Oath Keepers

Oath Keepers is an American far-right[1] anti-government[2][3] militia organization[4] composed of current and former military and police who claim to be defending the Constitution of the United States.[5] It encourages its members to disobey orders which they believe would violate the U.S. Constitution. The organization claims a membership of 35,000 as of 2016, though the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has estimated its membership at several thousand.[6][7] Researchers estimate the number as probably no higher than 5,000.[8]

Oath Keepers
Oath Keepers logo
FormationMarch 2009; 12 years ago (2009-03)
FounderStewart Rhodes
United States
LeaderStewart Rhodes
Stewart Rhodes, Michele Imburgia, Rex H. McTyeire, Richard Mack, John D. Shirley, Steven C. Homan, Jim Ayala, Jay Stang
Websiteoathkeepers.org Edit this at Wikidata

Several organizations that monitor U.S. domestic terrorism and hate groups describe the group as extremist or radical. The FBI describes the Oath Keepers as a “paramilitary organization” and a “large but loosely organized collection of militia who believe that the federal government has been coopted by a shadowy conspiracy that is trying to strip American citizens of their rights.”[9] Mark Pitcavage of the ADL describes the group as "heavily armed extremists with a conspiratorial and anti-government mindset looking for potential showdowns with the government."[10][11] The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) lists the group's founder Elmer Stewart Rhodes as a known extremist and describes his announced plans to create localized militia units as "frightening".[12] According to the SPLC, the group espouses a number of conspiracy and legal theories associated with the sovereign citizen movement and the white supremacist posse comitatus movement.[13][14][15] SPLC senior fellow Mark Potok describes the group as a whole as "really just an anti-government group who believe in a wild set of conspiracy theories".[12]

Oath Keepers were present wearing military fatigues in Ferguson, Missouri, during the 2014[4] and 2015[1][16] unrest in the city, when members armed with semi-automatic rifles roamed streets and rooftops.[17][18] Multiple members of the group participated in the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, with four members pleading guilty to federal criminal offenses.[19]

Organizational history

Billboard, Pine River, MN, July 2015

Oath Keepers was founded in March 2009 by Elmer Stewart Rhodes,[20][21][22] a Yale Law School graduate, former U.S. Army paratrooper, and former staffer for Republican Congressman Ron Paul.[23] On December 8, 2015, Rhodes was disbarred by the Montana Supreme Court for conduct violating the Montana Rules of Professional Conduct after refusing to respond to two bar grievances filed against him in the federal district court in Arizona.[24]

Rhodes is reported to have taken inspiration from the notion that Adolf Hitler could have been stopped if German soldiers and police had refused to follow orders.[25] Writing in S.W.A.T. Magazine in 2008, Rhodes asserts, "'It' (a full-blown totalitarian police state) cannot happen here if the majority of police and soldiers obey their oaths to defend the Constitution and refuse to enforce the unconstitutional edicts of the 'Leader'."[26]

In an October 2020 interview, reporter Mike Giglio of The Atlantic stated that in the preceding years, the Oath Keepers regarded President Donald Trump as "someone in the White House that they fully support", in contrast to their skepticism of previous Republican administrations.[27] He also said that in recent years Rhodes's statements had become more "radical" and that because of this some members of the group with military experience, concerned by the possibility of the types of violence they had witnessed overseas occurring in the United States, left the group.[27]


The organization states that full membership is open to "currently serving military, reserves, National Guard, police, fire-fighters, other first responders (i.e. State Guard, Sheriff Posse/Auxiliary, Search & Rescue, EMT, other medical 1st responders, etc.) AND veterans/former members of those services," and that others who support the organization's mission can become associate members.[28][5] The Oath Keepers says that it has up to 30,000 members, though this figure has been in dispute.[29] The ADL estimates that there are between 1,000 and 3,000 members in the organization and notes that the Oath Keepers stand out for their focus on recruiting current and former government employees.[30]

Prominent members

Donovan Crowl

Crowl, who served in the United States Marine Corps as a helicopter mechanic, has been accused by federal investigators of coordinating part of the January 6 breach of the US Capitol in advance and conspiring to obstruct Congress.[31][32]

