Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Martrydom of LaVoy Finicum: What the Newest ‘Patriot’ Sainthood Means for the Rest of Us


[A heavily edited version of this post appeared in the Washington Post.]

They came carrying signs Monday in Burns, Oregon.

“FBI Go Home – LaVoy Can’t”

“Peace Can’t Be Achieved Through Murder”

“LaVoy’s Voice Lives On”

“Federal Supremacists Murdered An Innocent Man”

“YOU Murdered LaVoy!”

They came, a couple hundred strong, from around the interior West – from Idaho, and Washington, and Montana, and Utah. The hotels in Burns had all sold out of rooms, and few had places to stay except area campgrounds. So many of them came prepared for winter camping, replete with canvas tents and their own supplies of firewood.

In their minds, the cause was worth the trouble and discomfort. They came to protest on behalf of a man killed at a police checkpoint less than a week earlier, on Jan. 26.

His face – a skinny, bespectacled and pale man with a cowboy hat – adorned some of the signs that the protesters carried, mixed in with the American flags they carried, and a yellow “Don’t Tread On Me” Gadsden flag or two. His name: Robert “LaVoy” Finicum.

He was the focus of their vocal chorus on Monday, even as the collection of antigovernment protesters came up against a wall of counter-protesters, a crowd even larger than theirs, comprised largely of local and area residents.

For some four hours, they stood off out in the cold, angrily exchanging shouts and chants. The “Patriots” announced that they wanted the sheriff and a local judge arrested for Finicum’s murder. That was met with jeers from the crowd of locals, whose signs proudly supported their local law enforcement as well as the federal agents in their midst.

The “Patriots” remained focused on what they called an “assassination.”

“Cold-blooded murder! Cold-blooded murder!” chanted the protesters. “He was executed!” shouted one.

After awhile, a new chant: “FBI killed LaVoy! FBI killed LaVoy!”

It is not only at “Patriot” demonstrations – right-wing websites are similarly running wild with rumors and conspiracy theories. It has become starkly clear: LaVoy Finicum is the latest in a long line of right-wing martyrs.

That outcome, no doubt, was exactly what the FBI was hoping to circumscribe when, two days after the shooting, they released video of the shooting and the circumstances leading up to it, as well as afterward. They knew all too well, of course, that already a panoply of conspiracy theories and wild speculation – all of it pointing the finger at federal authorities as out-of-control bullies – were brewing.

But if they were hoping to nip the speculation in the bud, they should have known better. The “Patriot” movement would never let a good martyr go to waste. And there has seemingly never been a circumstance yet to which they cannot apply some kind of wildly speculative conspiracy theory.

A video still from the moments before LaVoy Finicum was shot.
The video, which gave a bird’s-eye view of the arrests of the militants who took over a federal wildlife refuge center in rural Oregon, showed mostly a series of nonviolent arrests along a snowbound highway, beginning with ringleader Ammon Bundy and his crew in an SUV. But one moment in that video will now be seared in infamy into the nation’s collective consciousness: the moment when LaVoy Finicum was killed.

It is a grim and chilling scene that unfolds in the video: After the initial pullover, in which Ammon Bundy and two others surrender peacefully and another militant, Ryan Payne, climbs out of the white pickup being driven by Finicum, the truck takes off at high speed, only to be forced into a snowbank by a roadblock a short distance up the road. At that point, Finicum jumps out of the truck, holds up his arms as if in surrender initially, and then is shot by an Oregon State Patrol officer off to his side as he appears to reach into his jacket.

Slow-motion enhanced video analysis by the staff of The Oregonian makes clear that the FBI’s description of the shooting is largely accurate – that Finicum resisted arrest, shouted at officers as he emerged with his hands up (one of the passengers in truck agrees, saying that Finicum yelled at them to “Just shoot me”), and then reached for a pocket of his jacket that they said contained a handgun.

And indeed, most police officers are taught in basic training to shoot a resisting suspect in such a situation, as the OSP trooper did. Police are taught a “Use of Force Continuum” in which they respond to escalating force by a suspect with equal force. Any suspect resisting arrest who pulls or reaches for a gun can expect to be shot, regardless of the situation. Even a sympathetic “Patriot” blogger who reviewed the video agreed, noting that Finicum “made a motion consistent with drawing a weapon, and the officer was forced to respond.”

