By Peter Henderson & Edward Tobin
Anti-government groups called on supporters to “stand by” on Wednesday after one protester was killed and eight arrested in the month-long occupation of an Oregon wildlife reserve over federal control of land.
U.S. authorities tightened security after their standoff with the occupiers turned violent on Tuesday when officers stopped a car carrying occupation leader Ammon Bundy and his group near the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Activists said Robert LaVoy Finicum, a rancher who acted as a spokesman for the group, was killed in that confrontation. Bundy’s brother, Ryan, was wounded.
There were no details on what set off the shooting. The Federal Bureau of Investigation said authorities would hold a news conference on Wednesday in Burns, a town near the refuge.
Amid concerns that Finicum’s killing could escalate violence, the Pacific Patriots Network, Oath Keepers and the Idaho III% – all self-styled militia groups sympathetic to the occupiers – said in a joint statement they were issuing an immediate “stand by” order to followers.
“During this time, cooler heads must prevail,” the statement said. “We do not wish to inflame the current situation and will engage in open dialogue until all of the facts have been gathered.”
Anti-militia sentiment also lit up social media, making #OregonStandoff among the top trending hashtags.
Authorities said the new security involves a series of checkpoints along key routes into and out of the refuge and was made out of an “abundance of caution” to protect the public and law enforcement. Only ranchers who own property in the area will be allowed in and anyone coming out of the refuge will have to show identity and have their vehicle searched.
A law enforcement official said authorities setting up a perimeter around the refuge “remain hopeful” that those on the compound will now depart peacefully.
In for the ‘long haul’?
One of the remaining occupiers at the reserve, Jason Patrick, told Reuters by phone they would stay until the “redress of grievances.”
“I’ve heard ‘peaceful resolution’ for weeks now and now there’s a cowboy who is my friend who is dead – so prepare for the peaceful resolution,” Patrick said.
On Wednesday morning an occupier posted what appeared to be a live feed from the refuge on a YouTube page called “DefendYourBase.” In it, a few occupiers, some dressed in camouflage, were seen in front of what appeared to be a heavy-duty 320D excavator, at least two of them carrying firearms.
At one point, a man spoke on a phone with a person he identified as his mother and offered her reassurance.
“If I die, I died for my country, I died a free man,” he said. “That’s how I want to die.”
The man added that his group had “food and everything for the long haul.”
The Malheur takeover, which started Jan. 2 with at least a dozen armed men, was a flare-up in the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, a decades-old conflict over federal control of millions of acres in the West. Protesters say they are defending the Constitution. Bundy’s father, Cliven, was a key figure in a 2014 armed standoff with federal officials over unpaid grazing fees in Nevada.
The arrests have angered anti-government protesters across the country, said Mike Vanderboegh, a gun-rights activist active in self-proclaimed militia circles. “It’s all I can do to keep people from going and shooting feds right now,” he told Reuters.
Vanderboegh said he believed the FBI had acted too quickly to end a situation that was already headed toward peaceful resolution.
Federal officials said Tuesday they had probable cause to arrest Finicum, who told NBC News earlier this month that he would rather die than be detained.
In an interview on Monday with the Oregonian newspaper, Finicum said federal authorities had increased manpower around the refuge and stepped up their airplane and drone surveillance. There also was a change of attitude, he said.
“We used to could walk up to them and talk with the FBI agents in a friendly manner … but the tenor has changed,” Finicum said. “… They do not intend on losing here. And we do not intend on giving it back to them.”
Those arrested face federal charges of conspiracy to use force, intimidation or threats to impede federal officers from discharging their duties, the FBI said. Local KATU-TV reported that they were expected to make an initial court appearance on Wednesday afternoon.
Patrick likened Finicum’s death to that of Tamir Rice, an unarmed 12-year-old black youth fatally shot by Cleveland police outside a recreation center in 2014. The officers were not charged.
“The government can kill who they want for whatever reason they want with impunity,” Patrick said.