Aug 28, 2015

Oath Keepers, Ferguson, and the Patriot movement’s conflicted race politics

When a group built around right-wing conspiracy theories sends heavily armed white men onto streets filled with Black Lives Matter protesters, it makes sense to be worried. But if these are white supremacist vigilantes, why are they proposing to arm black protesters and march alongside them?

Police sharpshooter at Ferguson protests - a repressive
response strongly criticized by Oath Keepers
Oath Keepers has drawn a lot of discussion and criticism for deploying men with guns to Ferguson, Missouri, last fall and again this summer. As a part of the Patriot movement, Oath Keepers’ politics are predictably right wing on a host of issues — it glorifies private property, promotes homophobia and anti-immigrant scapegoating, and accuses Marxists of making common cause with radical Islamists to destroy western civilization. But Oath Keepers doesn’t fit the white supremacist profile that many leftists expect. Not only has the group disavowed racism (which in itself doesn’t mean much), more surprisingly it has also supported African Americans’ right to protest and even their right to practice armed self-defense. Very recently — apparently in the past few days — Oath Keepers has split over this very issue, suggesting a larger conflict within the Patriot movement over whether to maintain white centrism or pursue a more inclusive strategy. While some leftists may see this as a hopeful sign, I believe it has the potential to make the movement more dangerous.

Backgound on the Patriot movement
Oath Keepers is a Patriot movement organization for current and former military, law enforcement, and emergency personnel. Like other Patriot groups, Oath Keepers believes there is a conspiracy by globalist elites to turn the United States into a dictatorship. Members of Oath Keepers declare they will refuse to follow orders to impose martial law, round up U.S. citizens, or take away their guns. In a speech earlier this year, Oath Keeper leader Stewart Rhodes warned that the U.S. government is plotting to cause economic chaos, start a race war, unleash ISIS cells, and keep new immigrants from assimilating — all paving the way for a police state.

The Patriot movement is a political hybrid, a meeting place for several different rightist currents. Its ideology is rooted in a mix of libertarianism, John Birch-style conspiracy theories, white nationalism, and Christian theocracy. Although all Patriot movement activists are hostile to the federal government to a degree, some have taken an essentially defensive position while others reject the federal government in principle, and a few have planned or carried out physical attacks against federal institutions or personnel. Many Patriot groups avoid explicit racism, yet ideas rooted in white supremacist or antisemitic ideology circulate freely, such as the belief that black people have far fewer rights than whites, because most of them did not become U.S. citizens until passage of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution after the Civil War. Anti-immigrant politics and the implicitly racist claim that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States (and therefore is ineligible to be president) have also become major movement themes in recent years.

The Patriot movement had its first big upsurge in the 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of activists (or more) — claiming core state functions for themselves — formed “citizen’s militias,” “common law courts,” and related groups. That movement wave didn’t last long, but Barack Obama’s election as president in 2008 sparked a second, even larger upturn. Since then, the number of Patriot groups rose from less than 150, peaked at 1,360 groups in 2012, then dropped to 874 in 2014. Oath Keepers, founded in 2009 and with a (disputed) claim of 30,000 members in 2015, has been on the leading edge of the movement’s resurgence. The movement got another boost in the spring of 2014, when hundreds of activists (including Oath Keepers) gathered at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch to support his “right” to graze his cattle on federal lands without paying the grazing fees. Guns drawn, the heavily armed activists forced federal officers to back down.

Oath Keepers to Ferguson
Last December, after Ferguson, Missouri, exploded in fury over racist police violence and the legal system that protects it, Oath Keepers sent armed volunteers to guard Ferguson businesses and homes against arsonists and looters. This month, as protesters commemorated the anniversary of Michael Brown’s police killing, several heavily armed Oath Keepers were back on the streets of Ferguson. They said they were protecting reporters with, Alex Jones’s right-wing conspiracist website, as well as businesses and residents. Both times, all of the Oath Keepers present were apparently white men.

The Oath Keepers first appeared in Ferguson after reports that Ku Klux Klansmen were converging on the Ferguson area to protect white-owned homes and businesses. One Klan group referred to Darren Wilson (whose killing of Michael Brown touched off Ferguson’s 2014 protests against deadly police racism) as “the cop who did his job against the negro criminal,” and the group’s leader declared, “we can’t have blacks robbing and murdering innocent whites.” Many other rightists, including Patriot groups, echoed this view. When Oath Keepers showed up, a lot of people assumed it was following in the Klan’s footsteps. Many Ferguson activists pointed out that the Oath Keepers had the privilege to carry heavy weapons openly while black people were being arrested just on the suspicion that they were armed. Whatever Oath Keepers’ intentions, as Andrew O’Hehir noted in Salon, “the icon of the white man with a gun” is bound up in American mythology with the long history of Klan terror and racist lynchings.

