Since its founding, the antigovernment group Oath Keepers has steeped itself in conspiracy theories and trained for a revolution against the state.
Members’ involvement in the Capitol insurrection was the latest example in a long history of the group bucking government authority.
The Oath Keepers, who derive their name from the Constitution, vowing to protect the U.S. from all enemies foreign and domestic, took part in an insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Motivated by Trump’s rhetoric and buoyed by the QAnon conspiracy theory, the group parroted false claims that Democrats stole the 2020 election from former President Donald Trump. In D.C., they collaborated with a violent mob who broke into the Capitol building, intent on stopping the certification of the election. Five people died as a result of the attack.
Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, in tandem with Alex Jones and Owen Shroyer of Infowars, called on Americans to go to D.C. to “stand up against election theft.” On Nov. 10, Rhodes made an appearance on Infowars, where he is a regular guest, and declared that Americans should converge on D.C. the way they stormed up to the Bundy Ranch in Nevada.
The FBI later charged three individuals associated with Oath Keepers for their role in the insurrection: Jessica Marie Watkins and Donovan Ray Crowl of Champaign County, Ohio, and Thomas Caldwell of Clarke County, Virginia.
Watkins and Crowl belonged to the Ohio State Regular Militia, a subset of Oath Keepers that paid dues to the organization, according to the FBI.
Caldwell, Crowl and Watkins were indicted on charges of conspiracy, obstructing an official proceeding, destruction of government property and unlawful entry on restricted building or grounds.
According to a government's memorandum filed Feb. 11 that recommended Watkins face pre-trial detention, “Watkins joined a violent mob that overwhelmed law enforcement and destroyed government property, re-creating in modern times events not seen in this nation since the War of 1812. In this backdrop, Watkins and her co-conspirators formed a subset of the most extreme insurgents that plotted then tried to execute a sophisticated plan to forcibly stop the results of a Presidential Election from taking effect. And she did this in coordination and in concert with a virulently antigovernment militia members.”
Additional individuals wearing Oath Keepers attire were seen inside the Capitol building. Oath Keepers directed other members to wear plain clothes according to the organization’s website: “As always, while conducting security operations, we will have some of our men out in ‘grey man’ mode, without identifiable Oath Keepers gear.”
Members of the group were also spotted providing security for Roger Stone at a “Stop the Steal” protest in Washington on Jan. 5, the evening before the attack on the Capitol.
Who are the Oath Keepers?
Oath Keepers is a large, antigovernment extremist organization, which was incorporated as a domestic nonprofit in Nevada in 2009 with a number of associated state-level nonprofits. The group’s membership is open to the public, and claims to be principally military veterans, law enforcement officers and first responders. Multiple members are in local government.
Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes, also known as Elmer Stewart Rhodes, is an Army veteran and disbarred Montana lawyer. Rhodes has been accused of regularly pulling a gun out during domestic disputes with his wife.
The group has an explicit agenda of recruiting current and former military, law enforcement and first responders to their ranks. The main goal of this focused recruitment effort is to capitalize on the skills and knowledge these individuals obtained during their time of service.
The three Oath Keepers indicted for their insurrection-related activities are all veterans. Watkins served in the U.S. Army, Crowl was a former Marine and Caldwell is a retired veteran of the U.S. Navy.
The group’s name is derived from the oaths taken by military and law enforcement, and is based on following the rules and regulations of those above them in the chain of command. The Oath Keepers mission is to influence its members to obey the group’s own interpretation of the Constitution, even if it means disobeying the orders of their commanders, U.S. lawmakers or judges. The organization has published a list of 10 orders they refuse to obey, including disarming the American people or detaining them as unlawful enemy combatants.
Trump’s volunteer security detail
The organization’s role in the insurrection was the latest in a series of pro-Trump activities the group participated in during his presidency. Oath Keepers and Three Percenters organized to act as volunteer security for Trump’s inauguration in 2017, and for Trump rallies in Minnesota on Oct. 10, 2019, and in Dallas, Texas, on Oct. 17, 2019.
When Trump falsely claimed the 2020 presidential election was a fraud and he won, despite official parties to the vote count contending that he lost, Oath Keepers stood by him, parroting his false claims and making plans to fight back. “We’ll also be on the outside of D.C., armed, prepared to go in, if the president calls us up” Rhodes said during his Nov. 10 Infowars appearance.
Rhodes suggested Trump invoke the Insurrection Act during the same appearance on Infowars. He also claimed: “We have men already stationed as a nuclear option in case they attempt to remove the president illegally. We will step in and stop it.”
Oath Keepers took part in multiple “Stop the Steal” protests, which supported Trump’s claims that the election was stolen. Oath Keepers attended the Nov. 14 Million MAGA March in D.C. and provided armed security for the Nov. 21 rally in Atlanta, Georgia. Many of the same right-wing personalities and white nationalists who stormed the Capitol in Washington weeks later were present at both.
History of defying the government
Oath Keepers first came to the public’s attention on April 19, 2009, when they held a muster at Lexington Green in Massachusetts.
Five years later, on April 16, 2014, Rhodes called his members to action, requesting they come armed to the standoff at Bundy Ranch in Nevada. “This might go down in history as the first engagement of the modern American revolution,” Rhodes said.
Oath Keepers went on to Ferguson, Missouri, inserting themselves into protests that followed the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson.
Members descended upon Ferguson in December 2014. They stood armed on rooftops and the street providing unlicensed security to businesses in the area until the police threatened to arrest them.
