BJ Soper has never supported the nearly monthlong occupation of a national wildlife refuge by armed anti-government activists. He sympathized with their frustrations about the federal government, but he thought calm negotiation was a better strategy.
Then on Tuesday, an Oregon state trooper shot and killed LaVoy Finicum, a cowboy-hat-wearing grandfather who acted as the occupiers’ spokesman.
Now Soper is furious, and he’s calling for people from all over the country to come to Burns to show their outrage at Finicum’s “ambush.”
“I’m angry,” Soper, 39, said late Friday, joining two dozen protesters in a light sleet outside the Harney County Courthouse. “We’ve got a man that’s dead. Over what? I don’t want to see any more bloodshed, and that’s not what I’m condoning. But at some point when American people keep getting killed by their government, people are going to fight back.”
Finicum’s killing has re-energized anti-government activists, even as the occupation at the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge seemed to be running out of steam. Only four occupiers remained holed up at the refuge, while 11 others have been arrested. Their jailed leader, Ammon Bundy, who was arrested in the same operation in which Finicum was killed, has called for the three men and one woman still at the refuge to go home peacefully.
The FBI took the unusual step of releasing a video of Finicum’s shooting, which officials say shows him reaching at least twice for a holstered handgun. But the video, taken from an FBI aircraft, is of poor quality and is ambiguous, and it has only added to the conviction of Finicum’s supporters that his killing was nothing less than an execution.
“It was an assassination,” said Monte Siegner, 79, a Harney County resident at the protest who was holding a sign that said, “Ambushed and assassinated.” “He had his hands up,” Siegner said. “He didn’t have a gun in his hands, and he wasn’t threatening no one.”
FBI officials have withheld further comment on the shooting until a formal investigation concludes. But they have repeatedly said they want a peaceful resolution to the standoff. Greg Bretzing, the FBI spokesman who presented the video, said that “our negotiators are working around the clock” to end the standoff.
“I want to acknowledge the stress and disruption that the occupation of the refuge has caused has to the people of Harney County,” he said. “We know this is difficult. We know that you want this concluded as soon as possible. We are doing everything we can to bring this to a resolution safely and quickly.”
‘The FBI lied to us’
Soper, of the Pacific Patriots Network, which he described as an organization that helps people in need, said FBI officials have not been honest.
“They were ambushed in that canyon,” Soper said. “There’s no doubt about it. It was planned, it was premeditated. The FBI has lied to us from the get go, and we’re tired of it. They said they wanted a peaceful resolution, there was never an attempt to negotiate, and now a man’s dead.”
He said protests would continue daily “until some sense of reason is re-established here.”
He said he had put out calls on social media for people from around the country to come to Burns on Monday for a peaceful demonstration to show their anger over Finicum’s death and the government’s response to the wildlife refuge occupation.
“It’s time the American public knows exactly what’s going on out here,” Soper said. “It’s time for the militarized federal presence to end.”
In Burns, the new round of protests has elicited a collective groan from many people. Most in this remote town, high on the eastern Oregon desert plains, have never supported the occupiers. While many people here have complaints about the management of federal lands, which comprise more than half of Oregon’s total land, few supported an armed take-over of federal property as the way to express their frustrations.
“I haven’t spoken to one person who is for any of this,” said one Burns resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals from anti-government extremists. “It was not the fault of anybody here that he got killed. And it wasn’t the police’s fault. They didn’t just shoot him for no reason.”
In the past month, tiny Burns has become a bustling outpost for hundreds of federal and state authorities, journalists and members of militia groups attracted by the refuge standoff. The snowy streets are filled with federal agents in black SUVs, armed occupiers in pickups and reporters in rental cars.
While it’s been good for business in a usually dead time of year (local waitresses said the occupiers are by far the best tippers), residents said the occupation has caused tremendous friction in town.
Finicum’s death has dashed hopes for life returning to normal anytime soon, as people debate the two competing versions of blame for his death that have emerged.
Many in Burns, while expressing sorrow over Finicum’s death, blame the occupiers and their leaders, Ammon Bundy and his brother, Ryan, for deliberately creating an armed standoff with authorities that ultimately - perhaps inevitably - led to shots being fired.
But the anti-government activists say the authorities responded with ham-handed and disproportionate force against a group of Americans exercising their rights under the First and Second amendments to the Constitution.
Little common ground has emerged between the two sides, and people in Burns are bracing for more protests and anger in an episode that most had thought was just about over.
On the slushy sidewalk outside the courthouse on Friday, protesters said they planned to come out every day.
“It was totally unjustified, and completely unnecessary,” said Clint Siegner, 43, who traveled from Eagle, Idaho, to join his father, Monte Siegner, and show his anger over Finicum’s death. “It’s a pretty sad state when you get killed for exercising your First Amendment rights.”
“They weren’t threatening anybody,” said Siegner, carrying a sign that said “Federal supremacists murdered an innocent man.” “It didn’t have to end like that. They set an ambush and they killed him.”
Siegner, who sells precious metals for a living, subscribes to a popular belief among anti-government groups that the Constitution gives virtually no power to the federal government to regulate people’s daily lives. Critics call that a selective and incorrect reading of the Constitution, but it underpins much of the long-simmering dispute in the western United States over federal land-management policies.
“There is a constitutional case to be made for the federal government not to have any authority,” he said. “This has been around for a long time, and it’s not just something people dreamed up.”
He said that authorities’ shooting of Finicum “gives you the impression that they are afraid of these ideas.”
One man walked through the crowd of protesters Friday taking video of people, asking them, “What do you want to say to all the patriots out there?” He spun out anti-government rhetoric, including his belief that the U.S. government was responsible for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Mostly, he seemed to be using the video to motivate people to come to Burns for the big protest scheduled for Monday.
“It’s time to ride, boys,” he said. “Get in your vehicles and get your butts out here.”
One person he interviewed was Susy Pearce, a rancher who drove 6 1/2hours from Jefferson, Calif., for a Jan. 2 protest in Burns to protest the jailing of two ranchers on federal arson charges, which led to the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Pearce has not left town since.
“I’m a rancher and we feel the same way they do about the overreach of the federal government,” said Pearce, wearing a big cowboy hat and a long oil-skin coat as the snow fell. “If you’re a rancher, you get taxed, fined, fee-d and over-regulated to death.”
She said she had gotten to know Finicum over the past weeks at the wildlife refuge, and she called him an “amazing man.” She teared up as she talked about a man she called “smart and honest” and his “outrageous, uncalled-for murder.”
Pearce said she had seen the FBI video of Finicum’s death, and she said she was suspicious of the intentions of law enforcement.
“I don’t think they intended for any of them to survive,” she said of Finicum and the others in the car, including an 18-year-old girl. “I think he sacrificed himself to save them.”
A wooden cross appeared late Friday at the site of Finicum’s death, on a highway just north of Burns.