The death of Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, the 54-year-old Arizona rancher who headed north to “liberate” an Oregon wildlife refuge from the United States government, is sad and pitiful. Some of the self-appointed vigilantes who are challenging the right of federal authorities to manage Western rangelands and resources appear to be the type of imbecilic, right-wing blowhards that can be found at the end of the bar in saloons from Pensacola to Stockton. Finicum, on the other hand, seemed deeply deluded but decent, an American intent on doing his patriotic duty who had allowed himself to be misled by really bad information and a barrage of lies.
I am probably being too generous to him because he is now deceased, but Finicum reminds me of hardworking, independent-minded ranchers I’ve gotten to know during forays into Montana cattle country. Most of them are pretty well convinced that they know how to manage their land better than anyone from federal, state, county or local government. I know that sometimes they are right and, also, that sometimes they fail to recognize the greater good in having the nation’s natural heritage guarded by prudent laws and outside regulators. Nevertheless, none of the ranchers I know have careened off the deep end into armed rebellion the way Finicum and his compatriots have done.
For nearly a month, Finicum and other armed civilians have been holed up in a government building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in a remote section of eastern Oregon. They came to protest the jailing of two ranchers who were convicted of setting fires on federal land, then stayed to occupy the refuge and demand that it be turned over to “the people.”
They appeared free to come and go from the refuge without interference from the FBI, state police or the local sheriff until Tuesday, when the leaders of the group were stopped on a remote highway as they were traveling to a town meeting. Finicum was reportedly driving one of the two vehicles carrying the protesters. According to the most credible story so far, he tried to elude the cops in his truck and, when the truck was stopped, he stepped out with gun in hand. Shots were fired and Finicum is dead.
Back in the first days of the occupation, Finicum told reporters, “I’m not going to end up in prison. I would rather die than be caged. And I’ve lived a good life.” Despite his stated readiness to be taken out with his boots on, rather than be hauled off to jail, Finicum, who became the primary spokesman for the band of scofflaws, said he hoped for a peaceful resolution to the standoff. That did not happen and now Finicum has become an instant martyr to the militia movement, to anti-government extremists and to the conspiracy mongers in the darker reaches of the right-wing blogosphere. But challenging police by defying their authority and brandishing a gun is not heroic — it is stupid. And that applies whether you are on the streets of Chicago or the high plains of the West.
Harney County Sheriff David M. Ward barely contained his emotions in a news briefing the morning after Finicum was killed. For weeks, Ward had been trying hard to convince the protesters to disperse and leave his community in peace before someone got hurt.
“There doesn’t have to be bloodshed in our community,” Ward said. “We have issues with the way things are going in our government, we have a responsibility as citizens to act on those in an appropriate manner. We don’t arm up — we don’t arm up and rebel. We work through the appropriate channels. This can’t happen anymore. This can’t happen in America, and this can’t happen in Harney County.”