As It Happens

Heavily armed citizen militia group, the Oath Keepers, returns to Ferguson

The Oath Keepers have returned to Ferguson, as protests flare with the anniversary of the Michael Brown shooting. The militia group says their purpose is to defend the Constitution. But many protesters consider their presence intimidating and local police say their actions are "inflammatory."
John Karriman. a volunteer from Oath Keepers, stands guard on the rooftop of a business on November 26, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Demonstrators looted and burned down several businesses along the street on Monday after the grand jury announced its decision in the Michael Brown case. Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was killed by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer, on August 9. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Tensions are high in Ferguson, Missouri. Last Sunday marked the first anniversary of the fatal police shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. The protests have intensified and county authorities have declared a state of emergency. But the demonstrations have also prompted the return of the Oath Keepers -- a militia group who claim to be on site to "defend the Constitution."

Yesterday, As It Happens spoke with activist DeRay McKesson. He described the group as "a primary example of the racially-coded policing here in St. Louis . . . if Black people ever came outside and protested with rifles like that, the police would response swiftly and with force."

But John Karrigan, the head of the Missouri chapter of the Oath Keepers, dismisses these claims.

Members of the Oath Keepers walk with their personal weapons on the street during protests in Ferguson, Missouri August 11, 2015. Police in riot gear clashed with protesters who had gathered in the streets of Ferguson early on Tuesday to mark the anniversary of the police shooting of an unarmed black teen whose death sparked a national outcry over race relations. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

"We've had all kinds of things hurled at us . . . supremacists and KKK and all such kinds of kooky nonsense," Karrigan tells As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong. "Our numbers are made up of folks from all stripes . . .red, yellow, black and white."

Kerrigan says the group was asked to protect members of Infowars -- a website run by conspiracy theorist and radio host Alex Jones. But the Oath Keepers have showed up at the protests before.
We're the people that allow people to sleep easy in their bed at night knowing that people like us exist . . . We are willing to defend our fellow citizens, whatever that takes.- John Karrigan, head of Missouri chapter of the Oath Keepers
"Back in November, after the verdict came out and there was all the looting and murders, arsons and such . . . we protected a block of buildings that were not only businesses, but also dwelling places," Karrigan explains.

He adds, "This is about people getting their voice out and being heard . . . It's also about criminality and the fact that the people that want to record some of the things that are going on were not being allowed to do that by the agitators within in the crowd that were trying to cause them harm and law enforcement themselves."

Karrigan implies the protests are unwarranted. He insists that "the shoot itself, involving Michael Brown, turned out to be justified by the commission that looked into it, but the crowd continued to be inflamed.

"Here we are a year later, this stepfather of Michael Brown is still taking to the streets with his rhetoric trying to fan the flames."

But many argue the Oath Keepers are the ones adding to the tension. The St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar has called their presence both "unnecessary and inflammatory."

"That is a blatant lie," Karriagn says. "If you look at videos of us interacting with the crowd, they remember us from last year . . . there's hugs and high-fives and, of course, you're going to have outsiders come in who were paid to agitate and they're going to hurl their insults, but for the most part when we showed up things calmed down."

The images on social media are not so conclusive. Given the protests are largely about the systemic violence and oppression toward Black people by police, the calming effect of a conspicuously all-white, heavily armed group of militia is questionable.

Heavily armed civilians with a group known as the Oath Keepers arrive in Ferguson, Mo., early Tuesday. The far-right anti-government activists, largely consists of past and present members of the military, first responders and police officers. (Jeff Roberson/The Associated Press)

But Karrigan persists.

"Our presence had a calming effect on the crowd," he says. "Fifty-seven shots fired Sunday night . . . our presence starting Monday night . . . not a shot fired, so you do the math."

He says that the Oath Keepers are willing to do anything to protect citizens in Ferguson, including shooting to kill.

"[We] run towards the danger," he says. "We're the people that allow people to sleep easy in their bed at night knowing that people like us exist . . . We are willing to defend our fellow citizens, whatever that takes."

He defends the Keeper's presence at the protests and explains that his detractors could do the same.

"That's what my Constitution guarantees me and it allows them the same thing . . . the problem is uninformed population."