“We are flat running out of time and we need to get as prepared as possible as fast as possible.”
That’s the explanation Oath Keepers founder and president Stewart Rhodes offers at the end of a lengthy email to members of his patriot movement on why they’ve decided to “go operational.” Since its inception in 2009, the Oath Keepers have advocated arming and training civilians in order to protect themselves in times of crisis and fight back against unconstitutional acts by the government. But, according to Rhodes, the United States is on the fast track to economic ruin and Americans need to learn to protect themselves now because the government soon won’t be able to. That’s why the Oath Keepers are recruiting veterans, retired doctors, and EMTs to train “civilization preservation” teams in communities throughout the country.
“We think this is what Americans should do anyway, but now we see that we’re seriously in a vulnerable position because most Americans don’t,” Rhodes told The Daily Beast. “After Hurricane Katrina and Sandy, we saw Americans dependent on FEMA, on a government that can’t do anything. People have been desperate, vulnerable to crime and vulnerable to dying” in such emergency situations, he said.
But it’s not a natural disaster that Rhodes thinks will catapult the country into chaos. In his email announcing the launch of the plan, Rhodes lays out the course of action he predicts “the enemy”—the government—is preparing to follow, including “intentionally triggering a catastrophic economic collapse” as a means of creating disorder that they will then use as an excuse to impose martial law, destroy the constitution and use the billions of dollars in ammunition, armored vehicles and weapons he claims the Department of Homeland Security and local police have been stockpiling “to control and contain us.”
By creating civilization preservation teams now, Rhodes argues, Americans will be ready to fight back if and when that scenario plays out. These proposed 12-to-14 person groups are modeled after the U.S. Army’s Special Forces “A Team,” with two communications experts, two medical experts, two engineers, two “strategic food reserve” specialists, and four-to-six “scouts” to be trained specifically in tracking, search and rescue, wilderness survival, rifle shooting and, of course, combat.
“It’s ridiculous to disarm the people and tell them they have to rely on the police when the police cannot possibly protect you in some of these circumstances.”
Rhodes emphasizes that his goal is not to recruit more members to the Oath Keepers, but to utilize veterans by having them teach average Americans everything they know.
“They have all of these skills in every VFW. Rather than have them die and then all that training is lost, why not pass it on now?” Rhodes said. “The strongest America we can imagine is one where everyone has a speciality in their community, neighborhood, and even their families.”
Rhodes points to the citizen militias that have emerged across the Mexican state of Michoacan to fight the drug cartels terrorizing their towns as an example of what he’s going for.
“It’s ridiculous to disarm the people and tell them they have to rely on the police when the police cannot possibly protect you in some of these circumstances,” he said.
A Yale-educated lawyer, Rhodes is well-spoken and as passionate about his cause as he is calm. He doesn’t get overly excited when talking about the immediate threat of American collapse and the need for citizens to arm themselves and prepare for combat. In fact, it’s easy to listen to him describe his simple desire for all Americans to know how to defend themselves and think, maybe this guy has a point.
That’s when it’s time to pause and consider the Oath Keepers’ background. Founded in 2009, the Southern Poverty Law Center counts the organization as part of the widespread anti-government “patriot” movement sparked by the election of President Obama, the national economic downturn, and the rise in demographic-altering immigration. According to the SPLC, there were 1,274 active anti-government patriot groups in the U.S. in 2011. What has always separated the Oath Keepers from the rest of these groups is that their core membership is made up of cops, firefighters, EMTs, police officers, and members of the military—both active duty and retired. These members vow to protect the constitution but also to disobey any governmental orders that they deem “unconstitutional.” Recently, the Oath Keepers adopted NSA leaker Edward Snowden as a symbol of this oath, and bought a billboard in the White House station of the D.C. Metro that reads: “Snowden Honored His Oath, Honor Yours! Stop Big Brother!”
Questions over whether Rhodes is simply a lawyer with a devotion to civil liberties or the leader of a radical fringe group seemed to be answered by the lineup at an Oath Keepers rally last summer. July’s Northwest Patriots and Self Reliance Rally in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho featured representatives from the John Birch Society, which promotes the idea that the fluoridation of water is actually a Communist plot, and patriot movement favorite Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff who has urged county sheriffs to violate federal gun laws. The gathering’s schedule also included a workshop on colloidal silver, a substance that, despite having no known medical use, is believed by many radicals to be a cure-all that the government has been hiding from the American people. There were training sessions on nighttime military patrols, firearms, and hand-to-hand combat, and seminars on the U.N. sustainability plan Agenda 21, which conspiracy theorists argue is a plot to force the U.S. into socialism. The SPLC concluded at the time that the Oath Keepers’ willingness to associate with these people and promote such ideas was critical evidence of the group’s own extremist tendencies.
According to Senior SPLC Fellow Mark Potok, the latest announcement that the Oath Keepers are “going operational” is further proof of the group’s radicalization.
“They’ve been up to their armpits in conspiracy theories, but haven’t formed militias or paramilitary groups before,” said Potok. Still, while there’s no doubt that’s exactly what the Oath Keepers are threatening to do, Potok is skeptical about whether these “civilization preservation” teams will ever materialize. “It’s a lot of big talk and bluster, but we’ll see if they actually pull it off,” said Potok. “I think real law enforcement officials would be appalled at these ‘citizen groups’ arming up and helping them.”
Potok says hatred of President Obama and fear of gun control are what’s really motivating Rhodes and his crew.
“What’s beneath the surface here is that Obama is going to destroy Western civilization and that they’ve got to somehow help. But, in fact, we’re probably not at the brink of the world and the United States doesn’t need help from Stuart Rhodes,” Potok said. “These are big boys who like to play with guns and they like to justify that by saying they’re defending the constitution. They’re really just an anti-government group who believe in a wild set of conspiracy theories.”
It’s exactly that kind of attitude that Rhodes believes will hurt Americans when the country inevitably falls apart.
“We’re headed for a Weimar Republic-style collapse,” he said. “And Americans are foolish to ignore it.”