Inside the Strange, Paranoid World of the Right-Wing Oath Keepers
My official Oath Keepers membership card is in my outstretched hand. With great power comes great responsibility: my duty is to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America. No compromise. I’m now a member of a controversial conservative group whose members make Ted Nugent look like a bleeding-heart Rachel Maddow. Our mission is to keep the government accountable. Just remember: Not on my watch.
Let’s rewind: The scene was Ferguson, Missouri. When riots broke out over the August shooting death of Michael Brown, armed members of the Oath Keepers took to the city’s rooftops, appearing out of the smoke and shattered glass of ransacked buildings. Their supposed duty was to secure the local businesses from looting. In the first days of the protests, demonstrators had broken out windows of storefronts, set arson fires, and torched a beauty supply store. ABC News reported that a number of business owners embraced the Oath Keepers’ armed presence. Group members boarded up storefronts and kept buckets of water and fire extinguishers handy in case nearby arson attacks escalated. This was the vigilante group’s moment in the media sun.
Still, rumors flew. Some protestors thought the armed men in camouflaged fatigues were members of the Ku Klux Klan. The St. Louis County police ordered the Oath Keepers to leave the rooftops of Ferguson, threatening them with arrest for acting as a security force without a license. This only added fuel to the right-wing group’s conspiracy that the government is not protecting its people. The volunteer security force packed up and left Ferguson, leaving people wondering exactly who these heavily armed mystery men were.
2014 Was Quite a Year for the Oath Keepers
The Oath Keepers made one of their first appearances in the national news last April, when more than 100 members headed to the Nevada desert to support rancher Cliven Bundy. Their mission was to assist with an armed standoff against agents from the federal Bureau of Land Management, who were attempting to seize cattle Bundy had been illegally grazing on federal land. No shots were fired during the standoff, though it is virtually unparalleled in modern history to have armed American citizens using the threat of gunfire to force federal officers to back down. Controversy redux: Critics were concerned that the government's decision to withdraw in the face of armed resistance emboldens militia groups and sets a dangerous precedent. It didn’t help matters that Bundy went on a racist rant about African Americans during a New York Times interview, tarnishing his image. It seems that the anti-government movement always attracts a few bad eggs.
Who the Hell Are These Guys?
The Oath Keepers were founded in 2009 by Stewart Rhodes, a Yale-educated attorney, ex-army paratrooper and former staffer of Congressman Ron Paul. The “non-partisan,” yet libertarian-leaning organization claims to have active chapters in all 50 states, as well as an estimated 40,000 members—which, if true, would make the group one of the fastest growing far-right organizations in the world.
What separates the Oath Keepers from, say, the radical Michigan Militia and their well-armed members? The Oath Keepers' core membership is comprised of active duty and retired police officers, firefighters, EMTs, and military personnel. On paper, this sounds like a no-nonsense bunch.
“It’s ridiculous to disarm the people and tell them they have to rely on the police when the police cannot possibly protect you in some of these circumstances,” Rhodes has stated. “The United States is on the fast track to economic ruin and Americans need to learn to protect themselves because the government soon won’t be able to.” The Oath Keepers founder cites the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as a warning. He fears a future where martial law will be instigated during future disasters and every American will be placed in a 24/7 government-run FEMA camp. But not on their watch! The Oath Keepers adhere to a strict originalist interpretation of the Constitution and swear to fight back against overly militarized police and unconstitutional acts by the government. (Cue Nazi government comparison.)
“The whole point of the Oath Keepers is to stop a dictatorship from ever happening here,” Rhodes said. “My focus is on the guys with the guns, because they can’t do it without them. We say if the American people decide it’s time for a revolution, we’ll fight with you.”
Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism, sees the Oath Keepers as a radical anti-government group. In his words: “When you believe that you have to arm yourself in order to protect the people from the government, and you’re such a loosely organized group that anybody can join you, that’s a combination that can potentially create violent incidents in the future.”
Example of guilt by association: In 2013, Oath Keeper and former Giberton, PA police chief Mark Kessler formed a paramilitary militia group called the Constitutional Security Force to fight against proposed gun control legislation. Kessler posted a profanity-laced video that went viral: “Fuck all you libtards out there,” a heavily armed Kessler screams. In another video, Kessler calls Secretary of State Kerry a piece of shit: “Come and take it, motherfuckers!” he cries before blasting off an assault rifle. (Police Chief Kessler was soon fired.)
What a PR nightmare. This was clearly not what the Yale-educated Rhodes envisioned for his group. The Oath Keepers quickly tried to distance themselves from America’s scariest police chief, insisting that one bad assault-weapon-toting lunatic did not reflect their entire group.
Thanks to incidents like this, surely the Oath Keepers must now have some sort of screening process to keep out the racists, radicals, Mark Kesslers and lone wolves—those who might give respectable members a bad name. It was time for me to become a member of the Oath Keepers and find out.