Charles Dyer

Dyer is a former U.S. Marine Corps sergeant who operated as a prominent advocate for the Oath Keepers, maintaining a popular YouTube channel and acting as a representative at Tea Party rallies. He was charged in 2010 with child rape and illegal weapons possession. Dyer evaded authorities and a search ensued, followed by capture ten days later. In 2012, he was convicted of raping his seven-year-old daughter. The Oath Keepers severed ties with Dyer after his conviction, and later denied a relationship with him.[33][34] Known online as “July4Patriot,” he made his anti-government videos during the administration of President Obama. As the criminal case against him developed he continued to make videos claiming that he was being targeted by law enforcement for his role as a “patriot.”[35]

Matthew Fairfield

In April 2010, Matthew Fairfield, president of the Cleveland chapter of Oath Keepers, was arrested on charges involving explosives and child abuse images. Law enforcement found a live napalm bomb and other explosives in a storage locker. He was indicted on 97 charges and was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2011.[9]

Richard Mack

Mack is a former sheriff of Graham County, Arizona and a political activist. He is known for his role in a successful lawsuit brought against the U.S. federal government which alleged that portions of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act violated the U.S. Constitution. He is a former lobbyist for Gun Owners of America (GOA) and a two-time candidate for United States Congress. Mack is also the founder of Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), and established the "County Sheriff Project" movement, both of whom reaffirm what they claim is the constitutional power to refuse to enforce federal laws.[36] He is an Oath Keepers Board Member.

Kelly Meggs

The leader of the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers, on February 19, 2021, Meggs was charged with conspiracy for involvement in the storming of the Capitol.[37] Two days after Trump's tweet in December 2020 that the January 6 rally "will be wild," Meggs allegedly posted on Facebook, "Trump said It’s gonna be wild!!!!!!! It’s gonna be wild!!!!!!! He wants us to make it WILD that’s what he’s saying. He called us all to the Capitol and wants us to make it wild!!! Sir Yes Sir!!! Gentlemen we are heading to DC pack your shit!!” He was arrested in Florida;[38] he pleaded not guilty on March 13, 2021.[39]

Jessica Watkins

Watkins is a 38-year-old veteran of the war in Afghanistan and bar manager in Woodstock, Ohio. She is the commanding officer of the Ohio State Regular Militia, which the FBI has named a “dues-paying subset” of the Oath Keepers. According to the Ohio Capital Journal, Watkins formed the militia in 2019. She told the Journal that her militia has patrolled 12 protests in total.[40]

According to Watkins' attorney, Watkins acted as "security" at the "Save America" rally before the 2021 storming of the United States Capitol. Watkins further claimed that she was provided with a VIP pass to the rally where she met with Secret Service agents."[41] The U.S. Secret Service denied that any private citizens coordinated with it to provide security on January 6.[41]

Arrested in Ohio on January 18, 2021,[42] Watkins has been accused alongside Donovan Crowl of coordinating part of the US Capitol's breach in advance and conspiring to obstruct Congress. The two attended President Trump’s rally and then entered the Capitol building in close coordination with ten or more other people wearing Oath Keepers insignia.[31][9] During a February 26 court hearing, Watkins denounced the Oath Keepers and announced she was disbanding the Ohio State Regular Militia and resigning her Oath Keepers membership to win release on bail. She admitted, “I’m humiliated that I’m here today.” Federal judge Amit P. Mehta was unmoved, and ordered her held in jail pending trial.[43]

Graydon Young

Alleged member Graydon Young pleaded guilty to six charges in June 2021, including conspiracy, and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. It was the first guilty plea in any major conspiracy investigation of the Capitol attack.[44][45]

Antigovernment activities

Federal land disputes

Bundy Ranch standoff, 2014

In 2014, armed Oath Keepers were present at the Bundy Ranch standoff, after agents of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) seized cattle from a rancher who was illegally grazing stock on federal land in Clark County, Nevada.[46][47]

Sugar Pine Mine standoff, 2015

In 2015, armed Oath Keepers in the Pacific Northwest attended two disputes between gold miners and federal authorities. In April they gathered in Medford, Oregon, at the request of the owners of the Sugar Pine Mine near Galice, after the owners were ordered to stop working the mine by the Bureau of Land Management.[48][49] In August, they patrolled the White Hope Mine in the Helena National Forest, about 20 miles from Lincoln, Montana; the U.S. Forest Service said the miners had engaged in illegal construction and tree-felling.[50][51]

