The Oath Keepers, the group that helped provoke the heavily armed standoff with federal officials at the Bundy Ranch last year, made some news last week when they showed up in Ferguson, Missouri, wearing body armor and carrying assault weapons. Now, the head of the group’s St. Louis County chapter says he’s angry that his men were “discredited” by the county police chief – he called their presence “unnecessary and inflammatory” – and the Oath Keepers are planning to signal their displeasure by arming 50 black demonstrators with AR-15 assault rifles.
To prevent those protesters from being shot by police, the Oath Keepers will “surround the black demonstrators as protection.” Sam Andrews, the county Oath Keepers leader, says the event will be an iconic event like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington.
Martin Luther King? Let’s step back a minute, and encourage any Ferguson activists who might be thinking about partnering with the Oath Keepers to do the same, and remind ourselves who the Oath Keepers are and why they were in Ferguson.
At an abstract level, the idea behind the Oath Keepers sounds reasonable, almost noble – getting military and law enforcement officers to pledge to uphold their oath to protect the Constitution, and to declare that they will not participate in acts that would violate Americans’ constitutional rights, such as warrantless searches. Some members of the group have denounced excessive use of force by police. In reality, though, the group’s lofty mission statement hides a far-right, anti-government ideology and a strong dose of race-based paranoia. Stewart Rhodes, the founder of Oath Keepers, promotes the kind of wild conspiracy theories that have thrived since the election of Barack Obama as president, including the idea that Obama is trying to provoke a race war as an excuse for declaring martial law and discarding the Constitution.
Rhodes is fond of talking about civil war. In December he said that a 2013 Connecticut law banning some assault weapons and high-capacity magazines would lead to an attempt at door-to-door confiscation and “civil war.” Rhodes said last year that if Congress didn’t impeach Obama for his executive actions on immigration, “then they will lose all credibility, and throw us into a TRUE constitutional crisis, because they will have failed to do their jobs, leaving the people with the necessity of pursuing ‘other options’ to stop him.” In May, he said Sen. John McCain should be tried for treason and then hung.
As Right Wing Watch reported, Rhodes gave a speech to the Oath Keepers’ New York chapter in June, in which he “encouraged his group’s members to organize and stock up on food in order to resist the government’s plan to institute martial law after bringing down the country with an economic collapse, a race war, ISIS attacks and unchecked immigration.” From his speech:
I think that keeping with that communist agenda of a fourth-generation warfare assault, the intent is to use an economic neutron bomb — doesn’t destroy the buildings, but it kills the people eventually, it starves you out — cause chaos, and in the middle of all that chaos, spark a race war, and in the middle of that, unleash these ISIS cells that are now all over the country. And they don’t just ignore the influx of these cells, they cultivate it, they give them fertilizer, water and fresh air and make them grow.
Rhodes said “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.”
The Oath Keepers’ concern for the Constitution doesn’t seem to apply to the constitutional rights of gay people. Mike Koeniger, vice president of the Virginia state chapter, declared last month that a couple hundred sheriffs could defy the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling if they were backed by Oath Keepers:
Imagine that we only had 200 sheriffs that stood in the gap, and behind every one of those sheriffs there were 2,000 Oath Keepers, being civilian or prior military or whatever, imagine the power of 200 sheriffs…
We’d win. We’d win with just 200 sheriffs and 2,000 people behind each of those sheriffs. And then we win the war.
That’s not the only time the Oath Keepers have waded into issues involving gay rights. Earlier this summer, Rhodes accepted an invitation from James David Manning, a Harlem-based pastor who says gays should be stoned to death, to speak at a July 4 event in Gettysburg that Manning hoped would draw attention to “attempts to divide the races.” Rhodes’ contribution to racial healing at the event was claiming that liberals want to divide Americans by race and prompt another civil war. Manning, for his part, called Obama the “son of Satan” and asked the crowd to join him in yelling, “Sodomites, go to Hell!”
But didn’t Oath Keepers say they were in Ferguson to promote unity? Where’s unity, and where’s the Constitution, in all this?
Take the standoff at the Bundy Ranch, at which heavily armed Oath Keepers and other assorted “patriots” sided with a millionaire rancher who was refusing to pay fees that he legally owed for grazing his cattle on federal land. There’s certainly no constitutional right to break federal law or refuse to pay your bills – unless you adopt rancher Bundy’s radical-right refusal to acknowledge the authority of the federal government altogether. During the Bundy standoff, Oath Keepers founder Rhodes warned that Attorney General Eric Holder had authorized a drone strike on the compound. When that turned out to be false, the group claimed that the rumor itself had been an example of psychological warfare by the federal government.
More from the Bundy episode:
Noting that a number of military veterans joined the armed anti-government protest at the Nevada ranch, Rhodes said that “the politicians and the would-be dictators in Washington, D.C…have to worry if they go too hard, if they drop the hammer too blatantly on Americans like at Bundy Ranch, that the Marine Corps would flip on them. And I think it would. And same goes for the tip of the spear in the Army, Army Airborne, special forces, your Navy SEALs, all of those groups out there, the more hardcore they are as warriors, the more likely they are to look at something like that and say, ‘that’s it, I’m done’ and join the resistance.”
Last year, an Oregon mine owner called in the Oath Keepers to prevent government officials from closing him down before a court could hear his appeal. But the mine owner soon decried the “absolute bullshit” being circulated on social media and said the situation had “taken on a life of its own.” He pleaded with activists to stop calling and threatening the Bureau of Land Management personnel.
Back to Ferguson and the protests that were being held around the anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing. Oath Keepers initially said they were there to protect “journalists” working for Alex Jones’ InfoWars. The connection to Jones is not surprising; he is probably the country’s most energetic promoters of outrageous anti-government conspiracy theories, including his claim that killings at Charleston’s Emanuel AME church were part of a government plot to foment a race war and persecute conservatives.
“This is all a set-up.” Jones agreed: “Oh it is. Look at the priming, look at the preparations…. You can see all of the preparation building towards this, this is the big move, it’s a race war to bring in total chaos and then total federalization with this evil Justice Department, they even got rid of the other attorney general who had baggage, they put the new one in for the political persecutions of conservatives and Christians. They’re dropping the hammer.”
At a 2013 Washington, D.C., rally that right-wing activist Larry Klayman convened for the purpose of forcing Obama to step down as president, an Oath Keeper speaker said that the Department of Homeland Security was behind the Boston bombing and committed murder to cover it up.
Rhodes said this spring that the military exercise called Jade Helm 15 – which right-wing activists warned was going to impose martial law on conservative states – was “conditioning and assessment and vetting” of politicians and members of the armed forces to identify who is willing to go along and “drop the hammer on us.”
Given all this history, Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told Gawker’s Andy Cush that he doesn’t buy Oath Keepers’ recent claims to have been in Ferguson to protect protesters.
“I think they realized rather quickly that very few people looked on them kindly, and all of a sudden they became defenders of black protest against police violence,” Potok said. “The reality is they’ve never said anything like that in their entire history. I think it’s ludicrous.”
For more on the Oath Keepers, see the Southern Poverty Law Center and Mother Jones magazine.