But Oath Keepers is not the Klan. In some ways it’s rooted in the same legacy, and old-style racist attitudes can be found in its ranks. But overall its response to the Ferguson protests and the Black Lives Matter movement has been very different. It’s worth looking at this response closely, as well as the organizational split it generated, if we want to understand what the Patriot movement is about and why it dwarfs the openly white supremacist right. The New York Times, Washington Post, BBC News, and National Public Radio haven’t done this — and neither have the Southern Poverty Law Center or even Political Research Associates in their reports on right-wing responses to Ferguson. Here’s some of what they left out:
  • In August 2014, while the Klan was cheering Officer Wilson, Oath Keepers’ Missouri Chapter sent an “open letter of warning” to Missouri Governor Nixon. The letter harshly condemned the Ferguson police for violating people’s right to protest, and offered detailed criticisms of its “spectacularly unsafe weapons discipline and methodology” such as pointing automatic weapons at unarmed protesters. “The militarized police response we saw in Ferguson did not work. All it did was violate the rights of peaceful protesters and media, alienate the community, and make our country look even more like a police state…”
  • The Oath Keepers’ open letter to Governor Nixon related the Ferguson crackdown to earlier examples of militarized, abusive police practices, including tactics used against Occupy Wall Street and the lockdown after the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing. Oath Keepers also connected police militarization with U.S. aggression abroad. “[M]uch like over-the top and indiscriminate threat displays and use of force in Iraq lost the hearts and minds of the locals, so too does it lose the battle for hearts and minds here at home – assisting in the agendas of those who wish to divide us along racial lines and create an ‘us vs. them’ mentality among both the people and the police.”
  • In November, Oath Keepers followed up with an open letter to the people of Ferguson, which began by declaring that “you have an absolute, God given, and constitutionally protected right to protest and speak your mind,” and that “the police have no right, no authority, and no power to violate those rights…” The letter reiterated Oath Keepers’ earlier criticisms of police repression in Ferguson, while also urging protesters to “‘police their own’ by looking out for hot-heads in the crowd who may resort to violence, looting, or property destruction,” so as not to distract from the reasons for the protest.
  • Addressing the local community, Oath Keepers specifically urged black military veterans to form armed patrols and neighborhood watches to keep Ferguson safe, and cited the Deacons for Defense and Justice (whose armed members defended 1960s civil rights marchers in the Deep South and helped to inspire the Black Panther Party) as a “proud and noble” example to follow, “except this time, you must defend against violence by anyone, whether outsiders or locals, of any race, against anyone, of any race.”
  • As an example of what they had in mind, Oath Keepers reposted an article about a group of armed black men in Ferguson who were standing guard protecting a white-owned gas station and convenience store. “They said they felt they owed it to [the store owner], who has employed many of them over the years and treats them with respect.”
  • In August 2015, an Oath Keeper interviewed on the streets of Ferguson offered an angry litany of recent police killings around the U.S., beginning with twelve-year-old Tamir Rice and other African Americans, then noting that police have also killed several whites, such as James Boyd, a homeless man in Albuquerque. In a separate interview, when St. Louis County Oath Keepers leader Sam Andrews was asked what he would like to say to Ferguson protesters, he replied, “The first thing I would say is ‘Black Lives Matter.’ The second thing I would say is that the Oath Keepers are there to protect your rights. We care about you, regardless of all the lies that the media and some other instigators have tried to propagate. Black lives matter, we care about you, we love you and we are there to protect you.”
  • Andrews also announced plans to hold a march through downtown Ferguson in which Oath Keepers members would accompany fifty African Americans armed with long barrel rifles. “Every person we talked to [among black protesters] said if they carried [guns] they’d be shot by police. That’s the reason we’re going to hold this event and it will be a legal demonstration,” Andrews said. “I’m sick and tired of law enforcement who doesn’t think they have to abide by the law.”
Color blindness and self-defense
These statements and actions by Oath Keepers reflected an ideology of color blindness, as expressed in their November 2014 letter to Ferguson residents:
“For us, this is not about race. This is about defending the Bill of Rights, which is a shield against government abuse that is meant to protect ALL Americans, of whatever color. Those of us who served in Marine or Army infantry learned to see only one color: green. Some of our brothers in our fire-teams and squads were dark green, while others were medium or light green, but they were all our brothers, and in combat, they all bled the same color – red – in defense of this nation and in defense of the Constitution…”
Stewart Rhodes, Oath Keepers founder and leader
Oath Keepers’ color blindness ideology set them miles apart from the Klan and other white nationalist groups. Their criticism of the Ferguson cops and support for the community’s right to protest contrasted with, for example, the Patriot Action Network (a Tea Party group), which claimed that Ferguson protesters had threatened to rape the wives of police officers. And by invoking the Deacons for Defense and urging African Americans to arm themselves, Oath Keepers stomped on one of the traditional core principles of U.S. white supremacy, that black people must never practice — or be able to practice — self-defense.

