As protests in Ferguson flared once more into violent confrontation last week following the grand jury's decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson, a new group entered the fray. Billing themselves as volunteer security for local businesses and residents, they took to the rooftops, apparently to the surprise of some residents.
The volunteers were members of the Oath Keepers, a non-partisan but libertarian-leaning association of ex-military service people formed in 2009 with the stated aim of upholding the Constitution against all threats, foreign and domestic. But before anyone could figure out why the Oath Keepers were there—or what exactly their disputed and mysterious beliefs were—local police confronted and removed the group from the rooftops (temporarily) this Saturday.
The Oath Keepers do have a history of virulently anti-government rhetoric and some overlap with the armed right-wing militia movement. As one of those conservative insurgencies that spawned just after Barack Obama took office, they've been accused of harboring at least a dash of racial animus. So this morning, VICE spoke with Oath Keepers founder and leader (and former Ron Paul aide) E. Stewart Rhodes as he prepared to travel down to Ferguson to contest his group's removal from the town's rooftops. We asked him about why the Oath Keepers went to Ferguson in the first place, what their aims are, and how they've been interacting with police, protestors, and bystanders alike.
VICE: Why did the Oath Keepers decide to intervene in Ferguson?
E. Steward Rhodes: We thought maybe, having declared a national emergency and deployed the National Guard, they'd do it right this time. But then it became apparent on Monday that the National Guard was only guarding government buildings. And locals confirmed that.
We realized they're going to do the same thing as last time, leave people unprotected. We scrambled as fast as we could—crack of dawn on Monday—to get people together.
You were in touch with locals on the ground?
There are Oath Keepers right there in the area. One of them… is a police academy instructor. He's a retired police officer. The other one was Sam. He trains the police snipers, SWAT teams. So both of them have contacts in the local police forces. They told us what's going on.
Did they ever directly ask you to come?
Yeah, [the police] just didn't do their job. It's a no-brainer. You want to protect buildings against arson? What you do is you put a couple of guys on the roof with fire extinguishers and buckets. It's just logical common sense that hasn't been done.
You were confronted by the police. On what grounds did they ask you to leave?
They said that we are not licensed security guards and that their local regulations require a license if you're going to serve as a security guard. But that regulation only covers paid security guards. So it doesn't apply to unpaid volunteers and there are plenty of other unpaid volunteers all over Ferguson who are guarding property, including the young black guys guarding the Conoco station down there, who are in the news as well. And they're doing a great job. So it's just kind of weird that we've been singled out.
We're going to an emergency injunction probably tomorrow. Meanwhile… we have our retired police officers on the roofs. They're exempt from local regulations about security. [But] you shouldn't have to be a cop to do the right thing by your neighbors.
Let's say you don't get an injunction for whatever reason. Would you just depend on the retired police officers, or would you go back in some other capacity?
We could [depend on the retired police], or we could choose to get back on the roofs and let them arrest us. So we'll see—not sure what we're going to do. But the thing is, the one thing we can't do is abandon these people.
The government has failed to protect them… and they're now saying you can't protect yourselves unless you can afford to hire private security? So the poor are punished, only the wealthy can afford to hire private security, and if you can't afford it, you're just screwed. That makes no sense.
When I get there, my main goal is going to be to organize the community and encourage them to start their own neighborhood watches. They don't need outside help. They should be able to do it themselves. We're going to offer assistance in training them. I'm bringing a Special Forces veteran. He's a professional trainer.
How does Ferguson fit into national trends that you monitor?
It's a repeat problem all over the country whenever there's civil unrest. When there's an emergency and the police are overwhelmed, whether it's the Rodney King riots or Katrina or right here, why is it that people standing up to protect themselves are deemed improper and punished? It happened to the Korean storeowners too in the Rodney King riots. They had to protect their stores, otherwise they'd have been burned to the ground. Yet they were persecuted by the local officials for doing so. Same thing here.
Frankly, in Ferguson, what they're being told is you only have two choices: 1) a hyper-militarized police state to stop violence, including arson, or 2) let it go and burn the town down. Twenty different buildings have burned to the ground. That's a false choice.
For Ferguson in particular if… they don't believe that the police department is legitimate, they should be protecting themselves and secure themselves because the more they secure themselves, the less reason there is for the police to be in their neighborhoods and communities. So they should take care of themselves for both reasons—to be secure, but also to be more free.
So this crackdown on self-protection units, do you think that's just an abstract trajectory, or is it something intentional? Is it guided and malicious?
I think it's both. We get really good, positive press from the local paper there and right after that's when they showed up. So before that everything was fine; cops would give us thumbs-up. So what happened is I think the political brass at the top—the chief of police, governor in particular—I believe he was pressured from above. Of course, I don't know, but I think their behavior in the past is very politicized.
We don't care about any of that. What we're going to do is make sure that Natalie's Cakes and More and the Chinese restaurant and the dentist and all the other shops that are right there are not burned to the ground. We have direct threats from arsonists saying they're going to burn those buildings to the ground. And it's not just about property. It's also about people's lives. There are apartments in those buildings above the shops where people live. If they were burned to the ground there'd be a lot of dead people, burned to death.
It's so bizarre and strange that in the middle of a state of emergency you have the chief of police going out of his way to instruct the officers to come and force us off the roof to prevent us from preventing arson.
And now we're on the street as protestors. We've been critical of the governor… pointing out the mistakes back in August, all the things they've been doing wrong: gross violations of free speech and assembly, shooting rubber bullets at everybody, pointing their guns at everybody, spraying CS gas at everybody. That was egregious. The right way to do it, we told them, was, 'Hey, you put undercover cops in the crowds and locate the guys actually doing illegal stuff. You don't punish everybody.'
We had an open letter to the Ferguson community just the other day saying much the same thing: affirming their rights to free speech and assembly, but also telling them point blank: 'Look, you have an obligation and duty to… stop the arsonists because all it does is discredit them… and takes attention from the reason why we're protesting in the first place.'
You were invited to Ferguson by some members of the public, but what have your interactions with the rest of the residents and the protestors at large been like since you got there?
Well, it's been mixed. Some of them… understand why we're there. Others are reacting emotionally, saying we're there to shoot black people and we're some kind of racist organization.
I'm a quarter Mexican. I'm not a very good white supremacist. We're guarding a black lady's bakery and a white guy's dentist firm and a Chinese restaurant and a beauty store owned by a Korean lady. It's not about race. To us it's about human rights.
Why do you think some people believe you were there as a racist group that wanted to shoot black protestors?
We get a lot of bad press from the Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups that don't ever address us on the issues we actually stand for—that instead want to use smear tactics and false conflation, false association with people we have nothing in common with.
Is there anything else you want to add?
All we're saying is that people have a right to not be burned to death and not have their shops burned down. The protestors have a right to stand up for their rights all the time. But… I mean, come on, Natalie's not guilty of anything, why punish her? Why break her windows? Why threaten to burn down her building? To us it's just evil.
So we're going to stop that from happening. We're the strong protecting the weak until the weak can protect themselves. But we want them to protect themselves.
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