Oath Keepers is an American far-right anti-government militia organization composed of current and former military, police, and first responders who pledge to fulfill the oath that all military and police take in order to "defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic".
It encourages its members to not obey orders which they believe would violate the United States 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.
Several organizations that monitor domestic terrorism and hate groups describe it 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.”
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." The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) lists the group's founder as a known extremist and describes his announced plans to create localized militia units as "frightening".
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. 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".
Oath Keepers were present wearing military fatigues in Ferguson, Missouri, during the 2014 and 2015 unrest in the city, when members armed with semi-automatic rifles patrolled streets and rooftops. Members of the group were indicted on conspiracy charges for allegedly staging a planned mission during the 2021 storming of the United States Capitol.
The Oath Keepers was formed in 2009 by Yale Law School graduate and former U.S. Army paratrooper Stewart Rhodes in the direct aftermath of the election of the nation’s first black president. Today, it is one of the largest radical antigovernment organizations in the United States. By 2016, the group was claiming an improbable 30,000 members who were said to be mostly current and former military, law enforcement and emergency first responders.
The core idea of the Oath Keepers is that its members vow to forever support the oaths they took on joining law enforcement or the military to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” As a practical matter, what that means to the group is suggested most plainly by its list of the 10 “Orders We Will Not Obey” — a compendium of much-feared but entirely imaginary threats from the government, including forcing Americans into detention camps, imposing martial law, and disarming all civilians. Those supposed threats are all key to the central conspiracy theory of the antigovernment “Patriot” movement of which the Oath Keepers is a part.
Basically, Patriots believe that the government will at any moment impose martial law, probably with the aid of foreign or United Nations troops; that all guns belonging to normal citizens will then be seized; that resisters will be thrown into concentration camps; and that, in the end, America will be forced into a one-world socialist government, “The New World Order.”
In 2010, Rhodes and his Oath Keepers deployed in public for the first time, traveling to Quartzsite, a small Arizona town, to defend local residents who were ejected after refusing to leave a town council meeting on alleged government corruption. The group’s website called Quartzsite a “pivot point” for Americans to finally see the looming danger of the “New World Order.” In the end, the Oath Keepers got a lot of headlines, but accomplished virtually nothing — other than Arizona officials censuring Rhodes for practicing law in that state without a license by writing letters threatening a lawsuit on behalf of the ejected residents. He was fined $600.
In a more serious episode, Daniel Knight Hayden, an Oklahoma man who identified himself as an Oath Keeper, was indicted by a federal grand jury after tweeting messages threatening a violent attack on Oklahoma state government officials on April 15, which is Tax Day. Hayden was sentenced to eight months in prison in 2010. Another troubling example: Matthew Fairfield, a suburban Cleveland man described by prosecutors as the president of a local Oath Keepers chapter, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for storing bombs at his and a friend’s home and for obstructing justice. After Fairfield’s 2011 sentencing, a county prosecutor said it would be fair to call the local Oath Keepers leader a potential terrorist.
In a widely publicized case, another Oath Keeper was sentenced to 30 years in prison for raping his own 7-year-old daughter. After failing to appear for trial in 2010, Charles Dyer, an ex-Marine, led police on a multi-state chase and began issuing threats against law enforcement, warning that they’d better not catch up to him. Although Dyer had spoken on behalf of the Oath Keepers and online videos identified himself as the group’s liaison to the Marines, Rhodes claimed after the charges were brought that Dyer wasn’t actually a part of his organization.
That wasn’t the only time that the Oath Keepers has sought to put distance between itself and members who bring it bad press. In 2015, the group censured prominent member Jon Ritzheimer after Ritzheimer suggested that he planned to travel from Arizona to carry out a citizen’s arrest of U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D. Mich.). Ritzheimer was angry that Stabenow had signed an agreement between the U.S. and Iran on limiting the Iranians’ nuclear program. Ritzheimer also said he would go on to arrest all of those involved in making the deal, including President Obama.
In 2013, four years after its formation, the Oath Keepers announced the planned formation of “Citizen Preservation” militias, which are meant to defend Americans against the New World Order. The real goal of these militias, which have since been renamed Civilian Preparedness Teams, is to prey upon the fears and concerns of local communities and revitalize the American militia movement, all under the guise of neighborhood watch and self-sufficiency. “We want to see a restoration of the militia in this country,” Rhodes explained on a “God and Guns” podcast. “We think a good first step is to have the veterans stand up in every community and go help form and train neighborhood watches, to get the people to take back into their own hands their own personal self-defense and security.”
In April 2014, Rhodes and several fellow Oath Keepers traveled to the Nevada ranch of Cliven Bundy, answering a nationwide call Bundy had made asking militiamen to join him in standing up to federal officials seeking to seize his cattle because he had refused to pay federal grazing fees for some 20 years. But the Oath Keepers made fools of themselves that day, excitedly telling Bundy’s rag-tag army that they had received “intel” that President Obama was about to attack the Bundy ranch with drones. The Oath Keepers fled, leaving Bundy’s other supporters to mock them as cowards and delusional paranoids. Because the government ultimately stood down in the face of armed threats from Bundy’s defenders, the standoff wound up being a highlight of the radical right — but one that the Oath Keepers got no glory from.
