In the early morning on Tuesday, about half a dozen men armed with assault rifles began walking the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, which was under a state of emergency following protests on the August 9 anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown.
They were members of Oath Keepers, described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “fiercely antigovernment, militaristic group,” and they said they were there to “keep the peace”—as if their presence was meant to be anything other than intimidating. St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said their arrival was “both unnecessary and inflammatory,” but apparently no police officers confronted the group. The men were all white, of course—as if they could have possibly been met with the same response if they were black or brown.
CNN was gracious enough to grant one member, John Karriman, the chance to explain his organization’s mission in Ferguson. “We had a calming presence on the crowd because they remember us from last year,” he said. “We were here for them, protecting people and property.” In the interview, Karriman said the Oath Keepers made their presence known to police, who simply asked that they not get in the way. Before the militiamen arrived, the police had told protesters to disperse, arresting those who did not comply.
Oath Keepers interpret political reality through the same prism as the tinfoil-hat-wearing, black-helicopter crowd, except with a special emphasis on using their weapons to disobey and resist unconstitutional government overreach and the imminent and tyrannical imposition of martial law.
They’ve also been freelancing their paramilitary and weapon-wielding skills to mining companies in the West. Just last week, Intermountain Mining requested the group come to the White Hope Mine in Lincoln, Montana, to stage a “security operation” and protect the mine from “unlawful action by the United States Forest Service.” The Forest Service and the mine owners are in a dispute over who controls the surface rights to the mine, with Intermountain Mining claiming ownership under the original 1872 General Mining Law and the Forest Service citing noncompliance regarding a structure built on the property.
It’s worth talking a bit about this 1872 law, which is, incredibly, still on the books: Passed by President Ulysses S. Grant—yes, Grant—to encourage western development, the law lets mining companies buy land (at 1872 prices) and extract valuable minerals from public lands without paying any royalties (an estimated $100 million a year, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts). The taxpayers are left with the bill for environmental damage and abandoned mine cleanup, which is considerable. Last week’s dam breach in Colorado that leaked millions of gallons—and counting—of contaminated wastewater into the Animas River happened when the EPA was performing a cleanup of the Gold King Mine, abandoned since 1923.
It is this industry Oath Keepers are defending in Montana, just as they defended rancher Cliven Bundy’s refusal to recognize the federal government or pay years’ worth of fees for having allowed his cattle to graze on public land. A report released on Tuesday by the Center for Western Priorities, which describes itself as a nonpartisan conservation group, linked the efforts of extremist groups like Oath Keepers to Western state lawmakers who use anti-government rhetoric in their efforts to transfer ownership of federal lands—and the minerals underneath them—to state and local government.
But rhetoric is one thing, and assault weapons are another. The founder of Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, wrote on the group’s website after the shooting in Chattanooga that Oath Keepers should “Go armed, at all times, as free men and women, and be ready to do sudden battle, anywhere, anytime, and with utter recklessness.” The group has denied that its mine protection in Montana is a “standoff,” though if I were a Forest Service employee, I would be a bit reluctant to approach armed men who not only believe my agency is unconstitutional, but also are prepared to “do sudden battle” with supposed agents of tyranny.
And if I were a protester in Ferguson, or one of the countless unarmed victims of police violence, I would also be more than reluctant to believe this country has an accurate idea of what constitutes a threat, or of who or what needs protecting.