The second installment in our new actor profile series reviews the latest data on Oath Keepers activity around the United States. Access all data and additional actor profiles through our US Research Hub. Definitions and methodology decisions are explained in our US Coverage FAQs and our US methodology brief. For more information, please check the full ACLED Resource Library.
The Oath Keepers are one of the most prominent militia groups in the United States. Much of their known activity predates the ACLED dataset (which currently extends to the beginning of 2020). While the Oath Keepers have been active participants in fewer than 20 demonstration events since the start of last year, they tend to play an outsized role in the events in which they do participate. This is evidenced by the significant involvement of Oath Keepers in the ‘Million MAGA Marches’ in the latter half of 2020, and in the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January 2021.
Membership, Leadership, Ideology, and Structure
The Oath Keepers are a nationwide militia organization founded in the wake of the 2008 election in reaction to Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s victory over Republican candidate John McCain. A primary motivating factor for their foundation was the fear of a gun confiscation program akin to the small-scale firearm seizure program during the government response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (POLICE Magazine, 4 April 2013; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2021).
The Oath Keepers are largely composed of current and former law enforcement officers or military personnel, and the group targets people with links to security forces in its recruitment efforts (NPR, 10 April 2021). The Oath Keepers were organized to maintain the ‘oath’ sworn by law enforcement officers and members of the military to protect the US from their perceived foreign and domestic enemies, notably the vaguely defined “Marxist left” (Anti-Defamation League, 2021). The motto of the organization and the informal de facto slogan — “Not on our watch!” and “Guardians of the Republic,” respectively — underscore the Oath Keepers’ perception that the threat from the “Marxist left” is real and imminent (Oath Keepers, 2021).
Although membership in the organization is primarily drawn from active and retired military and police, some members of the Oath Keepers have no experience in these occupations. These members are often discussed among the group as “associate members” who “have not taken the Oath.” Associate members are technically relegated to a lower membership status compared to active and former law enforcement officers, firefighters, and members of the military (Oath Keepers, 2021).
However, the technical difference in membership does not appear to affect activity. Only six out of 13 Oath Keepers charged with storming the US capitol on 6 January were current or former law enforcement officers or members of the US military (CBS News, 16 March 2021). Regardless, membership is formalized and includes the distribution of membership cards (Twitter @MilitiaWatch, 5 February 2021). Dues are required for those who successfully apply for membership, thereby giving them access to online chats and other features (Unicorn Riot, 16 November 2020). The organizational hierarchy includes a board of “at least” 10 trustees under the direction of the founder, Stewart Rhodes (Oath Keepers, 2021). Rhodes has the right to nominate as many trustees as he deems fit, ensuring the board will always remain loyal to him (Oath Keepers, 2021).
Rhodes is a veteran of the US Army and a Yale Law School graduate (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2021). He is rarely involved in group chats for Oath Keepers, preferring to keynote Oath Keepers national calls and local recruitment events instead. He is, however, known to coordinate on the ground, especially in high-profile public events. His role in coordination is evident in events such as the trial of the police officer who shot Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky and in the 6 January 2021 storming of the US Capitol Building (Business Insider, 25 September 2020; US News & World Report, 23 September 2020; NPR, 5 April 2021).
The group has occasionally placed members of color in prominent public positions. During the Oath Keepers’s “security operation” in Louisville, Stewart Rhodes featured the group’s sole on-the-ground Black member as the “team leader” of the operation (Youtube @Oath Keepers, 23 September 2020). During their 60 Minutes interview, the Oath Keepers’ Arizona-based Yavapai County Preparedness Team sent likely their sole respective Black member to the interview, who said that 6 January stormers were a “false flag” after another interviewee said the stormers “could have been BLM [Black Lives Matter]” (YouTube @60 Minutes, 17 April 2021). At the same time, the group continues to counter pro-BLM protests and demonstrations against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). While the Oath Keepers do not state that race is a motivating factor behind their activity, race does seem to play a role in driving activity among some members. For instance, a suggestion to arm Black people in Ferguson, Missouri following the police killing of Michael Brown led to a public spat in which race played a significant role. Rhodes rejected the idea of arming Black demonstrators, calling them “violent people who were rioters,” while another Oath Keeper called Rhodes’ rejection a “racist double standard” (Reason, 27 August 2015). Rhodes responded to the dispute by publishing a 17-minute video disparaging the character of the disagreeing Oath Keeper, ostensibly to “warn” St. Louis, Missouri citizens that he was “unstable and dangerous” (Youtube @Oath Keepers National, 4 September 2015).
