The Oath Keepers Patrol Rooftops in Ferguson—The Facts Behind This ‘Mysterious’ Militia Group

As demonstrations and riots continue in Ferguson, an armed militia-esque group has appeared on rooftop patrols, pledging to protect private property. But given their anti-government rhetoric, the Oath Keepers' presence could inflame tensions further.

12.01.14 1:51 AM ET

The Oath Keepers are back and patrolling the rooftops of Ferguson—or at least they were until being asked to stand down by the St. Louis County Police Department. It’s the latest bid for relevance by the militia-esque organization—largely comprised of government veterans who promise to stand armed alongside citizens against the U.S. government—which sprung up amid the rhetoric of resistance in the early days of the Obama administration. 

Even with vigilante overtones, trying to secure private property against looters is arguably the most honorable incarnation of The Oath Keepers.  While the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described the group as “mysterious, the Oath Keepers have been hiding in plain site since launched by a former Ron Paul aide named Stewart Rhodes, warning of a tyrannical government months after President Obama took the oath of office.  What follows is some of my initial reporting on the rise of the group, published in Wingnuts.  

“You need to be alert and aware of how close we are to having our constitutional republic destroyed!”

So thundered Stewart Rhodes to a wave of applause on Lexington Green, Massachusetts, on April 19, 2009. The crowd assembled including military veterans and reservists, cops and firefighters, and no small number of Revolutionary War re-enactors. It was the first public meeting of the Oath Keepers. The location and date of the gathering had been chosen carefully. It was the anniversary of the first battle of the American Revolution on that very spot. The Oath Keeper Web site featured a quote from George Washington to set the tone: “The time is now near at hand which must probably determine, whether Americans are to be, Freemen, or Slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own.” The Oath Keepers then added their own dark warning: “Such a time is near at hand again.”

“The whole point of the Oath Keepers is to stop a dictatorship from ever happening here,” later explained its founder, Stewart Rhodes, a Yale Law School graduate, former army paratrooper, and former aide to Congressman Ron Paul. “My focus is on the guys with the guns, because they can’t do it without them. … We say if the American people decide it’s time for a revolution, we’ll fight with you.”

On a Saturday morning in October 2009, I joined the Oath Keepers for their first annual meeting at the Texas Station Hotel and Casino, on the fringe of the Las Vegas strip. In a ballroom beside slot machines and frontier town façades, nearly 100 current and former military and law enforcement officers met to reaffirm their constitutional oath.

On the display tables, there were images of a black-masked storm trooper standing behind the presidential podium with a skull imposed on the U.S. Capitol dome. There was talk of an H1N1 vaccine conspiracy, false flag operations and concentration camps—all part of a carefully planned descent into fascism and then communism.

Former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack—a militia hero in the 1990s and advisor to the Oath Keepers—felt that the anger in the room was justified. “The very people who promised us that they would protect our Constitution are the ones destroying it.” He believes President Obama violates his constitutional oath “on a daily basis … probably two or three times a day.”

Garrett Lear, the so-called Patriot Pastor, nods his head. Dressed in navy blue eighteenth-century regalia, complete with a tricornered hat, the frequent speaker at Tea Party protests believes that “Mr. Obama” is a “domestic enemy” as set forth by the U.S. Constitution and should be impeached. “I have a hard time calling him president though I do want to pay him respect as a human being,” intones the six-foot-seven-inch Mayflower descendant, “but I don’t personally believe that he’s legitimately president of the United States.”

Within nine months of their launch on Lexington Green, the Oath Keeper’s dues-paying membership rose to 3,000—including active-duty military, current and retired police officers and sheriffs—and the organization claims that 15,000 people have signed up to participate on their online forum. They have established themselves as a nonprofit organization, complete with a board of directors. Describing themselves as “The Guardians of the Republic,” the Oath Keepers distribute business cards with orders they will not obey—it’s a step-by-step tour through the Hatriot vision of America. Among them:

• We will NOT obey any order to disarm the American people.

• We will NOT obey orders to invade and subjugate any state that asserts its sovereignty and declares the national government to be in violation of the compact by which that state entered the Union.

• 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 U.S. soil against the American people to “keep the peace” or to “maintain control” during any emergency, or under any other pretext. We will consider such use of foreign troops against our people to be an invasion and an act of war.

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It’s a world of government-sponsored concentration camps, forced disarmament and international invasion—scary stuff. But where many see fearmongering, the Oath Keepers see themselves as freedom’s last defender.

Stewart Rhodes is an engaging and intelligent, if angry, guy—he’s taken the stage on MSNBC’s Hardball and won a constitutional prize at Yale Law. He is careful to distance his group from outright advocates of anti-government violence, writing that “those of you who are in militia have a vital mission which we support and agree with fully. But it is a different mission. We don’t mind at all if people belong to both, but keep the two activities separate.” He also knows the way to disarm critics: To those who see the rise of the Oath Keepers as a response to Obama, he is quick to condemn George W. Bush—he was just too busy during the Bush years to mobilize his ideas into action. And to those who question the repeated concentration camp riff, he pulls the ultimate liberal guilt trip: If internment camps happened to Japanese-Americans during World War II, why should we think it couldn’t happen today. It raises the image of Stewart Rhodes, liberal action hero.

But not all Oath Keepers are as smooth as Stewart Rhodes. In a video posted on the Oath Keepers’ site, a man who describes himself as a former army paratrooper in Afghanistan and Iraq calls President Obama “an enemy of the state,” adding, “I would rather die than be a slave to my government.” Oath Keeper and former Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack has said, “The greatest threat we face today is not terrorists; it is our federal government.” Extremism is no vice in Hatriot circles: you can even buy T-shirts at the Oath Keeper site that say: “I’m a Right Wing Extremist and Damn Proud of It!