Greg Gilbertson, a police use-of-force investigator and specialist in the issue who frequently serves as an expert witness in court trials, said that after reviewing the video, it was clear to him that “most law enforcement agencies would characterize this shooting as ‘justified.’”

Gilbertson said that if Finicum was the driver, he “certainly escalated this situation unnecessarily, especially when he nearly struck the officer standing on the side of the road. “

“In addition, Mr. Finicum is seen reaching into his pockets or the interior of his jacket a number of times as the Oregon Trooper approached him,” Gilbertson said. “Mr. Finicum's actions are sometimes referred to as a ‘furtive movement,’ which the trooper could articulate placed him in imminent fear for his personal safety, especially in light of the fact that these activists were known to be armed and had made a number of inflammatory statements.”

Regardless, Finicum’s defenders claim the shooting was unjustified. His family members issued a statement saying that "what we believe the video shows is that LaVoy was being fired upon before he even got out of the truck."

Finicum, they said, left the pickup in order to draw gunfire away from its three other occupants. "We believe he had already been shot before he ever lowered his hands," the statement continued. "We believe some of his hand movements were a natural reflex to being shot."

Finicum, a 54-year-old Mormon rancher from Arizona who had been a participant in the takeover of the Bundy-led Malheur National Wildlife refuge since it began on Jan. 2, had indeed foreshadowed his own martyrdom. A week into the standoff, he had 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.”

That was consistent with what the video showed his actions in the fatal showdown to be: an act of resistance unto death, and a willingness to die for one’s cause. The act of someone determined to be a martyr.

This kind of talk had been rife in the camp of the Malheur occupiers, who began their standoff with authorities by declaring that they were seizing the refuge and its center on behalf of “the people,” and cited a long list of pseudo-legal “constitutionalist” claims to back up their occupation. The bottom line: They believe the federal government has no business owning large tracts of public land.

Understanding that federal authorities were likely to resist these claims, a number of the militants made bellicose remarks that they were “willing to die” and “to kill or be killed” to defend their position. One of them, a Phoenix militiaman named Jon Ritzheimer (who was later arrested in Arizona without incident), posted a bathetic plea to his children explaining that “Daddy swore an oath” and might not ever return home to them. Becoming a martyr for the movement was clearly on their minds.

With his death, Finicum’s supporters in the antigovernment “Patriot” movement were more than eager to give him that status. At the site of his death, alongside Highway 395 in a lonely, wooded stretch of rural Oregon, they have erected a makeshift memorial in his honor, replete with a cross, voluminous flowers, and handmade signs: “RIP LaVoy Finicum, A True American Hero,” and “The Fight Isn’t Over.” Someone attached a cowboy hat to the cross emblazoned with the words, “An American Hero.” (A few days later, locals tore down the memorial, furthering angering the “Patriot” contingent, who went out and rebuilt it.)

The elevation to martyr’s status was almost instantaneous, in fact. On the evening of the arrests, Nevada State Rep. Michelle Fiore, a Bundy ally, sent out a tweet to her followers: “My heart & prays [sic] go out to LaVoy Finicum's family he was just murdered with his hands up in Burns OR.”

Another Nevada legislator affiliated with the “Patriots,” Rep. Shelly Shelton, compared Finicum to Jesus and Moses in a Facebook post: “In any given generation there are men who are willing to stand for what they believe,” Shelton wrote. “Most of the time they are demonized and the uninformed are made to believe they are criminals. From Moses who killed an Egyptian for abusing his people, to Jesus who died on a cross as a condemned criminal, many of those who operate outside the box and promote love and justice over the current form of government are treated as outcasts and many times murdered.”

Other “Patriots” followed suit in short order. “Tonight peaceful Americans were attacked on a remote road for supporting the Constitution,” read a graphic meme accompanying the post. “One was killed. Who are the terrorists?”

“LaVoy has left us, but his sacrifice will never be far from the lips of those who love liberty,” read another post on the Bundy Ranch page. “You cannot defeat us. Our blood is seed.”

At Monday’s rally in Burns, the belief that Finicum had been foully murdered by out-of-control federal agents was rampant, regardless of what the video showed. One protester showed up with red holes in a flannel shirt she wore to demonstrate how Finicum was “shot in the back.”

“He had his hands in the air!” she insisted.

“LaVoy’s blood is on your hands,” another told the counter-demonstrators, while squirting out a red blood-colored liquid into the snow in front of them.

