Five days into what would stretch to a nearly month-long occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon, rumors spread that the FBI was planning a night raid. LaVoy Finicum, an affable rancher from Arizona who seldom appeared without his tan cowboy hat, sat out by the road with a rifle in his lap and a blue tarp pulled over his head. “There are things more important than your life and freedom is one of them,” he said in a now-infamous interview conducted beneath the tarp. “I’m prepared to defend freedom.”
The FBI didn’t show up that night, but on Tuesday afternoon Finicum finally had the confrontation he’d been preparing for. Finicum, group leader Ammon Bundy, and six other members of the self-styled militia were on the way to share their anti-government ideas about land ownership at a community meeting in the town of John Day. Police stopped their two-vehicle convoy about 20 miles north of Burns, where they arrested Bundy and two others. Finicum, in a white pickup, drove away; a video released by the FBI shows him stopped a second time by two black SUVs further down the road, where Ryan Paine, another militant leader, got out of the pickup and was arrested. Again Finicum sped away, up a narrow forest road towards a barricade of law enforcement vehicles, then swerved into a snowbank where the truck nearly collided with an officer. Finicum jumped out of the driver’s seat, his arms outstretched. As FBI agents approached him he reached toward his waist, where officials say he was carrying a loaded 9 mm semiautomatic handgun.
The FBI took the “extraordinary” step of releasing the video to the public quickly in order to quiet rumors that Finicum was shot on his knees with his hands up. He wasn’t, though neither does the video prove that killing him was really necessary. It does call into question the reluctance with which law enforcement often releases video evidence in other cases where use of force is disputed. In the end what seems most extraordinary about the police response was how indulgent it was, at least up to the end. For 26 days a group of men allegedly stocked with explosives, night-vision goggles, and a variety of weapons took over public property, without the backing of the local community, where they were accommodated with electricity, heat, new recruits, snack delivery, even sex toys, and the closest law enforcement came was to offer a parley with the local sheriff.