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Leader of Josephine County Oath Keepers Breaks with Stewart Rhodes Over Leadership Style

Two years after the Oath Keepers in Josephine County, Oregon, engaged in a standoff with federal agents at the Sugar Pine Mine, the leader of the chapter has broken away from the Oath Keepers, citing concerns with national leadership. 

Two years ago, a militant encampment next to Interstate 5 called Camp Defiance became the focal point of a tense standoff in Josephine County, Oregon, to protect the Sugar Pine Mine, the oldest continually operated gold quartz mining operation in the state.

The camp, a mixed bag of heavily armed antigovernment extremists, hard-right constitutionalists and Oath Keepers, was formed to protect the mine from being destroyed after its owners failed to file an operations plan with the Bureau of Land Management.

The antigovernment “Patriots” defending the mine, led by the Josephine County Oath Keepers, lined the hills, hid in the trees, camouflaged and heavily armed, waiting for federal government to start a war they feared was imminent. It was a tense environment. After weeks of concern, a federal judge issued a stay prohibiting the BLM from enforcing the order to stop mining, the Oath Keepers posted a banner on its website with the message, “Mission Accomplished."

It was a climactic moment for the Oath Keepers, which had formed five years earlier and had been looking for an opportunity since to push back against perceived constitutional violations under President Obama. Celebrations came swiftly on the heels of the ruling. 

“The miners will have their day in court, which was the whole purpose of the Oath Keeper Security Operation. Mission accomplished!” the Oath Keepers proclaimed in a message posted to their website on May 22, 2015. “Well done, Josephine County Oath Keepers, and everyone who stood for the miners Rights. You stand tall in our eyes. Congratulations!”

The court order was one in a string of antigovernment actions across the West in response to the federal government’s management of public lands. Almost immediately, Rhodes and others in the Oath Keepers held up the Josephine County Oath Keepers as a model for what the organization of former military personnel and law enforcement officers could be –– a hard line in the sand between American citizens and the federal government.

Joseph Rice, speaking at the protest over the Sugar Pine Mine in Medford in April 2015.

As Joseph Rice, a former Army helicopter pilot who founded the Oath Keepers chapter in Josephine County, told supporters at the height of the Sugar Pine standoff, “I took an oath to uphold the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic. … And a domestic enemy is anyone who will abuse someone’s rights within the Constitution.”

But on the eve of the two-year anniversary of what many journalists called “the other standoff,” the lush green hills around the Sugar Pine mine are free from the reported trip wires and sentries that defined the Oath Keepers’ “security operation.” And as the case labors through administrative appeals, Rice has joined a long list of former Oath Keepers to cut ties with the group citing concerns with its leader and founder, Stewart Rhodes.

During an interview earlier this month in Medford, Oregon, Rice told Hatewatch that he had lost trust in the direction the Oath Keepers, citing a record of poor leadership on a national level, a slow creep away from the group’s core mission, and fears the group’s direction was dangerously far from its origins.           

“We have flag rank officers and senior officers, military retired, that made the statement that they would not join the group as long as Stewart Rhodes was in charge,” Rice told Hatewatch, adding, “Stewart is not a leader. He has no leadership ability. He self promotes.”

Notably, this is not the first time Rhodes’ leadership has been questioned, and hardly the first time he has been criticized for what appears to be an uncanny ability to be present when the radical right edges nearer to conflict with the federal government, and nowhere to be found when it all falls apart.               

In May 2014, the Oath Keepers were a fixture at Cliven Bundy’s cattle ranch in Nevada — until Rhodes claimed to have received “intelligence” of an imminent drone strike. In response, he pulled Oath Keepers out of what he called “the kill zone,” which led other militiamen at the camp to openly talk about shooting Rhodes for desertion. In the end, they voted unanimously to oust the Oath Keepers, and the drone strike never came.

Rhodes stayed out of public view for weeks afterward, barring a video he released from a hotel conference room in Mesquite, Nevada, telling the Oath Keepers’ side of the story and criticizing the other militias defending the ranch for operational sloppiness.

A year later, antigovernment conspiracy theorist and radio host Pete Santilli published an article on his Guerrilla Media Network after Rhodes reentered the public light when Micah Xavier Johnson ambushed police and killed five officers in Dallas.

