Members of the militia-like group Oath Keepers came to Ferguson, Missouri, Monday night during protests one year after the death of Michael Brown.
The heavily armed white men added to the unease and raised many questions in the St. Louis-area city as police in tactical gear faced off against protesters.
“There were problems here, there were people who got hurt. We needed to be prepared for that,” one of the Oath Keepers told Reuters. He said that Missouri law generally allows for the open carry of rifles like those the men were armed with.
Here’s what you need to know about the Oath Keepers:
1. The Oath Keepers Were Founded in 2004 by a Yale Law School Graduate & Former U.S. Army Paratrooper
Stewart Rhodes, a former U.S. Army paratrooper and a Yale Law School graduate who once worked for Congressman Ron Paul, founded the Oath Keepers group in 2004 to protect the U.S. Constitution against enemies “foreign and domestic,” according to the organization’s website.
The group is made up of former military and law enforcement personnel.
“Go armed, at all times, as free men and women, and be ready to do sudden battle, anywhere, anytime, and with utter recklessness,” Rhodes says on the Oath Keepers’ website. “That IS the price of freedom.”
2. They Said They Were There to Protect Innocents in a ‘War Zone’
The Oath Keepers told protesters and media members in Ferguson that they were there to protect the innocent in what they called a war zone.
The group’s website shows that they “will NOT obey orders to impose martial law or a ‘state of emergency’ on a state.” The Oath Keepers also state, “We will NOT obey any orders which infringe on the right of the people to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.”
A state of emergency was declared by the county on Monday after Sunday night’s protests.
3. Police Called Their Presence ‘Unnecessary’ & ‘Inflammatory’
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, who is in charge of policing in Ferguson during the protests, said the Oath Keepers’ presence was “unnecessary” and inflammatory,” according to CBS News.
Belmar said police will investigate whether the men broke any laws.
The Oath Keepers also faced criticism from protesters and other local leaders, who said there would have been a different reaction if they were black.
“If there were black and brown people in this country who showed up in the streets open carrying assault rifles in paramilitary garb, would they still be received the same way?” Patricia Bynes, a committeewoman in Ferguson who was at the protests, told NBC News. “It seems to be that especially when it comes to the Second Amendment there seems to be a different way that it is enforced.”
“You’re going to bring some uncommissioned citizens, white citizens, into a black community like this? It’s disrespectful,” Talal Ahmad, 30, told Reuters. “Here, in a black neighborhood, we’re already living in a state of terror.”
4. They Provided Security to Businesses During Protests in Ferguson Last Year
The Oath Keepers were in Ferguson last November during protests over the decision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson. The armed men posted themselves on rooftops and told local businesses they would provide protection from looters and arsonists.
Police eventually asked the group to not be on the rooftops, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
5. Ferguson Remains in a State of Emergency Declared by the County With More Protests Expected
Ferguson remains under a state of emergency declared by the county government. More protests are expected Tuesday night.
Police made more than 100 arrests during protests on Monday, including during a midday protest at a federal courthouse, a highway shutdown during rush hour and later Monday night at a demonstration on West Florissant Avenue.
The protests in Ferguson started Sunday night after a day of peaceful marches and memorials for the 18-year-old Brown, who was fatally shot by former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014. Wilson was not charged in the shooting and later resigned.
Gunfire erupted during Sunday night’s protests, and police shot an 18-year-old former high school classmate of Brown’s. That teen, Tyrone Harris Jr., was critically injured and was later charged with 10 felonies. Police said he opened fire on the officers before he was shot.