The Oath Keepers, which claims tens of thousands of present and former law enforcement officials and military veterans as members, is one of the largest far-right antigovernment groups in the U.S. today.
The Oath Keepers organization claims to be defending the U.S. Constitution and fighting tyranny, but as former Oath Keepers spokesman Jason Van Tatenhove describes, the group is actually “selling the revolution.” The threats to American liberties that Oath Keepers say the federal government is responsible for are in reality a set of baseless conspiracy theories.
As part of the group’s mission, Oath Keepers have directed their recruiting effort toward members of the military, law enforcement and other public-safety positions. They are often confrontational and have participated in multiple armed standoffs against the government. The most recent is the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when members of the group, including its leader, Stewart Rhodes, were arrested and accused of conspiring to oppose the presidential transfer of power by force.
The group also has a long history of engaging in and promoting their own form of vigilantism by providing voluntary armed security, not affiliated with any law enforcement entity, at various protests and venues. In 2014, members formed their own patrol in Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of an unarmed Black man in 2014, and they provided security to an Infowars reporter during the anniversary protest a year later. In 2015, Rhodes said they would protect notorious Kentucky clerk Kim Davis from arrest. Members patrolled the site of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, and polling locations in 2016 and 2020, allegedly to discourage and report voter fraud. Members have provided security for events and individuals promoting “Stop the Steal” after the 2020 election, including Roger Stone. They also offered security to business owners who defied COVID-19 public health safety measures.
In Their Own Words
“Well, I think what we have to realize is that, you know, Trump actually failed. … He had a duty and responsibility to step up. But he failed to do that and he allowed a ChiCom puppet into the White House and I think we now need to just declare that to be illegitimate and refuse to comply with anything that comes out of his mouth, anything he signs, anything passed as so-called legislation. Label it ‘pretend legislation’ like the Founding Fathers did.” – Stewart Rhodes, during an interview on Infowars’ “The Alex Jones Show,” Jan. 20, 2021
“It is CRITICAL that all patriots who can be in D.C. get to D.C. to stand tall in support of President Trump’s fight to defeat the enemies foreign and domestic who are attempting a coup, through the massive voter fraud and related attacks on our Republic. We Oath Keepers are both honor-bound and eager to be there in strength to do our part.” – Stewart Rhodes, posted on the Oath Keepers website, Jan. 4, 2021
“You must act NOW as a wartime President, pursuant to your oath to defend the Constitution, which is very similar to the oath all of us veterans swore. We are already in a fight. It’s better to wage it with you as Commander-in-Chief than to have you comply with a fraudulent election, leave office, and leave the White House in the hands of illegitimate usurpers and Chinese puppets. Please don’t do it. Do NOT concede, and do NOT wait until January 20, 2021. Strike now.” – Stewart Rhodes, “Open Letter to President Trump: You Must Use Insurrection Act to ‘Stop the Steal’ and Defeat the Coup,” on the Oath Keepers website, Dec. 14, 2020
“Frankly, we’re concerned about a Benghazi-style attack. That’s why Oath Keepers will be posted outside of D.C. We’ve got some of our best men working on the plan right now for where we’re going to be. But we’ll make sure that we’re within range because I don’t trust the Pentagon, I don’t trust the brass, I don’t trust even the Secretary of Defense to stand behind the President [Trump] and don’t be surprised if you don’t get the same kind of standdown order you saw with Benghazi.” – Stewart Rhodes, during an interview on Infowars’ “The Alex Jones Show,” Oct. 27, 2020
“We’ll go undercover and look for people we think are committing voting fraud. We’re looking for indicators that they’ve got people who aren’t US citizens voting; then we can go and suppress that behaviour by letting it be known that we’re watching. We’ll videotape them and turn it over to law enforcement.” – Stewart Rhodes, as quoted in The Times article, “Primed by Trump, Militias Gear up for ‘Stolen’ US Election,” June 29, 2020
“This is a military invasion by the cartels and a political coup by the domestic Marxist controlled left, which sees open borders and mass-illegal invasion as their ticket to permanent illegitimate political power. This is a matter of national security and also a matter of national survival. This invasion/coup must be stopped, and with the ongoing failure of the RINO dominated Republicans to finance a wall, stopping it will now require full scale military action, which we strongly encourage President Trump to take under his authority as Commander In Chief.” – Stewart Rhodes, “Oath Keepers Call to Action: Border Operation,” on the Oath Keepers website, Dec. 4, 2018
