His face — skinny, bespectacled, pale, wearing a cowboy hat — adorned some of the signs the protesters carried, mixed in with American flags and a yellow “Don’t Tread On Me” Gadsden flag or two. His name: Robert “LaVoy” Finicum.
“Cold-blooded murder! Cold-blooded murder!” chanted the protesters. “He was executed!” shouted one. After a while, a new chant: “FBI killed LaVoy! FBI killed LaVoy!”
Two weeks after an Oregon State Patrol trooper shot Finicum as the FBI was arresting Ammon Bundy, Ryan Bundy and other leaders of the antigovernment militiamen who’d seized a federal building on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, these sentiments are not confined only to “Patriot” demonstrations. Right-wing websites are nowsimilarly running wild with rumors and conspiracy theories, and social media is bubbling with memes denouncing the federal government. It has become starkly clear: LaVoy Finicum is the latest in a long line of right-wing martyrs.
That outcome, no doubt, was exactly what the FBI was hoping to avoid when, two days after the shooting, the agency released video of the shooting and the circumstances before and after it happened. Officials knew all too well, of course, that already a panoply of conspiracy theories and wild speculation — all of it pointing the finger at federal authorities as out-of-control bullies — was brewing.
But they should have known better: The patriot movement would never let a good martyr go to waste. For the antigovernment movement, an embrace of martyrdom isn’t a bug, it’s a feature, an essential element of what makes such extremist belief systems tick. Born out of the whitewashed remnants of the radical racist-right movements of the 1960s and ’70s — particularly the viciously anti-Semitic and racist Posse Comitatus movement, which then morphed into the “militia movement” of the 1990s and provided the structural framework for most of today’s claims by so-called “constitutionalists” and “Patriots” — this movement has a long history of attracting violent actors who are willing both to kill and be killed in the name of their extreme worldview.
For the rest of us, the emergence of a new martyr for their cause should be reason for serious concern — if not outright alarm.
Slow-motion enhanced video analysis backs up the FBI’s account of the shooting: Finicum resisted arrest, shouted at officers as he emerged with his hands up (one of the passengers in the truck agrees, saying that Finicum yelled at them, “Just shoot me”), then reached for a pocket of his jacket that officials say contained a handgun.
Regardless, Finicum’s defenders claim the shooting was an “assassination” and “cold-blooded murder.” His family members issued a statement saying that “what we believe the video shows is that LaVoy was being fired upon before he even got out of the truck.”
Finicum, a 54-year-old rancher from Arizona who had been a participant in the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife refuge since it began Jan. 2, had indeed foreshadowed his own martyrdom. A week into the standoff, he had told reporters: “I’m not going to end up in prison. I would rather die than be caged. And I’ve lived a good life.”
This kind of talk had been rife in the camp of the Malheur occupiers, who began their standoff by declaring that they were seizing the refuge and its center on behalf of “the people,” and cited a long list of pseudo-legal “constitutionalist” claims to back up their occupation. The bottom line: They believe the federal government has no business owning large tracts of public land.
Understanding that authorities were likely to resist these claims, a number of the militants made bellicose remarks that they were “willing to die and “to kill or be killed” to defend their position. One of them, a Phoenix militiaman named Jon Ritzheimer (who was later arrested in Arizona without incident), posted a pathetic plea to his children explaining that “Daddy swore an oath” and might not ever return home to them. Becoming a martyr for the movement was clearly on their minds.
So when Finicum died, the antigovernment patriot movement was eager to give him that status. At the site of his death, alongside Interstate 395 in a lonely, wooded stretch of rural Oregon, they have erected a makeshift memorial in his honor, replete with a cross, voluminous flowers and handmade signs: “RIP LaVoy Finicum, A True American Hero,” and “The Fight Isn’t Over.” Someone attached a cowboy hat to the cross emblazoned with the words, “An American Hero.” (The memorial was later torn down by locals, and then rebuilt by indignant patriots.)
The elevation to martyr was almost instantaneous. On the evening of the arrests, Nevada State Rep. Michelle Fiore, a Bundy ally, sent out a tweet to her followers: “My heart & prays [sic] go out to LaVoy Finicum’s family he was just murdered with his hands up in Burns OR.” Another Nevada legislator affiliated with the patriots, Rep. Shelly Shelton, compared Finicum to Jesus and Moses in a Facebook post.
