Updated 9:29 p.m. ET 4/24/2014
(CNN) - What started out as a standoff over land rights may be turning into a controversy over race.
Racist comments from Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy - who earlier this month appeared to win a highly publicized standoff against federal authorities over his two-decade long illegal grazing of cattle on public land - are giving Democrats a new weapon to attack some top Republicans who earlier came to Bundy's defense.
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And the controversial comments also call into question moves by Fox News and some other conservative media that highlighted the story and painted Bundy as a hero in his battle against federal authorities.
Bundy, 67, won his standoff against federal rangers after armed militiamen came to his side. Even with the incident over, Bundy continued to talk to a dwindling crowd of media from his ranch, about 100 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
The comments that sparked the latest controversy came this weekend when Bundy recalled to supporters about a time he drove by a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, according to a report from The New York Times.
"I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro," Bundy said, "and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids - and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch - they didn't have nothing to do. They didn't have nothing for their kids to do. They didn't have nothing for their young girls to do.
"And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?" Bundy continued. "They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn't get no more freedom. They got less freedom."
What Cliven Bundy's comments on race reveal
In a press conference Thursday, Bundy defended and repeated his comments but emphasized he was merely "wondering" whether African-Americans were better off as slaves.
"And that's a question I put before the world: Are they better, or were they better then? I'm not saying I thought they should be slaves, or I wasn't even saying they was (sic) better off; I'm wondering if they're better off," he said.
Bundy said he questions whether those living under government subsidies are living as slaves to the state, but denied he held racist views.
"I might not have a very big word base or vocabulary, I guess, but let me tell you something: When I say slavery, I mean slavery...Slavery is about when you take away choices from people, and where you have forced labor," he said. "You think that's what I'm about, America? If it is, you're sure wrong, because I don't believe in any type of that stuff."
And Bundy didn't back down in an interview Thursday night with CNN's Bill Weir. He questioned whether blacks are better off now when "they don't have nothing to do with their children, their family unit is ruined (and) I don't think they have the life that they should have."
"I don't think I'm wrong," he told CNN, insisting that he'd spoken "from my heart." "I think I'm right."
Asked whether he was any more or less a "welfare queen" as those who get entitlement checks - since his cattle have been feeding off the government, literally, by eating grass on public land - Bundy said, "I might be a welfare queen, but I'll tell you I'm producing something for America and using a resource that nobody else would use or could use."
He said, "I'm putting red meat on your table. Maybe I'm not doing enough, but I'm trying."
'Comments are completely beyond the pale'
Thursday morning, hours after The New York Times story went viral, the Nevada Democratic Party put out a statement saying "These comments are reprehensible, and every Republican politician in the state of Nevada who tried to latch on to Cliven Bundy's newfound celebrity with TEA Partiers and the militia movement should be ashamed of their actions."
"Every Republican elected official who risked inciting violence to gain political capital out of Cliven Bundy now owes the people of Nevada an apology for their irresponsible behavior of putting their own political future ahead of the safety of Nevadans," added the Nevada Democrats.
Some top national Republicans quickly condemned the remarks.
Sen. Rand Paul, who originally supported Bundy's case, issued a statement Thursday morning decrying Bundy's racial comments.
"His remarks on race are offensive and I wholeheartedly disagree with him," said the Kentucky Republican, who's seriously considering a 2016 presidential run.
GOP Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, who earlier called his supporters "patriots", also "completely disagrees with Mr. Bundy's appalling and racist statements, and condemns them in the most strenuous way," according to his spokesperson, Chandler Smith.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who had not previously weighed in on the land dispute, said in a statement that "Bundy's comments are completely beyond the pale. Both highly offensive and 100% wrong on race."
Democrats had already been on the attack against Bundy before his racial comments. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – Nevada's senior senator - last week blasted Bundy's supporters as "domestic terrorists," saying they were arming themselves with automatic weapons and positioning "snipers in strategic locations."
One man, former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack told a reporter the militia were considering putting "all the women" on the front lines.
"If they're going to start shooting, it's going to be women that are going to be televised all across the world getting shot by these rogue federal officers," he said.
Questions about media coverage
Some conservative-leaning pundits painted Bundy as an anti-goverment hero. Fox News' Sean Hannity was criticized by liberal media outlets for frequently hosting Bundy on his television program and appearing to defend the rancher.
Hannity said Thursday on his radio show that Bundy's "comments are beyond repugnant to me."
"They are beyond despicable to me. They are beyond ignorant to me," he said, adding that his interest in Bundy's case was entirely about government overreach.