“Let the camera decide!” an angry man shouted. After locals resisted an attempt by the “Patriots” to enter the courthouse, the same man screamed at them: “Oathbreakers! Oathbreakers!”

“The murderers are over there!” shouted another, pointing at the locals out to support their county officials. “They have blood on their hands!”

For the antigovernment “Patriot” movement, this embrace of martyrdom isn’t a bug, it’s a feature, an essential element of what makes such extremist belief systems tick. Born out of the whitewashed remnants of the radical racist-right movements of the 1960s and ‘70s – particularly the viciously anti-Semitic and racist Posse Comitatus movement, which then morphed into the “militia movement” of the 1990s, and which provided the structural framework for most of today’s claims by so-called “constitutionalists” and “Patriots” – this movement has a long history of attracting violent actors who are willing both to kill and be killed in the name of their extreme worldview.

The core of the “Patriot” system is the belief that the Constitution, as originally written, severely limited the scope of government powers to waging wars and other military and diplomatic ventures, and little else. In their view, the sheriff is actually the most powerful authority of American law, and that not only is federal ownership of public lands unconstitutional, but so are such federal law-enforcement agencies as the FBI. This helps explain, for instance, why the occupiers and their supporters have displayed such deep animus toward Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward, who refused to go along with their nonsensical campaign from the get-go.

It also helps explain why they attempted the takeover of the refuge in the first place. The ranching Bundy family and their cohort subscribe to a particular Mormon-flavored version of “Patriot” beliefs which also contends that public lands belong in the hands of resource users like themselves. Not surprisingly, this agenda folds in neatly with right-wing corporate-funded entities who are campaigning to have public lands taken out of federal ownership for their own extractive and profit-making purposes.

Largely because it rests on a foundation of false information, distorted history, conspiracy theories and unadulterated fantasy, the “Patriot” movement also attracts followers of a particularly irrational stripe: people who reach conclusions based on their personal beliefs and biases first and then go looking for evidence to support it. Falsity and gross distortion are not a problem with the evidence these True Believers collect, and angry emotional outbursts are typical of the rhetorical style employed in their defense. What’s key in all events is that these followers envision themselves in the heroic mold – they are all God-fearing, flag-waving, America-loving “Patriots,” by God, and don’t dare suggest otherwise.

Sociologist James Aho studied these groups in the 1990s, and his essential 1994 work, This Thing of Darkness: A Sociology of the Enemy examines this dynamic in detail. Envisioning oneself as heroic, as Aho explains, requires the naming of an enemy, which means that much of their energy is devoted to synthesizing an enemy out of whole cloth when none are so readily apparent in real life – in this case, naming the federal government (and, in the eventual conspiracist drift these beliefs take, the New World Order) the mortal enemies not just of themselves but of all God-fearing, gun-loving Americans, inventing “tyranny” in a land where civil liberties, in reality, remain largely intact.

But the ultimate act of heroism, in this universe, is to become a martyr in the name of “liberty.” There’s a long history of this on the American far right:
  • In 1983, a North Dakota farmer named Gordon Kahl went on a multi-state shooting rampage in which three law-enforcement officers were killed. Kahl was an ardent follower of radical Posse Comitatus theories who had done prison time for refusing to file taxes, and believed that federal marshals and sheriff’s deputies alike were tools of Satan.
  • In 1984, a group of radical members of the Aryan Nations based in northeastern Washington state went on a multi-state crime rampage, mostly robbing banks and armored cars, culminating in the assassination of radio talk-show host Alan Berg in Denver. Most members were arrested by FBI agents, but the ringleader, Robert Mathews, refused to surrender and died when agents lobbed flares into the house where he had holed up and it was consumed in flames. Neo-Nazis and skinheads still hold annual commemorations at the Whidbey Island locale where the standoff occurred.
  • Randy and Vicki Weaver, a northern Idaho couple associated with the nearby Aryan Nations compound, were surrounded in 1992 at their home on Ruby Ridge after Weaver refused to surrender to authorities on a weapons charge, and their 14-year-old son was killed in an early exchange while Vicki was killed the next day in a barrage of sniper fire.
  • A cult calling themselves the Branch Davidians, based outside of Waco, Texas, came under investigation for a number of weapons violations, and when federal ATF agents came to their compound to arrest leader David Koresh and others, were fired on, and in their fierce exchange that ensued, four ATF officers were killed, while six members of the cult also died. After a standoff that lasted 51 days, the FBI led an attempt to raid the compound with tear gas that ended disastrously when cult leaders set the building aflame, and 76 people died, including Koresh.

