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Oath Keepers Say They're Defending Ferguson; Others Say They're Not Helping

Heavily armed civilians with a group known as the Oath Keepers in Ferguson, Mo., early Tuesday. St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar has said the presence of the group was "both unnecessary and inflammatory."
Jeff Roberson
Heavily armed civilians with a group known as the Oath Keepers in Ferguson, Mo., early Tuesday. St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar has said the presence of the group was "both unnecessary and inflammatory."

Ferguson, Mo., officials said Wednesday that the state of emergency in the town will continue at least one more day. Demonstrations that marked the first anniversary of the death of Michael Brown along with gunfire that erupted Sunday night led to the emergency declaration. Police say a suspected gunman, who was shot by police, was not part of the protest rallies.

Among the crowds that have gathered in Ferguson, an unusual group has showed up. They are armed white men wearing camouflage and flak jackets, and they call themselves the Oath Keepers. Their website describes them as "a non-partisan association of 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.' "

One of them, John Karriman, a teacher at Missouri Southern State University's Police Academy, said, "We're not a threat to anybody other than to those that would seek to usurp our Constitution and not afford people their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. ... We're the sheepdogs that keep the rest of the flock safe."

But some local officials say the Oath Keepers aren't helpful, or even welcome. And protesters taking part in the #BlackLivesMatter movement say they fear the Oath Keepers. "I was really afraid of the four to five white men, dressed in camos, semi-automatic rifles plowing through the crowd," said protester Mark Loehrer at a St. Louis County Council meeting on Tuesday. "Then they went across the street and talked to the cops for about 25 minutes, and then they decided to come plow through the crowd again."

Another protester, Mary Chandler, said the police failed to confront the Oath Keepers in the way they challenge some of the protesters in Ferguson. "We can't even stand on this side of the street without the weapons being pointed at us," Chandler said during a street demonstration on Tuesday night. "But yet you can bring those people that can come in, no questions asked, with rifles and things strapped across their body and everything is OK and you don't feel any sense of danger at all."

Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said there's no record of Oath Keepers' engaging in political violence and that the group is mainly driven by anti-government views. "The core ideas of these groups relate to the fear that elites in this country and around the world are slowly and steadily and nefariously moving us towards a one-world government, the so-called New World Order," he said.

Both St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar and County Executive Steve Stenger say the Oath Keepers aren't welcome in Ferguson. Stenger told St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum, "The last thing you need in a situation like we have are people walking around with semi-automatic weapons. It's inflaming a situation that's already inflamed."

But Stenger pointed out that until he and the county prosecuting attorney can find a way to keep the Oath Keepers out of Ferguson, they can still walk around the protests with their guns. "The state Legislature saw it in their wisdom, which I would say a lack of wisdom, to pass laws that allow individuals to open-carry firearms anywhere in Missouri," he said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sam worked at Vermont Public Radio from October 1978 to September 2017 in various capacities – almost always involving audio engineering. He excels at sound engineering for live performances.
Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.
Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.