Sam Andrews received three phone calls during an hour-long lunch at a Pizza Hut in St. Louis County, Missouri, last week. Andrews is a member of the group called the Oath Keepers, and the callers were fellow Oath Keepers, congratulating and questioning him about his latest “operation”: Over the previous two nights, in nearby Ferguson, he’d led a group of five white men with assault rifles and body armor to the scene of the protests marking the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. It had been a grabby image for the media convened there, and he relished the attention.
“My guys are eminently qualified,” Andrews said to one caller. “We know way more about weapons than the St. Louis County Police Department.” Later in the same conversation, he practically spat into his cellphone while discussing St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar. “Do you believe the shit coming out of your mouth?” he said, addressing a mock Belmar. “‘Cause we don’t believe it.”
After the first night, Belmar had decried the Oath Keepers’ presence, calling it “both unnecessary and inflammatory.” That had not kept Andrews and his heavily armed men from spending a second night walking Ferguson’s West Florissant Avenue, the street at the center of the protests since Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014.
They had come to town at the behest of Joe Biggs, a writer for the conspiracist website InfoWars, who requested protection from the Oath Keepers after a St. Louis Post-Dispatch journalist was attacked and robbed while reporting on looters from West Florissant Sunday night. This was the Oath Keepers’ second high-profile mission to West Florissant. Months after Brown’s death, in an operation also led by Andrews, members of the group could be seen standing on rooftops along the avenue, carrying heavy weaponry and dressed in military fatigues, intending to protect business owners and residents from looters.
Belmar, the police chief, was not the only one unhappy to see them again. Demonstrators greeted the group with a mix of bafflement and anger, and even within the Oath Keepers organization, Andrews’ actions were met with suspicion. Even by the standards of a libertarian-minded vigilante organization, Sam Andrews is a bit of a freelancer: He resides in St. Louis County, but he has never attended a meeting of the greater St. Louis chapter of the Oath Keepers, and he seems to disdain those who do attend. Biggs, whom Andrews counts as a personal friend, asked him directly about an Oath Keepers bodyguard detail, and Andrews called the informal group of men with whom he usually works into action, without so much as notifying the local Oath Keepers about it, much less obtaining their permission.
The Oath Keepers, a group founded in 2009, is primarily composed of current and former police and military members who see themselves as the truest guardians of the U.S. Constitution. Like couples renewing their wedding vows, members publicly reaffirm the oaths they took upon joining the service—oaths taken not in the name of politicians, the group’s website reads, but in the name of the Constitution itself. Oath Keepers also take a vow to disobey what they call “unconstitutional” orders, such as orders to disarm the American people, to impose martial law, and to “blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps.”
Those hypotheticals sound a lot like the fears of right-wing conspiracy theorists, and according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, that’s exactly what the Oath Keepers are. The SPLC brands the Oath Keepers as a “fiercely antigovernment” extremist group, and states that its official claim to 30,000 members is likely exaggerated. Like all Oath Keepers I’ve spoken to, Andrews takes umbrage with being labeled an extremist. He also believes that the 30,000 number is low.
“We probably signed up 2,500 people in the last 48 hours,” he said, referring to the media blitz that ensued after he and his crew showed up in Ferguson. By Andrews’ estimation, the real figure is closer to 50,000. He also claimed, perhaps improbably, that there were many more Oath Keepers on the ground in Ferguson than were shown in media reports—“people on the perimeter, in overwatch positions,” he said, and “black guys in the crowd that are watching our backs.” He declined to answer when I asked him for a ballpark figure.
Andrews, a tall fiftyish man who drives a jacked-up pickup truck with a camouflage paint job and speaks with the orotund charisma of a TV pundit, said that he joined the Oath Keepers after he saw the group’s website. “Wow,” he remembers thinking to himself. “This is the only organization that’s publicly saying that our politicians and our police and our military should follow our laws.” He said that he worked for years overseas as a contractor with a three-letter agency, but declined to say which, citing a non-disclosure agreement, and also that he has trained police SWAT teams across the country. When he’s not leading Oath Keepers into Ferguson or heading to Oregon to assist a miner in a Cliven Bundy-style standoff with the federal Bureau of Land Management, like he did earlier this year, Andrews works as a weapons engineer, he said. Articles in the Post-Dispatch and on Patch.com identify him as the owner of Tier One Weapon Systems, a gun seller and custom manufacturer, but Andrews denied ownership of the company, stating that “everything in the media is subject to severe scrutiny.”
He draws a line between himself and the Oath Keepers he calls “Chicken Littles”—those who think the sky is falling, or that the U.S. government will imminently enslave its own citizens, forcing them to participate in a one-world government called the New World Order. Still, he is mistrustful of authority and full of unconventional notions about how the world works. He believes that the Post-Dispatch is an arm of the St. Louis County government and that CNN answers to the U.S. Department of Justice.
