(CNN) — Cliven Bundy — the Nevada rancher turned conservative folk hero for bucking the federal government’s attempts to stop his cattle from grazing on public land — admits he doesn’t understand the bipartisan uproar over his comments suggesting blacks might have been better off under slavery.
But he understands what he meant by those comments, and he’s not backing down.
“I don’t think I’m wrong,” Bundy told CNN’s Bill Weir on Thursday night. “I think I’m right.”
For two decades, Bundy’s cattle have fed off of government-owned land without paying grazing fees like thousands of other ranchers.
He claims, then and now, that he won’t do business with the federal government — because, in his view, nowhere in the Constitution does it say that Americans can’t use land owned by the federal government. Bundy told CNN that he’d only be willing to talk to county and state authorities, opining that they have a more rightful claim to the land than anyone in Washington.
He reiterated his stance Friday morning in an interview on CNN’s “New Day.” He defended having his cattle feed off of government-owned land without paying grazing fees. He said he abides by all state laws.
“I’ll be damned if this is the property of the United States. They have no business here,” he said.
This stance made him a darling of conservatives in the media and Republican circles upset over what they’ve deemed government overreach. Militiamen literally rallied by the side of the 67-year-old rancher as armed federal rangers tried to force him off his land.
Bundy won that standoff. But he didn’t stop talking. That’s where his new trouble began, which threatens to overshadow his original fight.
Speaking to reporters over the weekend, he recalled driving by a public-housing project in North Las Vegas and seeing “at least a half-dozen (black) people sitting on the porch, they didn’t have nothing to do.”
“Because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he added in comments first reported by the New York Times and later seen on video. “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.”
The remarks have since gone viral, drawing widespread condemnation from Democrats and Republicans alike. The rancher said he doesn’t feel “abandoned” by the uproar by the likes of right-wing radio firebrand and Fox News host Sean Hannity, who has ripped what he called the “ignorant, racist, repugnant, despicable comments.”
Asked Thursday by CNN to elaborate, Bundy explained he’d been simply “wondering whether (blacks) are that much better off in the situation we’re in now.”
He backtracked somewhat, insisting he “didn’t really mean it to compare (African-Americans’ current plight) with slavery. I meant to compare it with maybe life on the farm or life in the South, where they had some chickens and the gardens, and they had something to do.”
At the same time, Bundy stood by his general premise that blacks once had better lives — stating that, right now, “they don’t have nothing to do with their children, their family unit is ruined … That’s what I was referring to I don’t think they have the life that they should have” because of the government.
How did he arrive at these generalizations?
“I feel that, because I see that,” Bundy explained.
On CNN’s “New Day” on Friday, Bundy spoke more about the issue.
“Maybe I sin … and maybe I don’t know what I actually said. … If I say Negro or black or slave … if those people cannot take those kind of words and not be (offended), then Martin Luther King hasn’t got his job done yet. … We need to get over this prejudice stuff,” he said.
CNN’s Weir at one point challenged the Nevada rancher about 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’s response: “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. I’m putting red meat on the table.”
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