To be clear, color blindness is not an anti-racist ideology. It opposes overt racial discrimination but also masks (and thus helps to protect) the implicit but powerful racial oppression that remains central to U.S. society. Oath Keepers’ critique of police repression, for example, didn’t acknowledge the fact that cop violence systematically targets people of color. And some of its members echoed other racial messages that are common in the Patriot movement. The group’s New York state chapter dismissed the Black Lives Matter movement as a pawn of Communist, anti-American “race-baiters.” One Oath Keeper interviewed in Ferguson referred to President Obama as a “mulatto” and suggested he was a Muslim born in Kenya, which is right-wing code-speak for “a black man has no business being in the White House.” As a national organization, Oath Keepers has also called for a crackdown against “illegal aliens,” who it claims are being ushered in by the Obama administration in a large-scale, planned “invasion” of the United States — although the group’s leader denies that this position is “about race.”

To further illustrate its approach to racial politics, Oath Keepers has co-sponsored two “Racial Reconciliation of the Races” events with the African American pastor James David Manning, who is virulently homophobic. At the July 2015 event, Manning led the crowd in chanting, “Sodomites, go to Hell!” and offered similar comments throughout his sermon.

Although Oath Keepers was apparently the only Patriot group to show up on the scene, color-blind responses to Ferguson have also come from others within the movement. Chuck Baldwin — an anti-gay, anti-Muslim, pro-Confederate pastor who was 2008 presidential candidate of the Patriot movement-oriented Constitution Party — declared that the August 2014 crackdown on Black Lives Matter protesters in Ferguson represented “A Preview of America’s Burgeoning Police State.” Baldwin conceded (to other rightists) that “race-baiters” were exploiting the conflict and suggested that the federal government was using “paid provocateurs” to inflame it, but chastised fellow pastors who keep silent about “the way our policemen are being turned into soldiers” and argued that the Republican Party has been “the most aggressive” in militarizing local police. Baldwin concluded, “This is not a Republican or Democrat issue; it is not a liberal or conservative issue; it is not a black or white issue; it is not a Christian or secular issue. It is a liberty or slavery issue!”

On the issue of African American self-defense, in 2012 the Lone Star Watchdog (apparently now defunct) published an article under the headline “Hidden History of Militias Protecting Liberty in the 20th Century. Before they Were Called Oath Keepers,” which was reposted on a number of Patriot movement sites. The anonymous article celebrated the role of “Black Militia” groups such as the Deacons for Defense and Robert Williams’s Black Armed Guard in deterring racist violence against the civil rights movement. “Hidden History” argued that these groups were demonized and discredited by an FBI disinformation campaign and referred to the Klan as “an arm of COINTELPRO.”

Oath Keepers split over arming black people
In late August, the Oath Keepers national leadership reportedly withdrew support from the planned Ferguson march involving armed black residents, causing a split in the organization. Sam Andrews and his “tactical team” withdrew from Oath Keepers, vowing to carry out the march on their own, and a group of Oath Keepers in Florida also quit. Andrews commented, “I can’t have my name associated with an organization that doesn’t believe black people can exercise their First and Second Amendment rights at the same time.”

Both Andrews and “James Wise” (a former Oath Keeper in Florida who used an alias) pointed to the inconsistency of Oath Keepers’ willingness to confront police at the Bundy ranch but not in Ferguson. As Wise, who is Cuban American, put it:
“Unwilling to confront the cops. What the hell are we here for then? Who is going to violate the rights of the people? The Boy Scouts? If you plan on keeping your oath, you had better be willing to confront cops….You know race isn’t a huge issue here, but I have to believe that an organization that is OK with a bunch of white guys pointing guns at cops in Nevada over grazing rights shouldn’t turn into complete [multiple expletives deleted] [cowards] at the thought of blacks just holding guns in a march protesting people getting beaten and killed by cops. You know there’s something wrong there…”
A related issue, Andrews said, is that the new Oath Keepers’ board is made up almost entirely of retired police. He, most of his tactical team members, and Wise are all former military special forces.

