But they’re not the cops

Trigger Warning: anti-Black racism, gun violence, police violence, anti-protester violence, anti-labor violence

On the one year anniversary of the death of soon-to-be college student Michael Brown in Ferguson by police officer Darren Wilson happening this past Sunday, the tensions in the small Saint Louis suburb erupted once again. Notably, this time the presence of the Oath Keepers, a militant organization created after Obama’s 2008 election, was a strange third party not fully aligned with the interests of either the disproportionately White police force (and their supporters) or the predominantly Black population. This little-known group has become an increasingly visible presence in the town, made only flashier by their many and prominently displayed weapons.

oath keepers fergusonAn Oath Keeper member, gun in hand, atop a roof in downtown Ferguson, from here.

Founded to enforce (their interpretation of) constitutional law against the presumed threats to it by the country’s first Black president, the Oath Keepers themselves are an overwhelmingly White group of mainly former service members, but also many active duty ones, as well as police and other first responders. Even in only the immediate circumstances, they arrived in Ferguson’s predominantly Black neighborhoods as an obviously outside force, armed to the teeth. From their initial reasons for organizing, to their status as heavily armed White people patrolling Black neighborhoods, they clearly have their commonalities with those that many Black residents of Ferguson and many other parts of the United States live in a near constant state of fear from.

In fact, in recent publications, the Oath Keepers Movement admits that their involvement in Ferguson began in something like coordination with the police – where they “protected some businesses” from “rioters and looters” that the police allegedly weren’t keeping safe. That same announcement from a Missouri-based group of Oath Keepers criticizes the police from that angle, saying that they are violating the constitutional rights of people to seemingly defend their businesses and selves from alluded to alleged lawlessness going so far as to call it “criminal endangerment”. In short, “that’s why the violence problem in Ferguson is on-going.” In essence, they have grown critical of the police in Ferguson and other areas, but not from any sense of empathy for those faced with repeated police violence against their communities. Quite the contrary, their judgment of the police is typically that they are inadequately suppressant of presumed militancy.

In spite of this, federal mainstream coverage of their increasing presence in Ferguson has implied a common cause between them and the protesters against police violence, rather than a very arbitrary moment in which their different politics aren’t diametrically opposed. This misimpression of them only shrinks the events in Ferguson to an example of police violence, free from racial dimensions that can operate in other times and in other ways. While the killing of Michael Brown was a key catalyst in the building of the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of its momentum from Brown’s death reflected the pain and sorrow in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s acquittal. Himself a self-appointed keeper of the peace in spite of having no official status or relationship with the police, Zimmerman is something of a dim reflection of the same sort of person involved with the Oath Keepers.

Black anti-racism activists appear to have recognized those commonalities and have for that reason emphasized the need to expunge anti-Black racism in all people, whether they are police, non-police who collaborate with police forces, or even those who actively seek to replace or otherwise disband current police forces. That racial dimension to the current conflict between residents and police in Ferguson is easy to erase given the largely White critical response to the police that the Oath Keepers represent, but fully understanding that is critical to responding to that faction.

The Washington Post was one of the few non-local sources which felt comfortable noting the growing relationship between the Oath Keepers and various business owners in the area, admittedly as a cheery, positive part of their presence. The ways in which that reinforces existing fears about Black violence which justified many of the recent killings of Black people by police and others isn’t part of the assessment. As long as fascism is a bit of buzzword in modern US politics, it’s important to note that this is how fascism began – as an organizational bargain between Italian and Spanish landowners and armed gangs, circumventing a state viewed as not hard-hitting enough to deal with socialist and anarchist agitators.

migrant field laborers emilia region italy 1930sMigrant field workers in 1930s Italy, from here.

Scott Walker may be the quieter Donald Trump and consequently have his extremist positions overlooked, but the Oath Keepers, decked out in guns, are just as bombastic as Trump. But their contextual dissatisfaction with the police and momentary media spotlight have coincided, seemingly obscuring the nature of their politics. As fascism has been watered down to simply imply a constrained, dictatorial politics, those who very closely embody a revival of it have been able to escape being critically connected to it as long as their ideologies are framed through freedom and liberty. Make no mistake, however, what’s beginning in Ferguson is a historied relationship that we have a word to describe.

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