Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Oath Keepers return to Ferguson, fueling racial tension

St. Louis police condemn armed group, fearing their presence will stoke further instability

Four white civilians carrying military-style rifles and sidearms walked a riot-torn street in Ferguson, Missouri, early Tuesday, saying they were there to protect a representative from an anti-government website, but their actions drew swift criticism from protesters in the mostly black neighborhood and from St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, who called their presence “unnecessary and inflammatory.”

The appearance of the four men drew stares in the neighborhood, which was rocked by violence again Sunday night as protesters marked the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen whose death one year ago reignited a debate on race relations.

The men identified themselves as members of Oath Keepers, which describes itself as an association of current and former U.S. soldiers and police who aim to protect the U.S. Constitution. The group reports having about 35,000 members nationwide and says there are African-Americans among its ranks

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a civil rights organization, has described Oath Keepers as a “fiercely anti-government, militaristic group” that fears the government could disregard the Constitution and take away the rights of citizens. The SPLC does not consider Oath Keepers a hate group. 

Belmar condemned appearance of the group, which also showed up last year in Ferguson amid protests. “Their presence was both unnecessary and inflammatory,” he said, adding that police would work with county prosecutors to see if the men had broken any laws.

Led by a man who gave his name only as John, the four Oath Keepers, who wore bulletproof vests and carried sidearms in addition to combat-style rifles, said they had shown up to protect a journalist from the anti-government InfoWars website. 

InfoWars, which the SPLC characterizes as a “conspiracy-themed website,” said in an online article that it did not hire the Oath Keepers. 

“There were problems here. There were people who got hurt. We needed to be prepared for that,” said the man, who noted that Missouri laws generally allow openly carrying heavy weapons of the kind that his group had.

InfoWars could not be reached for immediate comment. 

About 150 people have been arrested so far during several days of protests. Police said Tuesday that 22 people were arrested overnight in Ferguson and another 63 were arrested for trying to block a highway a few miles out of town. On Monday, 57 people were arrested for breaching barricades that blocked a federal court in St. Louis.

There were no shots fired and no burglaries, looting or property damage during the protest along West Florissant Avenue on Tuesday, county police spokesman Shawn McGuire said. The thoroughfare was the focus of months of massive protests last summer after the killing of Brown by a white Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson. 

On Monday night, no smoke or tear gas was used, and no police or civilians reported injuries, McGuire said in a statement. By 1 a.m., the crowd and police were heading home. He said approximately 23 arrests were made, though police were still confirming official totals.

On late Sunday, however, a protest in the same area was interrupted by gunfire and a police shooting that left an 18-year-old suspect critically injured.

The violence set Ferguson on edge and had protest leaders worried that tensions could escalate. St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger declared a state of emergency that authorized the county to take control of police emergency management in and around Ferguson.

Al Jazeera and wire services 

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