QUARTSZITE, Ariz. — In the heart of the Sonoran Desert, in a scruffy town populated by nomad retirees, inveterate rock hounds and a nearly 70-year-old nudist bookseller who claims to be the first male stripper in the country, the antigovernment “Patriot” group Oath Keepers has decided to take a stand.
Quartzsite has only 3,800 permanent residents in homes strung out along both sides of Interstate 10 as it cuts westward to California. But here, the Oath Keepers argue, the banner of tyranny has already been raised. “This is the start. We want to set an example here,” Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes said Saturday after a two-mile march scheduled as part of a “Liberty Festival” in Quartzsite. “If every community across the country simply did what's being done right here – right here, right now – we would restore our republic.”
What’s being done in Quartzsite is a response to a complicated tale of alleged small-town corruption that pits the town’s police chief against many of his officers and a number of citizens — complicated enough that it’s hard to say at this stage who’s right. But the Oath Keepers says on its website that it “considers the Quartzsite saga to be a vital pivot point on which small-town America shall awaken to the encroachment of corruption and violation of rights from Federal levels downward into our local communities and our daily lives.”
Quartzsite became national news in June, when a video posted online showed a local blogger, Jennifer Jade Jones, being arrested at a Town Council meeting. The video went viral and prompted widespread condemnation of Quartzsite Police Chief Jeff Gilbert. The consensus in Patriot circles was that the martial law antigovernment extremists have worried about for decades had finally come to Quartzsite. Even Keith Olbermann named Gilbert one of the week’s “Worst Persons in the World.”
Gilbert, who has since been the focal point of Patriot ire, says the claims are nonsense – the product of nothing more than Internet hype. The council declared a state of emergency in the wake of Jones’ arrest, but the “mayor is still the mayor,” he said. “There’s this misconception that [Jones] was arrested because she was exercising her freedom of speech,” Gilbert said. “She got arrested because she refused to leave when the council voted to have her removed.”
Gilbert gave Hatewatch materials from one of Jones’ blogs that he said gave police cause for concern when she refused to leave. One unsigned post read, “In the AZ that I remember real citizens carried guns and had the balls to use them. ... Take your town back. If they won’t listen to reason, run them out of town, or kill them.” (The post is no longer online, but Gilbert said it was worrisome in the aftermath of the murder of six people and the grievous wounding of a congresswoman by Jared Lee Loughner in Tucson last January.)
Into that fray stepped the Oath Keepers, which Rhodes claims has some 12,000 dues-paying members, many of whom were expected for the muster on Saturday. But by mid-morning, just over 100 had gathered in the scorching heat. Their chants comparing Chief Gilbert to Adolf Hitler noticeably dwindled as the heat took its toll. When the march was finished, they settled into lawn chairs in the vacant cement lots of Vito’s RV Park to hear speeches. “The camera is the new gun,” Jones said in one of them, referring to the video of her arrest.
On Saturday, a representative from the Republic for the united States (RuSA), an antigovernment “sovereign citizens” group actively working to undermine the federal government, scouted the crowd looking for recruits. Members of various Arizona border militias served as security for the day. When the afternoon quieted, they settled in the shade with their rifles on their laps to swap ideas on how best to avoid prosecution if they were to shoot “Mexican invaders.” (The consensus was to establish a militia as a limited liability corporation and have a really good lawyer.)
The charge that its ranks are populated with extremists is a touchy one for the Oath Keepers. Earlier this month, Rhodes told Human Events writer Kathryn DeLong that allegations from groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center that the Oath Keepers are a group of conspiracy theorists were “a smear tactic” — a notion that DeLong enthusiastically endorsed in her Aug. 16 article. But a quick look at the Oath Keepers website — and a long April 17 posting from Rhodes, in particular — make it pretty obvious why that such allegations are regularly made.
In that posting, describing America’s military veterans as a “sleeping giant” who needed to be awakened, Rhodes wrote, “The hour is late, and our Constitution hangs by a thread.” He then went on to explain, in somewhat convoluted terms, why that is. He cited “the liberty crushing plans of the political and financial elites who intend to use chaos as an excuse to scrap our Constitution and national sovereignty once and for all.” He predicted that the “fiat money” system — money that is not backed by precious metals — will crash and that that “coming economic collapse” might be used as a pretext to impose “martial law.” He proposed that state militias be formed capable of “repelling invasions.” He suggested setting up barter networks and using gold and silver as money. “We must have an alternative to the fiat money in place when it collapses, so we can resist what the globalists have in store for us next.”
Rhodes in the past has suggested that his paranoid fears are simply theoretical worries — worries about, for example, a new version of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. But, of course, the reality is that all the things the Oath Keepers fear — martial law, foreign troops, the collapse of fiat money, the internment of liberty-loving Americans in concentration camps — are longstanding conspiracy theories held widely by members of the Patriot movement. The group’s core idea is the “10 Orders We Will Not Obey,” including possible orders to put American citizens in prison camps and to impose martial law.
Oath Keepers members have had their share of legal troubles, as well. This April, Matthew Fairfield of Cleveland, Ohio, described by a prosecutor as the president of a local Oath Keepers chapter, was jailed on 54 counts related to his alleged storing of a live napalm bomb. Then, last week, Charles Dyer, a self-described member of the Oath Keepers, was arrested in Houston after evading police for 10 days on charges he raped a 7-year-old girl.
At the muster on Saturday, Arizona State Rep. Judy Burges, who described herself as part of the Tea Party movement, took on the idea of domestic terrorism directly. “You know, they have to call us domestic terrorists because we are the group that’s going to stand up to their communist agenda,” she said. When the applause ended, she cheerfully added, “I’ll take that name any day of the week.”