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Q&A: The Oath Keepers Are In Ohio. Why They're Unique Among Militias

People wearing Oath Keepers patches seen at a protest in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 5, 2021. [Jacquelyn Martin / AP]
People wearing Oath Keepers patches seen at a protest in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 5, 2021.

In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, the FBI arrested two central Ohio residents. Court documents describe Jessica Watkins and Donovan Crowl, both from Champaign County, as members of a militia group called the Oath Keepers.

ideastream's Matt Richmond explained what makes the group unique.

First of all, how do federal authorities tie Watkins and Crowl to this group? I assume they don’t publish membership lists.

No, they definitely don’t. It’s mainly based on photos that were taken outside and inside the Capitol. There’s a patch that many Oath Keepers wear that says the name of the group on it. And then they also have another symbol that’s a picture of a minuteman, the colonial era soldier holding a rifle, with the slogan: “Guardians of the Republic. Not on our Watch.”

Watkins identifies herself as the head of a local militia that’s called Ohio State Regulars. Court documents said that group is affiliated or there’s an overlap in membership between that group and the Oath Keepers.

Now there were lots of people at the storming of the Capitol, as well as a couple different extremist groups who were at the protest as well as inside the building on Jan. 6. What’s important about the Oath Keepers allegedly being there at the scene?

First of all, it’s estimated by the Anti-Defamation League to be the largest militia in the U.S., with about 3,000 dues-paying members. It’s not clear how many of those are from Ohio.

It’s also unique because from their founding in 2009, they’ve been focused on recruiting ex-military and law enforcement. One of the people arrested from Ohio was in the Marines. The guy who was identified (by law enforcement) as the ringleader is from Virginia and he’s ex-military.

And recently the federal government added conspiracy charges to these three members, including the two who are from Ohio. So they’re saying that these Oath Keepers actually planned beforehand to go and storm the Capitol building.

Sam Jackson, a professor at the University at Albany, wrote a book about the group last year. One thing that surprised him was the Oath Keepers don’t usually advertise their presence at events like this. So, he said he was surprised to see this group wearing the patches and being so open about being Oath Keepers.

“They would say ahead of time, ‘We encourage you to go, but please don’t wear Oath Keepers gear or clothing or logos because that will just feed this biased, liberal, mainstream media narrative that attempts to demonize us,’” Jackson said. “They were just blatant in terms of signifying some sort of affiliation with the group.”

So, you said this group attempts to recruit former or current military or law enforcement. What do we know about their representation among law enforcement in Ohio?

That’s really hard to say.

The response from law enforcement here, from the Cleveland Division of Police and Cuyahoga County’s public safety department, is that they don’t know of anyone who was involved on Jan. 6. And if they find out anyone who was, then there would be discipline.

As far as rooting out people affiliated with the Oath Keepers or other anti-government groups before an arrest, it’s not clear that anything is being done.

Does this bring up any First Amendment issues? Can a government prevent employees from joining certain groups or fire them over their membership in them?

There is case law saying that the First Amendment protection of the right to assembly and freedom of speech does have exceptions when it comes to law enforcement and the nature of that work.

And the Oath Keepers have pivoted a little.

“Under the Obama administration, one of their common themes was: We’re concerned that the federal government is going to declare martial law to violate the rights of everyday Americans,” Sam Jackson from the University at Albany said. “And by 2020 we saw them saying: President Trump, please declare martial law to violate the rights of every day Americans in order to put down this alleged insurrection against you.”

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.