Republicans join far-right figures at Montana anti-government event

Jason Wilson in Whitefish, Montana
Ammon Bundy after being released from custody on 30 November 2017. Bundy led an armed takeover of public property to protest American land-use regulations in Oregon in 2016. Photograph: Joel Angel Juarez/AP

At a conference in Whitefish, Montana, on Saturday Ammon Bundy, a leader of a group which occupied federal land in 2016, shared a stage with Republican politicians, campaigners against Indian treaty rights and other rightwing groups.

The event, A New Code of the West, was hosted by The West is Our West, a group created in 2016 that has opposed environmentalism and federal land management. The conference attracted around 100 people from five western states.

Speakers addressed the issue of public lands, the administration of which by the federal government they see as constitutionally illegitimate, a belief at odds with most constitutional scholars and supreme court decisions.

Speakers also evinced hostility to the news media and the federal government. Some expressed conspiratorial beliefs.

Bundy led the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016. Later that year, he and his brother Ryan Bundy were found not guilty of conspiracy against the government. On Saturday, Ammon claimed journalists had contributed to the death of another occupier, LaVoy Finicum.

Finicum was shot dead at a roadblock by Oregon state police on 26 January 2016, at the conclusion of a three-week standoff between occupiers and law enforcement. He participated in an earlier standoff with the federal government at a Nevada ranch owned by Ammon’s father, Cliven Bundy, in 2014. In January this year, all charges in that case were dropped.

Ammon Bundy claimed reporting that characterized the Malheur occupiers as “armed militants” meant “a good man had lost his life”. He said he himself suffered “many, many months” in solitary confinement, after refusing body searches.

After the screening of a documentary about her husband, Finicum’s widow, Jeanette, gave a sometimes tearful speech. She also criticized the media, saying: “It’s not your responsibility to tell us how to think and believe.”

The slickly-produced documentary was sponsored by the rightwing Center for Self Governance (CSG). Before the screening, speaking directly to reporters who had been placed at a table at the head of the room, CSG president Mark Herr accused the media of “label-lynching” Finicum and other Malheur occupiers.

Alex Newman, foreign correspondent for the conspiracy-minded John Birch Society, led a prayer for the media before delivering a lecture connecting the so-called “deep state” to the Council on Foreign Relations and the Bilderberg Group.

Other speeches featured claims about conspiracies by communists, Muslims and the United Nations.

In a wide-ranging presentation, Republican Washington state legislator Matt Shea connected the Council of American Islamic Relations to Hamas; said a mosque in Spokane was owned by the Muslim Brotherhood; characterized the grassroots progressive organization Indivisible as communist; and demanded the management of public lands be “transferred back to the states”.

Shea once said journalists were “dirty, godless, hateful people”.

Elaine Willman, a campaigner against Native American treaties and indigenous water rights whose work has been promoted by The West is Our West, claimed: “Federal Indian policy is unconstitutional.” She also said Paulette Jordan, an Idaho Democrat aiming to make history as the first Native American state governor, would be “serving two masters” if elected, due to previous service on the Coeur d’Alene tribal council.

A Montana state legislator, Kerry White, appeared on a panel featuring Dan Happel, who uses his radio show, Connecting the Dots, to promote the “Agenda 21” conspiracy theory, which holds that the United Nations environmental initiative is a tool to establish world government. White claimed increased wildfires in the west were caused by reduced forestry, not climate change.

The Montana Human Rights Network (MHRN) characterized the conference as a platform for “anti-government extremism and anti-Indian bigotry”. It helped organize a protest a mile from the conference venue, in a park in downtown Whitefish. Around 300 people attended.

A spokeswoman for MHRN, Cherliyn DeVries, said Bundy’s invitation to the New Code of the West event was “very disappointing” and did not reflect the views of the local community, which she said was “supported by public lands”.

“He’s proven himself to be a violent extremist,” she said. “Violent extremists divide communities … This is not who we are. The middle is broad and deep.”

Asked if the political movement served by the conference was growing, Ammon Bundy said: “If you call it a movement, it’s growing.”