Militia Tensions Still Linger after Malheur Takeover

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Supporters camped near the site where LaVoy Finicum was shot, guarding a makeshift shrine. Photo by Peter Walker.

To the outside world, the Bundy occupation began with an armed takeover on January 2, 2016, and ended with the arrests of Ammon Bundy and other occupation leaders twenty four days later (and the arrests of four “hold-outs” at the refuge sixteen days after that). For residents of Harney County, the beginning was November 2015—and there was never a clear end. Whereas most in the Harney County community wished deeply to put the occupation behind them, outside militia as well as some locals who felt empowered by the Bundy occupation were not willing to let their movement simply stop. Taking new forms, militia activities in Harney County remained an ongoing reminder of the Bundy occupation, and a source of continuing aggravation and tension in the community.

A new phase of militia activity began almost immediately after the arrests of Ammon Bundy and the main occupation leaders. Antigovernment internet personalities such as Gavin Seim posted online videos declaring that, with the arrests of the Bundy brothers in Harney County, the nation stood “at the brink of revolution.” Militia leaders called on “patriots” to protest the shooting death of LaVoy Finicum. In response, on the evening of January 30, 2016, dozens of vehicles, including elevated pickup trucks bearing American flags and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, slow-rolled through downtown Burns, honking horns and shouting. For several hours Burns resembled small towns in Syria or Iraq overtaken by antigovernment militia in similar vehicles.

For three months, the community endured an invasion of their community and their daily lives by militia groups, followed by media and outside law enforcement. After the arrests of the main occupation leaders and the scattering of the lower-level occupiers, finally there was hope life might return to normal. To many in the community, the choice by militia groups to command the streets of Burns yet again—even more aggressively—felt like a painful final straw. Several residents stood at the roadside in the dark and freezing weather shouting at the militia to go home. One made obscene gestures at the passing militia vehicles. The defiance was notable because residents knew the militia were armed and angry, and no one knew their intentions. Local defiance intensified two days later when hundreds of local people stood on the steps of the Harney County Courthouse to block a militia protest—clearly surprising the outside militia.

What no one knew at the time was that the end of the Malheur take-over would become the beginning of years of efforts by outside militia, with support from a small minority of locals, to keep their anti-federal-government agenda alive in Harney County, which became symbolic of their movement and a rallying cry for anti-federal-government militia. National and local militia used every opportunity to leverage Harney County’s new-found fame into further political gains.   

In this next stage of occupation, LaVoy Finicum became an even more important figure in death than in life. In the “patriot” community, Finicum was elevated to the status of a hero and martyr. Much of the militia activity in Harney County after the Bundy occupation centered around Finicum’s death. The location where Finicum was shot by Oregon State troopers on Highway 395 became a makeshift shrine. The site was decorated with American flags, flowers, a cross, an engraved rock with Finicum’s ranch brand, a blue tarp, and red paint to emulate Finicum’s blood.

The site was repeatedly vandalized, purportedly by angry locals. The US Forest Service and the Harney County sheriff attempted to minimize traffic congestion and accumulations of objects at the roadside, creating ongoing tension for much of 2016. Several individuals camped in a US Forest Service camp-site nearby, vowing to guard the site and hinting that any federal worker who disrupted the memorial might be killed to avenge Finicum’s death. Nineteen miles from Burns, the site became a focus of militia activity and an ongoing source of stress for the nearby community through much of 2016, and even at certain times much later.

Excerpted with permission from Sagebrush Collaboration: How Harney County Defeated the Takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge by Peter Walker, published by Oregon State University Press, © 2018. 

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