He also chided what he called the liberal media, arguing that they ignore racist comments by Democrats and only focus on Republicans.
"Every conservative I know does not support racism, period," he said.
Another Fox News host, Greta Van Susteren, wrote on her blog Thursday morning that she condemns Bundy's comments.
Others had previously warned fellow conservatives not to get too fired up about the Nevada dispute. Conservative host Glenn Beck said on his show that "10 or 15 percent" of the people who were defending Bundy online were saying things "that are truly frightening."
"They don't care what the facts are," he said. "They just want a fight."
Tucker Carlson, founder of the conservative news outlet the Daily Caller, said on Fox that he sympathizes with the Bundys, but "it's important to point out that this land does not belong to them and that's not a minor distinction, it's the essence of private property."
For his part, Sen. Paul had also cautioned both sides, including Reid, to calm their rhetoric.
"Let's try to have a peaceful resolution to this," he said last week on Fox News.
While Republicans are now trying to distance themselves from Bundy, that's not stopping Democrats from going after them for supporting Bundy in the first place. And the Democratic National Committee says the incident is "more evidence of the shallowness of the GOP's outreach efforts."
"Remember Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson? His racist comments last December were in the same vein as Bundy's. Yet GOP leaders from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, Lindsey Graham, and others rushed to defend (Robertson's) comments against a liberal assault. Republicans even invited the Duck Dynasty stars as their guests to the State of the Union!," wrote DNC Communications Director Mo Elleithee.
"And therein lies the GOP's problem. If you ever want to be taken seriously for your outreach efforts, you might want to start by not defending racists," Elleithee added.
Battle over land rights
The Bundy standoff is emblematic of the larger anti-government sentiment around the country that has been amplified with the creation of the tea party movement in 2009. But the latest move in a two-decade-long tug of war between Bundy and the federal government is bringing to light the delicate balance that has lasted between citizens in the West and the federal government over the use of federally owned land for generations.
What made Nevada rancher fight the feds?
One protester from neighboring Utah, Stephen L. Dean, 45, called the Bureau of Land Management's actions "tyranny in government." And a banner at the protest site blared: "Has the West been won? Or has the fight just begun!"
In the western states, public lands are a big deal. Almost everyone uses them or depends on them. They are key to people's recreational hiking, fishing, hunting and skiing. And they are critical to people's livelihood, as they are used to cut timber, drill oil, mine coal and ranch cattle.
Vast swaths of the land in the West are predominately public. In Nevada, for example, 87% of the state is owned by the federal government, and the Bureau of Land Management oversees 245 million acres of public lands mostly west of the Mississippi River, not including the lands overseen by the National Forest Service and half a dozen other federal agencies.
In Nevada, ranchers depend on the federal lands for their livelihood. The government began allowing the use of the land in 1877 to promote the economic development of dry, difficult-to-cultivate desert areas. So it offered land for dirt cheap. Bundy says his family has owned the ranch since about the time the Desert Land Act passed.
A version of the law still exists today, allowing ranchers to graze their cattle on public lands for a nominal rate. The fee is cheaper than what the rancher would pay the state or a private land owner, but the tradeoff is that the rancher has to share the land with the public.
After the desert tortoise became a protected species in 1993, the Bureau of Land Management rebuked or phased out the permits of ranchers in the designated area in southern Nevada.
Bundy is the last remaining rancher, refusing to leave and refusing to pay more than $1 million worth of fines. Bundy lost all efforts at appeal and litigation. In an effort to enforce the law, the BLM attempted to round up Bundy's cattle and was met with a clan of armed defenders, leading to the current stalemate between the government and Bundy.
The Nevada Democrat had already been on the attack against Bundy before his racial comments. Last week the state's senior senator blasted Bundy's supporters as "domestic terrorists," saying they were arming themselves with automatic weapons and positioning "snipers in strategic locations."
"Get a life, Free Speech is not just the speech the liberals like but all speech."
What don't you understand about free speech meaning that he can say whatever he wants and we can criticize the heck out of it all we want? There's no government action involved here trying to silence or punish him, so "free speech" isn't even really an applicable concept here.
I hope people really read this, and comprehend what the man was saying. Get past his cotton picking remarks and realize that what he was trying to get out was that people of every race here in America were a lot happier in the past than they are now with our dictatorship of republicans and democrats. In the politicians' minds a divided America is a conquered America, that's why they and the media keep printing racisim, discrimination of gays, minimum wage, discrimination of women.... Divide, and Conquor...