On Aug. 11, 2015, the group showed back up in Ferguson, armed to the teeth, providing security to an Infowars reporter. “Their presence was both unnecessary and inflammatory,” St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said.
In April 2015, Oath Keepers supported the proprietors of Sugar Pine Mine in Oregon, involving themselves in a second dispute between property owners in the West and the federal Bureau of Land Management. About 700 volunteers, some openly armed, showed up, according to the Josephine County Oath Keepers.
Oath Keepers would later reach out to Rowan County, Kentucky, court clerk Kim Davis. In September 2015 the group offered Davis an Oath Keepers security detail after she was arrested for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The group claimed they could protect her from being re-arrested. Davis turned their offer down.
Oath Keepers has circulated antigovernment conspiracy theories about QAnon and so-called “globalists,” an imagined shadowy group of prominent individuals, often ascribed to be Jewish, who are working to create a one-world power that would threaten U.S. national sovereignty.
Rhodes regularly uses his Infowars platform to share his bizarre and counterfactual theories, and repeats Infowars propaganda on the Oath Keepers website. Most recently Rhodes has echoed Alex Jones allegations that a globalist Chinese alliance, which Jones calls the Chicom Globalists, is plotting to destroy the country and the world.
In October 2020, Rhodes spoke at the Red Pill Expo, a who’s who of conspiracy theorists, held in Jekyll Island, Georgia.
Recently, the Oath Keepers have promoted QAnon. “I think ‘Q’ is another way for the current administration to communicate with us directly,” wrote Nancy Oakley, a regular contributor to the Oath Keepers website. The post, which included “Q drops,” was published Oct. 10, 2018, under the header “news.”
Since its inception, the group has pointed to nonexistent government tyranny, called former President Obama a dictator, asserted that “globalists want to destroy … cultures and identities” and made claims that Oprah Winfrey, Meryl Streep, the mainstream media and the ever-vilified George Soros are some of the globalists’ most prominent perpetrators.
On June 6, 2018, the group crossed the Rubicon into full-blown conspiracy theorists. One week prior, antigovernment activist Michael Lewis Arthur Meyers found a skull in the Arizona desert, as well as other items including a stroller, a crib, brown hair dye and a tree with restraints. Meyers wrongly claimed it was a child’s skull, the tree was a “rape tree” and the items belonged to child sex traffickers. He would later claim the traffickers were associated with George Soros, Hillary Clinton and a construction company from Mexico.
Meyers and his crew stationed themselves on a lot in South Tucson, preparing for a standoff, and requested people show up to assist. Oath Keepers heeded the call.
On June 6, 2018, the group’s website published an article titled “Oath Keepers Call to Action: Operation Child Shield in Tucson, Arizona,” writing, “We need skilled LEO, military, and search and rescue volunteers to search for, locate, and secure additional suspected child sex trafficking sites in Tucson, Arizona.” The post also attempted to amplify Meyers’ “rape tree” claim.
Local and federal authorities debunked Meyers’ and the Oath Keepers’ claims.
“Based on the department’s investigation to this point, there is no indication this camp is being used for any type of criminal activity, including human trafficking,” the Tucson Police Department said in a statement to Buzzfeed News.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was equally emphatic, stating: “As part of our work investigating criminal smuggling activity on the US/Mexico border, we are familiar with this area and the homeless camps. However, we concluded there is nothing there that would validate the reporting on social media.”
The second revolutionary war may not have come about as a result of the Bundy standoff in Nevada, as Rhodes predicted, but the organization has continued to promote the idea of a present or inevitable civil war.
Rhodes made the following statement on the Oath Keepers Twitter account on Aug. 30, 2020, responding to the killing of Aaron “Jay” Danielson in Portland, Oregon:
The first shot has been fired brother. Civil war is here, right now. We’ll give Trump one last chance to declare this a Marxist insurrection & suppress it as his duty demands.
If he fails to do HIS duty, we will do OURS.
“Against all enemies, foreign and domestic”
Oath Keepers was banned from Twitter as a result of that tweet, which violated the company’s violent organizations policy.
On Dec. 14, 2020, Rhodes pleaded with Trump in an open letter to him on the Oath Keepers website:
This is your moment of destiny. Will you take your place in history as the savior of our Republic, right up there with President Washington and Lincoln? Or will you fail to act, while you still can, and leave office on January 20, 2021, leaving We the People to fight a desperate revolution/civil war against an illegitimate usurper and his Chicom puppet regime?
In a Dec. 23, 2020, follow-up to the first open letter, Rhodes wrote: “Do your duty, and do it now. Recognize you are already in a war, and you must act as a wartime president, and there is not a minute to lose.”
What comes next
On Jan. 19, Rhodes posted a “red alert” to the Oath Keepers website. It began with a conspiracy-laced rant that labeled the Biden administration as illegitimate and accused it of being a Chinse global elite puppet, intent on enslaving Americans.
Rhodes’ “red alert” shared recommendations, which he called warning orders. He suggested members be careful of false-flag events, start prepping and prepare for “an intentional power blackout” or EMP strike from “Chicom/Globalists.”
He also suggested people create county militias, and muster the militias at the state level “in a friendly ‘red’ county where you have a patriotic constitutional sheriff, county commissioners, county judge, etc.”
Rhodes claimed that the group was not calling for violence, but added a sizable caveat.
“Prepare to walk the same path as the Founding Fathers,” pronounced Rhodes, advocating for his members to condemn, resist and defy the current U.S. government.