The group adheres to a list of 10 “Orders We Will Not Obey,” which include disarmament, warrantless searches, and turning US cities into concentration camps (The Atlantic, November 2020). Ironically, two of these are that the group will not obey orders to subject citizens to military tribunal nor will they obey orders to impose martial law — actions that Rhodes and his members were advocating for after the recent general election (NBC News, 2 February 2021). Rhodes also called for former president Donald Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act to empower groups like the Oath Keepers to help him to stay in power (Daily Beast, 12 December 2020; Right Wing Watch, 14 December 2020).
Since the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by Minneapolis police in May 2020, Oath Keepers have continued to discuss their armed training as preparation for confrontations with BLM. In part due to the fact that the threats Oath Keepers perceive from BLM often never materialize, Oath Keepers largely view their activity in support of operations by law enforcement (which they view as heroic) and/or against political adversaries to their left (which they view as communist or anti-American). The Oath Keepers’ opposition to federal law enforcement is also confined to specific agencies: they target perceived injustices at the hands of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), yet tacitly support ICE and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
More detail about the ideology of the Oath Keepers has been well-documented elsewhere, including in this previous ACLED report, a profile by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC, 2021), documentation by Political Research Associates (PRA, 23 April 2015), information collected by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL, 2021), and profiles by Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC, April 2021), among others.
The group’s national structure is not as firm as its bylaws imply. The primary purpose of the organization’s national leadership framework is to set strategic goals, to fundraise, and to drive recruitment efforts for chapters around the country. It is therefore not uncommon for members of state Oath Keepers chapters to know and to organize with some chapters across state lines yet not with others (The Atlantic, November 2020). Members are only required to adhere to a vaguely worded and aspirational code of conduct to “maintain a positive image” and are not explicitly required to obey orders from other members, trustees, or the founder (Oath Keepers, 2021).
Occasionally, a chapter will splinter from the Stewart Rhodes-run Oath Keepers national organization. One such chapter, the Arizona-based Yavapai County Preparedness Team (YCPT), claims to have severed ties with national leadership, though they continue to adhere to the same ideology (60 Minutes, 18 April 2021). The YCPT announced in May 2020 their full severance from the Oath Keepers as run by Rhodes. They in turn announced their own parallel national organization, the United States County Preparedness Team, which still heavily features Oath Keepers symbols in their presentations as well as a commitment to “Orders We Will Not Obey,” as discussed above (Youtube @Yavapai County Preparedness Team, 24 May 2021).
The Oath Keepers are known for a history of conspiratorial and highly aggressive reactions to contemporary events in US politics. For example, in 2013, they created “Citizen Preservation” groups to counter encroachment by the “New World Order,” a supposedly overarching worldwide socialist government put in place by powerful domestic leftists and the United Nations (Daily Beast, 15 October 2013; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2021). They were controversially involved in the armed militia response to the Ferguson uprisings after the killing of Michael Brown, a Black man, by police in 2014 (BBC, 12 August 2015).
Oath Keepers chapters were also involved in organizing around events in the Pacific Northwest that were salient for other armed movements, such as the Sugar Pine Mine standoff in the wilderness of southwestern Oregon in 2015. These events also include the Bundy occupation of the Malheur Bureau of Land Management office in Princeton, Oregon in 2016, in which Oath Keepers continued their involvement despite the initial occupiers’ calls for them to stand down (Southern Poverty Law Center, 23 April 2015; The Oregonian, 13 January 2016; OPB, 10 January 2016; MilitiaWatch, 26 January 2017). These occupation/standoff events were important to the Oath Keepers because they channeled fervor into action to create national attention for the group and its activities. Fundraising efforts and outside support then disincentivized Oath Keepers who were present from disengaging in the events.
There are also multiple examples of attempted violence by the Oath Keepers. This includes a former Georgia member who drove to eastern Tennessee with weapons in April 2010. While he indicated his willingness to sacrifice his life to take over the local courthouse and to place officials under citizen’s arrest, he was unable to achieve his objectives due to police intervention (Chattanooga Times Free Press, 22 October 2011). In a separate incident in Ohio, a local Oath Keeper leader was caught storing napalm bombs and explosives in his home during an investigation triggered by mortgage fraud, garnering dozens of criminal charges (Cleveland.com, 20 April 2010; Southern Poverty Law Center, 9 June 2010). In yet another example, a far-right content creator using the name “July4patriot” identified himself multiple times as an Oath Keeper before being charged and convicted for illegal possession of a stolen grenade launcher, among other offenses, though Rhodes denies the man was ever a part of his organization (Duncan Banner, 19 April 2012; Southern Poverty Law Center, 23 January 2010).