Crissy Field, 2017

In August 2017 a permit was issued by the NPS for the August 26th use of Crissy Field[52] to hold a rally by a group calling itself 'Patriot Prayer'.[53] The group's spokesman, Joey Gibson, announced that the Oath Keepers would be providing event security,[54] confirmed to The San Francisco Examiner on August 18 by Stewart Rhodes.[55]

Anti-Hillary Clinton threats

An article posted to the organization's official website on April 14, 2016, stated that if Hillary Clinton won the 2016 United States presidential election, "the result would probably be outright civil war in the U.S."[56][57] Later in 2016, Stewart Rhodes called on members to visit polling places incognito to "hunt down" and document suspected voter fraud.[58]

Threat of violence towards Oregon State Capitol, 2019

In June 2019, Oregon Governor Kate Brown sent the Oregon State Police to bring 11 absent Republican state senators back to the State Capitol. The Republican state senators had gone into hiding to prevent a vote on a cap-and-trade proposal aimed at lowering greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 in order to combat climate change. The Oath Keepers reacted on June 20, 2019, by stating: "Gov. Brown, you want a civil war, because this is how you get a civil war". On June 22, 2019, a session of the Oregon Senate was canceled when the State Capitol was closed due to a warning from the Oregon state police of a "possible militia threat".[59][60][61][62]

Participation in the 2021 Capitol attack

Three suspected members of Oath Keepers were federally indicted in January for conspiracy for planning their activities during the 2021 storming of the United States Capitol with six more being added to the indictment in February.[63] Eight to ten members of the group entered the Capitol wearing paramilitary gear, moving "in an organized and practiced fashion," according to the indictment. The group communicated with portable devices, with Watkins messaging to others, "We have a good group. We have about 30-40 of us. We are sticking together and sticking to the plan."[64][65][66] Prosecutors alleged one member sent a text message to a member of the anti-government Three Percenters group days before the incursion, suggesting using a boat to ferry a “Quick Response Team” and heavy weapons across the Potomac River to other members already in the Capitol.[67] Federal prosecutors were considering whether to pursue charges under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which is typically used to prosecute organized crime syndicates.[68]

During the second impeachment trial of former President Trump, House impeachment managers presented evidence alleging that members of the Oath Keepers participated in efforts to interfere with the 2020 presidential election by discussing "a brazen plan to ferry 'heavy weapons' in a boat across the Potomac River into Washington and began training sessions 'for urban warfare, riot control and rescue operations' well before Election Day."[69] Impeachment managers also alleged that an Oath Keeper member noted that they were "'awaiting direction' from Mr. Trump about how to handle the results of the vote in the days that followed the election," and that another alleged member, Jessica M. Watkins, wrote a text message saying, “[i]f Trump asks me to come, I will.”[69]

Prosecutors alleged in a March 2021 court filing that the group's founder and leader Stewart Rhodes was in contact with alleged participants before, during and after the assault. Prosecutors said they recovered encrypted chat messages showing that "individuals, including those alleged to have conspired with [others], were actively planning to use force and violence." Under the title "DC OP: Jan 6 21," Rhodes stated in the chats that "quick reaction forces" outside Washington would be ready to respond if necessary and during the assault he directed members to rally on the southeast steps of the Capitol, from where they forcibly entered the building in a military-style "stack" formation.[70][71]

Thomas Caldwell, who was not formally a member of Oath Keepers but allegedly conspired with members and was present during the incident, was jailed on conspiracy charges days after the attack, though in March 2021 federal judge Amit Mehta released him to home confinement pending trial, finding there was no evidence he entered the Capitol or planned to.[72] The FBI alleged that during the incursion Caldwell sent and received Facebook messages with "known and unknown Oath Keepers members," including sending the word "Inside," which received responses including, "All members are in the tunnels under capital seal them in. Turn on gas." Caldwell also allegedly received directions in navigating the Capitol, including "Tom all legislators are down in the Tunnels 3floors down" and "Go through back house chamber doors facing N left down hallway down steps."[73]

Citing private Facebook messages, prosecutors alleged in a March 2021 court filing that during the weeks preceding the attack, Meggs had contacted Proud Boys who he said could serve as a “force multiplier” and that he had “organized an alliance” among the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys and the Florida chapter of the Three Percenters.[74]

