From where I live, the coverage of the armed protest / occupation at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, in Oregon, USA, has not been a high priority – I’ve had to rely on what I can find online myself; and I’m not certain how much of this has been biased one way or the other. What has drawn my attention, along with just how long this dispute between the federal government and ranchers has been going on, is the shooting of Robert ‘LaVoy’ Finicum by government authorities. I think it was clear from the outset that, with an armed protest against the government, someone would wind up getting shot – I am relieved that the death toll did not climb any higher; and from what I have been able to read, it seems like this is due to efforts on both sides to prevent a Waco, TX, sort of incident.
I was reading further about the shooting, when I happened across a posted copy of surveillance video taken of the shooting (as well as part of the chase that led up to it) on a Wikipedia article covering the standoff. I watched the video, aware of the stated actions and motivations of law enforcement officials involved, as well as the testimony from other witnesses at the scene that have caused Finicum’s family to claim that a cover-up for an unjustified shooting has taken place. I can see by watching the video where law enforcement testimony would seem to fit with what the camera shows. But I can also see something else – it doesn’t seem to entirely corroborate with what Finicum’s family is claiming; but I think it begs some serious questioning about what happened.
One thing I think should be stressed: adrenaline was almost certainly running very high. It seems to have run high throughout the occupation; but a car chase under any conditions would add stress to an already stressful situation. It seems clear that Finicum initially resisted arrest by trying to flee in his vehicle. With an armed suspect in flight, options already narrow for how law enforcement is supposed to respond. For those officers who were standing at the roadblock, having a large vehicle bear down on you at high speed is an insanely difficult situation. I’m reminded of the point in the Mel Gibson movie, Braveheart, where unarmored Scotsmen were standing before a charge of heavy horse with long, pointy sticks.
But one question I have is whether or not, at the last moment, Finicum swerved his vehicle to get around and past the roadblock; or did he simply try to avoid hitting the vehicles and officers who constituted the roadblock? This is not clear in the video, and I could see both as possibilities. Another question I have is, if Finicum had a weapon and a mind to use it, why was this weapon stuck in his jacket pocket as he fled his vehicle? Why was it in his jacket pocket in the first place, when most reports I read seem to have him commonly wearing his sidearm holstered at his hip from a gun belt? Why would he place his hands in the air in surrender, knowing he was covered by at least one law enforcement officer, only to reach to his pocket (at one point, while still keeping one hand out in the open) to try to draw his gun? Why, after he was shot, did it take ten minutes before anyone attempted to render medical attention to him? I can see where it could have been perceived that Finicum was attempting to open fire while feigning surrender, as has been maintained by the officers at the scene. However, in watching the video, it also seems possible that Finicum was aware that he was armed, aware the he was covered by at least one armed officer, and may have been ill-advisedly trying to remove his gun with the intention of dropping it, rather than opening fire. Did the officers confronting Finicum order his hands up where they could see them? Almost certainly. Considering the circumstances, having a good idea Finicum was armed and had already resisted arrest, it seems feasible that any disobedient action from a law enforcer would have resulted in Finicum being shot. I’m not questioning the intentions or even the actions of those officers involved in the shooting – I am questioning Finicum’s intentions and actions. I would also point out that this is a luxury I happen to have, under no threat of harm or injury, that the officers at the scene did not have.
I am happy to know that this matter will be further investigated. To that extent, I am also of a mind to welcome the fact that the accusations of cover-up and unjustified shooting have been made: the video is not conclusive, there are conflicting reports from witnesses on both sides of the encounter, and there are questions I think are worth answering and exploring in a court of law. To try to open fire under Finicum’s circumstances would require a suicidal mindset … Finicum was clearly desperate and afraid; but his actions were consistent with someone who wanted to escape arrest, not get gunned down by law enforcement in an encounter he should have known he could not survive. This he could have done from the beginning, and saved himself the effort and risk of a car chase. In the end, whatever his motives at the time of his death were is a trivial matter: he was believed to be armed, had resisted arrest, and likely disobeyed orders from the officers at the scene to keep both hands clearly visible and still. Law enforcers have a right to defend themselves and each other; and there are protocols in place to govern how they do this. An examination in court of how these protocols were followed would set a lot of minds at ease, I think. As well, I think an explanation as to why it took so long to attempt rendering medical attention to Finicum would be in order.
Whether or not it was right for people to make an armed protest and occupation in this situation is something I can’t really estimate. I’m not a rancher who has had my livelihood endangered by the way the federal government controls land and other resources. As I prefaced this post by saying, I think an armed resistance to law enforcement will almost inevitably result in someone getting shot. It’s almost a mathematical probability: one armed side, plus an opposing armed side, multiplied by lots of adrenaline on both sides, likely equals someone’s gun going off in the direction of someone else. The amount of restraint showed up to the point of the shooting, however, was remarkable. I do think the protesters succeeded in drawing attention to this ongoing battle between the government and the ranchers; and I think it will be some time now before the issue is forgotten … but I fail to see the wisdom in deliberately taking a bunch of guns up to a place with the intention of an armed resistance in a situation where bodily harm was not threatened. This is not a criticism against the existence of armed groups of citizens, it is rather a question with regards to the judgment of people brandishing weapons when there was no threat to bodily harm to begin with. Essentially, in this case, the protesters themselves became the threat to bodily harm against law enforcers who were doing their jobs and following the law. If you believe that guns can change laws; then you must also realize that in such a scenario, who has the most guns, changes the most laws – the armed protesters never stood a chance. Guns can shoot many things; but they cannot shoot laws – this is what attorneys and politicians are supposed to do. When that fails, the press can help draw the interest of more attorneys and politicians. Now the press is certainly involved: but not only will government practices with regards to ranchers be spotlighted; the existence of armed paramilitary groups operating within the US, and whether or not they should be used as further reason to enact stricter gun controls, will also be explored more thoroughly. The press tends to follow the trail of sensationalism; so here the question is which makes for the more sensational story? A bunch of disgruntled ranchers who are embroiled in a legal battle to protect their livelihood in the face of a government that may actually be trying to defend lands allocated for wildlife preservation? Or a bunch of heavily-armed, disgruntled paramilitary members around the country who are convinced of a doomsday scenario that will involve them being the last and final hope for liberty in the US?