Ryan Bundy first began starving himself in the third grade. Raised by devout Mormons and lifelong cowboys on a remote desert ranch in Nevada, Ryan had a reputation as a stubborn child, but his hunger strike was unlike anything his family had seen before. It started one lunch period at Virgin Valley elementary school in Mesquite, a tiny rural public school with just a few dozen students in each class. Ryan sat outside alone until the lunch ladies came to the playground and tried to persuade him to eat. He refused. But Ryan’s protest wasn’t about food. It was a political statement. It was around the early 1980s and Jane Bundy had signed up her five children for subsidized school meals – the ranching family had lost money on a group of cattle and cash was tight. But her husband Cliven was livid. As a southern Nevada rancher who had developed a deep mistrust of the government and great disdain for public assistance programs, Cliven had taught his children never to ask for handouts.
Cliven and Jane fought about the lunches – one of many disagreements that eventually led to their divorce. Ryan sided with his dad, and his playground protest was ultimately a success. After three days, Jane returned to preparing homemade meals. “My dad fixed the problem and took us off the program,” Ryan, now 43, recalled. “It was instilled in me that we’re supposed to earn what we have and not to take from others.” Ryan recounted this early act of civil disobedience during a recent interview in a windowless 8ft by 8ft room in a high-security county jail in Portland, Oregon. He wore a pink undershirt, white wristband and denim blue jail uniform. His latest protest had not gone as planned. Back in January 2016, Ryan and his 40-year-old brother Ammon had led an army of rightwing activists, some of them heavily armed “militiamen”, in an occupation of a federal wildlife center. The standoff, the family’s latest armed confrontation with the government, cemented the Bundy family’s reputation as heroes to ultra-conservatives in the west who have long been critical of federal land-use restrictions – an anti-government movement that has flourished during Barack Obama’s presidency. But today, Ryan and Ammon, along with their father and two other Bundy brothers, are isolated in jail cells awaiting federal trials that could condemn them to spend the rest of their lives in prison...more