On Tuesday, one of the protesters who have occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was shot dead in a confrontation with state federal law enforcement officers. Finicum, age 54 and a father of 11, was the "spokesman" for the protest group.
The initial stories carried overtones on the killing of the thug Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Finicum was shot, it was said, with his hands in the air. "Hundreds" of rounds were allegedly used. The video released by the FBI has enough ambiguity to let those who want to believe the worst continue to do so.
I'm not going to do a frame by frame analysis but let's hit the high points:
- The vehicle seems to be attempting to run a roadblock, either that or Finicum was a really bad driver. No effort was made to stop short of the roadblock. In the context of the standoff, which featured armed "militia", one has to assume the law enforcement officers assumed Finicum was both armed (he was) and potentially hostile.
- When Finicum was shot his hands were not in the air when he was shot. He exited the vehicle with his hands up:
but around :09 he, at least to me, seems to open his jacket with his left hand and reach across his body with his right.
Some have said he his lost balance. I don't know. All I can say is that I find it very hard to criticize the men at the roadblock. And yes, Finicum was armed. He carried a concealed pistol on his left side. And he had several more weapons in the automobile. The weapons on Finicum and in the auto are not, per se, illegal but context is everything. In the context of the general temper of the standoff and of Linicum's own statements, assuming that he had made the decision to go out shooting is not all that unreasonable.
I generally agree with the description given by the FBI supervisor at the scene:
"Finicum leaves the truck and steps through the snow," Bretzing said. "Agents and troopers on scene had information that Finicum and others would be armed. On at least two occasions, Finicum reaches his right hand toward a pocket on the left inside portion of his jacket. He did have a loaded 9 mm semi-automatic handgun in that pocket. At this time, OSP troopers shot Finicum."
I am generally sympathetic to the struggle of ranchers in the American West and Southwest in their struggle with the federal government. As I've said before, if you live in the eastern two-thirds of the United States, your impression of federal land ownership is largely battlefields and forests. Out West, the story is different:
Nothing happens in a vacuum and it is no coincidence that the increasingly high stakes standoffs between landowners and federal agents are rooted, in great part, in the overweening arrogance and petty tyranny exhibited by the agencies that "manage" America's public lands.
In addition to bad policy, the BLM has attracted managers who look upon the federal lands as their personal fiefdoms to do with as they see fit. BLM managers have used the Endangered Species Act as a cudgel to curtail or forbid off road recreational activity and ranching is large areas. In 2004, the BLM aggressively pushed to have law enforcement authority on highways that passed through federally owned land rather than having that function performed by state and county police. This would not only have wildly increased the power of the BLM but it would have created a new revenue stream for them—fines from traffic violations.
General sympathy for ranchers who are being crushed by federal agencies, though, doesn't translate into support for every knuckle-headed thing some of these people, specifically the Bundy clan, do. Taking possession of clearly designated federal property is a lot different from defending grazing and water rights that you have exercised for decades and which are necessary to your livelihood.
But, having said that, one of the focuses of any new Republican administration has to be dismantling the system that deprives states of revenue and people of their livelihoods for no greater purpose than creating bureaucratic fiefdoms where little men can use their power to bully people who are mostly just trying to make a living on their land. Nearly two years ago, I wrote:
The reason for large scale federal ownership of lands disappeared with the accession of Alaska into the Union. Today it is a source of corruption, cronyism, and influence peddling that is able to mask huge operating deficits through the mineral royalties derived from a minuscule portion of its portfolio. The BLM, and associated agencies, have shown no evidence of a desire to cooperate with the people who live near federal lands, rather they treat them with the contempt an occupying army would show a subjugated population. The Congress must act to remedy this before the situation leads to bloodshed.
If Finicum's death is to have any meaning at all, it should be as a sign to the more militant elements in this new Sagebrush Rebellion to think carefully about how they go about confronting federal authorities and whether professing to be an armed militia is really a great evolutionary or public relations strategy. The kind of standoff that resulted in Finicum's death is very hard for even their sympathizers to defend.