Oath Keeper presence in Ferguson has been an issue boiling beneath the surface since the 2014 riots. Members began showing up when community hostility spilled over into the streets; Oath Keepers appointed themselves protectors of Ferguson property from looters. Reception was mixed, but some members of the community welcomed them and allowed them to patrol their storefronts. Now in August 2015, they’ve returned with divided intentions. Some showed up once again as an ostensive private security force while others had a more symbolic goal in mind. The Missouri Chapter of Oath Keepers want to arm 50 black protesters with AR-15s.
The Oath Keepers are known to be a decentralized lot, not always fitting the mold of the typical militia group of white guys playing paramilitary in the woods. However, this proposed demonstration has drawn the ire of the national Oath Keepers leadership. They don’t want to see guns handed out to people in the streets. As a result, many involved in the protest, including chief organizer Sam Andrews, have broken with the national leadership.
Stewart Rhodes, founder of Oath Keepers, sides with the leadership and with the many furious emails he claims to have received from gun rights advocates. Rhodes wants to avoid the perception that he’s arming “rioters.” Andrews has not minced words, responding that those against the protest are simply bigoted: “The law enforcement side of [Rhodes’s] board and membership are racist, and he does not want to lose their money.” The Oath Keepers were a large presence at the Bundy Ranch standoff in 2014. Andrews claims their willingness to cooperate with a decentralized armed resistance there but not in Ferguson demonstrates his point.
Rhodes claims to be on the same anti-police state side of politics as Andrews. But in 2014, Rhodes said of his organization’s presence in Ferguson: “We thought they were going to do it right this time, but when Monday rolled around and they didn’t park the National Guard at these businesses, that’s when we said we have got to do something.” National Guard? Sounds like someone who was itching for any kind of occupying force in Ferguson. Rhodes sees the Oath Keepers not as an organization opposing a police state, but as a more efficient alternative to one.
The foundation of Oath Keepers has always been to provide a space for cops and military to rally around a particular interpretation of the Constitution. They are not for a self-policing citizenry, but for policing within the bounds of the Constitution. They are not opposed to any particular law except when it violates the Constitution. No doubt this sort of philosophy might result in a more agreeable legal regime, but constitutionalism in and of itself doesn’t necessarily equate to freedom and equality. It is far from a self-enforcing document.
The Constitution fostered, among many other horrors, slave patrols. This is an uncomfortable fact for anyone proclaiming loyalty to it. It should be of particular concern to a group made up largely of white men whose task has been to monitor the behavior of a black community. However, Andrews’s move is a welcome break with this uncomfortable history. Andrews’s brand of activism does not seek to govern or establish a militia for the sake of asserting constitutional rights, but instead to remedy an imbalance of power.
The problem with Rhodes’s philosophy should be apparent to anyone who believes gun ownership stems from more than just a constitutional basis. Rhodes wants a militia, town guards, and, as white men since the founding of this nation and before have wanted, to control the means of defense in the hands of black people. Sam Andrews, for whatever faults exist in his philosophy, isn’t interested in this paternalistic approach. What makes his protest so powerful is that it’s not some scheme to get the weapons in the hands of the right people. That is, after all, how we got the police. He is handing over the power of a rifle to men and women who we, as a society, have stripped of the right to self-determination.
Andrews says he believes he has an obligation to protect the weak. Instead of standing on a rooftop with his own rifle, he is offering the purest form of protection — self-defense.
The split within Oath Keepers represents a push by some to shed the group’s colonial mindset. Rather than impose a new (or a return to a much older) regime, Andrews wants to break with imposed orders. The last thing Ferguson needs is organized white authority dictating their terms of “freedom.” External plans for freedom only establish the walls of a new prison.
We don’t need plans, rulebooks, oaths, or new patrolmen to protect us. All we need is for dictatorial governing bodies like Oath Keepers and the state to step aside and let us govern and defend ourselves.
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