Oath Keepers logo
|Motto||“Not on our watch!”|
|Purpose||"To defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic"|
|Stewart Rhodes, Michele Imburgia, Rex H. McTyeire, Richard Mack, John D. Shirley, Steven C. Homan, Jim Ayala, Jay Stang|
Oath Keepers is an American radical organization associated with the anti-government patriot movement. It encourages members—some of whom are current and former U.S. military and law enforcement officers—not to obey orders which they believe would violate the United States Constitution. The group is best known for its controversial presence in Ferguson, Missouri during protests and unrest in the city, during which its members were armed with semi-automatic rifles and were described as a far-right militia group by the media.
The organization describes itself as a non-partisan association of current and formerly serving military, police, and first responders, who pledge to fulfill the oath all military and police take to "defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic." Groups that monitor domestic terrorism and hate groups disagree with this description. Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) describes the group as "heavily armed extremists with a conspiratorial and anti-government mindset looking for potential showdowns with the government". and they are listed in the ADL's section on domestic extremism & terrorism. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) lists the group's founder as a known "extremist" and terms his announced plans to create localized militia units "frightening"; SPLC senior fellow Mark Potok describes the group as a whole as "really just an anti-government group who believe in a wild set of conspiracy theories." The group espouses a number of conspiracy and legal theories associated with the sovereign citizen movement and the white supremacist posse comitatus movement.
Oath Keepers was founded in March 2009 by Elmer Stewart Rhodes. Rhodes is a Yale Law School graduate, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, and a former staffer of Republican Congressman Ron Paul. Rhodes was disbarred by the Montana Supreme Court for conduct violating the Montana Rules of Professional Conduct on December 8, 2015 after refusing to respond to two bar grievances filed against him in the federal district court in Arizona.
Rhodes is reported to have taken inspiration from the idea that Hitler could have been stopped if German soldiers and police had refused to follow orders. Writing in S.W.A.T. Magazine in 2008, Stewart asserts, "'It' (a full-blown totalitarian police state) cannot happen here if the majority of police and soldiers obey their oaths to defend the Constitution and refuse to enforce the unconstitutional edicts of the 'Leader'."
The organization claims on its website that full membership is open to "currently serving military, reserves, National Guard, police, fire-fighters, other first responders (i.e. State Guard, Sheriff Posse/Auxiliary, Search & Rescue, EMT, other medical 1st responders, etc.) AND veterans/former members of those services," and that others who support the organization's mission can become associate members. The organization claims to have up to 30,000 firefighters as members, though this figure has been questioned by some critics.
Journalist Harman Leon tested the group's application process and found that although the group claimed to restrict membership to servicemembers, there were no practical checks on membership, in a column exploring how "America's Scariest Police Chief" Mark Kessler was able to join the group. Leon discovered that the group does no actual background checks on applicants.
In late November 2014 during the unrest in Ferguson, the Oath Keepers put out a national request to its members to help in the city after the grand jury decision was released in the Shooting of Michael Brown case. In reference to the perceived failure of the government's response to the unrest, the organization's founder, Stewart Rhodes, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "We thought they were going to do it right this time, but when Monday rolled around and they didn’t park the National Guard at these businesses, that’s when we said we have got to do something." On December 2, 2014, volunteer security guards associated with the Oath Keepers kept armed watch on Ferguson rooftops, ignoring a police order to stop.
In August 2015, four members of the group appeared again on the streets of Ferguson, following peaceful street demonstrations on the anniversary of Brown's shooting. According to an article in The Washington Post, "The men — all of them white and heavily armed — said they were in the area to protect someone who worked for the Web site Infowars.com, which is affiliated with talk-radio conspiracy theorist and self-described 'thought criminal against Big Brother' Alex Jones." The Oath Keepers claimed to be on the side of the protestors. St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar told the newspaper that the Oath Keepers' "presence was both unnecessary and inflammatory."
Pacific Northwest mine disputes
In 2015 armed Oath Keepers in the Pacific Northwest attended two disputes between gold miners and federal authorities. In April they gathered in Medford, Oregon at the request of the owners of the Sugar Pine Mine near Galice, after the owners were ordered to stop working the mine by the Bureau of Land Management. In August they patrolled the White Hope Mine in the Helena National Forest, about 20 miles from Lincoln, Montana; the U.S. Forest Service said the miners had engaged in illegal construction and tree-felling.