“This wave of Islamist terror attacks will be part of a ‘perfect storm’ of intentionally orchestrated ‘Cloward-Piven’ chaos – inducing economic devastation, social and political disruption and violence, and the use of intentionally undefended borders and mass illegal and ‘refugee’ immigration as weapons of destabilization (and to provide cover for and facilitate more violence and terrorism by multiple proxy agents of the elites, including the cartels, gangs, well-funded Marxist and racist agitators – such as La Raza and Black Lives Matter – and radical Islamist cells and individuals).” – Stewart Rhodes, in an Oath Keepers press release following the mass murder of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, June 13, 2016
“John [Mc]Cain is a traitor to the Constitution. He should be tried for treason before a jury of his peers – which he would deny you. … He would deny you the right for trial to jury, but we would give him a trial by jury. Then after we convict him he should be hung by the neck until dead.” – Stewart Rhodes, at an event in Tempe, Arizona, May 5, 2015
“It is the height of Orwellian perversion of language and logic to say that disarming you of the most effective arms for combat that you still have is somehow not really disarming you, because you still have hunting rifles and shotguns. And you can bet that if you let them take away your military semi-autos, next on their list will be bolt action rifles, which they will call ‘sniper rifles’ (and By God, that is certainly what they are good for!).” – Stewart Rhodes, “My Personal Pledge of Resistance Against Any Attempt to Disarm Us by Means of an ‘Assault Weapons Ban,’” on the Oath Keepers website, Dec. 19, 2012
The Oath Keepers was officially launched with a rally in Lexington, Massachusetts, on Apr. 19, 2009, in the wake of the country electing Barack Obama as its first Black president. The Nevada-based nonprofit was founded by Yale Law School graduate and former U.S. Army paratrooper Elmer “Stewart” Rhodes.
The group has ties to other antigovernment extremist groups, including former Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack, the founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA). Mack is a founding member on the Oath Keepers board of directors.
This militaristic group consists of national leadership and state, county and local chapters scattered across the country. In 2014, Rhodes claimed the group had an unlikely 35,000 dues-paying members who are said to be mostly, although not exclusively, current and former military, law enforcement and emergency first responders. The group openly and intentionally recruits these individuals to their ranks, mostly in an effort to capitalize on the skills and knowledge these individuals acquired during their time of service. In his book Oath Keepers: Patriotism and the Edge of Violence in a Right-Wing Antigovernment Group, Sam Jackson says this creates in an inherent contradiction for the group – the police and military organizations from which their members come are some of the same organizations the group likely would have to attack in order to carry out its self-proclaimed mission against the government. Jackson, an expert on far-right extremism, is a professor in the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at the University of Albany in New York.
The name Oath Keepers comes from the group’s core principle – that members vow to uphold the oath they took as law enforcement or military personnel – to “support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” The Oath Keepers urge members to obey the Constitution, as they understand it, even if that interpretation goes against that of U.S. lawmakers and judges.
The main crux of the group’s messaging asserts that the government is engaged in attacks against its own citizens, working to strip them of their civil liberties. The group advocates for Americans to prepare for inevitable conflict with the government by stockpiling goods and supplies, engaging in paramilitary training and working to create small, self-reliant community networks.
The group’s fears around government overreach are most clearly exemplified in its list of 10 “Orders We Will Not Obey” – a compendium of perceived but unrealized threats from the government. Examples of these orders include the government imposing martial law, confiscating citizens’ guns and forcing Americans into concentration camps. These supposed threats from the government are all key to the central conspiracy theory propagated by the antigovernment movement, namely the “New World Order.” Groups that are part of the antigovernment movement, including the Oath Keepers, believe the government is secretly planning, along with foreign countries and the United Nations, to impose martial law, seize all Americans’ guns, force resisters into concentration camps and install a one-world totalitarian government known as the “New World Order.”
