Earlier this month, during protests marking the one-year anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown, the Oath Keepers reappeared in Ferguson, Missouri. The group was present during the protests last fall, when armed members of the militia group stood guard atop neighborhood apartments and businesses. These newly deployed Oath Keepers mingled with demonstrators and videotaped the occasional tense encounter with law enforcement officers, including St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar.
A few days after the Oath Keepers’ arrival, on August 14, the group’s leader, Sam Andrews, announced that he and his followers would be back again soon — bringing along 50 African-American protestors openly carrying long guns. “It will be an iconic event,” Andrews told Oklahoma’s Red Dirt Report, likening it to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington.
No date has been set for the march. The Ferguson police say they have no information on the Oath Keepers’ plans beyond what has already appeared in media reports and have not heard from Andrews and the Oath Keepers directly; a spokesperson declined to comment further. But speaking with The Trace last week, Andrews elaborated on his vision and gave his perspective on the events in the Missouri city over the past year.
The Oath Keepers group describes itself as a loosely affiliated paramilitary group comprised mostly of former and current members of the military, law enforcement, and emergency responders. All swear a self-described “nonpartisan” oath to disregard orders that they deem to be unconstitutional, especially those that infringe on the right to bear arms. In recent years, Oath Keepers have stood off with Federal Bureau of Land Management personnel during the Cliven Bundy affair and a dispute over a gold mine in Medford, Oregon. Following this summer’s Chattanooga shootings, founder Stewart Rhodes announced “Operation Protect the Protectors,” which led to members taking up guard posts outside military recruiting stations from South Dakota to South Carolina. After the Army warned its personnel to treat any open carriers at its sites as a “security threat,” Rhodes doubled down, telling Oath Keepers to only withdraw from sites when personally told to do so by local recruiters. “We don’t stop protecting the protectors,” Rhodes wrote, “just because sellouts in the Pentagon are acting as puppets for Obama.”
The Oath Keepers have been labeled as an antigovernment militia by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Because the SLPC tracks both hate groups and extremists of other orientations, some have taken its monitoring of the Oath Keepers as evidence of the group’s racist motivations. Sam Andrews vehemently rejects that characterization. “We have people of all races in our organization,” he told The Trace. “If you make you racist comments, even on the Internet, joking, you can’t be an Oath Keeper. You’ve got to be willing to stand up for the rights of all people, and if you can’t do that, we don’t want you associated with us.”
Andrews is in his late 50s and describes himself as “a graduate mechanical engineer who has worked as a Department of Defense contractor.” He says he and his “security team” headed to Ferguson on August 10 to provide protection for two reporters from Info Wars, a libertarian and conspiracy-minded news site. (According to Andrews, members of his group have done security work for journalists from mainstream outlets, as well.) One of those reporters, Joe Biggs, is white; the other, Jakari Jackson, is black. According to Andrews, when he picked up Biggs and Jackson from their hotel, he asked each of them if they were carrying weapons. Per Andrews, Biggs replied, “I got armored plates; I got a pistol; I’ve got my concealed permit with me; I’m good to go.” Despite having his own carry license, Jackson was armed only with “a can of bear spray,” telling Andrews, “There’s no way I’m carrying a gun in Ferguson.” Andrews claims that during his time on the ground, he spoke with “over 200” black protestors, all of whom were afraid to carry weapons as the Oath Keepers do.
While on the ground in Ferguson that week, Andrews and his crew also had a street-corner conversation with St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar. To Andrews, it seemed like Belmar misunderstood Missouri’s open-carry laws, and would arrest the Oath Keepers if he felt they were inciting demonstrators. “I’m driving away from Ferguson at five in the morning thinking, ‘Man, we’ve got a real problem,’” Andrews says.
The solution, to Andrews, is his planned march. Andrews says that his open-carrying protestors will come from within the Ferguson community, and have gun permits that, per Missouri law, will have to be certified by the Ferguson police. “All of our black protestors are going to have permits, signed by Chief Belmar! How’s he going to arrest them if he’s the one who signed their permits and is supposed to protect them?” Oath Keeper lawyers will “make sure their applications are handled fairly by the county,” while black Oath Keepers will train the black activists to handle long guns in the context of a “nonthreatening, peaceful protest.” The ultimate vision is of a phalanx of gun-toting “Ferguson residents, and marching side-by-side with them will be Oath Keepers from around the country.”
Andrews acknowledges that this image may be a “difficult sell” within the black community. “We’ve had people go, ‘Those long guns, they’re unnecessary.’ We’ve had people go, ‘What’re you doing, white man, in my neighborhood?’ We’ve had folks calling us KKK,” he says. “But when we’ve sat down and talked with them, and given them respect, and told them we respect their right to protest, and told them we loved them, their whole attitude changes. The vast majority of people have changed their minds and accepted us.” He argues that he can win over skeptics with a dual appeal to personal safety and posterity. “It’s important that young black children see you on TV exercising your rights in public, that they see you doing this, and that they see that the police can’t shoot you.”
While Andrews spoke at length about his goals for the march, he was cagey about the details. He said his group is weighing three possible dates, and needs to take time to ensure that everything is done in a way that is “lawful and structured.” He added that he and his members have been trying to coordinate with activists involved with Black Lives Matter and the New Black Panthers, though declined to give specifics about those talks (“we’re not revealing to any reporters who we’re working with, because we don’t want this sabotaged by the powers that be”), and attempts to reach Black Lives Matter and the New Black Panthers for comment were unsuccessful. What he’s hoping to put together, Andrews insists, would be no mere publicity stunt. If the march does go forward, he says it will be simultaneously pro-nonviolence, pro-law, and anti-police-brutality, with the overarching message of “Peace Through Strength.”
In the end, from Andrews’s perspective, the authorities have imposed a false choice on Ferguson and its protestors: Either accept crime and violence in the community, or “accept our hypermilitarized police force watching your every move.” But there is “a third option,” he contends. “And that’s black people educating themselves on the laws, lawful black people arming themselves and securing their own city. And that works everywhere.”
“It’s one thing to scream F— the police and throw bricks,” Andrews says. “It’s another thing to stand in the street with an AR-15, pointed in a safe direction, and look at the police, and say, ‘We’re not going to take it anymore, this is going to stop, and it’s going to stop now.’ That’s an entirely different message, and it begs a whole different response.”
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