When I asked if he meant this literally, he said, “Yeah, literally.” He believes that tax brackets exist so the government can avoid revolt by raising people’s taxes piecemeal, one bracket at a time, rather than all at once. When I suggested that brackets simply allow the government to tax people on a gradient according to their income, he leaned forward over the table and squinted, as he often does when emphasizing a point, and said “That’s the lie.”
The sight of a group of white men casually strolling West Florissant while armed to the teeth understandably riled some black protesters, both because the white men themselves looked menacing and because the police seemed willing to tolerate that menace.
“Let me ask you something: Do you think a group of black men walking around like that would last more than a minute?” said Angela Whitman, a Ferguson resident and activist, gathered with a group of protesters in front of the West Florissant McDonald’s on Wednesday night.
“Let me answer that for you,” another woman said. “Hell no.” A third protester compared the Oath Keepers to the Ku Klux Klan, and a young woman in a Mizzou t-shirt said she’d heard a rumor that members were telling police to “take these niggers down.”
Whitman believed that the Oath Keepers’ presence on West Florissant was a threat to protesters. “The police would have locked us up so quickly, and our bond would be so high that we can’t bond out,” she said. “The police knew that it was wrong last year, but yet y’all sit out here, y’all allow them, y’all look right at them, y’all said nothing. Black people can’t come in our own community and do what they’re doing. So why are these people in our community doing something we can’t do? They’re not our friends.” Activists took pictures of the Oath Keepers on Monday and Tuesday and posted them to social media, and the reaction was much the same, Whitman said: “How in the hell do they get to do that? Why are the police not intervening?”
Missouri is an open-carry state, meaning that in theory, black activists would be allowed to bring their guns to a protest, as long as they had the proper permits. But not necessarily in practice: On Monday night, while Oath Keepers openly displayed their rifles, three black men were arrested in a flurry of batons and pepper spray because police suspected they were carrying handguns, the Guardian reported. None of the men were armed.
Andrews told me that his interests and the protesters’ are actually quite similar. In his view, the Oath Keepers were in Ferguson last week not only to guard Joe Biggs, but to ensure that everyone assembled was safe, cops and protesters alike. “We’re totally pro-protester, and we’re pro-lawful law enforcement—which we haven’t seen a lot of, recently in St. Louis,” he said. In March, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report detailing the systematic racism of the Ferguson Police Department, which almost exclusively arrested black people between 2012 and 2014. Andrews himself said he refuses to carry identification when he goes to Ferguson, to protest the fact that the police keep illegally demanding people show I.D. The cops, he said, are “a bunch of fucking crooks.”
Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told me he considers the Oath Keepers’ support of protesters to be disingenuous, cooked up ex post facto after they were widely vilified by demonstrators and in the media. According to Potok, the group’s stated reason for attending—to protect a journalist working for InfoWars’ Alex Jones, who Potok calls “the most prolific and unhinged conspiracy theorist in America,”—shows that they only wanted to advance their own apocalypse-minded politics.
“I think they realized rather quickly that very few people looked on them kindly, and all of a sudden they became defenders of black protest against police violence,” Potok said. “The reality is they’ve never said anything like that in their entire history. I think it’s ludicrous.”
But Andrews’ fury at the police seems genuine. And it is not surprising at all in the context of the Oath Keepers’ beliefs. Among the group’s “Declaration of Orders We Will Not Obey” sits an entry for warrantless searches of American people—a callback to the Fourth Amendment and the 18th-century searches that inspired it, and one that has a rough modern analog in stop-and-frisk. Rand Paul, the 2016 presidential candidate whose platform hews most closely to the Oath Keepers’ extreme small-government ideology, penned a Time op-ed against police militarization that was partially inspired by Ferguson. (Stewart Rhodes, the founder of Oath Keepers, started his political career as an aide to Ron Paul, Rand’s father.)
It’s easy to see why an Oath Keeper who is sure that the U.S. government aims to impose martial law and round up its citizens into concentration camps might be spooked by the contemporary Hummer-driving and rifle-wielding American police force. In June, the Pentagon forced the Ferguson Police Department to return two Humvees it obtained through a federal program that allows local law-enforcement agencies the use of U.S. military equipment, citing an apparent record-keeping or protocol error by Missouri state authorities. The Oath Keepers may loathe militarized police, but its members and the decommissioned vehicles share a similar provenance: Both are cast-off military surplus, looking for something to do in the domestic arena. The only difference is that the Hummers are officially sanctioned.