Four months later, white, heavily armed Oath Keepers showed up in Ferguson, Mo., during the racial unrest that followed the shooting death of Michael Brown, a black man, by a police officer. The heavily armed group members were seen on rooftops patrolling in what they said was an effort to protect businesses from rioters. Though they later claimed to have protected one black woman’s business, it seemed clear that they were really there to protect white businesses against black protesters.
The Oath Keepers also has been involved in a number of confrontations between the federal government and militants in disputes over public lands.
In 2015, an Oregon chapter of the Oath Keepers acted in support Rick Barclay and George Backes, two Oregon gold miners running an illegal mining site. The miners received a “letter of noncompliance” from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) telling them they either needed to clear out of the mine within 60 days or file an appeal of the noncompliance ruling. Instead, the miners appealed to the Oath Keepers, and what followed was an Oath Keepers nationwide call to action, put out by Joseph Rice of the Josephine County Oath Keepers, to help the miners fight the BLM. Operation Gold Rush, as it was called, was dubbed a “security operation” because owner Rick Barclay insisted that the BLM was notorious for burning down miners’ cabins in the backwoods, and he said later that they would have destroyed his mine if he had not called for help. BLM spokesman Jim Whittington told the Southern Poverty Law Center that these accusations were groundless.
Regardless, according to the local Oath Keepers chapter, at least 700 supporters responded to the call to action. Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel told High Country News that he wasn’t worried about conflict between law enforcement and the miners. But the militia, who effectively turned the mountains around the mine into a heavily armed patrol base, was a different story. “I was [concerned] in that there were militia, Three Percenters and Oath Keepers from around the country that had come in and were potentially unpredictable. [A group spokesman] will tell you that everyone was vetted properly. I have a difficult time believing that 100 percent of the people were cleared or were 100 percent controllable.”
Ultimately, there was no standoff. James Roberts, an administrative law judge with the Interior Board of Land Appeals, issued a stay which stated that the miners were allowed to operate the mine while the board deliberated. This was seen as yet another victory for the Oath Keepers and the antigovernment movement.
Also in 2015, Oath Keepers in Montana put out another call to action, summoning members to help another local miner fight the government– even though the Forest Service had been working with the miner for some time to resolve the issue. “Obviously, we’re not in a confrontation,” David Smith, regional spokesman for the Forest Service, told the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s not the people who are there I’m worried about – it’s the ones from the fringe who want to join in. And I’m worried about the safety of the people up there. We don’t want to see things escalate, especially over an issue that we have been working all along in a very cooperative way to resolve.” Ultimately, again, no real standoff developed.
But that wasn’t the case in early 2016, when members of the same Bundy family that was at the center of the 2014 Nevada standoff got interested in another conflict with the federal government, this one in Harney County, Ore.
The cause that drew the Bundys — Ammon and Ryan Bundy, sons of Cliven — was two ranchers near Burns, Ore., who had recently been ordered back to prison for arson of public lands after an appeals court decided they had initially been sentenced to terms that were too short by law. The Bundys and other sympathizers tried to get Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son, Steven Hammond, 46, on their side, denouncing both the Hammonds’ resentencing and the management of public lands by federal agencies. But the Hammonds said they were planning on reporting to prison, did not want their help, and asked them to return to Nevada. Despite this, the Bundys and a number of other heavily armed militants decided suddenly to break away from a pro-Hammond rally in Oregon and occupy the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a famous birding location. The standoff with federal and other law enforcement agencies that followed lasted 41 days. It was broken up only after officials arrested the Bundys and others at a roadblock near the refuge.
The Oath Keepers did denounce the Malheur occupation — not so much because it was an illegal armed invasion but, as Rhodes wrote, “specifically because it is not being done with the consent of the locals or at their request, without the request of the Hammond family . . . and because it is not in direct defense of anyone.” Another group official, associate editor Brandon Smith, said he opposed the occupation because “starting this fight from a much stronger position is more than possible.”
While criticizing the occupation, the Oath Keepers did take part in a coalition of militias in the Pacific Northwest called the Pacific Patriots Network, which served as a “buffer” between the occupiers and government forces. The Pacific Patriots Network also includes antigovernment extremist groups aligned with the Three Percenters, and the Oath Keepers’ contingent is the very same chapter that took part in Operation Gold Rush in Oregon in 2015.
During the 2016 presidential election, the Oath Keepers were at it again, with Rhodes announcing “Operation Sabot 2016” as a method to prevent the election from being stolen from Donald Trump, something the candidate had predicted numerous times. “[W]e call on you to form up incognito intelligence gathering and crime spotting teams,” Rhodes said. “And go out into public on election day, dressed to blend in with the public … with video, still camera, and notepad in hand, to look for and document suspected criminal vote fraud or intimidation activities.” And he made clear that it was the Democrats, not the Republicans, who might steal the election. “[W]e are, indeed, most concerned about expected attempts at voter fraud by leftists,” Rhodes said. “But we will spot, document, and report any apparent attempt at vote fraud or voter intimidation … as is our duty.”