Members of the Oath Keepers walk with their personal weapons on the street during protests in Ferguson, MissouriMembers of the Oath Keepers walk with their personal weapons on the street during protests in Ferguson, Missouri August 11, 2015. Police in riot gear clashed with protesters who had gathered in the streets of Ferguson early on Tuesday to mark the anniversary of the police shooting of an unarmed black teen whose death sparked a national outcry over race relations. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
A group of five heavily armed white men calling themselves the Oath Keepers arrived in Ferguson, Mo., to join protesters late Monday night, angering police who feared they would only inflame tensions a night after demonstrations on the anniversary of Michael Brown's death were marred by violence.
“Their presence was both unnecessary and inflammatory,” St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar told reporters.
Wearing bulletproof vests and camouflage gear and carrying what appeared to be assault rifles, the men appeared on the streets of Ferguson around midnight, joining protesters who questioned why they were there — and why police were not arresting them.
Missouri’s gun laws permits licensed gun owners to openly carry unless their weapons are “displayed in an angry or threatening manner.”
“The rules don't apply to everyone,” Nabeehah Azeez, a protest organizer, told the Associated Press. “If those were black men walking around with rifles, they probably wouldn’t be living today.”
John Harriman, one of the Oath Keepers, said the group was in the area to protect a reporter from the website Infowars.com. Videos posted to YouTube by the InfoWars site showed Oath Keepers and protesters discussing tax codes.
Joe Biggs, one of the InfoWars reporters, told Newsweek that some demonstrators “were shocked to see guns,” but others came “out of the crowd, giving them hugs, shaking their hands.”
Many protesters didn't see it that way.
Chris King, editorial director of the St. Louis American, said the group’s presence highlights racial bias in “threat assessment.”
“You have law enforcement officers looking at these conservative middle-aged white men with assault rifles and not assessing them as a threat because they see [themselves] as like them,” King told CNN. “These same law enforcement officers consistently look at 15- to 25-year-old African-Americans with cellphones or bottles of fragrance and assume they’re carrying handguns when they’re actually carrying cellphones or bottles of fragrance.”
King added, “If we could get law enforcement to make those decisions the same for those two categories of people, we could get somewhere with this movement.”
According to the Oath Keepers website, the Las Vegas-based group is composed of 30,000 “current and formerly serving military, police and first responders who pledge to fulfill the oath all military and police take to ‘defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.’” Their motto: “Not on our watch!”
But the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, describes the Oath Keepers as a “fiercely antigovernment, militaristic group.” According to NBC News, Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes — a former U.S. Army paratrooper and Yale Law School graduate who once served as an aide to former Texas Rep. Ron Paul — has referred to Hillary Clinton as “Hitlery” and previously called for Arizona Sen. John McCain to be executed for treason.
Rhodes did not immediately return a request from Yahoo News seeking comment.
“There were several clashes between protesters who police said threw rocks and water bottles at them — resulting in 23 arrests — but Monday’s demonstrations were otherwise relatively peaceful.
“You’re going to bring some uncommissioned citizens, white citizens, into a black community like this? It’s disrespectful,” Talal Ahmad, one of the demonstrators, told Reuters. “Here, in a black neighborhood, we’re already living in a state of terror.”
It's not the first time the Oath Keepers have drawn the ire of officials in Ferguson. Last fall, during violent protests over the grand jury’s decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s killing, members of the group were seen patrolling rooftops.
“[T]he individuals from the group did not adhere to St. Louis County ordinance regulating security officers, couriers and guards,” the St. Louis County Police Department said in a statement at the time. The ordinance, they said, “prohibits anyone from providing security without first obtaining a license.”
Rhodes countered that the group didn’t need a license because it was composed of unpaid volunteers who were helping “the weak” protect private property.
“We’re the strong protecting the weak until the weak can protect themselves,” Rhodes told Vice.