An Ungoverned Militia

I’m not black. I’m not protesting, except in this blog. But I am afraid of what’s happening in Ferguson. Missouri and elsewhere. In a politically polarized country, it is vital that the criminal justice system – from cops to the highest court – protect the civil rights of citizens. And respect all the amendments, not just the second.

Recent news from the front is disquieting. A year ago in Ferguson there was understandable anger, peaceful protest and criminal riot and looting, but also police misconduct. Over a dozen news people from reputable outlets including Canadian broadcasting, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch were targeted with pepper spray to keep them from photographing police actions, punched, handcuffed, detained, searched and otherwise hassled and intimidated.

Now a year later with new protests on the streets of Ferguson, prosecutors have brought charges just ahead of the statute of limitations on several of the journalists for trespassing and interfering with an officer. The reporters say they were simply asking questions of the police, trying to find out why they were being commanded to vacate a restaurant, and attempting to do their job.

There’s no question that journalists trying to cover a story can be pushy and seek to get close to the events they cover. It is rare to attempt to jail them for their efforts – in this country at least. It’s the sort of thing we usually condemn if China, Russia or Iran does it. And the timing in this case looks suspiciously like a warning to journalists covering the latest unrest in Ferguson to back off or else.

The contrast between the hostility and intimidation displayed by the police toward peaceful demonstrators and journalists covering them and their lack of interest in other visitors to the Ferguson march in is also troubling. It was attended by members of the Oath Keepers, a fringe-right paramilitary, patriot group made up of present or former police, military, National Guard and first responders.

They prowled the Ferguson streets wearing camouflage outfits, flak jackets and armed with sidearms and semi-automatic weapons. While prosecutors were charging reporters and police were harassing them, the Oath Keeper troops were chatting with the officers on duty and pushing through black marchers, inviting push back.

The Oath Takers claim to be upholding the oath they swore — to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. To that end they vow not to obey any orders they deem unconstitutional. Among these are orders to disarm the American people, to conduct warrantless searches, to detain American citizens as “unlawful enemy combatants,” to impose martial law unless ordered by a state legislature, to blockade American cities, to put Americans in detention camps and to invade or subjugate any state that asserts its sovereignty.

As that list suggests, the Oath Keepers are states’ rights zealots more aligned with the philosophy of the Confederacy than with the United States that has evolved in the last 150 years. They fear the usual right wing bogey men popular with talk radio loons like Glenn Beck, including conspiracies to impose one world government, overthrow the Constitution under the direction of a dictatorial Kenyan president, take the guns of patriots and put them in concentration camps.

Oath Keepers say they got the idea for their organization by realizing that if the military and police had stood up to Hitler, he never would have gained power. Yet they actually bear a creepy resemblance not to freedom fighters but to the Storm Troopers who helped the Fuhrer rise by making the streets unsafe for opponents. In addition to their appearance in Ferguson, the Oath Takers have joined several standoffs in the West, intimidating Bureau of Land Management personnel trying to enforce laws against persons illegally grazing or mining on federal land.

The Oath Keepers are entitled to their views, but they are not entitled to have them recognized as legitimate by others. And they are not entitled to substitute their notions, at gunpoint, for those of the police and the prosecutors and the judges and the government of the United States. Yet in Ferguson, Missouri they were allowed to wander the streets armed to the teeth with nothing to fear from police or courts. At least one St. Louis cop turned up on YouTube addressing an Oath Keeper meeting and endorsing their views.

By contrast unarmed protesters, black citizens minding their own business and journalists doing their jobs have been subjected to police intimidation, grievous bodily harm, arrests, fines, detention and prosecution on trumped up charges. If the Oath Keepers really want to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution they are marching with the wrong crowd in Ferguson.

The most alarming part of this story is not that a group of zealots has a fringe notion, but that the police and armed forces we all rely on to protect our liberty may actually be infiltrated by a subversive force with its own racial, political and legal agenda. In that case, no one will be safe. I realize that can sound pretty crazy, but the governor of Texas recently put the state’s Guard on alert to make sure a U.S. military exercise in the state wasn’t, as rumored by conspiracy theorists, the beginning of the dictatorial takeover by Obama.

Elected officials in several states have begun speaking approvingly of secession. Others have proposed not enforcing rulings by the Supreme Court they don’t like. The Oath Keeper fringe may believe six impossible things before breakfast, but if enough people start acting on such delusions, we may all find ourselves in Wonderland. These people are armed, alarmed and dangerous.

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