Tension flared in the deeply divided town of Burns, Oregon, on Monday as 500 demonstrators on both sides of an armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge squared off, brandishing signs and yelling at each other days after one of the occupiers was shot dead by state police.
Only four people remain at the refuge after several were arrested or left last week.
Residents angered by the four-week presence of the armed occupiers and their supporters started crowding the streets in front of the Harney County Courthouse in late morning, seeking to serve as a counter-protest to a noon (2000 GMT) demonstration called at the courthouse by supporters of the occupation.
Shortly before noon, the mostly residential streets around the courthouse had swelled with protesters – about 300 opposed to the occupiers and 200, some of them from out of town, in favor. Some of the demonstrators had sidearms.
Those opposed to the militia shouted, “Go home!” Supporters, some carrying signs with a photograph of LaVoy Finicum, an occupier who was shot by police last week, shouted back, “We are home.”
“We’re trying to make the militia leave our town,” Andrew Snyder, 20, said before the two sides faced off.
Like many here, Snyder agrees with the occupiers’ goal of reducing federal control over lands where cattle graze. But he said the occupation of the refuge is wrong and that they should take their fight to court.
“I want to feel safe in my town,” said Lindsay Davies, 37, a mother of three who says her young children are afraid of the armed protesters walking around the community.
“It feels like a threat when people are carrying guns and you see guns all over the place,” said Davies, who works for the federal Bureau of Land Management. “I believe in the second amendment but it can be intimidating when you’re out grocery shopping.”
Finicum, 54, a spokesman for the group that seized buildings at the refuge on Jan. 2, was killed on Wednesday by police during the arrests of occupation leader Ammon Bundy and several other protesters at a traffic stop. Bundy told remaining occupiers to go home after his arrest.
The occupation began when Bundy and at least a dozen followers took the refuge in a flare-up in the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, a decades-old conflict over federal control of millions of acres and fees charged to ranchers for grazing their cattle on government land.
(Reporting by Jimmy Urquhart; Writing and additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; Editing by Bill Trott)