According to Jackson’s book, the group has engaged in real-world activities in response to events they perceive as threats to Americans’ rights and liberties, claiming to be pushing back against a government they see as tyrannical. Some of these have resulted in hostile and violent confrontations with government agents, others have materialized into nothing more than show-of-force demonstrations.
In August 2011, Rhodes and his Oath Keepers traveled to Quartzsite, Arizona, to join in a protest in support of local residents who were ejected from a town council meeting after speaking past the allotted time and refusing to leave the meeting. The group’s website called Quartzsite a “pivot point” for Americans finally to see the looming danger of the “New World Order.” In the end, the Oath Keepers got a lot of headlines, but accomplished virtually nothing. Rhodes was disbarred after practicing law in Arizona without a license by writing letters threatening a lawsuit on behalf of the ejected residents. The Arizona Supreme Court reprimanded Rhodes and fined him $600.
In 2013, four years after its formation, the Oath Keepers announced the planned formation of “Citizen Preservation Teams,” which now are called the more sanitized name of “Community Preparedness Teams” (CPTs). CPTs are armed community teams, or militias, meant to prepare for disasters, natural or otherwise, and defend Americans against the New World Order. The real goal of these militias 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 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.
Later in 2014, members of the Oath Keepers showed up in Ferguson, Missouri, during the unrest that followed the death of Michael Brown, a Black man, by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Protests broke out in the city following the grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson. Heavily armed members of the Oath Keepers were seen on rooftops in what they said was an effort to protect businesses from rioters. Local police released a statement announcing that the group broke the law by “providing security without first obtaining a license.” They called on the group to cease their activities.
In 2015, an Oregon chapter of the Oath Keepers acted in support of Rick Barclay and George Backes, two Oregon gold miners whose operations the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) alleged were in violation of government regulations. The miners received an “Notice of Noncompliance” and were ordered to stop their mining activities, submit the appropriate paperwork and fees for their operations, or file an appeal. The miners filed an appeal and asked the Oath Keepers to provide security to protect them and the mine against the BLM, claiming the BLM had a history of “burning down cabins and confiscating property at whim, without due process.” The Oath Keepers subsequently put out a nationwide call to action for Operation Gold Rush, as they called it. The BLM was stunned by this response, as they had made it known they had no plans of taking action until the appeal had been decided.
According to the local Oath Keepers chapter, at least 700 individuals responded, setting up perimeter security teams, providing armed escorts for outside members of the press and blocking off the entrance road to the mine. Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel told High Country News that he “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. The Interior Board of Land Appeals decided the miners were allowed to operate the mine while their appeal was being considered. The Oath Keepers declared their “mission accomplished” and ended the security operation in what they touted as a victory against the government. Barclay later said the BLM would have destroyed his mine if he had not called for help.
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 confrontation occurred.
But that wasn’t the case in early 2016, when members of the same Bundy family who were at the center of the 2014 Nevada standoff got interested in another conflict with the federal government, this one in Harney County, Oregon.
When two ranchers near Burns, Oregon, were ordered back to prison for arson of public lands after an appeals court decided their initial sentences were too short, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, sons of Cliven, got involved. The Bundys and other sympathizers tried to get Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son, Steven Hammond, 46, on their side, denouncing 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 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 lasted 41 days. It ended when officials arrested the Bundys and others at a roadblock near the refuge.
The Oath Keepers did denounce the Malheur occupation because, as Rhodes wrote, “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.”
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 repeatedly predicted. “We 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. “We 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.”
In June 2017, Oath Keepers participated in “March Against Sharia” rallies organized by ACT for America, an anti-immigrant hate group. The main message of these events is the false notion that Muslims are attempting to replace the American legal system with Sharia law. Oath Keepers claimed they were providing security for rally goers against imagined threats from the left.
