Armed 'Oath Keepers' Roam Ferguson, Mo., Streets Amid Protesters

Aug 12, 2015
Originally published on August 13, 2015 3:28 pm
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Ferguson, Mo., remains under a state of emergency today. It was extended after violence tainted protests that marked the anniversary of Michael Brown's death. Among this week's crowds, one particular group has drawn attention. They are armed civilians who claim to keep the peace, but local officials say they are neither helpful nor welcome. From Ferguson, NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: It's easy to spot the self-described oath keepers among the nightly crowds of demonstrators in Ferguson - armed white men wearing camouflage and flak jackets.

JOHN KARRIMAN: We're not a threat to anybody other than those that would seek to usurp our Constitution and not afford people their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

WANG: John Karriman is one of the oath keepers who have been in Ferguson this week. He teaches at the police academy at Missouri Southern State University. He says many in this group are former or active-duty members of the military or law enforcement, and not all of them are white.

KARRIMAN: We get up and put our pants on like everybody else. You know, the only difference is, you know, we run towards danger instead of running from it. We're the sheepdogs that keep the rest of the flock safe.

WANG: The group was started in 2009 by a Yale Law School graduate and now has chapters around the country. Karriman says the oath keepers are here in Ferguson to help keep the peace and protect reporters with the website, which is owned by conservative talk show host Alex Jones. Oath keepers were here, too, last year, boarding up storefronts and standing guard outside buildings. But at a St. Louis County Council meeting on Tuesday, protester Mark Loehrer expressed his concern about their presence at demonstrations.


MARK LOEHRER: I was really afraid of the four to five white men dressed in camo, semi-automatic rifles, plowing through the crowd. Then they went across the street and talked to the cops for about 25 minutes. And then they decided to come and plow through the crowd again.

WANG: Protester Mary Chandler says she's noticed that police haven't confronted the oath keepers like the way they've challenged some of the demonstrators.

MARY CHANDLER: We can't even stand on this side of the street without the weapons being pointed at us, 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.

WANG: Mark Potok is a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. He says there's no record of oath keepers engaging in political violence. They're mainly driven, he says, by their antigovernment views.

MARK POTOK: 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.

WANG: Oath keepers have not been welcomed with open arms by the St. Louis County police chief or the county executive, Steve Stenger.

STEVE STENGER: 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.

WANG: Stenger says he's working with the county prosecuting attorney to figure out how to keep oath keepers out of Ferguson in the future. In the meantime, though, he says they can still walk armed through the protests.

STENGER: 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.

WANG: Stenger calls that a problem that's difficult for officials to address. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Ferguson, Mo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.