Oath Keepers: Vigilantes among Ferguson protestors, assault weapons in hand

The Oath Keepers are a group of current and former military, police, and first responders who see it as their duty to defend the Constitution.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters
Members of the Oath Keepers walk with their personal weapons on the street during protests in Ferguson, Missouri August 11, 2015.

Tensions are high in Ferguson, Mo. as protestors commemorate the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death – an unarmed black teenager shot and killed by former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Activists have continued to demonstrate since the weekend, but it looks like a new group of protestors have joined the ranks, and they have assault rifles.

According to St. Louis Public Radio, a “group of five white men” showed up in the early hours of Tuesday morning. They referred to themselves as the Oath Keepers and carried high-powered weapons – alarming some protestors. One woman who saw the men tweeted out her frustration, saying "white men really do occupy whatever space they want," and later tweeting that black protestors would likely be arrested for openly carrying assault rifles.

However, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar described their presence as "both unnecessary and inflammatory," NBC News reported. 

According to Missouri state law, individuals with concealed carry permits are allowed to "briefly and openly display" firearms unless it's done in an "angry or threatening manner." It's still unclear whether the vigilantes actions were legal.

Who exactly are these mysterious Oath Keepers? According to the group’s website, it’s a non-partisan association of current and former 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.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit civil-rights organization, describes the organization as a far-right, “fiercely anti-government, militaristic group” that claims more than 30,000 members – a number the Center believes is unlikely.

The leader of the group, a man who simply called himself John, told Reuters they had come to protect a journalist from the conservative "Infowars.com" Web site.

"There were problems here, there were people who got hurt. We needed to be prepared for that," said the man. 

Patricia Bynes, Democratic Committeewoman of Ferguson Township, went to check on protests early Tuesday and was surprised to find the Oath Keepers amid a heavy police presence, she told NBC News.

“They just showed up, walking around carrying their assault rifles. There was really no need.”

Ms. Bynes said she thought they were detracting from the real issue: racial inequality.

Other protestors echoed her words. "You’re going to bring some uncommissioned citizens, white citizens, into a black community like this? It's disrespectful," Talal Ahmad told Reuters. Mr. Ahmad has been a fixture in the last year's protests.

"Here, in a black neighborhood, we’re already living in a state of terror," Ahmad said.

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