Recent Developments and Activity
Just ahead of the 2016 election, the Oath Keepers put out a “call to action” to members, asking them to clandestinely monitor polls to catch illegal election activity as part of “Operation Sabot 2016” (Huffington Post, 28 October 2016). Previously highly skeptical of the federal government, the Oath Keepers struggled to find their ideological footing after Trump’s victory at the polls in 2016. Many Oath Keepers were in direct conflict with members of the Alt-Right during part of 2017’s surge in Alt-Right street activism (Southern Poverty Law Center, 15 June 2017).
Heading into the election period in 2020, the Oath Keepers once more ratcheted up their rhetoric towards civil war and open armed violence (Politico, 1 November 2020; Independent, 12 October 2020). After a member of Patriot Prayer, a far-right street-fighting movement based in the Pacific Northwest, was shot and killed in Portland, Oregon by an antifascist, Rhodes called for violence targeting the left — despite the perpetrator having been killed by US Marshals shortly thereafter. As a result of this call for violence, Rhodes was removed from Twitter (Yahoo! News, 10 September 2020).
After Trump’s loss at the polls, this aggression continued to escalate. Rhodes called for Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act to allow his group and other militias to battle against the election results they believed to be false. The group publicly stated that they would refuse to recognize Joe Biden as president and that they would “resist” his administration (Independent, 15 November 2020). According to recent reporting, Oath Keepers played a large role in sending death threats and even showing up armed outside of the home of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican official who refused to bend to Trump’s demands to overturn the election (Reuters, 11 June 2021). After the reality of the election began to further set in, some Oath Keepers started to plan for 6 January 2021, an event in which they played a crucial role (Washington Post, 11 February 2021).
Oath Keepers are well represented among the arrestees following the storming of the US Capitol Building, with their members at the center of a series of conspiracy charges for their involvement (NPR, 19 February 2021; New York Times, 19 February 2021). A founding member of the Oath Keepers pleaded guilty to these charges and is now cooperating with prosecutors in the case (New York Times, 16 April 2021; Washington Post, 16 April 2021). As of early June 2021, at least 16 members of the Oath Keepers have been charged for their participation in the events at the Capitol, with more reportedly under investigation (Washington Post, 30 May 2021; PBS NewsHour, 2 June 2021; CBS News, 16 March 2021).
Oath Keepers activity is likely underreported as members often appear to downplay their involvement in events, with Rhodes once suggesting that members ought to stay anonymous (The Atlantic, November 2020). This is likely attributable to the public-facing nature of the positions many members hold as active duty military and law enforcement officers. The publicization of membership in the Oath Keepers among such employees often results in public outcry, such as the case of an Orange County Sheriff’s deputy who wore a mixed Three Percenter-Oath Keeper patch in June 2020 (KTLA 5, 3 June 2020). The Three Percenters are a far-right, US-based militia movement not dissimilar from the Oath Keepers but based on the false myth that only three percent of American colonists participated in the Revolutionary War.
As such, members are frequently identified only through known affiliations, by the recognition of generally small patches bearing Oath Keepers branding, or by yellow ribbons or cloth on their uniforms (see Washington Post, 5 October 2020 for examples of Oath Keeper patches and the type of ribbons and cloth worn by Oath Keepers members for quick identification by other militiamen). The difficulty in identification, combined with organizational claims to have tens of thousands of members active in all 50 states (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2021), however exaggerated, make it probable that a great deal of Oath Keepers activity is missed in media reporting. It is therefore imperative to draw on sources beyond traditional media reporting alone to capture the wider range of activity. ACLED’s partnership with MilitiaWatch,1MilitiaWatch is a research project focused on tracking and analyzing US-based militia movements, often through documenting groups’ propaganda and communications. for example, allows for deeper data collection that can capture further detail and improve identification.
Conversely, Oath Keepers project a lot of power through online social media and traditional news media alike, taking advantage of the media cycle to boost the perception of the threat they pose. Rhodes has been described by some experts as often making assertions with no intention of following through (Vice News, 5 September 2018; Twitter @nickmartin, 8 January 2021). As such, despite the elevated levels of attention from the media and the federal government due to their involvement in the storming of the US Capitol Building, their engagement in physical space appears diminutive in comparison.
