn’t know existed.
Two years before the 2016 presidential election illustrated the deep political wounds in the country, the nation witnessed an armed uprising 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas against the federal government over, of all things, cows.
The battle between Cliven Bundy and his family over their right to graze cattle on federal land near their Clark County ranch ignited a movement that brought protesters from across the country. But it later became more than just a disagreement over grazing fees charged by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, as it soon escalated into an armed standoff with authorities in southern Nevada and later a siege of an obscure federal refuge in Oregon.
“It’s really hard to remember back in 2014, that we were in a very different place. Not that the division wasn’t there, but we weren’t aware of it,” Temple said. “That event just tore it wide open and illustrated how passionate people are and the divide that exists.”
The protests by the Bundy family in April 2014 over grazing rights played out each night on cable television news like a soap opera.
“People in the mainstream were like, “What the hell? These people are crazy,’ is the first reaction I get,” Temple said. “That’s just a very dismissive way to look at it. You’re never going to understand someone else’s viewpoints if you don’t ask the question, ‘Why are they doing this?'”
Temple, 49, who also wrote about the opioid crisis with “American Pain” that was released in 2015, offers another unflinching view of the state of the country with “Up In Arms.”
In researching and writing his latest book over the past three years, Temple wanted to tell a more complete story about the Bundys, the militia movement they helped to inspire and the response by the federal government. In the book, he captures the fears and emotion of the protestors and federal BLM agents, humanizing both sides.
“There’s a fear of both sides (in journalism). The beauty with a book is you have a lot more words to work with. You can show people in all of their glory: The good, the bad and the ugly. You can show a lot more subtlety,” Temple said during a phone interview last week. “It was interesting to me, as much coverage as they had, no one put all the pieces together. I wanted to piece the whole thing together.”
But Nevada is about as far away from West Virginia geographically as it gets in the country. And the subjects of the story were already distrustful of the government and news reporters, meaning Temple, a former reporter with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, had to tread lightly while trying to coax interviews from the key players of the saga.
He reviewed countless hours of cell phone videos uploaded to various online platforms by the Bundy family and their followers during the standoff. He also had access to extensive court records and internal investigations by the government on the case that helped offer a glimpse into the BLM’s mindset as it rounded up Cliven Bundy’s cattle for illegally grazing on federal land for more than two decades.
“These are people who are already paranoid and feel the government is after them at every turn. Then they were interviewed by (undercover) federal agents posing as a documentary film crew,” Temple said. “Then I show up.”
Some of his interview subjects performed background checks on him or asked him key questions about his driver’s license to see if he could recite the information by memory. But Temple was never fearful during those situations. Instead, his interview subjects were afraid of him.
“I never felt particularly in danger, a couple of times I felt a little weird generally,” he said. “They were scared of me. That’s how I felt. The detriment (to the interviews) wasn’t that I was scared of them, but they were worried about me.”
Temple explains the rise of the militia movement dating back to the early 1990s following the botched operation at Ruby Ridge and later the tragedy at the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas. He draws a correlation between those events and Cliven Bundy’s refusal to pay grazing fees beginning in the mid-1990s – which was allowed to simmer unresolved for two decades – because he believed the federal government couldn’t own land.
The 2014 standoff brought a national audience that showcased the Bundy family, specifically Cliven’s son, Ammon, who went from a life as a businessman with his wife and children in Phoenix to becoming the face of the Nevada uprising and eventual leader of the 41-day takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in early 2016.
“I thought there was a macro story about how Ammon Bundy went from a mainstream guy to the most radical thing you could by taking over the refuge,” Temple said.
Temple doesn’t justify the actions of the protestors or militias that rallied in Nevada, but he tries to explain their mindset and the rationale leading up to the standoff. He hopes his book will help people on both sides of the political spectrum to understand the other’s viewpoint, even if they will never agree.
“The thing I’m most interested in is people can take a peek into the world they’re not accustomed to,” Temple said. “That this doesn’t come out of nowhere. Not that it’s justified, but there’s a reason why they did this.”
“Up In Arms” is currently available for sale on Amazon, and will be released in bookstores Tuesday. For more information about Temple and his books, go to www.johntemplebooks.com.