We can now see how important it was for the FBI to release the video of the final moments of Oregon standoff spokesman Robert ‘LaVoy’ Finicum. Before the video’s release we were moving rapidly on our way toward a version of events where Finicum was cowering on his knees with his hands clasped behind his head when an FBI agent put a gun to his head and said, “Barry told me to give you this message.”
Of course, we’ve now all seen the video. There’s room for interpretation at the margins. But a few things seem very clear. Finicum, in the driver’s seat, made a run for it after a brief stand off where his vehicle and two FBI vehicles were parked together on an isolated road. He raced about a mile before running into a police/FBI roadblock. After coming close to running down an FBI agent, he plowed his vehicle into a high embankment of snow. He darted out of the car, either with his hands up, with his hands out to steady himself in the snow or motioning to people to back off. After two law enforcement officers emerge, his arms go down and he makes a couple quick moves to his hands to his waist before falling to the ground. But now his family is coming forward to allege a ‘coverup’.
(If you haven’t seen the video, you can watch it here. It’s almost a half hour long but you can fast forward to the 8 minute mark. Everything happens in the next 45 seconds. It’s not gory. But it’s disturbing. You’re watching a man get killed on live video.)
To make sense of what happens, it’s important to remember how rapidly it all happens. He’s made a run for it, slammed into a snow embankment, jumped out of his vehicle. At some level, Finicum probably isn’t ‘thinking’ anything. Adrenaline is playing a big role. My own take is that Finicum thinks maybe he’s getting away. He hits the roadblock and then decides to make a run for it. He hops out, not entirely clear to me what he’s doing with his hands. He’s going to run, sees that he’s surrounded, nowhere to run. Then reaches for his gun at least once. And he’s shot.
Now, however his family is alleging a cover-up. And here’s where the video release is so critical. With the video in the public domain, they’re reduced to making what is a frankly ridiculous argument. The relatives claim that FBI agents opened fire before Finicum emerged from the truck. Then he’s shot while his hands are up. And what looks like Finicum putting his arms down and then making moves towards his waist are actually involuntary muscle movements caused by being shot.
It is not implausible to me that the officers might have shot at the truck while it appeared to be ramming them (I’m not sure if the FBI has addressed this one way or another). But the rest of the ‘cover-up’ argument strikes me as somewhere between far-fetched and absurd on its face. What’s most notable is that the Finicums don’t appear to be contesting the video itself.
I will say that I think we should always be indulgent toward the reactions of the immediate relatives of people who die suddenly and violently – even if they are responsible for their own deaths. Grief and denial have a powerfully warping effect on the mind, as I know even from my own personal experience. What matters, though, is the beliefs and propagandizing of all the extremists, hangers-on, criminals and liars who sympathize with Finicum-ism and the actions of the other stand-off yahoos. Some people will believe anything. But the release of the video has, I think, clarified the matter for all who are open to even the most limited reality based take on what happened.
Late Update: When I wrote this post I was treating it as a given that we all know that Finicum said during the stand off that he would rather die than be taken a live, which is an inevitable and critically important prism through which to understand the video and other evidence. What I either didn’t remember or didn’t realize was so clear cut is that there are now two eyewitnesses (here and here) who say Finicum was yelling “just shoot me” after he hopped out of the truck. Needless to say, police shouldn’t shoot someone because they ask to be shot. But reaching for a gun, which Finicum clearly appears to doing in the video, is a strong justification for the law enforcement officers to use lethal force, especially against someone who had said clearly he planned to go down shooting. Saying “just shoot me” just adds to an understanding of Finicum’s state of mind and intentions in his final moments. Reaching for his gun was just his way of forcing the matter.