LOUISVILLE — They'd already spent a full night — from dusk until dawn — defending a Shell gas station, standing behind concrete barriers at each street entrance with fatigues on and AR-15s at the ready. But when the action finally arrived after a grand jury declined to indict the police officers involved in Breonna Taylor's death, the armed men were caught largely unprepared, still strapping into body armor in a hotel parking lot.
More than 100 protesters — some wearing all black and carrying pistols — marched up to the approximately 20 people who had gathered on the evening of Sept. 24 awaiting instructions from the Oath Keepers, a heavily armed civilian group that has guarded private businesses during racial justice demonstrations this year.
The man leading the protesters, Chris Will, 34, criticized the people in fatigues for showing up to defend property but not the life of the 26-year-old Black woman who was killed by Louisville police in her apartment in March.
“Why didn’t every single one of you motherf---ers put this s--- on to come help Breonna Taylor when they killed her?” Will asked the armed men, pointing at their body armor.
Oath Keepers leaders urged members not to respond; escalating tensions with demonstrators would only feed public perception that they were the problem, not the solution.
Oath Keepers is one of numerous vigilante groups that have flocked to cities where police killings and protests have sometimes been followed by property damage and violence. Its members travel from across the country equipped with long guns and protective gear to stand in plain view of demonstrators or loom over them from the edges of rooftops, unauthorized — and frequently unquestioned — by law enforcement.
Founder Stewart Rhodes refuses to say how many members he has accrued since the group was founded in 2009, but experts say it is among the largest of the armed civilian groups that have grown in popularity with the proliferation of social justice demonstrations.
The presence of armed civilian groups, many organized on Facebook, has brought street brawls and deadly shootings to a handful of protest scenes. Most notably, in August, a 17-year-old traveled to Kenosha, Wis., to guard businesses during unrest there and allegedly shot three men, two fatally. He has been charged with homicide.
The Oath Keepers Twitter account lauded the teen as “a Hero, a Patriot.” Meanwhile, Rhodes has called Black Lives Matter protesters “well-funded Marxist and racist agitators” and regularly warns of a coming civil war. Both Rhodes’s and the organization’s Twitter accounts were suspended in September after predicting “open warfare” with protesters on election night.
The Southern Poverty Law Center describes Oath Keepers as a far-right extremist group with a radical anti-government ideology rooted in dangerous conspiracy theories. Social media accounts associated with the group traffic in debunked ideas related to QAnon, the novel coronavirus and vaccines.
But Rhodes, a former paratrooper, has rejected those labels. The group’s website describes itself as a nonpartisan collection of former military and law enforcement officers who have pledged to “defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
“We feel a duty to protect people’s rights,” said Rhodes, 55. “We respect the rights of the protesters, but they don’t have a right to terrorize other people, assault them or burn their property to the ground.”
Rhodes, who wears a black eye patch over his left eye — the result of a bullet wound he says was an accident but declined to detail — issued a “call to action” in Louisville last month, appealing for volunteers with backgrounds in emergency medical services, firefighting, combat and other skills. Dozens of followers from around the United States showed up.
Some said they were not concerned with Rhodes’s political stances, and some appeared unfamiliar with his history of extreme remarks.
Instead, they talked about finding a sense of purpose and fellowship in a group whose stated mission reflects the one that guided their military service.
Former Army sergeant Kenny Harrelson, who traveled from Florida to answer Rhodes’s call, joined the Oath Keepers in 2017. He spent five years in the service but wasn’t deployed after injuring his back and shoulder in training accidents.
“You do spend the rest of your life looking for that camaraderie,” Harrelson said of his military experience. “When I found Oath Keepers, I fell headfirst in it, helping train the civilians in the group. Makes me feel like I’m back in it.”
John Temple, a West Virginia University professor who studies the so-called “patriot” movement, called Oath Keepers the “most PR-savvy” of the groups that have surged in popularity since President Barack Obama’s election in 2008.
