LOS ANGELES - A Nevada cattle rancher has become the unlikely ring-leader of an armed right-wing militia, billing himself as a people's hero locked in a showdown with US federal authorities.
But supporters scrambled Thursday to distance themselves from Cliven Bundy after he made some blatantly racist comments in public.
Bundy has also found himself the target of satirical pundits including Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, who lampooned his standoff over cattle herding as "Apocalypse Cow." The 67-year-old has grazed his cattle on federal land managed by the US Bureau of Land Management for the last two decades, but refuses to pay grazing fees levied on all such ranchers across the country.
After years of legal action, federal officers began rounding up his cows this month - until a group of armed supporters came to the rancher's aid, triggering a standoff which ended with authorities withdrawing.
Bundy declared victory in his showdown with the federal forces, and began holding daily press conferences which have whipped up support from pro-gun and anti-big-government activists, among others.
But that changed when his rants - which have been backed by Republican politicians and publicized by right-wing pundits including notably Fox News' Sean Hannity - included some eye-popping remarks about African Americans.
"I want to tell you one more thing I know about the negro," he said in remarks reported by The New York Times.
"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."
'Appalling and racist statements'
Cue a stampede for the door from many of his backers.
"His remarks on race are offensive and I wholeheartedly disagree with him," said Rand Paul, seen as a possible Republican nominee for the US presidency in 2016.
Nevada Senator Dean Heller, who last week called Bundy's defenders "patriots," issued a statement saying he "completely disagrees with Mr. Bundy's appalling and racist statements, and condemns them in the most strenuous way." Satire supremo Stewart appeared to have an open goal to return to bashing Bundy, after two humorous attacks on him this week before the racist remarks emerged.
"It is your standard boy has cow, boy breaks law for 20 years, boy loses cow story," Stewart said in a spoof segment called "I don't get it." He also poured scorn on Bundy's refusal to recognise even the existence of the US federal government, while defiantly flying the stars and stripes flag.
More seriously, environmentalists say authorities need to curb Bundy's cattle grazing on Nevada land to protect the western US state's ecosystem - specifically a type of desert tortoise.
An unusual case
Despite repeated legal action, Bundy has "continued his practice of trespass, his cattle becoming increasingly feral," Rob Mrowka, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity told AFP.
He also acknowledged the wider context. "This is a continuation of an ongoing tension between state-rights and federal-rights perspectives since or almost since the founding of the country - the Civil War was fought on this issue." But officials stress how unusual the Bundy case is - it is difficult to find another example of a private individual effectively using an armed militia to prevent federal law from being enforced.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) - which defends Americans' right to bear arms as enshrined in the US Constitution's Second Amendment - did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Bundy case.
The Bureau of Land Management appears to have shelved the option of force after being beaten back by Bundy's armed militia buddies.
"We're looking at other options, administrative and judicial," Celia Boddington, spokeswoman for the federal agency, told AFP.