The killing of Robert “LaVoy” Finecum in Oregon is the latest flashpoint between anti-government militia groups and the federal government.
Finecum, a spokesman for militants who have occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for the past four weeks, was shot and killed at a traffic stop after FBI agents stopped he and other members of the group traveling to a meeting.
“I think it’s an open question. I think it’s possible that this movement will manage to create a martyr out of Lavoy Finicum even though it seems very clear he doesn’t deserve to be one,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The FBI said Finicum was reaching for a gun in his pocket when he was shot and killed.
But they are worried enough about a blowback to quickly put out a video of the incident that they argued proved that police had to act.
The video, taken by a plane circling the scene, appears to show Finicum reaching into his pocket for what officials would later say was a 9 mm handgun.
Supporters of the occupying group have questioned that conclusion, pointing to witnesses who say Finicum’s hands were up when agents pulled the trigger.
The Pacific Patriots Network, a group otherwise opposed to the occupation, issued a “call to action” Friday after the shooting and the arrest of other occupiers, saying it “condemns the violent action” that led to Finicum’s death.
But other groups distanced themselves from the occupation after the shooting. Operation Mutual Defense, for example, had encouraged its members to go to the area, but later said it would be dangerous for them to be there, The Oregonian reported.
And Ammon Bundy, an organizer of the Malheur takeover who was arrested at the stop where Finicum was killed, himself encouraged the remaining occupiers to leave the area rather than escalate the situation.
Only about four people were believed to remain on Friday.
The refuge occupation isn’t the first instance of violence and high tensions in the West.
Last year, militia groups showed up to support miners in Oregon and Montana in payment disputes with the government. In 2014, supporters of the Bundy brothers’ father, Cliven, rallied to his side in a dispute with the Bureau of Land Management, but the feds backed off before the incident could turn violent.
The Oregon group was more aggressive than others have been. After occupiers took the refuge, experts said the federal government’s 2014 capitulation in the land dispute with Cliven Bundy likely helped embolden the protesters to take over the refuge.
Lawmakers and experts, though, lauded law enforcement for their approach to the matter this week, saying that in the wake of the Cliven Bundy affair, the government couldn’t let the occupiers go without responding.
Sen. Ron WydenRon WydenThe Hill’s Whip List: Where Dems stand on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Overnight Regulation: Senate moves to strike Obama-era internet privacy rules Overnight Tech: Senate votes to eliminate Obama internet privacy rules | FCC chief wants to stay out of 'political debate' on fake news | Wikileaks reveals new CIA docs MORE (D-Ore.) said officials “showed extraordinary resilience and determination” in moving against the group and working with local officials.
“I think that this shows that there’s going to be accountability, there’s going to be consequences for breaking the law,” he told The Hill.
But Wyden said he’s sensitive to concerns about the rural economy in the West and he’s cognizant it could lead to radicalization and violence.
“What I have said throughout this is, the next step, from that understandable frustration, must not be to be led off a cliff by a bunch of outside militants,” he said. “I think that that viewpoint has really emerged.”
William Braniff, the executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, said officials did a good job of “calculating their response based on the way their response will either be used or not be used by other potential violent extremists.”
But he said Finicum could turn into a rallying cry for future extremist groups based on how they choose to spin his death.
“It’s a tried and true tactic of terrorism to try to use some sort of a loss or defeat as some type of rhetorical victory, to demonstrate the illegality or the illegitimacy of the government through their actions,” he said.
Polling shows broad support, even in the West, for federal land ownership and administration, Goad noted. The groups who oppose it so violently — from the Malheur occupiers to others — represent a “fringe movement” in the West, she said.
The tensions in the region have existed for more than four decades, Potok said, though residents there have reported an overall better relationship with the federal government of late. The Oregon group’s actions — as well as those of other militant groups — are “counter-productive,” he said.
“It’s always a worry that martyrs are created and that that simply ends up producing more violence. We’ve seen that time and again in the past, at Ruby Ridge and Waco,” Potok said.
“But in this case, I would say the occupiers came off, even within the far right, as a pretty sorry bunch. … There was no heroic stand at the end — they all kind of turned themselves in, more or less, except for Finicum.”
Others said they did not believe Finicum’s death would become a rallying point.
“I think he is being portrayed as a martyr in some circles at this point, but I think for most people, what happened with the entire armed occupation is that the public and most Americans realized what this movement truly is, which is a fringe movement driven by radical anti-government extremists,” said Jessica Goad, the advocacy director at the Center for Western Priorities.
“I think that we’re going to continue to see this play out politically but at this point I don’t think that martyrdom is seen across the board.”