In 2014 Oath Keepers were present at the Bundy Ranch standoff, when agents of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) seized cattle that a rancher was judged to be illegally grazing on federal land in Clark County, Nevada.
On September 10, 2015, the Oath Keepers announced that they would travel to Rowan County, Kentucky to prevent Kim Davis from being arrested and jailed should she be held in contempt for a second time for violating a court order prohibiting her from interfering with marriage licensing in her office. The group aimed to block enforcement of contempt of court rulings against Davis, and said stated that "If the sheriff, who should be interceding, is not going to do his job and the governor is not going to do the governor’s job of interceding, then we'll do it." The Oath Keepers also attacked the judge in the case, David Bunning, saying: "this judge needs to be put on notice that his behavior is not going to be accepted and we’ll be there to stop it and intercede ourselves if we have to."
Members were advised the following day that Davis' legal team, acting on her behalf, had declined their offer to provide a "security detail" to Davis. The Oath Keepers issued a statement saying that while members were still welcome to visit Rowan County, it would be in an unofficial capacity only. The group's statement also said that it respected the "time honored, respectable, and honorable American tradition" of civil disobedience.
Protesters have accused the group of racism, especially after groups of all-white members armed with rifles congregated in Ferguson during demonstrations related to police brutality and racial inequality. The group says its bylaws prevent potential members from joining if they have a history of bigotry or have been associated with any discriminatory organization.
In August 2015, John Karriman, a teacher at Missouri Southern State University's Police Academy and head of the Missouri chapter of the Oath Keepers used the term "mulatto" to describe U.S. President Barack Obama on CBC Radio's As It Happens program while discussing his and the organization's involvement in the Ferguson unrest.
St. Louis County police officer Dan Page was relieved of duty in 2014 after assaulting CNN journalist Don Lemon on live television in Ferguson. Subsequently a YouTube videotaped speech was found in which he had criticized President Obama, Muslims, and denounced hate crime laws using racial and homophobic slurs while addressing an Oath Keepers meeting. The YouTube video contained a disclaimer stating that Page's opinions did not reflect those of the local chapter or national organization.
An article posted to the organization's official website on April 14, 2016 opined that if Hillary Clinton won the 2016 U.S. presidential election, "the result would probably be outright civil war in the U.S."
Larry Keller wrote in the SPLC's 2009 report The Second Wave: Return of the Militias that the Oath Keepers "may be a particularly worrisome example of the Patriot revival." Keller described Richard Mack, an Oath Keeper, as a "longtime militia hero" and quoted him as having said, "The greatest threat we face today is not terrorists; it is our federal government. ... One of the best and easiest solutions is to depend on local officials, especially the sheriff, to stand against federal intervention and federal criminality." Mack, a former sheriff, responded by denying the claims, saying, "I have had no contact with any militia group and have never been a member of any militia." Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the SPLC, said in an interview that the group has no history of political violence, but that, "The core ideas of these groups relate to the fear that elites in this country and around the world are slowly and steadily and nefariously moving us towards a one-world government, the so-called New World Order."
In 2009 the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) wrote in a report that, "The 'orders' the Oath Keepers refuse [to obey] reveal their extreme conspiratorial mindset, because the 'orders' are not instructions ever likely to be actually handed down by Obama or his officials; instead, they are reflective of the anti-government conspiracy theories embraced by the extreme right."
Quoting the Las Vegas Review-Journal, MSNBC political commentator and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan said, "Oath Keepers, depending on where one stands, are either strident defenders of liberty or dangerous peddlers of paranoia." Buchanan himself concluded that "America was once their country. They sense they are losing it. And they are right."
Fox News Radio host Lou Dobbs spoke with founder Stewart Rhodes on his radio show in 2009 and criticized the SPLC for "perpetuating the same kind of intolerance it claims to condemn." On Hardball with Chris Matthews, Matthews questioned Rhodes about his "vigilante group" and on his "strange view of the world."
