The occupation of a remote wildlife refuge turned violent yesterday when federal agents stopped two vehicles carrying protesters to a town hall meeting in John Day, Oregon. Victoria Sharp, a passenger in one of those vehicles, has reported that federal agents opened fire on the group without provocation after conflicting and confusing demands for the protesters to surrender. Sharp reported that shots were first fired at Ryan Payne as he complied with orders to show his hands out of the window of the vehicle in which she was riding, but that the shots missed. Payne was calling for police to not shoot, as there were women in the vehicle, and exited the vehicle, asking that the women be allowed out.
At this point, LaVoy Finicum, one of the spokesmen for the occupiers, who was driving the vehicle in which Ms. Sharp was riding, yelled out the window that they were going to go talk to the sheriff (at the meeting in John Day), or that agents could just shoot him. He told the passengers to get down, and drove forward, precipitating heavy gunfire from the agents, and crashing the vehicle into a snowbank.
Sharp said that Finicum then exited the vehicle, hands in the air, yelling, “Just shoot me then!” A volley of shots rang out, and Finicum fell to his back, hands still over his head, and was shot several more times on the ground, Sharp said.
According to Sharp, agents continued shooting at the car, striking Ryan Bundy in the shoulder as he shielded her on the floorboard, and deploying tear gas before finally taking the rest of the group into custody. She also claims that none of the protesters fired a shot or even touched a gun during the encounter.
The full audio of Victoria Sharp’s account is posted on YouTube, and comes across as very credible.
Listen to Victoria Sharp’s testimony:
Another report suggested that Finicum “charged” at police after exiting the vehicle but does not dispute the claim that his hands were in the air. Cliven Bundy, father of Ammon and Ryan Bundy, leaders of the occupation who were both taken into custody during the incident, has further charged that, not only were Finicum’s hands in the air, but he was not armed at the time.
In interviews during the occupation protest, Finicum, a soft-spoken rancher and father of 11 from Arizona, had insisted that he would rather be killed than “put in a cement box” prison. He said that some things were more important than life, and that freedom was one of those things.
The occupation was initiated in protest of the re-incarceration of a pair of Oregon ranchers who had been convicted of terrorism for starting two controlled burns on their graze lands back in 2001 and 2005. The ranchers, father and son Dwight and Steven Hammond, were initially sentenced to, and served short sentences and fined $400,000 for their actions, but a federal appeals court later concluded that the judge in the case had improperly waived a five-year minimum sentence for the charges, and the two were resentenced to that minimum and ordered to return to prison.
I reported on the Hammond case and the resulting protests a few weeks ago in this column, pointing out that the stated objective of the protest was being lost in the news coverage of the protest itself. Ammon Bundy and his compatriots appeared to be more interested in generating a confrontation with federal authorities than in drawing attention to the Hammonds and the abusive practices of federal agencies that led to their plight.
The death of LaVoy Finicum is a needless tragedy.
Federal authorities had wisely been taking a hands-off approach to the occupation, denying Bundy and his friends the opportunity for the tense stand-off they seemed to be seeking. Unfortunately, politicians like Oregon’s Democrat Gov. Kate Brown, took the occupation as a personal affront and were calling for law enforcement to take more aggressive action to put a stop to the flagrant defiance of federal authority. The result is a martyr for the fringe and escalation of the situation from a nuisance to a volatile and dangerous level. The strategy was clearly to “remove the head of the snake” by capturing the leaders of the occupation, but what if those leaders were the cooler heads that were keeping the protest calm and peaceful?
With the death of Finicum, in circumstances that some are calling murder, a fuse has been lit, and unless authorities can and do quickly produce evidence that their actions were clearly justified, this could blow up in a very ugly way. And it all could have been easily avoided.
Realistically, what harm were the protesters doing? They were occupying buildings of a remote wildlife refuge in a sparsely populated area of the country in the dead of winter. They were making no threats, harming no one, and getting less and less attention from an unsympathetic media. They were not supported by any national or state militia organizations, and their whole agenda had pretty well fizzled.
I wish Ammon Bundy had taken my advice, negotiated a peaceful end to the situation and sent his supporters home to their families weeks ago. That didn’t happen, and what happens next is anyone’s guess. The remaining occupiers must be concerned about what might happen to them if they try to leave, especially in light of the death of Finicum, and by setting up roadblocks and checkpoints, authorities have now committed manpower and resources to potentially long, cold, uncomfortable duty that can’t help but engender deeper frustration and resentment between police and occupiers. Any trust that might have developed is completely out the window. Worse, the bloodshed may provoke other groups to step in and escalate the mess even further.
Perhaps this week’s arrests will bring this whole thing to a close, but I fear that it is more likely signaling the beginning of something much worse than protesters occupying a wilderness outpost.
Media wishing to interview Jeff Knox, please contact [email protected].