In the last few days, I have noticed some puzzled people on social media circulating the story about “Oath Keepers” in Ferguson standing on rooftops, “protecting businesses against looters”. The story has been picked up by major news media. (And yes, in case you're wondering, it really is them: the OathKeepers.org website says so.)
Who are these guys?
Lefties like me have been looking at them a fair bit lately, and I have been watching related movements for quite some time. They are a loose organization of people in (and retired from) government service as military, police, and first responders who take their name from the oath government employees take to “protect and defend the Constitution”.
To understand what they are about, consider one of their key founding documents, a list of Orders We Will Not Obey:
10. We will NOT obey any orders which infringe on the right of the people to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.
As someone who has reposted on this blog a reminder that it is a soldier's duty to refuse an illegal order, I confess that this is a seductive rallying point. It is thus tempting to read them as at least theoretically allied with Ferguson protestors.
But that would be a terrible misunderstanding. Dig this other item on the list:
8. 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.
Wait, whaaaat? Foreign troops?
This strange statement reflects where these guys are coming from. They sincerely believe that the Federal government is gearing up to suspend the Constitution, disarm the American people, hand over control of the government to the evil forces of the United Nations, and put people who object into FEMA concentration camps. They are conspiracy-theory crackpots, direct descendents of the Clinton-era militia movement which Timothy McVeigh conceived of himself as being a part of when he murdered hundreds of people in a strike against the “oppressive Federal government”. Similar movements crop up whenever there's a Democrat in the White House. (I notice that the list of orders is dated March 2009. What new signs of encroaching government tyranny moved them to write it at that time, I wonder. What could it be?)
These guys expect that within the next few years, they will be fighting in a bloody domestic insurrection against the evil Federal government conspiracy. Consider this post from them last year:
Oath Keepers is Going “Operational” by Forming Special “Civilization Preservation” Teams
Like SF [Special Forces], all Oath Keepers will be expected to learn light infantry skills. They will all be encouraged to attend an Appleseed Rifle Program and shoot to “Rifleman” standards. Just as the Marines say that every Marine is a Rifleman (even the cooks) so will every Oath Keeper be a rifleman. After learning solid rifle marksmanship, they will learn individual movement and tactics, then buddy team, fire-team, and squad movement and tactics (shoot, move, communicate). All of you infantry veterans need to step up and teach these skills to everyone else.
It starts with you, your family, your small circle of most trusted friends, then your neighborhood, your church, your veterans halls in your town, the Sheriff’s posse, the local search and rescue, volunteer fire, etc., and then out to your county and state.
Why we are doing this:
In addition to this being part of our mission anyway, we feel like we are flat running out of time and we need to get as prepared as possible as fast as possible. The Oath Keepers national Board of Directors war-gamed what we think is the most likely move by our enemies to scrap the Constitution.
Their wariness of Federal government power, which they frame as “strict adherence to the Constitution”, can look a lot like a kind of libertarianism. But like other folks on the far right, the appearance of libertarianism is illusory: their problem is with the Federal government, not with government. These are guys who come from government service, and talk a lot about supporting state, county, and city government power against the Federal government.
5. We will NOT obey orders to invade and subjugate any state that asserts its sovereignty.
You are reading that right. Their unorthodox anti-Federalist reading of the Constitution has them siding with the Confederacy against the Union.
That doesn't make these guys Klansmen by another name. Racial bigotry is not foundational to their project, and I am confident that most Oath Keepers would be disgusted to hear that kind of overt racism expressed in their ranks. It's my understanding that they have more than a few people of color among them.
In that struggle, it was Federal authorities which (eventually) stood up for the rights of Black citizens when local Whites and local authorities lined up against them, and it was that fight during that era which revived the school of anti-Federalism found on the American right today which is characteristic of the Oath Keepers. So the Oath Keepers' conception of “proper Constitutional authority” points toward support for institutional racism.
It's not hard to see how that rhymes with the local authorities' unaccountability to the Black population of Ferguson.
So while one might be tempted to imagine from their rhetoric that they would be in Ferguson to protect protestors from harassment by the oppression of government cops ...
10. We will NOT obey any orders which infringe on the right of the people to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.... it turns out that no, they are in Ferguson to protect property from “looters”. Reading the events in Ferguson as “rioting” and “looting” which presents a threat to people's safety and property connects to a credulousness about racist conservative media lies about the Ferguson protests.
Having already developed some familiarity with the Oath Keepers, I was not surprised to learn that a contingent of them had showed up there. I read it as representing a confluence of several aspects of their worldview. They lean toward supporting government, even authoritarian government, when it's local. They are preparing for fighting in the streets of the US, so for them the “rioting” in the streets of Ferguson is a bellwether of the crisis they were founded to handle. Their pseudo-libertarianism is enthusiastic about government as the guarantor of property rights ... but they don't see government as the only agent protecting property, which connects to their gun nut logic justifying vigilante-ism.
Now when I say “gun nut logic” I want to be careful not to tar all gun owners and gun rights advocates as “nuts”. (While I'm generally unpersuaded by those folks' arguments I'm also wary of being too dismissive of them.) I want, instead, to connect the Oath Keepers to a particular strain of pseudo-libertarian pro-gun thought which holds that private gun ownership is not just a right but vitally important to society because “the police cannot be everywhere”, and so the primary means by which one's safety and property is secured is not through government policing but through an armed citizenry. That argument drifts from gun rights advocacy to nuttiness in ultimately endorsing vigilantes.
Vigilante-ism in the US is entangled in our history of racism. Remember who the biggest vigilante organization in American history were. Remember the lynchings of the Jim Crow era. That should give us pause when we hear citizens claiming a responsibility to take up arms to keep the peace. Again, I do not read the Oath Keepers as committed to racial bigotry, but they are engaging in vigilante-ism in Ferguson, which carries the weight of history with it.
David Neiwert, the best journalist working the far-right beat, calls them “Potentially The Most Lethal And Dangerous Of All The New ‘Patriot’ Groups”. Which brings me to the point that my distaste for the Oath Keepers is just from their implicit support for some of the machinery of institutional racism, though that is bad enough. It is that they are a movement who believe that the democratically-elected government is illiegitimate because it has been corrupted by a conspiracy of foreigners and traitors, that the true spirit of the nation needs to be revived through inevitable bloody conflict, which calls for a vigilante movement inspired by martial virtue. As I said about Cliven Bundy, whose cause the Oath Keepers supported, students of history recognize why we should be wary of that kind of politics.