Time to Join
The Oath Keeper raison d’etre can be found on their website, under “Orders We Will NOT Obey":
- We will NOT obey any order to disarm the American people.
- We will NOT obey orders to invade and subjugate any state that asserts its sovereignty and declares the national government to be in violation of the compact by which that state entered the Union.
- We will NOT obey any order to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps.
- We will NOT obey any order to force American citizens into any form of detention camps under any pretext.
- 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.
While this sounds like fodder for conspiracy theorists, the Oath Keepers see themselves as freedom’s last defenders, standing up for the Constitution and American liberties.
I follow the banner link that reads, “Join the Fight to Defend the Constitution,” which takes me to the Oath Keeper membership page. It features images of soldiers from the Revolutionary War along with the mission statement: “Guardians of the Republic. Honor your oath. Join us.” And their catchphrase: “Not on our watch.”
My Oath Keeper-joining parade is rained upon: “Full membership is open to currently serving military, reserves, National Guard, police, fire-fighters, other first responders (i.e. State Guard, Sheriff Posse/Auxilliary, Search & Rescue, EMT, other medical 1st responders, etc.) AND veterans/former members of those services. Those who are not current or prior service can join as an Associate Member—as a citizen who supports our mission.”
So that’s how they filter out the crazed extremists; the Oath Keepers have a stringent process for full membership that keeps out imposters. But I want to dig deeper, not just be a “citizen member.” Why be a tourist when you can be a local? What if I lie on my membership application, create a pseudonym, and simply fabricate a background in law enforcement to become a full member? But since full members of the Oath Keepers are comprised of current and former law enforcement and military, surely they must conduct some sort of background check to sift out imposters (like myself, extremists and racists)?
Along with my fake name and background, I add to my application vague rhetoric they might enjoy hearing: “The greatest threat we face today is not terrorists; it is our federal government.”
Can you be prosecuted for lying on an Oath Keeper membership application? Let’s hope not.
I PayPal the Oath Keepers $40 of my cold hard American cash for a one-year full membership. Other price plans include $1,000 for a lifetime membership (payable in $50 monthly increments).
A woman named Cindy emails me more information about my Oath Keeper membership package: “We ask that you give us 4-6 weeks, but we try to get them out in 3...however much depends on the volume at the time and it's very high currently.”
I fall asleep each night with dreams of full Oath Keeper membership and Constitutional defense. Where the hell is my goddamn Oath Keepers membership packet? So much time goes by I even forget that I’m soon to be an official full member of the Oath Keepers. Maybe the background check found too many red flags? For the safety of future armed showdowns, that’s probably a good thing.
Then the clouds part and the skies open up. Late in January, I open my mailbox to find a nondescript manila envelope mailed from a PO box in Georgia. A computer label reads: “Membership Fulfillment.”
I rip open the envelope. Within seconds, my jaw drops with complete disappointment. Am I missing something here? Here’s what I got for my $40 full Oath Keepers membership:
-A bunch of bumper stickers that say: “Guardians of the Republic” and “Not on our watch.”
-A paper copy of the Constitution.
-10 Oath Keeper business cards, with the Oath Keepers oath on the back and the words “Not on our Watch!” I assume these are to hand out to 10 people who also want to defend the Constitution, but might not know how to go about it.
-10 Oath Keeper brochures. I’m told in the introduction letter to pass these on at local gun shows and Tea Party rallies, 9-12 rallies, etc. to at least 10 people I come across.
-A laminated Oath Keeper membership card with my fake name, stating I’ve been an official Oath Keeper since the year 2015.
-A membership certificate with my fake name and declaration that “As an Oath Keeper, the member has pledged NOT to obey the ten specific unlawful orders listed in our “Declaration of Orders We Will NOT Obey.” I have no idea what that means (too many double-negatives).
-A homemade Oath Keeper DVD on a generic disc with an Oath Keeper sticker on it, featuring speeches with pull-quotes such as “They hate people who speak the truth.”
My estimated cost of the entire Oath Keeper membership pack (including shipping): $2. The Home Depot folder for my official membership Certificate leads me to believe that a very old person put all this together. I’d almost describe the entire Oath Keeper membership package as “cute.” But if I were living in a cabin in the woods—which I declared as my own sovereign nation—I would feel pretty fucking ripped off.
Regardless, now I’m an official member of the Oath Keepers. It’s time to take to the roof of my building armed with a rifle to make sure no one is violating the Constitution while screaming, “Fuck all you libtards out there!” And if there should be some ill-fated confrontation, the first thing police officers will find in my wallet is my Oath Keepers membership card. The misguided media will attribute my lone wolf actions to my affiliation with the Oath Keepers. Perhaps they shouldn’t let just anyone join their group after all.