Patriot movement racial politics
Differences within the Patriot movement over racial politics are not new. A point that Chip Berlet and I made twenty years ago (about what we then called the militia movement) remains true today:
“While some militias clearly have emerged…from old race-hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan or Aryan Nations, and while the grievances of the militia movement as a whole are rooted in white-supremacist and antisemitic conspiracy theories, many militia members do not appear to be consciously drawn to the militia movement on the strength of these issues…. To stereotype every armed militia member as a Nazi terrorist…lumps together persons with unconscious garden-variety prejudice and the demagogues and professional race-hate organizers.”
Today, the split in Oath Keepers indicates that some Patriot activists are willing to pay more than lip service to the idea that constitutional rights should apply to everyone regardless of race.

In addition, while the Patriot movement has been predominantly white and male, it has also included a few African Americans, such as J.J. Johnson, who co-founded the Ohio Unorganized Militia and described militias as “the civil rights movement of the 1990s.” Johnson urged black people to join the Patriot movement and argued, “If our ancestors would have been armed, they would not have been slaves!” Today, among the members profiled on the Oath Keepers website are several people of color, reflecting the group’s claim that “Oath Keepers come in all colors, shapes, sizes, ages, and backgrounds…”

The emphasis on gun rights, which Oath Keepers shares with the rest of the Patriot movement, helps us understand the movement’s often muddled racial politics. In the United States there’s an organic connection between racism and guns, because an armed white male populace was historically one of the cornerstones of the whole system of racial oppression. Frontier settlers needed guns for conquering Indian and Mexican lands, and white men in the South needed to be armed to keep control over enslaved black people, who were not allowed to have guns. Armed, decentralized white power has generally served ruling elites but has also fueled right-wing populist upsurges that clashed with elite interests — such as the original Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan, which fought a guerrilla war against “northern military despotism.” And people of color and their allies, too, have invoked the right to bear arms — from anti-slavery activists to Chicano land rights defenders and the Black Panther Party. As a result, gun control has sometimes been used to enforce white rule, as when conservatives in the late 1960s advocated stricter gun laws because they were afraid of the Black Panthers.

All of this history is in the mix when Patriot groups talk about the Second Amendment. And while the predominant thread of that history is about defending white privilege, other threads are sometimes visible.

Capitalist individualism
There’s room for disagreement about race, too, because the Patriot movement’s common denominator isn’t defending white privilege (or heterosexuality, or national borders) — it’s a vision of unregulated property rights, a capitalist individualism that’s militantly opposed to government “interference.” That’s why the Oath Keepers often talk about “protecting life, liberty, and property,” and why they initially went into Ferguson to guard businesses. Defending supposed property rights against federal government intrusion was what drove the Bundy ranch action in 2014. For similar reasons, armed Oath Keepers and other Patriot activists have more recently protected disputed mining claims in Oregon and Montana against “unlawful” federal action. These Oath Keeper operations reflect a Patriot movement consensus. When over 100 Patriot movement delegates met in a 2009 “continental congress” outside Chicago, they declared that “The United States is the only nation on earth specifically based on the premise of the right of individuals to own and control property," and that owning private property was “the root of our individual Freedom.”

Capitalist individualism and racism are historically and culturally connected, but they’re not inseparable. In an era when overt racial bigotry is widely discredited, it shouldn’t be a surprise when even hardline right-wingers want to move beyond the white supremacist legacy. Andrew O’Hehir may well be right when he suggests that the group’s Ferguson foray was a “kind of attempt at cross-racial outreach, however deluded and misguided in execution.”

We should have no illusions that such outreach represents a move to the left. It’s highly unlikely — given that he’s a Donald Trump supporter — that Sam Andrews is going to turn his splinter group into a progressive version of Oath Keepers. However, capitalist individualism (coupled with anti-globalist conspiracism, homophobia, and a strong emphasis on gun rights) could well provide the basis for collaboration between some Patriot groups and right-wing black nationalist organizations such as the New Black Panther Party. There are precedents, such as the Lyndon LaRouche network’s cordial dealings with the Nation of Islam in the 1990s. New or not, it’s hard to see this kind of right-wing alliance-building as anything but ominous.

Photo credits:

Police sharpshooter - By Jamelle Bouie [CC Attribution 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Stewart Rhodes - By Gage Skidmore [CC Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0], via Flickr Commons