While Oath Keepers and Black Lives Matter protesters may agree that police violence is a problem, they’re likely to disagree about its causes, and its potential solutions. Andrews believes that 60 percent of police are well-intentioned and good at their jobs, and the remaining 40 percent are “sociopathic dirtbags that abuse people constantly...and should have never been given a badge in the first place.”
But he’s adamant that most cops, even bad ones, aren’t racist. “At this point, police will kill you if you’re white, laugh about it, and brag about it at lunch, just as quickly as they’ll kill you if you’re black,” he said.
One of the people who called Andrews over lunch was Larry A. Kirk, who is unusual among Oath Keepers in that he is not only still on active police duty but is the chief of a department, in Old Monroe, Mo., a town of 265 people about 30 miles northwest of Ferguson. Kirk had praised Andrews’ efforts but gently chided him for not having given the local chapter a heads-up.
A minor celebrity among Libertarians for his support of marijuana legalization and opposition to seatbelt laws, Kirk is more willing than Andrews to allow that policing and racism are interconnected issues. Kirk is white, as is 97 percent of the population of Old Monroe as of the 2010 census. Pointing to marijuana incarceration rates that are many times higher for black men than any other demographic despite relatively equal use across races, Kirk said, “Individually, you don’t have to be racist, but there are systematic things in our society right now that are racist that we don’t recognize a lot of the time...I think that’s why you see a lot more concern [about police abuse] in the black community.”
Where Kirk and Andrews agree—and where they might clash with mainline Black Lives Matter activists—is that one key to ending police oppression in black communities should be lawfully arming residents there. “Arm yourselves with weapons and arm yourselves with knowledge,” Andrews said. “If you introduce weapons with skills and knowledge about your rights, it will absolutely solve the problem, and quickly.” Andrews said that many of the protesters he had spoken with on Monday and Tuesday asked him what kind of gun he was carrying, to which he answered “It’s the kind you should be carrying so the police can’t abuse you.” He was carrying a custom-built AR-15 assault rifle.
Kirk does not believe that guns are a miracle cure—he’s also an ardent supporter of body cameras on cops and ending the drug war, for instance—but he does believe they’re useful as a visual affirmation that a person knows his rights. “It’s empowering to know that you can protect yourself in a situation,” he said. “A lot of people will take that as, ‘What are you trying to say, that they should shoot cops if they get stopped?’ But that’s not the point. I think that if an officer walks up to a young black man, and the young man understands the laws, and he knows that he has the right to concealed-carry or open-carry, then that officer is more reluctant to try to push the boundaries. There are officers who are like, ‘I know the law, and this person doesn’t, and I can get away with a little more than I normally can.’ [Carrying a weapon] is a sign that that young man is educating himself on what his rights are.”
The Oath Keepers aren’t the first group to suggest arming the black populace as a solution to police oppression. Charles Mayo, the only Ferguson activist I spoke with who had a relatively positive view of the Oath Keepers, noted that in 1967, armed members of the Black Panther Party marched on the California State Capitol to protest the passage of the Mulford Act, which would outlaw openly carrying guns in the state. The bill was proposed partially in response to the Black Panthers’ police patrols, a kind of symbolic theater that saw armed party members responding to police calls and informing arrestees of their rights while they were being arrested. “It’s parallel to when Huey Newton and them were telling black people that you have the right to protect your land, your property, and have a gun on your person,” Mayo said. Throughout changes in gun laws in the decades since then, he continued, “you’ve always had a right to bear arms.”
Shortly after that march on the California capitol, legislators passed the Mulford Act and then-governor Ronald Reagan signed it, ending legal open-carry in the state. In other words, when the Panthers used guns to demonstrate their knowledge of their rights, exactly as the Oath Keepers are doing and instructing Ferguson’s black residents to do, the state of California enacted a new law to stop them from doing it.
Mayo said that he clashed with the Oath Keepers in Ferguson after first encountering them last year, but they eventually established a rapport. Still, he said, it’s understandable that other black activists don’t trust them. “You have African-American men seeing caucasian men with guns, openly,” he said. “Throughout our history, with what we’ve been through, it’s a natural instinct to be afraid of that.”
Separately, Mayo and Andrews both spoke almost wistfully about an idea that the Oath Keepers had discussed with simpatico Ferguson protesters last week: What if a group of Oath Keepers and a group of armed black activists all stood together on West Florissant in defiance of the cops? “We get 10 activists with concealed-carry permits, and we get 10 Oath Keepers, and we alternate them side-by-side,” said Andrews, blustery as ever. “I’ll provide the AR-15s, and we stand in front of the police and go, ‘What now? What now, bitches?’”
On Friday, Andrews announced the plan to the website Red Dirt Report. The idea had escalated considerably in the two days that had passed since our lunch meeting. There will be 50 black activists marching through Ferguson with rifles, he said, and the march will take place sometime within the next few weeks. Andrews promised an “iconic” spectacle, like Martin Luther King’s march on Washington, or the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima.
