Two crowds of impassioned, emotional protesters faced each other Monday afternoon across an icy sidewalk in Burns, Oregon. Both sides carried signs and chanted in a rally that sometimes boiled over into arguments and shouts.
The two groups that met in front of the Harney County Courthouse engaged in what might be called the first real, face-to-face standoff since the beginning of a month-long occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
The initial protest was organized by the Pacific Patriots Network, a self-described militia network that is sympathetic to some of the goals of the refuge occupiers, but doesn’t condone the occupation.
The group rallied members to protest the shooting death of Arizona rancher LaVoy Finicum — a militant spokesman — in a confrontation with law enforcement on Jan. 26. Pacific Patriots Network supporters also demanded Harney County Judge Steve Grasty and Sheriff David Ward step down.
The protesters called Finicum’s death a murder, and said local officials have blood on their hands.
But local residents formed a counterprotest to say the outsiders don’t speak for them. They gathered to demand that the outsiders go home and to show support for local officials and law enforcement.
Protesters with the Pacific Patriots Network were slightly outmatched in number by Harney County residents.
“We had a free election here five years ago and we elected Judge Grasty,” said Ron Copeland, a Navy veteran who lives in Burns. “And no one from that side is going to tell us who we can have for our government and that’s what they’re trying to do.”
Some who had come to protest Finicum’s death said they had not anticipated the local reaction.
“I’m a little surprised that they’re in front of the courthouse, and we’re in the road,” said Kirsten Boyer, a resident of Winnemucca, Nevada, who was holding a handprinted sign that read, “Are you going to murder me too, for speaking out?”
“I’m going to go home after this,” Boyer said. “We don’t want to make people uncomfortable.”
Chants I’m hearing from both sides1/2:— Amanda Peacher (@amandapeacher) February 1, 2016
“He reached for the gun”
“We love Ward”
“Not our voice”
From the other side 2/2:— Amanda Peacher (@amandapeacher) February 1, 2016
“We ARE home”
“Go home FBI”
“Hands up don’t shoot”
“LaVoy was murdered”
“Free the Hammonds”
Leaders with the so-called patriot movement said they had delivered documents to the Harney County Courthouse Monday, calling for the FBI to withdraw from the area and for a full investigation of Finicum’s death.
“We believe it was cold blooded murder,” said Brandon Curtiss, a rally organizer and President of Three Percent of Idaho. “We filed papers to be served to the sheriff’s department, to the county commissioners, the sheriff, and the FBI, asking them to take certain actions or to step down immediately.”
The FBI has released a video of Finicum’s death, and the Oregon State Police has said the Deschutes County Major Incident Team and the Malheur County district attorney are conducting a full officer-involved shooting investigation.
Many of the network’s supporters came from a handful of rural Oregon counties — Crook, Wallowa, Grant, Douglas, Josephine and Lake — that have struggled economically since the decline of federal timber sales in the 1980s. They connected Finicum’s death and the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to their local struggles to open up federal forests for logging.
“The feds are out of control,” said Terry Moore, a former sawmill worker from Prineville. “(Environmental group) Oregon Wild doesn’t want you in the woods any more.”
At times, the two sides exchanged taunts and insults. When a debate grew heated and people began to raise their voices and their hands, a Burns police officer slid between them to diffuse the tension.
The activists insisted that they too had local support, and shortly after noon, a half-dozen local ranchers pulled up in horse trailers spattered with dirt.
“I just think it’s a tragedy what happened to LaVoy Finicum,” said Monte Siegner, a rancher from Riverside, Oregon, about 60 miles from Burns. “We need something other than the people who did the dirty deed to investigate themselves.”
But many other local residents expressed that Finicum’s shooting death by police was justified.
“LaVoy got shot because he was reaching for a weapon,” said Victoria Dalziel, a Burns resident. “That was justifiable cause. That’s what the police were trained for.”