Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich continued his criticism of an armed protest at an Oregon wildlife refuge at a downtown speech Monday night.
An encore of a presentation given in Spokane Valley in the summer, Knezovich said the unfolding situation at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge near Burns illustrated the danger of a growing segment of the population intent on using misinformation to turn others against the government.
“They came in, said they wanted to support the local ranchers, but what these guys actually want to do is to overthrow the county and federal government,” Knezovich said, telling the friendly crowd of a couple hundred people in attendance at The Bing Crosby Theater that he'd spoken with Harney County Sheriff David Ward about the situation.
“That is exactly what they're trying to do. The sheriff – I don't know how many he times he used that word there in our discussion. 'Revolution.'”
Knezovich, dressed in his uniform and speaking through a headset, reiterated many of the points of his speech from June, including a reminder that Monday marked five years since a bombing attempt on the route of the Martin Luther King Jr. parade through downtown Spokane. Kevin Harpham, a Stevens County man with ties to white supremacist groups, pleaded guilty to criminal charges and remains in prison.
But the armed protest that began earlier this month in Oregon, and the visit by state Rep. Matt Shea in what he has called a “fact-finding mission,” prompted a lengthy addition to Knezovich's program. The sheriff said sympathizers had taken to social media to warp the narrative surrounding the protest and accused mainstream media of doing little to combat the falsehoods.
Shea has said reporting on his trip has prompted death threats against him. The Washington State Patrol is investigating.
Knezovich said he was puzzled when he first read about the arson case against Dwight and Steven Hammond, the Oregon ranchers who pleaded guilty to setting an out-of-control wildfire that scorched more than 100 acres of public land in 2001.
“Then I did, what I do too much, I guess, because my wife will tell you I spend Saturday mornings researching stuff like this,” Knezovich said.
Citing court documents and discussions with local and federal law enforcement in Burns, Knezovich said the narrative created by the protesters is false, and dismissed rumors about undercover FBI agents and the death of livestock during prescribed burns by federal agencies, pointing out that one of the videos used by protesters to recruit people to their cause actually used footage from a naturally caused wildfire in 2012.
“I don't care how you feel about land use, land use is not the issue here,” Knezovich said. “They want you to believe that, but it's not.”
Knezovich said at the beginning of his speech that he had three heroes: Martin Luther King, Gandhi and George Washington. The first president of the United States would be handling the Oregon situation differently, Knezovich said.
“I can tell you how George Washington handled one of these things back in his day,” Knezovich said, in front of a photo of an Oregon protester clothed in Revolutionary War garb. “It's called 'The Whiskey Rebellion.' He called in the militia and they dealt with it.”
That 1794 protest was prompted by the first tax on domestically produced goods by the federal government. Washington led a contingent of militia on loan from several of the states to confront western Pennsylvania protesters, who eventually stood down.
Knezovich said he wasn't singling out so-called “Constitutionalist” groups as dangers to the community. He called ISIS, the Islamic extremist group, a “current and active threat” in Spokane, and spoke of several white supremacist groups that had historic ties to the region.
“Folks, I don't care what you call yourself. I really don't,” Knezovich said. “I don't care what type of group you want to associate yourself with … The only time I will care about your theology, your politics, your ideology, whatever you want to call yourself, is when you step into criminal activity.”
After his speech, which was sponsored by the Republicans of Spokane, Knezovich fielded written questions from the audience. He was asked about his offer, once again, to lead the Spokane Police Department in addition to his duties as sheriff.
Knezovich said he spoke about the proposal to his barber.
“I've been asked that question for the 10 years I've been sheriff,” Knezovich said. “My barber says, 'You know, sheriff, it's because they couldn't control you.' And I said, 'Hmm, maybe you're right.'”
The sheriff also weighed in on the current personnel issues plaguing the police department, including the forced resignation of former Chief Frank Straub, an investigation into allegations of rape by an officer and the allegations of obstruction against the head of the Spokane Police Guild, John Gately.
“I really believe that SPD is a good agency, it's got a good soul. But its heart's sick,” Knezovich said. “It's going to take leadership to break what's going on there.”