Huy Mach / St. Louis-Post-Dispatch / Polaris

In Ferguson, Oath Keepers draw both suspicion and gratitude

The group, made up mostly of military and law enforcement, said it is protecting shops, but some fear other motives

FERGUSON, Mo. — Two days after mass protests swept Ferguson, with looters smashing through the glass storefront of the dentistry that 59-year-old Marilyn Crider manages, she arrived early to the office on Nov. 26 and was greeted by a pair of unexpected guests.

They wore military fatigues and had two rifles leaning against the wall next to them. “I think they said something like, ‘And you are?’ and I said, ‘I work here. Who are you?’” Crider said.

The men called themselves Oath Keepers and said one of the dentists had given them a key. They had been guarding the building the night before.

Since Nov. 25, members of the group — many of them armed — have been patrolling rooftops and sidewalks in the St. Louis suburb. Oath Keepers, regarded by some as a militia — although they reject that characterization — is made up of current and former members of the military, law enforcement and fire departments and other first responders from around the country. It has billed itself locally as an volunteer security force bent on protecting small businesses, residents and the rights of peaceful protesters in the wake of violence after a grand jury decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the Aug. 9 shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown. The group says there are about 35,000 members nationwide.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks extremist and hate groups in the U.S., listed the Oath Keepers as an active “patriot” group in 2013. Ryan Lenz, senior writer for the center, says Oath Keepers is an anti-government group but not a hate group. It is largely motivated by fears that an overzealous government will disregard the U.S. Constitution and strip citizens’ rights, he said.

The groups' website says members have taken oaths to “support and defend the constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, so help us God.”

Before Ferguson, the group popped up in April in Nevada at an armed standoff between Cliven Bundy and Bureau of Land Management rangers, who, acting on a court order, attempted to seize 500 cattle that Bundy owned and had been allowing to graze on public land. The rangers, facing the Oath Keepers and militiamen belonging to several other groups, eventually backed down.

Lenz said that arriving in Ferguson to provide security for businesses seems like “a really weird mission” for the Oath Keepers to inject themselves into, with racial, social and cultural tensions so high.

“It’s the kind of situation where a heavily armed ‘patriot’ group with anti-government perspectives on things who are standing on rooftops are obviously going to scare people or at least throw up some red flags,” Lenz said, adding that he couldn’t think of other “patriot” groups in recent history who have inserted themselves into situations of racial and civil unrest as Oath Keepers has in Ferguson.

In a Mother Jones magazine article, Justine Sharrock said the group is difficult to broadly characterize: “In the months I've spent getting to know the Oath Keepers, I've toggled between viewing them either as potentially dangerous conspiracy theorists or as crafty intellectuals with the savvy to rally politicians to their side. The answer, I came to realize, is that they cover the whole spectrum.”

The Oath Keepers’ presence has centered on a pair of buildings two blocks from the Ferguson police station on South Florissant Road. The group’s sudden visibility drew suspicion from many, support from others and ire from police, who ordered the group down from rooftops on Nov. 29 — orders the Oath Keepers defied on subsequent nights.

It was on this street where protests turned violent two weeks earlier, after the St. Louis County grand jury decision. After the announcement, looters ransacked dozens of storefronts, and arsonists torched several cars and nearly 10 buildings in Ferguson and the neighboring city of Dellwood.

John Karriman, an Oath Keepers volunteer, stands guard atop a business, Nov. 26, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri.
Scott Olson / Getty Images

The destruction left some residents and business owners wondering why the National Guard, which Gov. Jay Nixon had called in nearly a week earlier, had not been there to protect their businesses.

“I think it’s wonderful that [the Oath Keepers] were here, because, obviously, the National Guard is not going to stand on top of our building protecting us.” Crider said.

“I manage this building as well as the dental practice and we have tenants that live upstairs … They could actually go to sleep at night and not wonder, ‘Is my building going to be caught on fire tonight?’”

Local Oath Keepers leader Sam Andrews said he woke to his wife watching the news the morning after the destruction and saw business owners lamenting their tattered and burned storefronts. “I’m from St. Louis and a small businessman, so that hit me right in the heart,” said Andrews, a former U.S. Department of Defense contractor who now works as a weapons engineer in the St. Louis area.

“We bought some plywood with our own money, and we came up here with screws and a team of guys and ladders, and we boarded up all these windows,” he said. “And we talked to each owner and said if … everyone agrees, we will put a team of people together and come defend your business for you so this doesn’t happen again.”