In a June 2021 court filing arguing that a federal magistrate was wrong to release Oath Keeper member Jason Nolan from custody prior to his trial, prosecutors presented evidence he had stashed weapons in a Virginia hotel to arm a quick reaction force under the scenario described by Caldwell where Trump "calls us up as part of the militia to assist him inside DC." Nolan had been released after the magistrate ruled prosecutors had not established it was him who gave an anonymous interview to The Gateway Pundit the previous month describing his activities on January 6, but prosecutors presented evidence in their brief to assert it was Nolan.[75]

The Wall Street Journal reported in June 2021 that since the attack on the Capitol the Oath Keepers was splintering amid "a cash squeeze, internal discord, social-media cutoff and isolation from the financial system."[76]

Three members of the group—one from Florida, one from Indiana, and one from Alabama—have pleaded guilty to federal criminal changes arising from their roles in the attack on the Capitol; the three are cooperating with federal authorities.[77]

Opposition to Black Lives Matter and Antifa

Ferguson protests

In late November 2014, during the unrest in Ferguson, the Oath Keepers put out a national request to its members to help in the city after the grand jury decision was released in the case of the shooting of Michael Brown. About the perceived failure of the government's response to the unrest, the organization's founder, Stewart Rhodes, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "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." On December 2, 2014, volunteer security guards associated with the Oath Keepers kept armed watch on Ferguson rooftops, ignoring a police order to stop.[78]

In August 2015, four members of the group appeared again on the streets of Ferguson, following peaceful street demonstrations on the anniversary of Brown's shooting.[25][79][80][81] According to an article in The Washington Post, "The men—all of them white and heavily armed—said they were in the area to protect someone who worked for the Web site InfoWars, which is affiliated with talk-radio conspiracy theorist and self-described 'thought criminal against Big Brother' Alex Jones." The Oath Keepers claimed to be on the side of the protestors.[82] St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar told the newspaper that the Oath Keepers' "presence was both unnecessary and inflammatory."[82]

One Ferguson activist, Ryan Herring, described their presence as intimidating and frightening and criticized the Oath Keepers for their suggestion that protestors should use their legal right to carry firearms by saying that this would have increased the tension with the police openly. Sam Andrews, a member of the Oath Keepers, contended that the protestors calmed down when the Oath Keepers arrived at the protest.[83]

St. Louis County police officer Dan Page was relieved of duty in 2014 after pushing and threatening with arrest CNN journalist Don Lemon on live television in Ferguson.[84] Subsequently, an hour-long videotaped speech made by Page to an Oath Keepers meeting was found on YouTube. In the speech, Page boasted, "I'm also a killer. I've killed a lot, and if I need to I'll kill a whole bunch more."[84] Page also denounced hate crime laws, disparaged Muslims, and espoused Barack Obama citizenship conspiracy theories (Page referred to Obama as "that illegal alien claiming to be president").[84] The YouTube video contained a disclaimer stating that Page's opinions did not reflect those of the local chapter or national organization.[85]

The group's activities in Ferguson led to them being labeled "vigilantes" by some journalists.[86]

Mike Giglio of The Atlantic reported that at a July 2020 meeting at a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Rutherford County, Tennessee, founder Rhodes, speaking of the events of the racial unrest in the United States that year, said that Antifa and other protesters "are insurrectionists, and we have to suppress that insurrection" and that "[e]ventually they're going to be using IEDs" and consequently "[u]s old vets and younger ones are going to end up having to kill these young kids and they're going to die believing they were fighting Nazis."[87]

Kenosha and Portland protests

After three people were killed in Portland, Oregon and Kenosha, Wisconsin, protests, Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes tweeted, “The first shot [of a civil war] has been fired brother.”[88]

Following the deaths during protests in Kenosha and the George Floyd protests in Portland, Oregon, Rhodes referred to Antifa and Black Lives Matter protestors as attempting an "open Communist insurrection". Stating that they were engaged in civil war he asked President Trump to declare a nationwide insurrection to be opposed by a federalised National Guard to engage with the protestors. If Trump failed to do this Rhodes said that the Oath Keepers would. Twitter responded by banning his and the Oath Keepers' accounts.[89] The weekend before the Electoral College vote confirming Joe Biden's win he called for Trump supporters to use armed force to ensure that Trump maintained his presidency.[90] Members of the group were part of the violent protests in front of and subsequent storming of the United States Capitol on 6 January 2021.[91]

