On Thursday, Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the Oath Keepers, is due to be sentenced for seditious conspiracy and other crimes related to his role in the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The government has asked the judge to sentence Rhodes to 25 years. Rhodes is asking for “time served”—the roughly 16 months he was detained before trial. The delta between these requests is vast. But even more striking is that Rhodes argues “perhaps one of the most important factors” supporting his request for leniency is his founding and leadership of the Oath Keepers – the very organization whose members, alongside Rhodes, have been convicted for conspiring to use force to prevent the counting of the Electoral College ballots on January 6.
As Rhodes tells it, “If the history and character of a man is to be judged by what he creates and how that organization functions within and for the benefit of society, then it is imperative that the Court give great deference to Mr. Rhodes for the 12 years of service and dedication of the Oath Keepers, as evinced through the organizations’ [sic] history of community involvement and volunteerism in times of natural disasters and civil unrest.” The revisionist history that follows that statement is belied by the many lawless anti-government actions that have been the hallmark of the Oath Keepers over the last decade.
The Oath Keepers self-describe as “a non-partisan association of current and formerly serving military, police, and first responders … who pledge to fulfill the oath all military and police take to ‘defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic,’” while declaring that they “will not obey unconstitutional orders.” Led by Rhodes, the paramilitary organization has frequently mobilized—heavily armed—against what they apparently have deemed “unconstitutional orders.”
This includes participating in the armed standoff against federal agents in Bunkerville, Nevada in 2014 to forcibly prevent the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from removing rancher Cliven Bundy’s cattle from federal lands where they had been illegally grazing for decades. The standoff ended with federal agents backing down in the face of sniper rifles trained at their heads.
The record of the Oath Keepers also includes the armed defense of two gold miners in Oregon to whom BLM had issued notice that their mining was not an allowed use of the property. The record includes the paramilitary group’s armed defense of miners in Montana after the Forest Service raised concerns about the miners’ claim and their unapproved construction on Forest Service land. And it includes participating in the 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016 in opposition to the imprisonment of two ranchers convicted of arson for setting fire to federal lands. That standoff resulted in the death of one of the leaders of the occupation, and the Oath Keepers threatening the federal government with civil war.
But you wouldn’t know about any of this armed opposition to federal authorities by reading Rhodes’s sentencing memorandum. Instead, you’d read about the Oath Keepers participating in “humanitarian and security efforts” in Texas after Hurricane Harvey, and “providing security details and services” during civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police killing of Michael Brown. Never mind that private, unsanctioned militias have no authority to engage in law enforcement functions, or that, in Ferguson, local authorities were forced to intervene and demand that the Oath Keepers stop their operations after they began “walking the rooftops of businesses” with “semi-automatic rifles,” in violation of county ordinances.
You also wouldn’t know from Rhodes’s memorandum that in the midst of the first impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump, Rhodes used Twitter to argue that under the U.S. Constitution, “the militia (that’s us) can be called forth ‘to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.’ … “All he has to do is call us up. We WILL answer the call.” Another tweet made clear that the Oath Keepers’ “favorite rifle is the AR 15.”
Rhodes’s insurrectionist ideology wasn’t new.
In 2018, he launched a “Spartan Training Group program” to create “a pool of trained, organized volunteers who will be able to serve as the local militia under the command of a patriotic governor loyal to the Constitution, or if called upon by President Trump to serve the nation.” By early 2020, concerned that Virginia’s newly “blue” state legislature would pass gun regulations, Rhodes announced that the Oath Keepers would “deploy” to Virginia to help sheriffs “raise and train an official armed posse in each county” to resist the allegedly unconstitutional actions of the Democratic governor. (For more on the historical record, see the letter we submitted to the federal court for the purpose of sentencing.)
In light of this history, it is no surprise that Rhodes led the Oath Keepers in pre-planning and attempting an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol when their preferred candidate failed to win enough electoral votes. He should get no credit for founding the very organization that has repeatedly taken up arms against the government and threatened law enforcement authorities.