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The Oath Keepers: The little-known militia now roaming the streets of Ferguson

John Karriman. a volunteer from Oath Keepers, stands guard on the rooftop of a business on November 26, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The Oath Keepers are many things to many people. For one fervent believer, it’s about the Constitution. For another, it’s about a .50-caliber Bushmaster and his right to carry it. Others talk of fear: fear America has become a security state. Fear President Obama has become a dictator. Fear the Oath Keepers are needed now more than ever — especially in Ferguson, Mo.

There, on the rooftops and streets, members of this little-known national group now stand guard, ready, they say, to protect residents and the Constitution against forces known and unknown. They wear military fatigues and speak of lending a sense of security to the bewildered community, battered by national media attention and months of protest. According to reports, they’ve materialized around a series of second-story apartments near the Ferguson Police Department, confusing onlookers.

“I opened the window and said, ‘Hey, can I help you?'” resident Greg Hildebrand told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he asked one Oath Keeper. “I am in the middle of a difficult spot. I feel a lot better having those guys on the roof.”

Local cops didn’t agree. Over the weekend, they threatened keepers of the oath with arrest, forcing the men to abandon their positions, but not the group’s founding tenets. “It’s a really broad group of citizens, and I’m sure their motivations are all different,” one member named Sam Andrews told the New York Times. “In many of them, there’s probably a sense of patriotism. But I think in most of them, there’s probably something that they probably don’t even recognize: that we have a moral obligation to protect the weakest among us.”

Andrews, like many Oath Keepers, reportedly has military training. With a reported but unverified membership of 35,000, Oath Keepers came into being after founder Stewart Rhodes wrote a 2008 manifesto calling for men and women to protect a complacent America besieged by what he described as dictatorial leaders. “If a police state comes to America, it will ultimately be in your hands,” Rhodes, a Yale Law School graduate, wrote. “That is a harsh reality, but you had better come to terms with it now, and resolve to not let it happen on your watch.”

Media reports have characterized the group as right-wing and deeply conspiratorial in outlook, but that doesn’t quite get at the complex forces and anxieties driving it. Oath Keepers take inspiration from both the far right and the far left. Members preach the gospel of the Constitution, but also don the mask of Guy Fawkes, the fabled Englishman executed in 1606 for plotting to kill King James I.

The group’s membership, which reportedly spills across racial and regional lines, suggests common ground among fringe groups on either side of the political spectrum. “In the months I’ve spent getting to know the Oath Keepers,” wrote journalist Justine Sharrock in Mother Jones, “I’ve toggled between viewing them either as potentially dangerous conspiracy theorists or as crafty intellectuals with the savvy to rally politicians to their side. The answer, I came to realize, is that they cover the whole spectrum.”

If the group claims one unifying cause, it is to protect the Constitution against domestic parties that seek to undermine it. The group enumerates its position not in the affirmative declarative, but in the negative. “We will NOT obey orders to disarm the American people,” says the group’s “Declaration of Orders We Will Not Obey.” “We will NOT obey orders to conduct warrantless searches of the American people. … We will NOT obey orders to impose martial law or a ‘state of emergency’ on the state.”

Numerous dissident groups have found voice in the uncertainties of the economic recession — birthers, truthers, Texas militia — but the Oath Keepers are notable because many members are military men, cops or emergency personnel. Some of them are even still employed in those roles.

Members distrust just about everything: mass-media narratives, global warming science and vaccinations. Others contend the United States government not only planned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but has since leveraged them to enact a shadowy campaign to terrify residents into forsaking their freedom, guns and privacy. Edward Snowden’s revelations of mass surveillance have only emboldened that position.

“I’ve had enough of following orders,” Eric Harrell, a South Florida police officer who’s also an Oath Keeper, told the Miami New Times last year. “I woke up. I’ve been living a lie. I’ve evolved.” Harrell, who meets with other cop Oath Keepers, was arrested last year after he refused to remove his Guy Fawkes mask amid a solitary protest of Obamacare at a busy Broward County intersection.

He derives many of his talking points from Alex Jones, a radio show host who runs the alternative news Web site and often gives space to the discontent coursing through the Oath Keepers movement. “I think the Oath Keepers is one of the best things to happen to America since the American revolution,” Jones wrote.”There are two camps of critics of Oath Keepers: the ignorant people who believe everything they read, and the cunning tyrants who want the treasonous and lawless federal government to march ahead unopposed.”

Ferguson has inflamed unease among Oath Keepers. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) last month declared a state of emergency and called the National Guard to Ferguson. But the Oath Keepers said those forces weren’t protecting the people against rioters who have torched shops, smashed windows and burned police cars.

“When they’re here, there’s definitely a weight lifted off our shoulders,” one man who owns a Chinese restaurant told The Times. “I’d be lying if I said otherwise.”