Other armed protest activities

Military recruitment center presence, 2015

Following the 2015 Chattanooga shootings at a strip mall military recruitment center and a naval operational support center in Tennessee, Oath Keepers and other militia groups began organizing armed gatherings outside of recruiting centers in several states, with the stated objective of providing protection to service members, who were barred from carrying weapons while on duty in civilian recruitment centers.[92] In response, the Army Command Operations Center Security Division issued a letter ordering soldiers not to interact with or acknowledge armed civilians outside of recruitment centers, and that "If questioned by these alleged concerned citizens, be polite, professional and terminate the conversation immediately and report the incident to local law enforcement," noting that the issuing officer is "sure the citizens mean well, but we cannot assume this in every case and we do not want to advocate this behavior."[92]

Kim Davis refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses, 2015

Kim Davis is a former county clerk for Rowan County, Kentucky, who gained international attention in August 2015 when she defied a U.S. federal court order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. On September 10, 2015, the Oath Keepers announced that they would travel to Rowan County, to prevent her arrest and jailing should she be held in contempt a second time for violating a court order prohibiting her from interfering with marriage licensing in her office.[93] The group aimed to block enforcement of contempt of court rulings against Davis, and said, "If the sheriff, who should be interceding, is not going to do his job and the governor is not going to do the governor's job of interceding, then we'll do it." The Oath Keepers also criticized the judge in the case, David Bunning, saying "this judge needs to be put on notice that his behavior is not going to be accepted and we'll be there to stop it and intercede ourselves if we have to."[93]

The following day, members were advised that Davis's legal team, acting on her behalf, had declined their offer to provide her a "security detail." The Oath Keepers issued a statement saying that while members were still welcome to visit Rowan County, it would only be unofficial.[94]

Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, 2018

In February 2018, soon after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, Oath Keepers founder Rhodes publicly called upon "tens of thousands" of the group's members to form militias to protect US schools and colleges.[95] He posted on the Oath Keepers' website in what he termed a National Call to Action: "Oath Keepers, in the wake of the horrific attack … it is time to step up nationwide and defend our schools against the threat of mass murder. Enough is enough".[96]


Larry Keller wrote in the SPLC's 2009 report The Second Wave: Return of the Militias that the Oath Keepers "may be a particularly worrisome example of the Patriot revival."[97] Keller described Richard Mack, an Oath Keeper, as a "longtime militia hero"[97][98] and quoted him as having said, "The greatest threat we face today is not terrorists; it is our federal government. ... One of the best and easiest solutions is to depend on local officials, especially the sheriff, to stand against federal intervention and federal criminality."[97] Mack, a former sheriff, responded by denying the claims, saying, "I have had no contact with any militia group and have never been a member of any militia."[99][100] Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the SPLC, said in an interview that the group has no history of political violence, but that, "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."[101]

In 2009, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) wrote in a report that, "The 'orders' the Oath Keepers refuse [to obey] reveal their extreme conspiratorial mindset, because the 'orders' are not instructions ever likely to be actually handed down by Obama or his officials; instead, they are reflective of the anti-government conspiracy theories embraced by the extreme right."[102]

Quoting the Las Vegas Review-Journal, MSNBC political commentator Pat Buchanan wrote: "Oath Keepers, depending on where one stands, are either strident defenders of liberty or dangerous peddlers of paranoia." Buchanan himself concluded that "America was once their country. They sense they are losing it. And they are right."[103][104]

Fox News Radio host Lou Dobbs spoke with founder Stewart Rhodes on his radio show in 2009 and criticized the SPLC for "perpetuating the same kind of intolerance it claims to condemn."[105] On Hardball with Chris Matthews, Matthews questioned Rhodes about his "vigilante group" and on his "strange view of the world."[105]

Protesters have accused the group of racism, especially after groups of white members armed with rifles congregated in Ferguson during demonstrations related to police brutality.[79]

See also


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Further reading

  • Jackson, Sam (2020) Oath Keepers: Patriotism and the Edge of Violence in a Right-Wing Antigovernment Group. Columbia University Press.

External links