Patriots plan to protest the heavy law-enforcement presence in Burns and the shooting death of Robert “LaVoy” Finicum.
BURNS, Ore. — This small town on the high desert has drawn a new influx of “patriot” groups, who came to town this weekend to launch a series of protests.
They are upset over law enforcement’s fatal shooting Tuesday of an Arizona rancher who participated in the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
More than 100 people gathered on a chilly Saturday night in a Rite-Aid parking lot for the first event, a rolling rally of vehicles.
“Be noisy, be noisy from here on out,” declared B.J. Soper, a founder of the Pacific Patriots Network, during the rally. “Tell people what you want.”
Then everyone piled in their vehicles for several honking drives through downtown, with some trucks bearing the American flag and others the Confederate flag.
In recent weeks, these armed groups have become a familiar presence in this small eastern Oregon town. Some came in December to join in protests over the federal prison sentences of two Burns-area ranchers convicted of arson. Then, in January, they maintained a presence in this Harney County community during the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to push for the release of the ranchers and the return of federal lands to local control.
That occupation still continues, with four people holding out and asking that all charges against them be dropped.
In Burns, through the past month, federal offices have been shut down out of concern for employees’ safety. Meanwhile, there has been a major buildup of FBI agents and state law enforcement in Burns that continued through the weekend.
Soper, in an interview, said that the new protests are intended to be peaceful, that he would not be bearing arms and that he urged others who join them to do the same.
But one Burns woman who craves a return to more normal times showed up at the start of Saturday’s rally with a blunt message: “Militia: Go Home.”
“I have friends who have not felt safe in their own home since November,” said Jen Hoke, 43, and a mother of three children. “These people are not welcome here. We don’t need them. They need to go home. They are spreading a message of hate.”
But the patriot groups also found support this weekend from some Harney County residents who are upset by the heavy law-enforcement presence in their community. And they also are angry about the Tuesday shooting death of Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, a spokesman for the refuge takeover. It occurred after law enforcement pulled him over on a highway north of Burns.
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An FBI official, during a news conference Thursday in Burns, said Finicum was killed after he ran a roadblock, got out of his vehicle and tried to reach for a concealed gun. The official released a silent video of the shooting that he says depicts Finicum leaving the vehicle with his hands up, and then reaching at least twice for a pocket where the FBI says he had his pistol.
But the protesters don’t believe the FBI account. Many within their ranks have been viewing — and reviewing — the FBI video. They believe the first shot might have been fired while Finicum still had his hands up, and they want a video, complete with audio, to be released.
“This is a call to action against an armed militarized police force,” Soper wrote in a Facebook posting that appealed for supporters to come to Burns.
On Sunday, about a dozen people gathered around a makeshift memorial along U.S. Highway 395, where Finicum was shot and killed.
The mourners wiped tears, prayed and laid a copy of the U.S. Constitution on a large wooden cross planted at the site.
The mourners at the makeshift memorial Sunday included Brandon Curtis, another founder of the Pacific Patriots Network, which wants FBI agents to leave Burns.
“We’ve had enough,” Curtis said. “This stops now.”
On Monday, the network plans for another protest in front of the Harney County Courthouse in Burns.