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Oath Keepers & Future of the US Militia Movement

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The Wider Militia Movement

In November 2022, five members of the US anti-government militia group Oath Keepers were convicted of seditious conspiracy, among other charges, for their actions on January 6 (1). Whilst this conviction has brought media attention to the group, it will not dent the growing anti-government and militia movements in the US, which continue to coalesce. The network that is building between these individual groups was demonstrated by the variety of them present at the January 6 riots: the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, Qanon believers and the Three Percenters Militia Group were all present at the riot among others (2). After January 6, these groups arguably retreated from further action after the initial arrests at the Capitol, but this retreat has seen many of them concentrate once again on localized efforts that have always been the backbone of their organization and recruitment (3).

 

Whilst some expect the convictions of Steward Rhodes and Kelly Meggs to be a deterrent for future far-right action, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that it will be a successful one. If the Oath Keepers splinter, there will be other organizations for their members to join, continuing the growth of anti-government, militia-style sentiment throughout America (4). These convictions therefore serve a mostly symbolic purpose, as they don’t effectively target or investigate the wider network of US anti-government militias. 

 

The Oath Keepers at the Capitol Riots

Members of the Oath Keepers were present at the January 6 Capitol riots in Washington DC in 2021. These riots were first held as a protest against the inauguration of Joe Biden as the new president of the United States, but developed into riots with protesters breaching the Capitol building to attempt to obstruct the symbolic vote happening within as a part of ushering in the new president (5). However, the Oath Keepers did not solely attend the riots – with their leader and founder Stewart Rhodes, and fellow leader Kelly Meggs, both later convicted – instead, the prosecution argued they planned for the event.

 

The plan to attack the Capitol was presented to the jury using texts, videos and audio recordings made by Oath Keeper members, which the prosecution used to illustrate their intention to attend the January 6 riots with firearms, and to disrupt proceedings. Two members of the Oath Keepers (Rhodes and Meggs) were convicted of seditious conspiracy as well as obstruction of an official proceeding, while three other members were convicted only of obstruction of an official proceeding (6). Additionally, five members of the other anti-government militia group, the Proud Boys, are also currently on trial for felony charges related to the January 6 riots. Among these are two members on trial for seditious conspiracy charges; however, this trial has been moving slowly, delayed by various procedural matters (7).

The US Anti-government Movement

The anti-government movement in the US is best characterized as a loose collection of groups united by a view of the government as a tyrannical body that seeks to impose various extreme measures, including martial law. The Southern Poverty Law Centre’s Intelligence Project identified 488 extreme anti-government groups active in 2021, of which 92 were militias, 75 sovereign citizen groups, three constitutional sheriff believers, and 52 were conspiracist propagandists. Although the number of anti-government groups in the US peaked in the 2010s and has since declined, the conspiratorial view of government was pervasive during the Covid-19 pandemic, as shown by the popularity of the movement’s ideas about Covid-19 regulations, local school curriculums and the “Big Lie” of voter fraud, as well as broader security and various technologies like 5G phone service (3).

 

January 6 was the most public and notable event for the anti-government movement since the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. Of over 700 people charged with offenses related to January 6, 25 were members of identified anti-government groups (3). When faced with greater scrutiny after this event, many of these organizations dispersed into communities and once again focused on localized activities – these activities are not new, but a mainstay of the anti-government landscape, and a longstanding recruitment method. The Oath Keepers, the American Patriots Three Percent, 111% United Patriots, the Three Percenters/ 111%ers, and the State of Jefferson Formation all saw local chapters either disband or unaffiliate following January 6. This splintering has seen them disperse into communities where they may be able to further recruit people to their ideology.

The Future for the Oath Keepers

No matter how many people are convicted for actions related to January 6, or how justified these convictions may be according to some, they will not affect continued far-right, anti-government radicalisation throughout the US. The Covid-19 pandemic had the effect of bringing many of the militia groups together over shared ideas of government tyranny and the dangers of everything from vaccines to lockdowns. These groups also share common ground with sovereign citizen groups and believers in the ‘New World Order’ throughout other countries such as the UK, and the building of these networks is likely to grow in the future rather than diminish. The growth of Qanon, a ‘big tent’ conspiracy theory, that encompasses many far-right and antisemitic tropes, exemplifies this.

 

This growth has contributed to the development of a landscape of meta-conspiracy; through which the ideology of the Oath Keepers and other militia groups is able to thrive. Despite the deplatforming of Qanon content producers and various other far-right figures that took place after January 6, we are likely to continue to see the networks of the US anti-government movement develop further. Whilst the fate of the Oath Keepers as an organization may be in question, their membership will continue to be of political interest – whether as members of the Oath Keepers, or of similar militia organizations.

Works Cited (Chicago)

(1) - Ward, Ian. 2022. ‘The Oath Keepers Got Convicted. Now What?’. Politico. https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2022/12/02/oath-keepers-convicted-00071669 

(2) - Hill, Becs. ‘Active far-right groups in the Capitol riots’. Talking About Terrorism. https://www.talkingaboutterrorism.com/post/active-far-right-groups-in-the-capitol-riots 

 

(3) - Southern Poverty Law Center. ‘Anti-government Movement’. https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/antigovernment 

 

(4) - Bergengruen, Vera. Time. 2022. ‘The Oath Keepers’ leader was just convicted. The far-right will keep thriving.’ https://time.com/6237826/oath-keepers-seditious-conspiracy-convition/

(5) - Duignan, Brian. Encyclopedia Britannica. Last updated 2023. ‘January 6 US Capitol attack’.https://www.britannica.com/event/January-6-U-S-Capitol-attack  

 

(6) - Lynch, Sarah N. Reuters. 2022. ‘Oath Keepers found guilty of sedition in US Capitol attack plot’. https://www.reuters.com/legal/us-jury-reaches-verdict-trial-oath-keepers-militia-founder-rhodes-2022-11-29/ 

 

(7) - Owen Quinn, and Mallin, Alexander. ABC News. 2023. ‘Proud Boys Jan 6. trial moving at snail’s pace marked by heated arguments and lengthy delays’.  https://abcnews.go.com/US/proud-boys-jan-6-trial-moving-snails-pace/story?id=97422395

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