In January 2017, the Oath Keepers, along with Three Percenters, coordinated volunteer security operations for Trump’s inauguration to protect against any possible violence from “jihadist terrorists” or “radical leftist groups.” Oath Keepers provided similar armed security details for Trump rallies in Minnesota and Texas in October 2019.
In December 2018, the Oath Keepers website advertised a call to action for a “Border Operation,” encouraging engagement in paramilitary activity to prevent the “invasion” of “illegals” into the country and to provide “security for border ranches and families,” presumably against immigrants, another exaggerated and unsupported claim propagated by the group. The group continued to plead with Trump to declare a national emergency to build his border wall, attended a “We Build the Wall” event in Sunland Park, New Mexico, and mobilized to Texas for a “security operation” along the border.
During the pandemic, and the installation of public health safety measures, Oath Keepers responded by claiming to “protect” and support businesses and business owners who reopened in defiance of these guidelines.
On May 16, 2020, Stewart Rhodes spoke at a rally in Palestine, Texas, organized in opposition to pandemic safety mandates, and the group hosted a similar event on May 23 in Austin, Texas.
Oath Keepers also responded to a request for protection by salon owner Shelley Luther when she reopened her business on April 24 against public health mandates and then tore up a cease-and-desist letter from local authorities. Luther was arrested for her violation of public health orders and fined $7,000. Rhodes himself participated in a protest outside the Dallas County Jail in Texas where Luther was being held. On May 30, John Shirley, a constable in Hood County and a member of the Oath Keepers board, issued a call to action, encouraging members to show up armed with rifles to provide security outside Luther’s salon.
Oath Keepers responded and were stationed in Granbury, Texas, outside Lift the Bar gym, supposedly to “protect” the owner from arrest for violating COVID-19 orders. Rhodes, in a blog post on the group’s website, claimed authorities “backed off” once they knew Oath Keepers and others had shown up.
Oath Keeper member and tattoo shop owner Roberto Minuta requested the group’s presence for the reopening of his business. In response, the group posted a call to action on its website. A handful of members, including Rhodes, showed up in Newburgh, New York, on May 30, 2020, to support Minuta.
Minuta later was connected to the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, acting as a security guard for Roger Stone earlier that morning before participating in the insurrection himself later that day. He has since been arrested on several charges and is included in the larger conspiracy case with over a dozen other Oath Keepers for their coordination efforts ahead of Jan. 6. Minuta has been indicted on the conspiracy charge. The case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia and the Department of Justice National Security Division’s Counterterrorism Section.
Oath Keepers showed up at Black Lives Matter protests during protests in summer 2020 following the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man. In response to the racial unrest that followed, Rhodes posted the following statement to the group’s Facebook account: “I see some of you conflicted about how to handle what’s going on in the streets of this country, I too was conflicted but let me say this. Maybe you better read that Oath again it said protect the constitution from all enemies foreign and or here’s the part you better read slowly. … Domestic. … Once these thugs turned to burning, killing and looting, they became domestic enemies.”
In June 2020, a police officer who was on duty and policing a George Floyd protest in Costa Mesa, California, was caught donning a Three Percenter patch with the words “Oath Keeper.” This is one example of a larger trend and strategy among antigovernment extremist groups to recruit and infiltrate law enforcement and military organizations.
Throughout his presidency, Oath Keepers fully embraced Trump, including Rhodes, who was seated in the VIP section at Trump’s 2019 rally in El Paso, Texas. With help from Infowars host Alex Jones, the group increasingly promoted far-right conspiracies as the 2020 election approached. They even ventured into QAnon territory, adopting and circulating QAnon-related conspiracies on their website. In the run up to the election, the group openly posted about plans to go to polling locations to stand up against and protect voters from anti-Trump left-wing groups.
After the results of the 2020 election were announced, Rhodes and the Oath Keepers urged Trump to use the Insurrection Act to maintain his position of power and reject the results of the election. The group argued that the election was stolen from Trump and participated in several “Stop the Steal” protests. On Nov. 14, the group attended the Million MAGA March in D.C. and provided security at a rally in Atlanta, Georgia, on Nov. 21.
