It is not like the Cliven Bundy ranch incident in 2014, when federal officials stepped away from a confrontation with the Nevada rancher and protesters who said that they were defending the right to graze cattle on federal land.
An eruption of violence Tuesday on a highway outside the nearby town of Burns left one of the most prominent occupiers dead and eight others under arrest. Whatever happens next, supporters and critics agree that the Malheur occupation marks a dramatic turn in a long-simmering relationship between the federal government and radicals who view it as overreaching and corrupt.
“I think this is going to galvanize people’s concerns that the government is taking actions that it’s not supposed to,” said B.J. Soper, a member of the Pacific Patriots Network, an umbrella organization of regional militia groups. “I believe it’s going to galvanize people into the movement.”
Government officials and leaders expressed sadness and concern about the outbreak of violence but reaffirmed their support of law enforcement’s approach in handling the crisis. Meanwhile, the incident seemed to intensify anti-government sentiment among militia members and their sympathizers, who reacted with rage and calls for retribution.
On Facebook and Twitter and in middle-of-the-night phone calls, supporters first shared reports that Cliven Bundy’s sons, Ammon and Ryan, had been arrested. Soon, word spread that Bundy supporter LaVoy Finicum had been killed.
The Bundy Ranch Facebook page provided a dark timeline for followers:
“We have been informed that Ammon was taken into custody while outside the refuge and that shots were fired, but confirmation of these details is still lacking.”
“We humbly seek the protection of God and ask for your prayers.”
Then two hours later:
“Tonight peaceful patriots were attacked on a remote road for supporting the Constitution. One was killed. Who are the terrorists?”
And then confirmation of Finicum’s death:
“LaVoy has left us, but his sacrifice will never be far from the lips of those who love liberty. You cannot defeat us. Our blood is seed.”
Elsewhere, details were murky at first and became even murkier as secondhand accounts became third- and fourth-hand accounts. Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore (R), who has been supportive of the Bundys, tweeted: “My heart & prays go out to LaVoy Finicum’s family he was just murdered with his hands up in Burns OR.”
Other reports emerged that Finicum had charged police. In
an audio recording posted on YouTube, a young woman who said that she was in Finicum’s truck said Finicum had his hands up as he told the police to go ahead and shoot him. She estimated that law enforcement fired 120 rounds into the vehicle. But the accounts could not be immediately verified.
At a Wednesday afternoon news conference, law enforcement officials said that occupiers were to blame for the confrontation that left Finicum dead, but they would not discuss details of the confrontation, saying it is still under investigation.
The news conference left Soper seething. The resident of Redmond, Ore., about 120 miles from Malheur, said that his militia organization had been acting as a buffer between the FBI and the occupiers on the refuge. Soper said the news conference was “disgusting and full of lies.”
“Our government should be ashamed of itself and Harney County should be ashamed of its elected officials as well,” he said.
“It’s pretty obvious that LaVoy Finicum was murdered by the government,” he said, adding, “That’s going to cause a pretty stern reaction from the community and from the people across America.”
Soper said that he never supported the takeover of federal property but that he thinks it has brought attention to the issues of land use and federal policies.
“The message that came out was a message that America and the western United States needed to hear,” he said. “Change is going to happen out here in the West because of what they’ve done.”
The occupiers considered their decision to seize Malheur to be a game changer. During an interview two weeks ago, Finicum sat in one of the small administrative offices at the Malheur refuge and quietly explained why the armed takeover of the federal facility represented a significant strategic advance for groups rebelling against the federal government.
Finicum had arrived in Burns on Jan. 3 to protest the upcoming reimprisonment of two local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, who had been convicted of arson on federal property and resentenced.
An hour before the march, Ammon and Ryan Bundy held a small meeting to suggest a radical addendum to the protest. Ammon Bundy proposed that he and the others head out to Malheur, occupy it and refuse to relinquish it until demands had been met.
“He laid out all the efforts [that had been made] to resolve this thing at every level and where they had been rebuffed and not even responded to,” said the soft-spoken Finicum. “Then, at that moment, he laid out the plan to come and occupy here. At that point, I said, ‘Ammon, let me make sure I understand what you’re saying. For all these many years, we have been in a defensive posture, losing a little bit here and losing a little bit there as ranchers, and being forced backward. Is what you’re saying that this is our first step forward?’ He goes, ‘Yes, it is.’ ”
The plan to take that step forward, Finicum said later, was unprecedented. Rhetoric that had been growing increasingly aggressive about how to respond to the federal government was turned into action.
Now, Finicum is dead. The Bundy brothers are in jail. And as of late Wednesday, many occupiers had left the refuge. Through his lawyer on Wednesday afternoon, Ammon Bundy asked the remaining occupiers to “please stand down.”
Tuesday’s violence may have marked the beginning of the end of the siege at Malheur. But the occupiers’ decision to take over the facility in the first place worries groups monitoring the self-styled militia organizations that have challenged federal authority in the West and across the country.
“The fact that they took over this federal building is a new thing,” said Heidi Beirich, who tracks militias and paramilitary organizations for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “In the past, obviously we’ve had standoffs, but they’ve been standoffs that involved feds sieging properties that are owned by the militants.”
Beirich said that the standoff at the Bundy ranch in 2014, during which the federal government walked away from confrontation, may have given the occupiers a sense that they could have success in their latest effort.
“Up to that point, I don’t think people — even as crazy as some of the people in the militia movement are — thought that you could put a gun to a federal officer and not get arrested and actually get what you wanted,” Beirich said.
What is also new, Beirich said, is that militia groups are reaching out to people, ranchers and others, who may not share their fervent ideological views but do feel resentment toward some federal policies.
Beirich said that the biggest expansion of anti-government groups came after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, when 168 people were killed by militia movement sympathizers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.
“For a little while, the bombing gave a boost to the movement,” Beirich said. “But then the federal government . . . started cracking down really hard on violators in the anti-government movement. And the movement started collapsing.”
“Where we sit right now,” she said, “the question is, ‘Does this further embolden these people? Or do cooler heads prevail and decide to quietly slink away?’ ”