The presence of armed members of the anti-government group Oath Keepers in Ferguson is bound to further escalate the already volatile situation there, Mark Potok, a leading researcher of US extremist groups tells DW.
Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center, is one of the leading experts on extremism in the US.
DW: According to media reports, armed members of the anti-government group Oath Keepers have been seen on the streets of Ferguson during the protests following the anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown. Can you corroborate and elaborate on that?
Mark Potok: It has been corroborated in a series of news reports and I have no doubt it's true. We have also seen the group, the Oath Keepers, writing about their presence in Ferguson. What's most remarkable is that in this instance they went there to defend a "reporter" from an organization website called Infowars. That's not a news organization at all, it is a hyper-conspiratorial website.
For those not familiar with the Oath Keepers, can you explain who they are and how they fit into the broad spectrum of anti-government groups in the US?
Oath Keepers was formed in 2009, not long after Barack Obama was elected as our first black president. It was really part of a reaction on the political right in this country. We saw an enormous number of anti-government groups pop up like mushrooms after a spring rain almost immediately after Obama was elected. The group claims that it is just a straight forward group seeking to defend the Constitution. Its name - the Oath Keepers - refers to the idea of taking an oath to defend the Constitution, which law enforcement officials and people in the military in this country do.
But in fact that is not true. The Oath Keepers is an organization absolutely steeped in ridiculous conspiracy theories. And that becomes obvious when you look at the kind of core document of the group which is called "The ten orders we will not obey." The Oath Keepers are comprised, at least according to their leadership, of current and former members of the military and law enforcement. What they say they won't do in the "Ten orders we will not obey," are things like herd Americans into concentration camps, seal off cities militarily and so on. These all relate to core conspiracy theories of the radical right in this country. These people believe by and large that the United States or secret elites really within the government are just about to impose martial law, then will take all Americans' guns away and ultimately throw anyone who resists into secretly built concentration camps. So these people are quite out there.
Back to Ferguson, which was under a state of emergency due to the anniversary of the Michael Brown shooting. Under those circumstances, is it legally possible for a group of armed and camouflaged men just to take to streets of the town?
It depends on the local law. And there they are apparently allowed to as they say to "open carry" these weapons. So while they are technically within their rights, law enforcement officials in and around Ferguson have been very rightly complaining that they are simply making a volatile situation considerably worse. The Oath Keepers who have gone to Ferguson in the last couple of days in fact are white men carrying very large weapons among crowds of people who are very largely black and who see them I presume essentially as enemies. So they are pouring fuel on a fire that is in real danger of getting out of control.
The Oath Keepers as you mentioned said they came to help bring peace and protect the police and media in Ferguson. But what do you think is their real rationale?
I think there is a pretty obviously racial component to this. They somehow have translated the idea of defending the Constitution into defending police forces and reporters or whoever else it may be against the crowds there in Ferguson who are fighting for their civil rights and who are fighting police brutality directed at black men. This is fairly typical of the Oath Keepers. They tend to inject themselves into these kinds of volatile situations and I think very largely because they are guaranteed to get press. And once again they have managed to do that.
This interview was conducted by Michael Knigge.
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