These martyrdoms all had rippling effects, often into each other. Kahl’s death inspired Mathews to engage in his rampage. The Weavers’ tragic fate came about largely because federal authorities were determined to crack down hard on the activities out the Hayden Lake compound of the Aryan Nations in northern Idaho.

And the deaths of Vicki Weaver and the Branch Davidians became a battle cry for “Patriot”/militia movement followers then: “Ruby Ridge and Waco” even today is synonymous with “outrageous overreach by federal law enforcement,” even in the mainstream. So it was not at all a surprise to see it referenced in Oregon by the leader of one of the main regional “Patriot” groups defending the occupiers.

“We’ve got a third one. There was Ruby Ridge and Waco, now there is Burns,” B.J. Soper, leader of the Pacific Patriots Network, told Raw Story.

According to Aho, there is always a price to this martyrdom, as it comes to embody the ritual and “reification” process – that is, the squaring of accounts, the dispensation of justice – in the minds of the True Believers. That amounts to a kind of expiation in the form of retributive violence, the kind that was unleashed on the federal Murrah Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, by Tim McVeigh and his “Patriot” compadres.

That is the dark cloud that now hangs over the whole affair, beyond the deaths and injuries that came about because of the Bundys’ quixotic quest to prove their “constitutionalist” fantasia somehow legitimate. The death of anyone, even someone resisting arrest, is always deeply unfortunate, and it goes without saying that LaVoy Finicum deserved a better fate, even if he did seem to seek it out. But his martyrdom now means that someone, somewhere, someday, will be seeking retribution.

As in the 1990s, virtually everyone who works for a federal agency will have to become more concerned about his or her personal and work-related security. This is acutely the case for federal land managers, including all employees of the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, as well as the National Park Service, whose security their federal overseers will need to take especially seriously in the coming months.

Out in the field, many rangers and land managers are exposed and out in the open, and will make inviting targets for the angry radicals who have made it abundantly clear they see such federal employees as their named enemy. The law-enforcement wings of the agencies most at risk of being such targets would be wise to bolster their ranks and improve their intelligence gathering when it comes to dealing with the threat of another takeover, or some other incident in which, once again, more people inevitably get hurt. People on all sides.

That is why it was so encouraging to see the depth of the opposition to the “Patriot” protesters in Burns on Monday. According to most accounts, the locals from Harney County who came out to defend their law-enforcement officers and the FBI from the announced invasion of their town by a parade of “Patriot” protesters (the majority of whom came from neighboring states) were impressive in size and passion, and outnumbered the right-wing contingent that was demanding the arrest of the sheriff and a local judge, among others, for Finicum’s death. The pro-sheriff group surrounded the courthouse and would not allow the protesters to approach it (though county officials, apparently, had locked the doors in any event).

Their message, time after time, chant after chant: “Go home!”

They too bore signs, all of them handmade.

“Stand Down, Leave Our Town”

“Militia – Thank You For Your Work But You’re Fired! Go Home!”

“We Support Our County Sheriff and FBI”
“More Would Be Here, But They Have Jobs – Go Home!”

“Militias – You Don’t Have to Go Home But You Can’t Stay Here!”

The local community’s defiance of their agenda took the wind out of the sails of the “Patriots” on Monday, and most of them had cleared out of Burns by Tuesday morning, no longer willing to camp in the snow.

If they were disconcerted by the resistance, however, they showed no signs of it. Already this weekend, “Patriot” groups began organizing more events commemorating LaVoy Finicum’s martyrdom.

On Saturday, an event was held in Boise, Idaho, to protest Finicum’s death (“In today’s society, our citizens are being gunned down by our law enforcement unjustly,” claims the flier advertising the rally). Participants were asked to bring signs reading “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” – an obvious reference to the signs carried by black protesters last summer in Ferguson, MO.

Similar commemorations are being planned around the country – from nearby John Day, Ore., where a candlelight vigil was held, to events in Arizona, Kentucky, West Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Washington state, Ohio, Colorado, Massachusetts, and South Carolina.

And so the American far right’s endless cycle of violence and victimhood marches along.

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