- Lenz, Ryan (July 25, 2013). "Oath Keepers Rally Reveals Radical Politics of Group". Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved 20 March 2016.
- Sakuma, Amanda; Rayford, Bradley J (August 11, 2015). "'Oath Keepers' armed with guns roam streets of Ferguson". MSNBC. Retrieved September 7, 2015.
With their hands resting casually on the assault rifles strapped across their chests, the men formed a diamond around their subjects, surveying the area in search of a threat.
- Duara, Nigel. "'Oath Keepers' with rifles roam among Ferguson protesters, raising concerns". Los Angeles Times. August 11, 2015. Retrieved August 31, 2015.
As protests in Ferguson continued on a sweat-soaked Missouri night, at least three men openly carrying assault rifles approached the south end of West Florissant Avenue -- and began to attract a crowd themselves.
- McCoy, Terrence. The Oath Keepers: The Little-known Militia Now Roaming the Streets of Ferguson. Washington Post (December 1, 2014).
- Dearden, Lizzie. Oath Keepers: Who Are White Militia at Ferguson Protests and Why Are They Allowed to Carry Guns?. The Independent (August 11, 2015.
- Tesfaye, Sophia (August 22, 2015). "Far-right extremists patrol Ferguson: Oath Keepers militiamen descend on city". Salon. Retrieved August 14, 2015.
- "Return of armed militia group Oath Keepers to Ferguson raises concern". Chicago Tribune. August 14, 2015. Retrieved August 14, 2015.
- "About Oath Keepers". oathkeepers.com. Oath Keepers. Retrieved 20 March 2016.
- "Press Release: ADL Report Exposes Tactics of Anti-Government "Oath Keepers"". Anti-defamation League. Retrieved 20 March 2016.
- "The Oath Keepers Anti-Government Extremists Recruiting Military and Police". Anti-Defamation League. Retrieved 2016-05-19.
- "Oath Keepers: What anti-hate groups are saying about them". Cox Media Group. August 11, 2015. Retrieved 20 March 2016.
- Keller, Larry. "Evidence Grows of Far-Right Militia Resurgence". Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved 20 March 2016.
- Lenz, Ryan. "Are the Oath Keepers Fighting 'Martial Law'?". splcenter.org. Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved 20 March 2016.
- Acosta, Jim (November 18, 2009). "Who are the Oathkeepers". CNN. Archived from the original on November 19, 2009. Retrieved November 18, 2009.
- "Elmer Stewart Rhodes". Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved 20 March 2016.
- "Incorporation Information for the Oath Keepers, Inc.". Nevada Secretary of State. E0559982009-3 (State of Nevada). October 22, 2009. Retrieved November 18, 2009.
- Maimon, Alan (October 18, 2009). "Ready To Revolt: Oath Keepers pledges to prevent dictatorship in United States". Las Vegas Review-Journal. Retrieved October 24, 2009.
- In the Matter of Elmer S. Rhodes (Mont. Dec. 8, 2015).
- Fowler, Sarah (August 12, 2015). "Ferguson unrest: Who are the mysterious 'Oath Keepers'?". BBC News. Retrieved August 13, 2015.
- Rhodes, Stewart. "Just Following Orders." S.W.A.T. Magazine Apr. 2008. Web. August 20, 2015. Oath-keepers.blogspot.com
- Fowler, Sarah. Ferguson Unrest: Who Are the Mysterious 'Oath Keepers'?, BBC News (August 12, 2015).
- "Inside the bizarre, paranoid world of the right-wing oath keepers". Rawstory.com. 2015-02-08. Retrieved 2016-05-19.
- Bogan, Jesse (December 2, 2014). Oath Keepers' are back on the rooftops in Ferguson despite St. Louis County ordinance, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
- Laughland, Oliver, Jon Swaine, and Joanna Walters, White Militiamen Roam Ferguson with Rifles While Black Men Wrongly Arrested, The Guardian (August 11, 2015).
- "Heavily armed 'Oath Keepers' inject new unease in Ferguson". The Irish Times. 2015-08-11. Retrieved 2015-08-11.
- "Oath Keepers arrival at Ferguson protest 'inflammatory,' top cop says". Fox News Channel. August 11, 2015. Retrieved August 11, 2015.