The article — titled “Stewart Rhodes Comes Out Of Hiding And Has The Nerve To Ask – Will You Take Up Arms To Fight Marxist Terrorism?” — quoted Susan Delemus, whose husband had answered the Oath Keepers’ call to defend the Bundy family and was among nearly two dozen people charged with criminal offenses during the Bunkerville standoff.

“Jerry first saw the call to action on the Oathkeepers [sic] website and after discussing it with me the decision was made to go across Country and join other Oathkeepers [sic] who were staged there under the command of Stewart Rhodes,” Delemus said. “We never dreamed that in the end Rhodes would abandon the men he called to join him.”

The article ended with a warning. “Here is some good advice for those of you listening to Stewart Rhodes and are actually considering his call to action and the taking up of arms in the name of keeping your ‘oath’— Don’t do it.”

In many ways, the election of President Trump was a notable turn for the group, which since its founding in 2009 has been looking for ways to confront the federal government. Instead of a bipartisan organization calling on police officers and former military personnel to “honor their oath” and refuse orders perceived to violate the Constitution, Rhodes seems to have moved closer to a promoting a hard-right libertarian political perspective.

The changing direction in the Oath Keepers that led Rice to break away and form his own group, Liberty Watch of Josephine County, became even more transparent in the final days of the Obama administration as the Trump administration readied to take power.

Before President Trump’s inauguration, Rhodes issued a “Call to Action” announcing “Operation DefendJ20” — J20 is short for Jan. 20 — and stating that the Oath Keepers would be coordinating with the antigovernment Three Percenters and the far-right Bikers for Trump to provide “security” during the inauguration.

The Oath Keepers said they had received warnings that antifascist protesters were planning to disrupt the ceremony.

“We call on those of you who are able-bodied and know how to handle yourselves well, and especially military and police veterans with applicable training and experience, who can remain calm under pressure, to come to Washington DC [sic],” the announcement read. That night, Rhodes posted a picture of himself, wearing a sun-faded Oath Keepers baseball cap in line to attend the Deploraball, organized by alt-right mouthpiece Mike Cernovich.

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes addresses a protest at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in Berkeley, California, on April 27, 2017. (Credit: Ryan Lenz)

With an audience of protesters wearing the Pepe the Frog insignia during a “free speech” rally last month in Berkeley, Rhodes took the stage — dressed for a riot — to address a gathering of free speech advocates and alt-right protesters and proudly displaying Kekistani flags.

Before the rally, Rhodes told Hatewatch that he was bothered by the “false conflation” equating the Oath Keepers to racist organizations and that he had told white nationalist groups like Nathan Damigo’s Identity Europa that they were not welcome.

“We’re not white nationalists. We’re not racists of any kind,” Rhodes said. “And if they show up today, I am going to personally, physically remove them. Because they are trying to co-opt what we’re trying to do.”

Increasingly, though, what the Oath Keepers actually are has been a difficult question to answer. Recent years have seen the Oath Keepers align with Kim Davis, a Rowan County, Kentucky, court clerk who was jailed after refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses. In 2015, following the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, after which the Oath Keepers were criticized for providing armed security to businesses owned by primarily white people, the leader of the St. Louis Oath Keepers chapter left the group after Rhodes refused to allow the organization to sponsor a group of black protesters.

“The [Oath Keepers] leadership didn’t want black people to be armed in a protest,” Sam Andrews, the former Oath Keeper, said. “They didn’t want to see black people opposing the police. They were perfectly OK seeing white people and people of different colors pointing their rifles at federal agents at the Bundy Ranch. But you can’t have black people marching for their rights with their rifles pointed at the ground.” 

Rhodes has repeatedly denied Andrews’ claims.

In Oregon the Josephine County Oath Keepers still exist, but without Rice, who says his new organization, the Liberty Watch of Josephine County, is dedicated to community service and emergency preparedness. The group is part of the Coalition of American Patriots, which includes various antigovernment groups and outlets such as Outpost of Freedom, a blog run by Gary Hunt, who was arrested earlier after publishing names of purported FBI informants inside the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation in neighboring Malheur County.

One thing is for certain, it is not the Oath Keepers.

“Oath Keepers in concept is a good organization. When you’re talking about those people who took their oath to uphold and defend the Constitution, it’s important,” Rice said. “But what we’ve watched, there was a philosophy in leadership that was vastly different.”

That philosophy seems to increasingly be the personal politics of Stewart Rhodes.

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