Wednesday evening, in the dimly-lit multi-purpose room of a public library in St. Peters, Mo., Kirk addressed two dozen or so attendees at the monthly meeting of the Oath Keepers’ greater St. Louis chapter. The crowd ranged in age from about 25 to about 65, with a significant portion on the upper end of that spectrum. A small handful resembled the formidable paramilitary troopers seen in Ferguson, but many looked like they’d be more at home on a couch watching football, or atop a ride-on lawnmower.
Much of the proceedings were dedicated to discussing the merits of amateur radio, which, one attendee said, might help during any “impending disaster, financial collapse,” that kind of thing. One of the few female members passed around an informational sheet about a man in her city whom the municipal government “is really coming down hard on” because he illegally owns two chickens. The chapter’s leader—a heavily bearded and lightly potbellied alternative medicine practitioner named Doc Weed—wore suspenders, a shirt patterned with the Confederate Battle Flag, and a sun-beached Ron Paul campaign baseball hat. Everyone in attendance was white.
Kirk’s speech touched on the same points as his earlier phone call to Andrews: Remember that being an Oath Keeper is about protecting people’s Constitutional rights. Carefully consider what you say to the media. If you’re planning on grabbing an assault rifle and heading into the most closely-watched stretch of road in America, you might consider telling someone first. The room seemed split in its attitude about Andrews’ Ferguson operation. Only one Oath Keeper who’d patrolled Ferguson was in attendance, a former Naval engineer named Jim Faupel. After Kirk spoke, an attendee rose his hand and asked whether it had been confirmed that the Ferguson patrollers were really Oath Keepers at all.
That question may point to a larger communication breakdown and identity crisis within the Oath Keepers. Are they the fearsome citizen soldiers who showed up in Ferguson, or the sandal-wearing ham radio enthusiasts who congregated in St. Peters the following night? Journalist Justine Sharrock pondered a similar question in a thorough 2010 profile of the Oath Keepers in Mother Jones. “In the months I’ve spent getting to know the Oath Keepers, I’ve toggled between viewing them either as potentially dangerous conspiracy theorists or as crafty intellectuals with the savvy to rally politicians to their side,” Sharrock wrote. “The answer, I came to realize, is that they cover the whole spectrum.”
The Oath Keepers I spoke to weren’t monolithic in their views, but I didn’t meet anyone I’d describe as left-of-center. Andrews extolled the virtues of Donald Trump, and another member lamented supposedly conservative politicians who preside over ballooning government budgets. Kirk, a Mormon and a socially liberal Libertarian—his passion for personal freedom leads him to support gay marriage and pot legalization just as it guides him toward Second Amendment advocacy—represents the greatest deviation from the Oath Keeper norm that I encountered.
Still, deep paranoia is, within the group, a mainstream outlook. Stewart Rhodes, its founder, once penned an op-ed hypothesizing that “Hitlery Clinton” would disarm all citizens and proclaim those who resisted to be “enemy combatants,” and the Oath Keepers website regularly and explicitly invokes the New World Order.
What does it add up to? Oath Keepers has a national board, and local chapters have leaders like Doc Weed, but there isn’t much of a hierarchy beyond that. Sam Andrews wasn’t acting on anyone’s orders or approval when he went to West Florissant; he decided the situation called for the Oath Keepers, and then he gathered his guns and went.
Larry Kirk believes that the confusion that ensued is emblematic of the organization’s “growing pains,” and that in the future, more consideration might need to be given to what does and doesn’t constitute an official Oath Keepers action.
“Let’s imagine if a group of us got together to go to Montana right now,” Kirk said at the meeting, referring to the White Hope Mine, where members of Oath Keepers and similarly minded groups are engaged in yet another Bundyesque dispute, this time with the U.S. Forest Service, over a copper, zinc, silver, and gold mine that sits on public land. “It’s always hospitable to contact your local organization” and let them know that you’re coming, he said.
“If a militia group shows up”—-in Ferguson, Montana, or elsewhere, he continued—“Or any other type of group that’s armed, or dressed in battle fatigues...You could have any group show up, and as long as you’re wearing an Oath Keeper hat, then all of a sudden everybody in the group is an Oath Keeper.”
In other words, as with other decentralized movements like Anonymous, Occupy, or even Black Lives Matter, there’s not much stopping any crank who wants to claim allegiance to the Oath Keepers. Feel like donning a skull bandana, going on YouTube, and advocating for the armed overthrowal of the U.S. government under the Oath Keepers banner? Go right ahead. In an organization whose very raison d’être is resistance to a perceived tyrannical authority, why would anyone follow orders?
Illustration by Jim Cooke. Images via Getty. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.