They took to the rooftops that night wearing fatigues and carrying military-grade rifles. They were also equipped with buckets of water and fire extinguishers, which Andrews said were used to put out a flarelike incendiary device and Molotov cocktail that were lobbed onto the roofs during those first nights they stood guard.

Andrews said business owners from “all over the community” have asked the Oath Keepers to guard their businesses as well because Nixon and St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar “have failed them so dramatically.”

“There’s no trust between Nixon and the people, and there’s no trust between Belmar and the people,” Andrews said. “And we’re basically here to fill that gap until that trust can be re-established.”

According to The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, police questioned the group that week and allowed them to stay at their posts until Nov. 29, when officers ordered the group down from the roofs. Threatened with arrest for violating a county ordinance that requires private security guards to be licensed, the Oath Keepers temporarily left their positions but returned the next day and days thereafter, contending the rule doesn’t apply to them as volunteers. 

A member of Oath Keepers on the roof of a business in Ferguson, Nov. 26.
Scott Olson / Getty Images

A request to interview Belmar about the Oath Keepers was declined. A police spokesman said in an email that the Oath Keepers are required to follow the orders of officers but did not explicitly say whether the department would tell the group the leave again.

Protesters quickly noticed the presence of the armed men on rooftops, and suspicions circulated about their identity. Some protesters heard rumors that they were members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Teshambra Newell, 29, who runs a photography studio across the street from buildings the Oath Keepers have been guarding, said this week that he still isn’t sure who they are but doesn’t feel comfortable with “militia” groups lurking behind buildings. “I keep my distance,” he said.

Andrews recoils at the organization’s being labeled a militia. “The fact is the Oath Keepers is simply a group of people of all races, of all financial situations, all political persuasions that believe, as a group, that our country should follow our written laws,” he says. “We’re not a militia, and we’re not right-wing radicals.

Nor is the group racially motivated, according to E. Stewart Rhodes, a Yale Law School graduate and former Ron Paul staffer who founded the 35,000-member group in 2009. 

“I’m a quarter Mexican, so it’s kind of hard for me to be a white supremacist,” Rhodes told Al Jazeera in an interview earlier this month. “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?”

On Saturday morning, Andrews stopped into the bakery that Rhodes mentioned, Natalie’s Cakes and More, to speak with owner Natalie Dubose about the group’s plan for a protest scheduled later that afternoon in front of the police station. When she walked from the kitchen in her apron, the two greeted each other warmly.

Andrews told her he would have a small, unarmed presence in front of the building and more men “in plainclothes out in the street, shaking hands, waving to people … tell[ing] them we love them and support their right to protest.”

“Awesome,” Dubose said. “Everyone on the Twitter and Facebook page, they’re loving that you guys are here. You’re getting much love from everywhere.”

Outside, Andrews said the group began changing its strategy a few days into the operation to appear less intimidating and militarized.

“What the men want is respect. What the women want is love. And when you come up to people on the street and you tell them ‘I respect you, and I respect your right to protest,’ they get tears in their eyes. And when you tell the women, ‘We’re not here to hurt you. We love you, and we’re here to protect you from the police,’ they start crying. It’s a stunning reaction — not something I expected.”

Now more than two weeks after the Oath Keepers first took to the roofs, they rarely wear fatigues, carry rifles or take high-ground positions. Rooftop posts have been replaced with less frequent drive-by security patrols, Andrews said.

One evening last week, Andrews and another volunteer — an Illinois resident who declined to give his name — stood at an intersection on South Florissant near the bakery and waved to passing motorists. When cars stopped for a red light, he and Andrews would introduce the Oath Keepers to the drivers and hand them a prayer sheet. Many said they were glad to see the group there.

“Just knowing that the building is being watched makes me feel safer,” said Elena Vo, 18, while leaning on the register counter at her family’s restaurant, New Chinese Gourmet, which is in one of the buildings the Oath Keepers have been guarding.

On the night of the grand jury announcement, she sat up watching the local news and watched as a fire raged in the restaurant parking lot. Cameras showed one of the windows busted open. Looters had stolen the register and damaged a TV and several statues inside.

“I can go to bed at night just thinking I know my business is under watch right now. I don’t need to worry 24/7,” said Vo. A large burgundy Buddha sat next to her on the counter, its recent cracks mended with glue.

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