In the 1990s, self-styled militias that touted overtly racist messaging pivoted to anti-government stances, he said. They rallied around notions that the federal government was going to confiscate citizens’ guns and abandon rural families, a fear that proliferated under Obama.
But under President Trump, those concerns have waned, and the groups have pivoted again.
“They’ve turned toward other political motivations, and a lot of it has to do with race, if you just look at what they’re showing up at,” Temple said, referring to social justice protests. “But they know if they have an overtly racist message, that’s not going to help the cause.”
Oath Keepers has become one of the largest of these groups, experts say, in part by actively rejecting labels such as “militia,” “far-right” and “racist,” and crafting a message that resonates with highly trained and mission-oriented people.
“There’s a sense of purpose there,” Temple said. “I’ve encountered guys who serve with distinction in combat and get home and never figure things out as civilians. And then they find these groups and it becomes their new mission, and there’s this feeling they’re serving a greater purpose.”
Beneath the bulletproof helmets surrounding the gas station last month was a hodgepodge of ideas about what Oath Keepers is and isn’t.
The group was Trump-leaning, to be sure, with a handful of exceptions. Members are largely White. Some believe the people protesting police brutality have a legitimate concern but see the small-business owners victimized by rioting and looting as innocent bystanders more deserving of their support. Others echo false conspiracy theories that the Black Lives Matter movement is a farce, the protesters are paid, and billionaire George Soros is pulling the strings.
Several declined interviews with The Washington Post.
One 29-year-old member joined after a three-year stint in the Army ended in 2013, leading him to move back into his parents’ home. He used the G.I. Bill to attend Sullivan University’s College of Technology and Design in Louisville but hasn’t discovered his calling. After working odd jobs for a while, he hasn’t landed on a career.
“Honestly, I’ve been kind of struggling,” said Andrew, who declined to share his last name for fear of being doxed, or having his personal information shared online, by left-wing activists. “The Army gave me a sense of purpose, like I was doing something good. What’s worth doing now? … That’s kind of what brought me here. I finally feel like guarding this Shell station is something I can do to help. Preserving our way of life is worthwhile.”
After the confrontation with protesters in the hotel parking lot, Rhodes asked one of Oath Keepers’ few Black members, an Army veteran and former Indianapolis police officer named Mike, to speak to the news media. Mike, who goes by “Whip” but refused to give his last name for fear that his private security employer would reprimand him, joined the group several years ago and was leading the field operation in Louisville. A reporter asked him if he believed there was racism in America.
“I said, ‘Yeah, there’s racism in America,’ ” Mike, 36, later recounted with a chuckle. “There’s racism wherever there are Black people, all over the world.”
But the Oath Keepers get a bad rap, he said, insisting the racists who were once in its ranks have been kicked out.
“When I first ran into some Oath Keepers, they were good ol’ boys, the definition of prejudiced people. And I thought they were a racist group, so I didn’t really mess with them,” Mike said. But he said he’s since been attracted to the group’s food drives, disaster relief missions and efforts to protect businesses and people.
“Reputation is everything in this new, sensitive America, and a lot of times perception is reality,” he said. “The reputation of militias is a bunch of racist White guys. Some of them are but not all of them.”
Oath Keepers works with a variety of groups. In Louisville, members connected with the Kentucky Mountain Rangers, another armed group in the mold of the Oath Keepers, who helped guard the gas station.
David Dohn, 57, recently joined the Kentucky group after retiring in 1998 from a 19-year career in the Special Forces. Both he and his teenage son carried AR-15s and wore desert camo tactical gear as they patrolled the Shell.
“In the Army, you can’t be racist or ignorant. Everybody’s green. I don’t judge anybody. I don’t care what color you are — purple, White, Black,” Dohn said. “I made it perfectly clear I will not associate, train with racists. I ain’t got time for that. I’m not bringing my children around that.”
