June 16, 2017 at 6:52 AM
On the surface, the white supremacists of the burgeoning alt-right movement seem to have a lot in common with the Oath Keepers, the anti-government militia group made up of former military and law enforcement people from around the country.
They share a deep contempt for the federal government. They loathe political correctness in all its forms. They relish a good fight with left-wing activists. And, generally speaking, they support President Trump.
But a confrontation at a recent rally in Houston exposed some crucial differences between the alt-right's standard-bearers and the older, somewhat less radical Oath Keepers, and the fallout showed just how far they have drifted from one another.
Last Saturday, hundreds of protesters supporting the group This Is Texas, reportedly an Oath Keepers affiliate, gathered at a park in Houston after reports circulated that a statue of slaveholder and former Texas governor Sam Houston was going to be removed. The reports turned out to be fabrications, as the Houston Chronicle reported, but a large crowd of demonstrators turned out, many of them wearing camouflage and carrying guns.
A smaller contingent of white supremacists also attended, among them followers of the popular neo-Nazi hate site the Daily Stormer and the National Vanguard, a neo-Nazi splinter organization dedicated to racial cleansing.
At some point, the two sides started arguing, with attendees from This Is Texas denouncing the white supremacists' message. The tension erupted when a when young white supremacist — the Daily Stormer called him "one of ours" — was briefly put in a chokehold by an armed protester, then forced away from the demonstration by one of the organizers, David Amad, and a throng of others. Someone filmed the incident and posted the footage to YouTube, and the confrontation was highlighted by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"Racists are not welcome amongst us, because racism is just plain stupid," Amad said in the video. "And if you don't like that, I don't give a damn."
The scuffle drew a flurry of attacks this week from the Daily Stormer and the white nationalist Altright.com, which blamed Oath Keepers for the incident and chided the militia group for not being as racist or radical as they would prefer.
"Vicious, Freedom-Hating, Anti-Constitution Oath Keepers Might as Well be the Feds," read one headline. "Oathkeepers turn against the alt-right," read another. The sites ridiculed the militia group as "geriatrics," "normies" and "cucks," using an insult popular on the alt-right for conservatives who aren't right-wing enough.
The Daily Stormer referred to the group as "Boomer Antifa," a riff on the Oath Keepers' perceived age range and the black clad anti-fascist protesters that have clashed with conservative activists at numerous political rallies this year. (As "antifa" refers to an anti-fascist movement on the extreme left, hurling this term at an ultraconservative is designed to be the ultimate insult.)
"They are obsessed with not being perceived as 'racists,' due to their boomer brain programming, which leads them to believe that a racist is the most evil of all things," wrote Daily Stormer founder and editor Andrew Anglin. "In fact, I'm not even sure what their goal is exactly."
In Facebook posts this week, the Oath Keepers denied that the armed demonstrator who roughhoused the white supremacist was one of its own. The group said it couldn't confirm whether members of its Texas chapter had participated in the rally.
"Clearly some in the white nationalist movement will do anything they can to attribute every such incident to us, whether we were involved or not, because we are civic nationalist rather than white nationalists," wrote Oath Keepers president Stewart Rhodes.
Oath Keepers was founded by Rhodes, an Army veteran, in 2009 and claims to have about 35,000 members nationwide. Its stated goal is to defend the Constitution at all costs.
The group's members have become fixtures at political rallies and protests, where they show up wearing military gear and carrying assault weapons, for the self-proclaimed purpose of protecting speakers and demonstrators from counterprotesters.
They drew criticism for patrolling the streets of Ferguson, Mo., with semiautomatic rifles during the 2014 protests and riots over the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. A handful of Oath Keepers were present during the armed occupation of an Oregon wildlife refuge in January 2016, and the group's leaders urged members to patrol polling places on Election Day in 2016.
More recently, members have appeared as self-appointed "security" at conservative-led demonstrations in Oregon, California and elsewhere, ostensibly to defend attendees against antifa activists who turned out in opposition.
Advocacy groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have dubbed the Oath Keepers and extremist "patriot" group, saying they have shown violent, racist and conspiratorial tendencies. The same organizations have dubbed Daily Stormer a dangerous hate site and a "malignant presence."
The Daily Stormer's gripes over the incident in Houston gave way to full-throated invectives against Oath Keepers this week. Put simply, the group isn't extreme enough for them.
"An anti-government militia that the ADL and SPLC say are planning to overthrow the government sounds pretty cool huh? Well, that's sadly not what they actually are," wrote Anglin, the editor.
"It seems they're not keeping an oath to the Constitution, but rather an oath to John Lennon's 'Imagine,'" he added. "But as long as they're out there, be weary. With what happened in Houston, they've made it clear that they are hostile and violent toward us, meaning they are our enemies."
A Daily Stormer author who attended the Houston demonstration wrote Tuesday: "We have a worldview. These people have stale, meaningless talking points and vague principles that they don't even live up to if someone crosses a line they don't agree with."
The Oath Keepers have been accused of racism and bigotry for their use of Confederate imagery at rallies and their defense of anti-Muslim activists, among other issues.
Rhodes, the founder and president, seems concerned about being associated with white supremacist movements, and he has spoken out against racism as the alt-right has gained traction in recent months.
"Frankly, I dislike the neo-Nazis more than Anti-fa, since they try to worm their way in and by doing so, they harm the cause of liberty far more than the radical leftists could ever do," he wrote in April following a protest in Berkeley that was attended by Oath Keepers. "I made it very clear that this is about CIVIC nationalism, and not white nationalism, and the white nationalists want to destroy all my family fought to preserve, and are as deadly to this Republic as any communist."
"We're not white nationalists. We're not racists of any kind," he told SPLC recently. "And if they show up, I am going to personally, physically remove them. Because they are trying to co-opt what we're trying to do."
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