On Monday night, as a smattering of protesters continued to remember the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, a group of four white men carrying assault weapons walked onto the streets of Ferguson.
They might have looked familiar to veterans from last year’s protests in Missouri. The heavily armed people in flak jackets are from a “patriot” group called the Oath Keepers. It is an organization of soldiers, police officers, firefighters, and veterans — the group claims 30,000 members — that is deeply suspicious of President Obama, and preparing to fight the federal government in the unlikely event that it declares martial law. The organization was founded in 2009 by former paratrooper and Yale Law School graduate Stewart Rhodes, who campaigned for Ron Paul in 2008 and has described a certain 2016 presidential candidate as Hitlery Clinton. Around 2010, when tea-party rallies speckled state capitols across the country, he was a frequent guest of conservative-television pundits.
St. Louis County police chief Jon Belmar said the presence of the Oath Keepers during a state of emergency was “both unnecessary and inflammatory.” A police spokesperson told NBC News that he did not believe the men had been confronted by authorities or asked to leave. The Oath Keepers told reporters on the scene that they were there to protect journalists from InfoWars, a conservative-media website run by noted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. The Oath Keepers had the additional benefit of giving the journalists they accompanied great copy; one of the top headlines on InfoWars right now is, “MEDIA LAUNCHES NEW DEMONIZATION CAMPAIGN AS OATH KEEPERS ARRIVE IN FERGUSON.”
Perhaps inevitably, the night ended with a few of the armed men cordially speaking to protesters about how great Donald Trump is.
After a grand jury decided last November not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown, the Oath Keepers made their first appearance in Ferguson. The group had a supporting role in the news earlier in 2014 for helping Cliven Bundy defend his cattle from the Bureau of Land Management. Sam Andrews, who was perched on top of a dentist’s office with his two guns, told ABC News at the time that he was protecting “the best part of America, the creative part, the small businesses, the hardest working people in the United States of America. To defend them from arson.” He added that the group would be there “as long as it takes.”
At the time, Rhodes spoke with Al Jazeera about those criticizing the group’s motives for being in St. Louis. “I’m a quarter Mexican, so it’s kind of hard for me to be a white supremacist,” he said. “And we have black members, and we’re guarding a black lady’s bakery … So why would we do that if we’re some kind of racist organization?” He added in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Historically, the government almost always fails to protect people.” The police eventually told the Oath Keepers that they had to get off the rooftops of local businesses.
On Monday, hours after the police shot a black teenager accused of firing a weapon at detectives, around 60 protesters were arrested in front of the federal courthouse in St. Louis, U.S. Attorney General Richard Callahan told NPR. More than 20 protesters were arrested later on Monday night, after a few — who were later pepper sprayed — reportedly threw rocks and frozen water bottles at police officers. For the most part, the evening was quiet, protester Rnesha Baldwin told St. Louis Public Radio. “It’s peaceful out here, we might be a little annoying, but it’s peaceful,” she said.
Many protesters and officials besides Police Chief Belmar bristled at the presence of the Oath Keepers.
Democratic committeewoman Patricia Bynes told NBC News, “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’s more about the hypocrisy. Of wow, if anybody out here tried that they’d be met with a different greeting from police.”