In this previous joint report from ACLED and MilitiaWatch, we evaluated the risk of violence and heightened activity posed by a number of right-wing militias and militant social movements during the November 2020 election period, with the Oath Keepers assessed to have a “moderate” risk level for violence.
Trends in ACLED data
Oath Keepers activity is largely oriented around reactions to demonstrations by left-leaning movements and groups. Their stated enemies, the “Marxist left,” broadly includes everything from BLM supporters to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, providing a wide range of political adversaries. Nearly three-quarters of all demonstration events in which members of the Oath Keepers have participated since the start of last year through the end of May 2021 have involved counter-demonstrators. Of these events, the Oath Keepers showed up to counter-demonstrate against another protest slightly more than half the time.2Which demonstrators showed up to counter other demonstrators can be unclear in reporting. Moreover, given its subjectivity, this aspect of reporting can often be biased. As such, ACLED does not systematically code directionality within the data. For this specific analysis, the authors reviewed the reporting and additionally coded this information, as available. In Texas, for instance, Oath Keepers counter-demonstrated against local groups protesting ICE on multiple occasions. Approximately 50% of all Oath Keepers activity since the start of last year has involved encounters between Oath Keepers and BLM supporters (both the Oath Keepers counter-demonstrating events organized in support of the BLM movement as well as BLM supporters counter-demonstrating at events organized by Oath Keepers). As such, much of the Oath Keepers’ activity has been driven by a reactionary response to BLM-associated mobilization.
Additionally, Oath Keepers have operated as a private security force with the stated goal of protecting certain locations from left-wing demonstrators. In Louisville, Kentucky, armed members of the Oath Keepers were visibly present for four consecutive days in September 2020 during demonstrations in support of the BLM movement following the grand jury’s decision to not charge officers involved in the killing of Breonna Taylor. The Oath Keepers asserted their goal was to prevent looting and to ensure the safety of private property, and hence focused their “patrols” and defensive posturing around food markets and gas stations. These “patrols” garnered significant media attention from national sources across the political spectrum (Insider, 25 September 2020; Washington Post, 5 October 2020; Fox News, 24 September 2020; Daily Beast, 25 September 2020).
Oath Keepers are also at times involved in violent demonstrations. A quarter of all demonstration events in which Oath Keepers are involved have turned violent and/or destructive — a ratio that is slightly higher than demonstrations involving the Proud Boys, and significantly higher than demonstrations involving pro-BLM supporters (see figure below). Notably, members of the Oath Keepers were prominent during violent demonstrations in Washington, DC, such as the minor skirmishes following the ‘Million MAGA Marches’ in the second half of last year and, as noted, the storming of the US Capitol Building. Rhodes claims to have established Quick Reactionary Forces (QRF) in Virginia for the events in Washington, DC — as the city does not allow firearms while Virginia allows the open carrying of weapons without permit, and borders the capital (Media Matters for America, 12 November 2020; Politico, 13 April 2021; WUSA9, 11 February 2021).
Demonstration events involving the Oath Keepers have also seemingly aligned with the fortunes of Donald Trump. Before the 2020 presidential election, Oath Keepers largely participated in demonstrations against government intervention in the lives of American citizens. These demonstrations largely focused on restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus and the possibility of restrictions on gun ownership. However, starting from 3 November 2020 until the inauguration of President Biden on 20 January 2021, all demonstrations in which members of the Oath Keepers participated explicitly supported Trump. The contrast between demonstrations before and after the election elucidates the inherent contradictions between the organization’s claimed duty — to defend the US Constitution — and the partisan and conspiratorial beliefs of its members.
The last demonstration involving the Oath Keepers was in March 2021, which has been followed by over two months of non-engagement in physical space by the group. This is indicative of the Oath Keepers’ sporadic and reactive activity: their primary physical engagement in demonstrations has been a response to pro-BLM demonstrations after Floyd’s death and in the wake of the 2020 election result (see bar graph in figure below). Both of these spikes involve higher rates of violent demonstrations (in orange), pointing towards not only periods of heightened activity but of increased violence as well. Despite the outsized media coverage, Oath Keeper activity in physical space is still quite low when compared to other right-wing actors, such as the Proud Boys (see line graph in figure below; for more, see this Proud Boys Actor Profile).
