On a flyer of FBI suspects in Wednesday’s attack on the Capitol building is a photo of a man shouting in a cap with a yellow badge. Although the FBI does not name him, his identity is no mystery: He is Jon Schaffer, guitarist of Ice Earth, according to the metal group, who condemned his alleged actions on Capitol Hill.
But more striking than the appearance of a semi-famous musician at the Capitol Putsch was the hat he wore. The baseball cap bore the logo of the Oath Keepers, a paramilitary group that hides in patriotic rhetoric and openly recruits law enforcement. In connection with politicians and police, the Oath Keepers spent the months leading up to the January 6 riot promoting civil war.
And unlike other far-right groups like the Proud Boys, they often manage to avoid outright condemnation from the authorities.
Schaffer, 52, is wanted by the FBI and could not be reached as to whether he is an official member of Oath Keepers. It is also unclear whether other members of the group entered the Capitol.
Their leadership, however, was spotted on the Capitol grounds during the attack, and video footage, social media posts, and arms calls on their website suggest they were instrumental in support for the rally that preceded the riot. Footage from the rally showed armored men wearing Oath Keepers crests walking in a line along the Capitol steps, through a crowd that stood largely still before the attack.
Even before the election, the founder of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, threatened armed action. Ahead of Election Day on November 3, Rhodes took to the conspiratorial news network Infowars to preemptively accuse Democrats of electoral fraud and threaten to deploy members of his group to polling stations. (Neither Rhodes nor any spokesperson for the organization could be reached for comment.)
When Trump lost, Rhodes returned to the far-right airwaves, calling on Trump to cancel the election or risk the Oath Keepers engaging in a “bloody fight” against the left on Trump’s behalf.
These calls would be worrying for any group of armed militants. But the Oath Keepers pride themselves on equipping their ranks with former law enforcement and military personnel. In some cases, these members include current law enforcement.
“Especially with elected law enforcement officials, especially sheriffs, they say they have positive relationships with a lot of them,” Sam Jackson, author of a new book on the Oath Keepers, told The Daily Beast. group.
A recent Politico investigation, for example, revealed a county in Texas in which a constable, justice of the peace and county commissioner were all suspected or open to Oath Keepers. The Oath Keepers website aggressively marketed these law enforcement ties, keeping a log of so-called “Oath Keepers in the ranks.” The page claimed the organization infiltrated the Chicago Police Department, National Guard, various Navy SEAL teams, etc.
Official or unofficial, the organization has been deployed to sites of unrest for years, acting as an unauthorized police force while keeping “guard” during the racial justice protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015 The group reprized the role in September, standing against Black Lives Matter protesters protesting the murder of Breonna Taylor by police in Louisville, Kentucky.
Meanwhile, several cops (including at least two in Seattle, one in Philadelphia, and a Kentucky State Soldier) and military personnel (including an Army Psychological Operations officer) are currently under investigation for their alleged involvement in riot. Their peers inside the Capitol are also coming under scrutiny, after videos appeared to show Capitol policemen walking out of the way of rioters or posing with them in selfies. “About 10 to 15” Capitol Hill officers are currently under investigation for their conduct during the attack, and several have been suspended, officials announced Monday. (A Capitol policeman was killed by the mob.)
Links with politicians at the state level strengthen the public image of the Oath Keepers. Matt Shea, a far-right Washington state lawmaker who his colleagues have previously accused of “domestic terrorism,” reportedly snuggled up with Oath Keepers, including for dinner with Rhodes. (Shea’s last day in office was Monday.) The night before the January 6 riot, Rhodes appeared on a Facebook Live video with Amanda Chase, a Virginia state senator. In the video, Rhodes (who along with the Oath Keepers is banned from Facebook) promoted the event that would kill five people the next day. A spokesperson for Chase did not return a request for comment on the events at Capitol Hill.
Other far-right paramilitary organizations have sought support from law enforcement and officials adjacent to the government. The Proud Boys, an ultranationalist street fighting gang, previously recruited cops, fielded failed political candidates, and boasted of their close ties to GOP agent Roger Stone. But Proud Boy’s law enforcement affiliates often lose their jobs, and when Donald Trump appeared to promote the group in a presidential debate last year, he was then forced to disown them.
Oathkeepers have a more comfortable relationship with power.
“They position themselves rhetorically and ideologically in a way that makes specific conviction less likely,” Jackson noted. “They invoke symbols in rhetoric, in their web presence, in their clothing, which creates a very superficial bond between the Oath Keepers and people who are almost universally regarded as patriots and good people in the United States. “
Despite all their political nudging, however, the group was also performing in front of a more overtly extremist crowd as the attack on Capitol Hill approached. Rhodes and other Oath Keepers attended several trial rallies in Washington, which escalated into violence.
At one such rally, the “Million MAGA March” on November 14, Oath Keepers rallied for Donald Trump alongside Proud Boys, who fought with anti-fascists. Ahead of a December 12 rally, which Proud Boys billed as a rematch, Oath Keepers announced the presence of more armed supporters to defend the far-right crowd. In the call for volunteers, Rhodes explicitly cited the group’s reputation for recruiting cops.
“Left-wing terrorists know our police are armed, and they don’t know which of the Oath Keepers they’re looking at are police,” Rhodes wrote. “We always mix our police with our soldiers.”
At the December 12 rally, Rhodes took the stage to threaten bloodshed in the streets if Trump did not invoke the insurgency law to overturn the election.
“He needs to know from you that you are with him, [and] that if he doesn’t do it now while he is Commander-in-Chief, we’ll have to do it ourselves later in a much more desperate, much bloodier war, ”Rhodes told the audience. “Let’s go now – while he’s still the Commander-in-Chief.”
This pro-Trump rally was hosted by Ali Alexander, the same GOP agent as the January 6 rally, and hosted many of the same attendees. Online, the Oath Keepers were actively researching these links.
In repeated posts on their official website, the Oath Keepers promoted the January 6 rally as a last-ditch effort to reverse Trump’s election. The group has presented itself as a security force against anti-fascists, who they say “attack the weak, the old, the disabled or families – like the hyenas they are.”
Along with these threats, there was a call to organize with other militant groups.
“We welcome coordination with other Patriot groups,” the Oath Keepers wrote in a Jan. 4 call for support. “We have worked side by side with many other Patriot groups and veterans organizations. If you are the team leader of a group that will be in Washington to help protect the Patriots and would like to coordinate with us, please send us an email. “
“Put ‘Patriot Security Team Leader’ in the subject line so we know it’s a post from another group,” the call added. “We’ll put you in touch with our DC operations managers.”
But during all of its months of campaigning to mobilize on January 6, the Oath Keepers fell visibly silent after the deadly attack. The only subsequent update to the group’s website was a blog post complaining about Trump’s Twitter ban, the most important in a series of new steps tech companies have taken to push some violent right-wing extremists. outside of their platforms.
On Monday evening, the Oath Keepers website went offline entirely. We did not know if the group or its host had disconnected the plug.
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