Who Are The Oath Keepers? Ferguson Protests Saw Armed Members Of This Modern-Day Militia Walking The Streets

A group of men carrying assault rifles descended on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri, on Monday night, mingling with demonstrators. These men have become known as Ferguson's Oath Keepers, a modern-day militia of sorts — at least, that's how the group's members see themselves. But the presence of the heavily-armed Oath Keepers is turning off both Ferguson protesters and law enforcement officials, and the group's supposedly well-intentioned purpose may cause more tensions to flare in the impoverished St. Louis suburb.

Just who are the Oath Keepers? According to the group's website, they are active and former military members, police officers, and first responders who've pledged to "defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic." The oath continues, "I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me."

The group existed long before the protests in Ferguson turned to violent unrest in August 2014, with roots stemming back to 2009, coinciding with the modest beginnings of the far-right Tea Party movement. In an April 2010 article, Mother Jones described the Oath Keepers as "one of the fastest-growing 'patriot' organizations on the right" and "a hub in the sprawling anti-Obama movement."

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But the Oath Keepers didn't truly reach the mainstream until last summer, following Michael Brown's death and the ensuing demonstrations, which triggered a national discussion on race relations and policing in America. They showed up on W. Florissant then, toting rifles, wearing military fatigues, and keeping vigil on commercial rooftops like snipers in a Clint Eastwood film.

They came back in late November, when a St. Louis grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who fatally shot Brown. And they were again prowling the streets of Ferguson Monday night ... keeping an eye out for what, exactly?

A "communique" released by the Oath Keepers last August provides a bit more insight into the group's presence in Ferguson. The militia members criticized modern-day police, saying the force has failed the residents of Ferguson — and the Oath Keepers are apparently here to protect them from agitators:

The events in Ferguson have shown us daily that the looting and violence by a few is not being stopped, while the right of the people to peaceably assemble and petition government for redress of grievances is not being respected. The current riot control tactics of the local police, rooted in outmoded techniques developed in the 1950's — and only made worse by the ongoing militarization of our police — are failing the people of Ferguson, giving them a false choice between rampant looting on the one hand, and hyper-militarized police and curfews on the other (which also fail to stop the looting, leaving the mistaken impression among many of the American people that even more militarization and curtailment of free speech and assembly is needed).

That mission statement, however, is questionable when you consider how the organization's right-wing ideology and overwhelmingly white presence in an African-American-majority town. It's also disorienting, of course, to bring a bunch of men with assault rifles into a crowd demonstrating for an end to the excessive use of police force — including the use of firearms — against African-American men and women.

Oh, and did we forget about how these protests began because an 18-year-old teenager was shot dead, even though he was unarmed? Yet because of Missouri state laws, it's totally legal for these Oath Keepers to hold and carry their assault weapons in plain view.

And the St. Louis County Police Department isn't too happy with the Oath Keepers. Police Chief Jon Belmar said this week that the militia's presence was "both unnecessary and inflammatory," NBC News reported.

But the Oath Keepers say they have a right to be on the streets of Ferguson. "It's our Second Amendment right," one Oath Keeper named John told reporter Justin Glawe in an interview posted on Periscope. "We're just Americans trying to keep our fellow man safe."

"We're all supposed to be in this together," John added.

The question, though, remains: Do demonstrators protesting against police brutality and the use of force, including firearms, want an all-male, all-white group described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as "fiercely anti-government, militaristic" watching their every move, with high-magazine rifles in hand? Short answer: probably not.