Mr. Bundy is a GREAT PATRIOT. A hundred years from now, historians will agree on the list; Ben Franklin, John Adams, Paul Revere, John Hancock, George Washington, Robert E Lee, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Cliven Bundy. Without these great men, we would be speaking european and wearing yamahas on our heads.
amazing how quickly Faux News and the Tea Potty deserted this welfare rancher when he exposed their dirty little secret – that Fox News, the Tea Potty, and the GOP are using racism to manipulate their sheep. Of course, anyone living outside the Faux News bubble already figured that out in 2007 when they first attacked Obama.
America… land of racism, bullying and hates, shame of you guys, I’m glad I did not born this country .Some people are dump and stupid they miss understood the difference between “ freedom of speech and hate full”,
As a black man I've heard the welfare system vs slave system comparison by other AA's for decades. This man simply stated in his own way what African Americans who hate the welfare system have stated for years. The welfare system helped to destroy the black family by discouraging marriage by black women on welfare as well as discouraged them to be employed until recently. As a result the unemployment rate skyrocketed among a certain segment of the AA community. The marriage rate among BW fell and the percentage of Black children born to single mothers rose as well. As a black man I don't see anything to be alarmed about as it pertains to Bundy's take on the issue. What he says has been stated in different ways by the Black Panthers, and other leaders in the black community for years.
This just in. Fox news has announce that Cliven Bundy position is actually in line with their political doctrine and decides to support his comments after all. They have also decided to nominate David Duke for POTUS.
LOL! He is the epitome of Midwestern values! Why the right winging republicans didn't see this coming? Because, they actually have the exact same views about race!!!!!!!!! Try taking over any Federally mandated/owned housing, prison, courthouse, anywhere! Remember Wounded Knee? We all know how that turned out!!!!!! All of these 'militant' based organizations live by the same creed 'I saw the land, therefore it is mine!' Send them all to Afghanistan, waving the flag, shouting patriotic slogans! Bet they won't leave the embassy compound!!!!!
"Liberal rule #4: When you fail to defeat your opponent in the debate call them a racist."
NeoCon rule #8: When you have no argument, play the victim card of being called racist.
By the way, what debate is there? He's a racists, yes?
Typical right-winger... Ignorant racist scum
He broke the law then resisted arrest; he should pay the price – whatever it is. In a capitilistic society, one must pay his way – no freebies if you can afford it.
The funny thing is that he is on government welfare by getting something form the government without paying for it. I say seize his cattle to pay his debts, then throw him and his supporters UNDER the prison. Maybe they'll have "Negro" cellmates!
Gee... using public lands for your own business interests... isn't this a form of welfare?
Yep, a republican.
two separate issues here.....not really news at all. At least not in the context painted. In our society there is no more room for racism...and no more room for an over-reaching government, either.
Another wack job looking for love in all the wrong places, who is surprised? Me either.
Some of these gun nuts are also racists. Even Republicans know that. Of course, anytime people point out this fact, Republicans cry race card.
For ME i was for Bundy and his cattle farming before i was against him just as i had hopes for 0bama to bring america together before i was against him .They both failed terribly .
"Get a life, Free Speech is not just the speech the liberals like but all speech."
I know. After 9/11 I made some real funny jokes about the Twin Tower jumpers participating in some Afghanistan High Dive contest. You wouldn't believe that some people didn't support my right to free speech.
Same thing after the Boston Marathon bombings – I merely joked about it being a good place to open a body shop, but not everyone agreed with my right to free speech.
Yeah ... good point ... definately we should encourage people to say the nastiest dirtiest meanest things. After all, we are Americans.
anonymous...why doesn't cnn report on harry reid and the Chinese wind farm/
Maybe because the Chinese deal has been dead for about a year, and it was supposed to be built on land 180 miles from the Bundy ranch.
We've got a new front-runner for the GOP Presidential nomination in 2016: Cliven Bundy.
Are those militia creeeps in prison yet?
So, now the story begins to rise on the CNN headline board. It's OK now I guess that the federal government, public servants elected by the people to represent the people, can set up a bureaucracy that can seize private land and start charging people to walk on it as long as those people are racist. Got it.
FREEDOM OF SPEECH..
He said what he believes.. What's wrong with that. he's NOT making any laws or establishing policies. He has his right to his opinion.. LEAVE IT BE, LIBS...
Oh Sean Hannity is the biggest bigot of them all. That man can lie with a straight face. He is a danger to our country and our way of life, if anyone should be monitored by the government its him.Anyone with a hairline like that is dangerous
Some of these gun nuts are also racists. Even Republicans know that. Of course, anytime people bring up or point out this fact, Republicans cry race card.