- Larimer, Sarah; Phillip, Abby (August 11, 2015). "Who are the Oath Keepers, and why has the armed group returned to Ferguson?". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 13, 2015.
- Annabel Grossman (December 1, 2014). "Ferguson police shut down armed 'Oath Keeper' vigilantes guarding rooftops of besieged town". Daily Mail (London).
- Paul Vale (December 1, 2014). "Vigilante 'Oath Keepers' Offering Free Security In Ferguson Told To Stand Down By St. Louis Police". The Huffington Post.
- Urquhart, By Jim (April 23, 2015). "Oregon mine that summoned armed guards in land dispute files appeal". Reuters. Retrieved 2015-08-13.
- Moriarty, Thomas (April 23, 2015). "Armed protesters gather at Medford BLM office over Sugar Pine Mine dispute". Mail Tribune. Retrieved 2015-08-13.
- Puckett, Karl (August 6, 2015). "Constitution advocates issue cease, desist order at mine". Great Falls Tribune. Retrieved 2015-08-13.
- Swearingen, Marshall (August 12, 2015). "Dispatch from White Hope Mine dispute in Montana". High Country News. Retrieved 2015-08-13.
- Henandez, Daniel (April 3, 2014). "Federal rangers face off against armed protesters in Nevada 'range war'". The Guardian. Retrieved August 13, 2015.
- Botkin, Ben (April 13, 2014). "Bundy ranch dispute with federal land agency draws variety of foot soldiers". Las Vegas Review-Journal. Retrieved 2015-08-13.
- Badash, David (September 10, 2015). "Kim Davis wont be arrested again promise patriot militia group". thenewcivilrightsmovement.com. Retrieved September 13, 2015.
- "Kim Davis' Legal Team Declines Oath Keepers’ Offer to Protect Her Against Unlawul Arrrest [sic]". September 9, 2015. Retrieved September 12, 2015.
- Oath Keepers Official Website - Bylaws "BYLAWS OF OATH KEEPERS, Article VIII 8.02b". Retrieved August 13, 2015.
- Bambury, Brent. "An Oath Keeper on guns, race and Ferguson". CBC Radio. Retrieved September 11, 2015.
- McLaughlin, Michael. St. Louis County Police Officer Dan Page Suspended Following Inflammatory Video, Huffington Post (August 22, 2014).
- "Oath Keepers Website Warns Clinton Victory Could Lead To 'Outright Civil War'". Right Wing Watch. April 21, 2016. Retrieved April 29, 2016.
- Smith, Brandon (April 14, 2016). "The Weirdest Possible Outcomes For The Strangest Election In U.S. History". Oath Keepers. Retrieved April 29, 2016.
- Keller, Larry (August 2009). "The Second Wave: Return of the Militias". A Special Report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (Montgomery, Alabama): 5–10. Retrieved September 12, 2013.
- Fausset, Richard (September 18, 2009). "Oath Keepers organizer sees need to sound an alarm". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 2, 2009.
- "Sheriff Richard Mack (RET) Responds to Southern Poverty Law Center Smear Attack on Oath Keepers and on Sheriff Mack" (Press release). Oath Keepers. August 14, 2009. Retrieved November 3, 2009.
- Johnson, Jon (September 2, 2009). "Local man appears on Internet news show". Eastern Arizona Courier. Retrieved November 3, 2009.
- Wang, Hansi Lo. Oath Keepers Say They're Defending Ferguson; Others Say They're Not Helping. NPR (August 12, 2015).
- Rage Grows in America: Anti‑Government Conspiracies: Oath Keepers, Anti-Defamation League (November 2009), p. 26.
- Patrick J. Buchanan (October 20, 2009). "Alienated and Radicalized". MSNBC.
- Maimon, Alan (October 18, 2009). "Oath Keepers pledges to prevent dictatorship in United States". Las Vegas Review-Journal (Las Vegas, Nevada: Stephens Media LLC). Retrieved July 4, 2014.
- Maimon, Alan (October 25, 2009). "Ready To Defend: Oath Keepers speak out at inaugural conference". Las Vegas Review-Journal. Retrieved October 25, 2009.