Oath Keepers activity in the ACLED dataset is quite geographically clustered. Texas is a particularly active state for the Oath Keepers (see map below). In the Fort Worth area, a current Hood County Constable claims to be a member of the organization. He has been a national leader in the Oath Keepers organization for 12 years and has worked as the group’s primary recruiter for law enforcement (Politico, 9 December 2020). Unsurprisingly, Texas led all states in reported Oath Keepers recruitment events in 2020. The Oath Keepers have shown an interest in infiltrating local government, police departments, and Republican organizations (Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 23 January 2021; AZ Central, 7 March 2021). Elsewhere in the US, police officers have also been spotted wearing Oath Keepers patches or have otherwise been documented in connection to the group, despite their active duty status (Business Insider, 1 September 2020; Voice of OC, 3 June 2020).
The YCPT is responsible for a large concentration of events in Arizona in the map above. This is due to their large weekly public recruitment meetings, which account for about two-thirds of all recorded strategic development events3In the ACLED dataset, strategic development events capture contextually important information regarding the activities of violent groups that is not itself recorded as political violence, yet may trigger future events or contribute to political dynamics, including recruitment events. in which the Oath Keepers have been involved. These recruitment events have also been popular campaign stops or public speaking opportunities for multiple Republican representatives (see vignette).
Two other clusters of Oath Keepers activity shown on the map are discussed above. The first of these are the DC and Virginia mobilizations that Oath Keepers publicly joined, including the 6 January 2021 storming of the US Capitol Building and the preceding ‘Million MAGA Marches’ following the US election. The other major Oath Keepers activity cluster is in Kentucky. As discussed earlier, this cluster is primarily constrained to the Oath Keepers’ reaction to anticipated demonstrations around the legal proceedings surrounding the killing of Breonna Taylor.
Oath Keepers in the Near Future
The Oath Keepers are likely to remain a significant actor within the armed militia movement in the US. The organization’s raison d’etre — preventing the government from infringing on gun ownership — is likely to remain a major recruiting device. Following a number of mass shootings soon after many pandemic-related restrictions were lifted during spring 2021, calls for gun control, including from the White House, have become widespread (Reuters, 16 April 2021). As pressure mounts, groups like the Oath Keepers will likely continue recruiting and carrying out more frequent and overt anti-government activity.
In comparison to groups like the Proud Boys, which largely engage in unarmed street violence, the Oath Keepers are likely to attract recruits more interested in taking a stand against perceived government tyranny. The identification of Democratic members of Congress as “domestic enemies,” and the widespread belief among current Oath Keepers that the US is in a contemporary civil war, will further ingratiate the Oath Keepers to anti-government recruits (Youtube @YCPT, 15 July 2020; 60 Minutes, 18 April 2021). Furthermore, the perceived illegitimacy of the Biden administration among the Oath Keepers is likely to increase the organization’s so-called ‘will to fight’ government forces — especially if they perceive an attempt at weapons confiscation.
The Oath Keepers may continue to play an integral role in the political and physical landscape of far-right mobilization in two ways. The first is in potential ‘war-driving’ scenarios, where they encourage others to take action by acting as vanguards, directing crowds to move forward — as they did on 6 January 2021 in Washington, DC. The second is as ‘tag-along’ organizations to other events, providing fertile ideological soil online for those seeking to engage in defense of Trump after the election. It is still unclear how significant of an impact the charges related to the storming of the US Capitol Building may have on the future of the organization. News that a founding member has pleaded guilty and will be cooperating with the prosecution does not bode well for the group (Washington Post, 16 April 2021). These arrests, and severe scrutiny by the press and federal government, are likely to depress Oath Keepers organizing, or to otherwise force the group to splinter, evolve, or disappear entirely. The YCPT decision to disassociate from Stewart Rhodes is an example of existing fractures leading to larger breaks under the pressure of the fallout from the events of 6 January.
There are many competing forces that may influence Oath Keepers activity over the course of 2021. Their relatively low activity in the ACLED dataset indicates an outsized media impact for a group without a major presence in the physical space. A heightened national agenda towards issues that are likely to inflame the Oath Keepers’ base, such as gun control or even renewed public health interventions, has the likelihood to drive more action. The federal cases against some of the organization’s leadership — as with the Proud Boys — is also likely to hinder their activity in the home states of the Oath Keepers defendants, such as Ohio, North Carolina, and Virginia. Which variable will be most crucial to Oath Keepers activity is difficult to discern and will likely be dependent on the responses of state and regional chapters to the evolving political moment.
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