Arizona rancher LaVoy Finicum became a martyr literally overnight.
Even before law enforcement confirmed his death in a shootout with officers on an highway in eastern Oregon, admirers were painting the Malheur Wildlife Refuge standoff leader as a sacrifice to the anti-government cause. But the conversion of the 55-year-old into a martyr, which happened in real time on social media, stretched the limits of cognitive dissonance. His new acolytes described the law-flouting Finicum, who threatened federal agents and vowed never to submit to the authorities, as an innocent murdered in the act of surrendering to cold-blooded law enforcement officers.
Nevada state Assemblywoman Michele Fiore (R), a close ally of the Bundy family, planted the notion that Finicum was cooperating with police when he was shot. She told The Oregonian that Lisa Bundy, wife of militia leader Ammon Bundy, received a phone call from her husband from the back of a squad car moments after he was arrested. Fiore said Bundy told her Finicum was cooperating with police and had his hands raised when he was shot three times.
The Nevada rep, who called the group occupying the Malheur Wildlife Refuge to offer her support earlier this month, aired her outrage over Finicum’s killing online. She tweeted that Finicum was “murdered with his hands up:”
My heart & prays go out to LaVoy Finicum’s family he was just murdered with his hands up in Burns OR.Ryan Bundy has been shot in the arm
— Michele Fiore (@VoteFiore) January 27, 2016
Law enforcement has not yet released the exact details of what happened during their exchange with the group of militants, who were stopped on their way to a community meeting in the nearby town of John Day.
Several Facebook groups supporting the occupation, including Citizens For Constitutional Freedom Support Group, LaVoy Finicum’s Stand For Freedom and Bundy Ranch took the same tack as Fiore, posting a series of tributes and memes framing the slain rancher as an innocent victim of government tyranny.
“LaVoy Finicum has been murdered. LaVoy’s hands were in the air and he was shot in the face,” one post on the Stand For Freedom page read.
“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.”
Cliven Bundy, the patriarch of the Bundy clan who led thousands of protesters in a standoff with federal agents on his Nevada ranch in 2014, echoed the language of “sacrifice” when The Los Angeles Times informed him of Finicum’s death.
“I have some sons and other people there trying to protect our rights and liberties and freedoms, and now we’ve got one killed, and all I can say is, he’s sacrificed for a good purpose,” Bundy told the newspaper.
Finicum himself expressed a willingness to lose his life in the standoff with law enforcement, telling CNN that he would rather die than serve time in jail.
Since the armed occupation began on January 2, the militia has framed their undertaking as a peaceful crusade against an overly intrusive federal government. Finicum and the Bundys insisted in interviews that they wanted the standoff to end without any bloodshed and with the government turning over public lands to the ranchers who work them.
That hands-off stance was belied by the group’s stockpiling of weapons on federal property and the veiled threats they directed towards law enforcement and government employees. A number of local officials, including Harney County Sheriff David Ward, have received death threats and been followed home in the days since the takeover began.
The dissonance between verbal commitments to peace and armed law-breaking allows Finicum to be remembered as both a martyr and a hero who went out in a blaze of glory.
In a statement to Oregon Public Broadcasting, Arianna Finicum Brown, one of Finicum’s 11 children, said her father was “a good good man, through and through.”
“He would never ever want to hurt somebody, but he does believe in defending freedom and he knew the risks involved,” she said.
The death of one of the makeshift militia’s leaders is also galvanizing the self-styled patriots who remain at the refuge.
David Fry, who is among those still holed up at the refuge, told Oregon Public Broadcasting on Wednesday that Finicum’s death changed everything.
“LaVoy was killed, I can’t turn my back on that,” Fry said. “Everybody’s on alert for obvious reasons.”
The remaining few men have promised to remain at the wildlife preserve, telling OPB reporter John Sepulvado that they are “prepared to die.”