Dohn explained he owned a commercial paint company in Kentucky and that one of his longtime employees, who joined the Mountain Rangers alongside him, has two Palestinian parents.
“I always joke with him, I probably killed some of your cousins,” Dohn said before introducing his employee using an ethnic slur. “I call him a ‘camel jockey’ to mess with him a little bit, but whatever. I don’t care about his race: We’re family.”
The man, Jack Shunnarah, of Hodgenville, Ky., laughed awkwardly as other men resting against the wall of the gas station repeated the pejorative.
“Somebody needs to make a stand,” Shunnarah said of his motivation to join the group. “We need to take Louisville back. We’re not here to start no s---. But if we see somebody getting hurt, we’re going to protect them. All this ‘Black Lives Matter’ mess . . . it’s all lives matter.”
Oath Keepers is selective about who it associates with, Mike said. He turned down an offer for assistance from the Proud Boys — the extreme-right group Trump referenced in last week’s debate, telling them to “stand down and stand by” — expressing contempt for a group that has gained a reputation for virulent racism and violent confrontations with demonstrators in numerous American cities.
Unbeknown to Mike, a former Proud Boys member stood nearby with an AR-15 as they protected the gas station. The 40-year-old White man — who would only give his nickname, Stitch, out of fear of being doxed — said he had attended more than a dozen protests with the Proud Boys before recently leaving the organization for reasons he declined to share.
He described the Oath Keepers’ encounter with protesters in the parking lot as evidence that the “civil discourse is completely and utterly broken down in this country.”
“This,” the man said, lifting his rifle, “is the only thing keeping these people from taking us over completely and having the CCP right here in America,” referring to the Chinese Communist Party.
Rhodes said the Oath Keepers were given written consent from business owners to protect a handful of buildings in Louisville throughout the week, including two pawnshops, a day care, the gas station and a private residence.
The gas station had been the subject of vandalism in recent weeks, and Rhodes said the owner believed demonstrators targeted her store because a White employee had shot a Black man with a rifle there last month after the man threw items at him. The store owner declined an interview with The Post.
In the following days, Rhodes said, the owner was made aware of threats against the store, and someone tagged the entrance with graffiti. Oath Keepers, making rounds of vandalized properties near downtown, offered help and she accepted, he said.
As Rhodes and Mike made their rounds in an SUV one evening last week, the pair received two urgent messages back to back; first, a vehicle carrying two Black men pulled up to the gas station screaming insults, and men from another armed group from Kentucky verbally sparred with them.
That’s a “no-go!” Rhodes yelled into his cellphone, discouraging any form of escalation with members of the public.
A moment later, Mike said he received a message from one of his sources on the ground that two officers had been shot during protests downtown, a fact that wouldn’t be publicly confirmed by Louisville police for another 10 minutes.
“They’re going to be trigger-f---ing-happy,” Rhodes said of the Louisville police. “We’ve got to tell our guys to have their hands clear and their weapons in sight when the cops are around.”
Mike said he has relationships within Louisville law enforcement, and Rhodes maintains that members of Oath Keepers are vetted, their credentials verified, and their abilities and competence highly scrutinized.
But the Sept. 24 confrontation in the parking lot showed cracks in the screening process. Protesters lambasted a young man holding an AR-15 rifle who was visibly trembling during the interaction. Another man with Oath Keepers had his finger on the trigger of his rifle, violating a key gun safety principle and earning a lecture from fellow group members.
Concerns about vetting will follow the Oath Keepers as they attempt to involve themselves in other social justice protests that make national news.
In 2016, Rhodes promised to “hunt down” voter fraud and voter intimidation, particularly “by leftists.” In Tuesday night’s debate, Trump called on his supporters to do much the same this November.
Rhodes believes the risk this time around is greater, fearing the “Marxists” are planning violence. He hasn’t specified Oath Keepers’ plans for poll-watching, but he said the group will be involved on Election Day.
“We’ll be ready,” he said.