We have to wait to find out exactly what happened, but so far the terse FBI announcement leaves a bad taste about the arrests of some of the protesters in Harney County and the killing of one of them.
The protesters of federal land policy were on their way to a community meeting in John Day, driving along what the map shows to be a lonely section of the Burns-John Day Highway. That’s where, 20 miles north of Burns at about 4:25 p.m., the FBI said, its agents and the Oregon State Police “began an enforcement action to bring into custody a number of individuals associated with the armed occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. During that arrest there were shots fired.”
The passive voice — “shots were fired” — intentionally obscures who fired them, or why.
One of the targets of the “law enforcement action” ended up dead. Another was wounded, treated at a hospital and then arrested along with the five others taken into custody.
The FBI said they were charged with a federal felony: “conspiracy to impede officers of the United States from discharging their official duties through the use of force, intimidation, or threats.”
Through the three weeks of this action, the news from Harney County had been surprisingly peaceful. The sheriff had met with the protesters. He and others had urged them to go home. Instead they met with reporters and sought to gain support at public meetings.
Their prolonged presence at the refuge headquarters was unwanted and inconvenient. But did it prevent any important work from going on, in the middle of nowhere at the height of winter? Was anyone threatened with harm?
The protesters were armed. But so are lots of people, in Harney County and elsewhere. Every fall, people with rifles comb our forests looking for game. There are no alarming reports on TV about hundreds of “armed men and women” in the woods.
This group was protesting the unjust imprisonment of a father and son and the heavy-handed administration of federal rule over vast stretches of the West. Their occupation was doomed because its goals can be achieved only by political action. But it could and should have been allowed to wind down of its own accord, without any loss of life. (hh)