LAS VEGAS -- Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy's battle against the federal government over land rights took an unexpected detour after a newspaper quoted the 67-year-old grandfather suggesting African Americans were "better off as slaves" because slavery taught work skills and enhanced family life.
Bundy, who has waged a standoff with the Bureau of Land Management, insisting he has a right to graze hundreds of head of cattle on public lands without paying fees, has been surrounded by citizen militias that have converged on his ranch in rural Bunkerville after armed federal officials moved in to remove Bundy's cattle.
The BLM called off the roundup and released the cattle, but says the matter is not over. Bundy and his supporters are awaiting the government's next move.
Over the weekend, Bundy spoke to supporters about general issues involved in the standoff. Suddenly, he took a turn and began discoursing on African Americans and public welfare.
"I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro," he said in comments quoted by the New York Times. He recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, "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."
He added: "And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?" he asked. "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."
Conservative lawmakers in Washington, who have so far supported Bundy, have blasted his remarks, including Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who had previously referred to the gray-haired rancher as a patriot.
Heller "completely disagrees with Bundy's appalling and racist statements and condemns them in the most strenuous way," his office said.
But some Bundy supporters remained undeterred.
"His statements were not a criticism of blacks. They criticized the federal government," said Brandon Rapolla, a concrete mixer from Oregon who spent eight days at the ranch. "I've met the Bundys, and that's not who they are."
Rapolla said he has posted Bundy's remarks on social media. If people read them, he said, they will understand his point.
"It's not racism," he said. "People are trying to divide us on this issue. This is about the federal government, not anything else."
Nevada's other senator, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has called Bundy's supporters "domestic terrorists," denounced Bundy's remarks.
"I used to live in North Las Vegas and it is home to some of the hardest-working people I have ever met -- men and women who embody the American dream by working hard every day to build a better life for themselves and their families," Reid, a Democrat, said in a statement.
"By contrast, Cliven Bundy has spent decades profiting off government land while refusing to pay the same fair use fees as his fellow ranchers. Today, Bundy revealed himself to be a hateful racist. But by denigrating people who work hard and play by the rules while he mooches off public land he also revealed himself to be a hypocrite."