The Internet is not the only place where a passionate and often anonymous debate took place Friday over what a video released by the FBI revealed about the shooting death of Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, a spokesman of the armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge near this town.
The aisles at the local Safeway supermarket and the snowy streets of nearby residential neighborhoods became forums of their own, with nearly everyone offering an opinion on the video — but not their name — as the standoff that has so rattled this remote town concluded its fourth week with four people still refusing to surrender to police.
There was a time when people here didn't hesitate to give their names when talking about the occupation. But that was before the shooting video.
“I didn't like his hands going up twice. That kind of bothered me,” said one man, implying that Finicum was trying to surrender when he was shot.
The FBI released the video Thursday night. Shot from an aircraft overhead, it showed a truck driven by Finicum narrowly missing an FBI agent as it swerved to the side of a barricade before stopping in a snowbank. The FBI said that although Finicum had raised his hands, officers from the Oregon State Police opened fire when he appeared to reach for a weapon.
“Really inconclusive,” said a woman who gave her first name only, Jolene. “It may have been unjustified. But if there were any dash cams — if those videos come out, it could bring some kind of closure to it. And I really want to hear audio. I want to know what kind of commands were thrown out.”
Another man, Mark, said, “It's clear he was reaching for a pocket.”
“They're trained to react to that,” he said of the troopers who had Finicum at gunpoint. “He just triggered a natural human instinct to survive in that trooper that shot him.”
On Thursday, the Oregon State Police released, without further explanation, an excerpt from what it called its “policy, rules, and procedure manual regarding the use of deadly physical force.”
“A sworn employee may use deadly physical force only when the officer reasonably believes the use of such force is necessary to: Defend the officer or another person from what the officer reasonably believes to be the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical injury.
“This is all tearing the community apart,” he said.
Mark, who said he is originally from Europe and moved to Burns four years ago, said it was important to remember what happened before the shooting: Finicum had fled a traffic stop, tried to drive around a roadblock and then quickly got out of his car and moved toward officers.
Even if Finicum's hands were up — and there is intense debate about whether they were — “it was a failure from the start,” Mark said.
Or maybe not.
“He wasn't brandishing the weapon,” said Steve, shoveling snow from a driveway outside of downtown. “The gun never came out. He could have just been trying to scratch himself.”
Finicum was among a small group of armed protesters who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 2, saying they were opposing federal land management policies in general but also the prison
sentences of two ranchers who set fires that spread to federal land. On the day he was shot, authorities arrested some protesters, including Ammon Bundy, the self-styled leader of the group.
A federal complaint unsealed Wednesday at the arraignment of Bundy, his brother, Ryan, and five others in Portland accused the defendants of using threats, intimidation or force to stop federal officers from doing their duty.
Some people in Burns offered lengthy explanations about the precise way a man might reach for a gun depending on what kind of holster he was wearing — if he was wearing one. (An FBI official said Finicum had a loaded 9-millimeter handgun in his pocket.)
Others noted the depth of the snow and how it might have altered Finicum's body language. But only one said what the woman in the juice aisle at Safeway said when asked what she thought of the video: “Haven't seen it.”
Another video was posted Friday, this time from the refuge, where one of the protesters, David Fry, has regularly been broadcasting online.
Fry told viewers that he, Jeff Banta and a couple, Sean and Sandy Anderson, had been asked again by FBI negotiators what they wanted.
The answer: Drop any potential charges against them.
“Obviously that's not going to happen,” Fry said. “They keep saying they can't drop the charges. ... They can't speak with the people who made the charges.”
Before signing off, Fry offered a new idea: a presidential pardon.
“That's our current demand,” he said. “Everybody's got to be pardoned. We all got to go free. We all get to go home.”Meanwhile, there were indications that even if the standoff ends soon, Burns has not seen the end of the debate.
On Friday, the Pacific Patriots Network issued a statement calling people to gather in Burns to “express our Constitutional right to PEACEFULLY assemble and air our grievances.”
Among the demands the group intends to make: “immediate detention” of Greg Bretzing, the special agent in charge of the FBI in Oregon.