BURNS, Ore. — Hundreds of angry protesters shouted at each other Monday on the steps of the local courthouse in a town deeply divided by the month-long armed occupation of a nearby wildlife refuge by anti-government extremists.
More than 200 local residents carried signs that said “Get out of our town” and “We love the FBI” and screamed “Go Home! Go Home!” at a group of nearly as many anti-government militia members who had come to protest last week’s police killing of LaVoy Finicum, a spokesman for the occupiers who had taken over the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
“I’m here because I live here, and I want the militia to go back home,” said Ramona Bishop, a local Harney County resident carrying a sign that said “Thank you, FBI.”
The local residents timed their protest to start 30 minutes before a rally called by the anti-government organizations angry about the death of Finicum, who was shot dead by an Oregon State trooper Jan. 26 in an operation that also yielded the arrests of the occupation’s primary leaders.
“We would have a lot more people here, but it’s the middle of the day and people are at work,” said Mary Jo Evers, a local resident at the protest.
The anti-government protesters, many wearing camouflage and waving U.S. flags, stood across the sidewalk from the local residents, carrying signs that said “Finicum was murdered in cold blood,” “Blood on government hands” and “All lives matter.” Some carried pictures of Finicum.
“I’m here to protest the injustice of the federal government and the unlawful killing of a rancher,” said Brian Sowle, who drove from Caldwell, Idaho, for the protest.
A group called the Pacific Patriots Network had issued a “call to action” last week asking like-minded anti-government activists from across the country to come to Burns to hold a peaceful protest over Finicum’s death and to demand the arrest or resignation of virtually every law enforcement officer and local officials involved in the refuge stand-off.
Kevin Rhodes, who wore a patch on his jacket that said “Southern Oregon Constitutional Guard,” yelled at the protesters and referred to the fact that an 18-year-old woman was in the car Finicum was driving just before he was shot.
“What if they killed an 18-year-old girl?” Rhodes shouted. “They were shooting at an 18-year-old girl! So you’re okay with them killing children?”
The FBI released a video of the shooting that shows Finicum driving at high speed toward a police roadblock, swerving and getting stuck in a snowbank. He emerges from the car with his hands up, then lowers them twice. FBI officials said it appeared he was reaching for a loaded handgun on his hip. However, the video has not persuaded Finicum’s followers, who are treating him as a martyr to their anti-government cause.
B.J. Soper of the Pacific Patriots Network, who has emerged as the primary organizer of the response to Finicum’s death, addressed the crowd and tried to calm the rising anger.
“We are all Americans and we all have a voice, and we appreciate you being here,” Soper said.
He was equally cheered and booed.
Soper said his group had presented a petition, with 200 signatures, to county officials with several demands, including the arrest of law enforcement officials involved in the operation that led to Finicum’s death, the “immediate removal of all militarized FBI personnel and equipment from Harney County” and the resignation of several local officials.
Amid the rage, a few moments of civility appeared. One anti-government protester quietly thanked a state trooper for his service. And moments later, a local woman approached a man carrying an “RIP LaVoy” sign and said to him, “I support law enforcement, but I’m sorry about what happened.”
Occupiers took over the headquarters at the refuge on Jan. 2 to protest the jailing of two local ranchers on federal arson charges, as well as federal land-use policies in a state where more than half the territory is controlled by the federal government. But the occupation quickly became a protest vehicle for anti-government extremist groups from across the Northwest that have a wide array of complaints about federal government “over-reach.”
The occupying group’s primary leaders, including Ammon and Ryan Bundy, have been denied bail by a federal judge in Portland. Only four occupiers remain at the wildlife refuge as FBI officials try to negotiate an end to the standoff.
Sullivan reported from Washington.