Police and protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, now appear to agree on at least one thing: A new group of heavily armed white men in the St. Louis suburb is doing more harm than good.
"Their presence was both unnecessary and inflammatory," St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said, according to Reuters.
Belmar was referring to the Oath Keepers, a group of armed men who showed up to Ferguson to purportedly protect reporters with a conservative media outlet. But the presence of armed white men in a predominantly black community has stoked further tensions in Ferguson, which is marking the one-year anniversary of the police shooting of Michael Brown with new demonstrations against police brutality — leading both police and demonstrators to ask what can be done about the group.
But this is typical for the Oath Keepers, a conservative group whose members often put themselves in these types of confrontations, seemingly to show that they can.
Who are the Oath Keepers?
The Oath Keepers, founded in 2009, are made up of current and formerly serving military personnel, police officers, and first responders who purport to uphold an oath taken by police and military to "defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic." At the heart of the group is strong support for Americans' right to bear arms and form militias for self-defense.
The group, which claims to have more than 30,000 members, adheres to 10 "Orders We Will Not Obey" that they see as unconstitutional demands:
- We will NOT obey orders to disarm the American people.
- We will NOT obey orders to conduct warrantless searches of the American people.
- We will NOT obey orders to detain American citizens as "unlawful enemy combatants" or to subject them to military tribunal.
- We will NOT obey orders to impose martial law or a "state of emergency" on a state.
- We will NOT obey orders to invade and subjugate any state that asserts its sovereignty.
- We will NOT obey any order to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps.
- We will NOT obey any order to force American citizens into any form of detention camps under any pretext.
- We will NOT obey orders to assist or support the use of any foreign troops on US soil against the American people to "keep the peace" or to "maintain control."
- We will NOT obey any orders to confiscate the property of the American people, including food and other essential supplies.
- We will NOT obey any orders which infringe on the right of the people to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.
The Oath Keepers have gained notoriety for their very conservative views. The group's founder, former US Army paratrooper and Yale Law School graduate Stewart Rhodes, repeatedly referred to Hillary Clinton as "Hitlery" in a SWAT Magazine article that suggested a Clinton administration would mandate a "total ban on the private possession of firearms" and "declare the entire militia movement … to be enemy combatants." He later suggested that President Barack Obama is trying to create a race war, adding that "the leftists in this country hate this country, they hate it, and they will get in bed with radical Islamists because they have a common enemy — Western civilization."
In 2014, the group came to the defense of Cliven Bundy when the Nevada rancher, who previously made racist comments, refused to withdraw his cattle from federal lands and the government sent armed agents to vacate the animals, leading to a tense standoff before the federal agents withdrew to avoid a violent confrontation.
These acts have given way to a lot of criticism of the Oath Keepers over the years. The Southern Poverty Law Center considers Rhodes an "extremist," describing his organization as "a fiercely antigovernment, militaristic group":
[J]ust as central is the group's list of 10 "Orders We Will Not Obey," a compendium of much-feared but entirely imaginary threats from the government — orders, for instance, to force Americans into concentration camps, confiscate their guns, or cooperate with foreign troops in the United States. These supposed threats are, in fact, part of the central conspiracy theory advocated by the antigovernment "Patriot" movement of which the Oath Keepers is a part — the baseless claim that the federal government plans to impose martial law, seize Americans' weapons, force those who resist into concentration camps, and, ultimately, push the country into a one-world socialistic government known as the "New World Order."
In Ferguson, the Oath Keepers were first spotted in the anniversary protests when media and protesters noticed white men wearing flak jackets, holding combat-style rifles, and equipped with other sidearms.
Why are the Oath Keepers in Ferguson?
"There were problems here, there were people who got hurt," one Oath Keeper told Reuters, referencing the looting and violence in the area over the past year. "We needed to be prepared for that."
The group was also in Ferguson in November, similarly stating that they were there to protect locals and businesses as riots and looting broke out after a grand jury decided not to press criminal charges against former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for shooting and killing Michael Brown. But they eventually left after they were spotted on rooftops and police threatened to arrest them for operating without a license, St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Jesse Bogan reported.
But it's also possible that the Oath Keepers are there just to show that it's within their legal rights to do so. Under Missouri law, people can openly display firearms unless it is done in an "angry or threatening manner." And since one of the Oath Keepers' central tenets is to enforce their right to bear arms and refuse orders to disarm, being at the tense protests gives them an opportunity to confront others with this legal right.
Indeed, one of the Oath Keepers seemed to talk up his gun rights in a video from NBC News. "I'm happy that we're able to defend ourselves," he said. "It's been our right for a long time."
Why are people upset at the Oath Keepers in Ferguson?
Police and protesters said the presence of the Oath Keepers only worsens tensions in Ferguson. The protests are largely about calling attention to police brutality after the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer, so the image of white gun-wielders in a predominantly black area is jarring to locals.
"You're going to bring some uncommissioned citizens, white citizens, into a black community like this? It's disrespectful," Talal Ahmad, a protester, told Reuters. "Here, in a black neighborhood, we're already living in a state of terror."
In response to the complaints, St. Louis County Police Chief Belmar promised to talk to the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney's Office about the legality of the issue and whether anything can be done about the group.
Others suggested that police would react more aggressively if the Oath Keepers were black. This critique gets to the central criticism of police by the Ferguson protests — that, according to anecdotal evidence and research, police view black people as bigger threats and are more likely to use force as a result.
@TefPoe If oath keepers were black, despicable authorities would have sent the national guard with attack orders. Despicable double crap !— Awesome Cesar (@AwesomeAction) August 11, 2015
Patricia Bynes, the Democratic committeewoman of Ferguson Township, voiced a similar sentiment to NBC News's Cassandra Vinograd: "If there were black and brown people in this country who showed up in the streets open carrying assault rifles in paramilitary garb would they still be received the same way? It seems to be that especially when it comes to the Second Amendment there seems to be a different way that it is enforced."
As one example, media and protesters have pointed to the false arrest of three black men who were suspected of possessing handguns. The Guardian's Oliver Laughland, Jon Swaine, and Joanna Walters reported that it later turned out the black men weren't in possession of any weapons. "The treatment of these suspects, who were wrestled to the ground and placed in plastic flexicuffs, came in seemingly stark contrast to" the Oath Keepers, Laughland, Swaine, and Walters wrote.
So even this issue comes back to the central complaint of the Ferguson protests: When it comes to America's laws and the criminal justice system, white and black people appear to be treated fundamentally differently.