Three full weeks after they took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, armed members of a self proclaimed militia clashed with law enforcement, leaving one of their ranks dead and others in jail.
Oregon Live reports that the group’s leaders left the refuge yesterday (January 26) to attend a community meeting in John Day, a town about 70 miles north of Burns. Police blocked 40 miles of highway between the two locations, with the intent of arresting them. The group reportedly resisted orders to surrender and gunfire broke out, though no details have been released as to who fired shots. The group’s spokesperson, LaVoy Finicum, was shot and killed during the altercation. No officers were injured.
According to Oregon Live, eight people were arrested in all: Ryan Bundy (who was first treated for a minor gunshot wound to his arm), Ammon Bundy, Ryan W. Payne, Brian Cavalier and Shawna J. Cox were arrested on the scene of the shootout. Joseph D. O’Shaughnessy and Pete Santilli were arrested in Burns. And in Arizona, Jon Ritzheimer surrendered to police for his role in the occupation. They were all charged with conspiracy to impede federal officers through the use of force, intimidation or threats, which is a felony that could carry a sentence of up to six years in prison.
CBS News reports that the FBI and Oregon State Police have set up checkpoints around the refuge and the organizations issued a statement saying that they will only let ranchers who own property in the area through, in an attempt to “better ensure the safety of community members.”
There has been no definitive word as to how many people remain at the refuge, and Oregon governor Kate Brown tweeted a statement last night: “The situation in Harney County continues to be the subject of a federal investigation that is in progress. My highest priority is the safety of all Oregonians and their communities. I ask for patience as officials continue pursuit of a swift and peaceful resolution.”
One of the remaining occupiers told The Washington Post that the group’s demands—that ranchers Steven and Dwight Hammon Jr. be released from prison where they are serving time for arson and the government “return” the 187,000 acres of land that make up the refuge to local citizens—haven’t changed and that they don’t have plans to leave. “Right now, we’re doing fine,” he said. “We’re just trying to figure out how a dead cowboy equals peaceful resolution.”
Until today’s checkpoints were set up, the occupiers have enjoyed freedom of movement on and off the refuge, notably maintaining electricity, heat, mail delivery and even Internet access. Many have questioned if the standoff would still be ongoing if people of color had taken over the buildings on the refuge, citing White privilege as a shield that protects them from the violence many unarmed, peaceful protestors encounter when the interact with law enforcement.