Other patriots followed suit in short order. “Tonight peaceful Americans were attacked on a remote road for supporting the Constitution,” read a graphic meme accompanying the post. “One was killed. Who are the terrorists?”
“LaVoy has left us, but his sacrifice will never be far from the lips of those who love liberty,” read another post on the Bundy Ranch page. “You cannot defeat us. Our blood is seed.”
At last week’s rally in Burns, the belief that Finicum had been foully murdered by out-of-control federal agents was rampant, regardless of what the video showed. One protester showed up with red holes in a flannel shirt she wore to demonstrate how Finicum was “shot in the back.”
“He had his hands in the air!” she insisted.
“LaVoy’s blood is on your hands,” another told a large group of counter-demonstrators, mostly residents of Burns and the surrounding area, while squirting out blood-colored liquid into the snow in front of them.
In the universe the Bundys and their supporters live in, the ultimate act of heroism is to become a martyr in the name of “liberty.” There’s a long history of this on the American far right:
- In 1983, a North Dakota farmer named Gordon Kahl went on a multi-state shooting spree in which three law-enforcement officers were killed, dying in the end in a blazing standoff with police in Arkansas. Kahl was an ardent follower of radical Posse Comitatus theories.
- In 1984, a group of radical members of the Aryan Nations based in northeastern Washington state calling itself the Order went on a multi-state crime rampage, culminating in the assassination of radio talk-show host Alan Berg in Denver. Most members were arrested by FBI agents, but the ringleader, Robert Mathews, refused to surrender. He died when agents lobbed flares into the house where he’d holed up and it was consumed in flames.
- Randy and Vicki Weaver, a northern Idaho couple associated with the nearby Aryan Nations compound, were surrounded in 1992 at their home on Ruby Ridge after Weaver refused to surrender to authorities on a weapons charge. Their 14-year-old son was killed in an early exchange of gunfire while Vicki was killed the next day in a barrage of sniper fire.
- A cult calling themselves the Branch Davidians, based outside of Waco, Tex., became the site of a federal siege after a raid on weapons charges left 10 people dead. A 51-day standoff ensued, ending with a disastrous attempted raid by the FBI with tear gas: The Davidians set the building aflame and 76 people died, including leader David Koresh.
Those last two are the most notorious, and certainly the best-known outside the radical patriot movement. But each martyrdom had rippling effects, one inspiring another. The deaths of Vicki Weaver and the Branch Davidians, in particular, became a battle cry in the ’90s.
So it was no surprise to see both raids referenced in Oregon by the leader of one of the main regional patriot groups defending the occupiers. “We’ve got a third one. There was Ruby Ridge and Waco, now there is Burns,” B.J. Soper, leader of the Pacific Patriots Network, told Raw Story.
Last Saturday, an event was held in Boise, Idaho, to protest Finicum’s death (“In today’s society, our citizens are being gunned down by our law enforcement unjustly,” claims the flier advertising the rally). Participants were asked to bring signs reading “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” — an obvious reference to the signs carried by black protesters last summer in Ferguson, Mo.
Similar commemorations were being planned around the country — from nearby John Day, Ore., to Arizona, Kentucky, West Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Washington state, Ohio, Colorado, Massachusetts and South Carolina.
There is always a price to this martyrdom, as it comes to embody the squaring of accounts and the dispensation of justice in the minds of the True Believers. That amounts to a kind of expiation in the form of retributive violence, the kind that was unleashed on the federal Murrah Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, by Tim McVeigh and his patriot comrades.
That is the dark cloud that now hangs over the whole affair, beyond the deaths and injuries that came about because of the Bundys’ quixotic quest to prove their “constitutionalist” fantasia somehow legitimate. Finicum’s martyrdom now means that someone, somewhere, someday, will be seeking retribution.
As in the 1990s, virtually everyone who works for a federal agency will have to become more concerned about his or her personal and work-related security. This is especially so for federal land managers, including employees of the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service.
Out in the field, many rangers and land managers are exposed and out in the open, and would make inviting targets for the angry radicals who have made it abundantly clear they see such federal employees as their named enemy. The law-enforcement wings of the agencies most at risk of being such targets would be wise to bolster their ranks and improve their intelligence gathering when it comes to dealing with the threat of another takeover, or some other incident in which, once again, more people inevitably get hurt.
And so the American far right’s endless cycle of violence and victimhood marches along.
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