Oath Keepers, along with many of the same right-wing personalities at these events, took part in the Capitol insurrection weeks later. Over a dozen members of the Oath Keepers who were present on Jan. 6 were charged with conspiracy for planning to obstruct an official proceeding, along with other related charges. Eleven Oath Keepers, including Rhodes, were indicted by a federal grand jury on Jan. 12, 2022, and charged with seditious conspiracy, which is defined as a crime against the state.
Criminal activity and arrests
In April 2009, Daniel Knight Hayden, an Oklahoma man who identified himself as an Oath Keeper, was arrested after tweeting messages threatening to attack officials in Oklahoma state on April 15, “Tax Day.” Hayden later received an eight-month prison sentence.
In January 2010, Charles Dyer, an ex-Marine and rising member of the Oath Keepers, was arrested for raping his 7-year-old daughter. Antigovernment rhetoric energized his defense and underpinned his lack of cooperation in the case. After failing to appear for his trial, Dyer fled Oklahoma as a fugitive, leading police on a multi-state chase that ended with his capture in Houston, Texas. Dyer was extradited back to Oklahoma and subsequently sentenced to 30 years in prison.
In April 2010, Darren Huff, a militia member and Oath Keeper, was arrested on a firearms charge after he traveled from Georgia to Tennessee to put certain government officials under citizens’ arrest for refusing to indict President Obama. Huff was given a four-year prison sentence.
In April 2010, Matthew Fairfield, a suburban Cleveland man described by prosecutors as the president of a local Oath Keepers chapter, was arrested for storing bombs at his and a friend’s home and for obstructing justice. Fairfield was indicted on 97 charges, including unlawful possession of explosives, receiving stolen property, perjury and child pornography. Fairfield was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
In March 2011, David Phillips, a Massachusetts Oath Keeper, was arrested on firearm charges. He was convicted and sentenced to two and a half years in prison.
On July 4, 2013, Adam Kokesh, an Oath Keeper who had promoted the group on his Internet talk show, loaded a shotgun in D.C.’s Freedom Plaza in protest of the city’s gun laws. A few days later, he was arrested after police found a shotgun and illegal drugs in his Virginia home. On July 26, 2013, upon posting bail and being released from jail, Kokesh was re-arrested on charges related to the Freedom Plaza stunt by violating a D.C. gun law that prohibits carrying a firearm outside of one’s home. Kokesh entered an Alford plea and was given a suspended sentence for the initial drug and gun charges. He received two months of probation for charges related to the Freedom Plaza incident.
In February 2015, Matthew Opaliski, a member of the Oath Keepers, previous leader of the Sussex County, Delaware, Republican Party, and former three-time Delaware state Senate candidate – was indicted on gun charges, including dealing firearms without a license and unlawfully transferring firearms. Opaliski was given a prison sentence of one year and a day.
In April 2015, Richard Lee Cook, a Nevada Oath Keeper and participant in the 2014 Bunkerville, Nevada, standoff with the government, was arrested and charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, following the standoff.
In December 2015, Schuyler Barbeau, a member of the Oath Keepers and participant in the 2014 Bunkerville standoff as part of the security team assigned to protect Cliven Bundy, was arrested on charges of possessing an unregistered firearm related to allegedly altering an AR-15’s barrel, allowing the weapon to operate as a fully automatic machine gun. Barbeau was sentenced to 27 months in prison and three years of supervised release.
In January 2016, Jon Ritzheimer, a member of the Oath Keepers and participant in the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon, surrendered to authorities. He was charged with conspiracy to impede officers of the U.S. from discharging their duties via force, intimidation or threat. Ritzheimer pleaded guilty and received a prison sentence of one year and a day. Previously, Ritzheimer participated in the 2014 Bundy standoff in Bunkerville.
On Jan. 6, 2021, members of the Oath Keepers from around the country participated in the insurrection and breach of the U.S. Capitol building. To date, at least 20 members have been arrested and face criminal charges for their activities.