On January 6, Jess Watkins, an alleged member of the anti-government militia movement the Oath Keepers and a former Army ranger, can be heard from the Capitol talking over Zello, a popular walkie talkie-like app, to her fellow insurrectionists and MAGA sympathizers. “Police are doing nothing,” Watkins says as Trump supporters storm the Capitol. “They’re not even trying to stop us at this point.”
From a known number of active-duty law enforcement officers who participated in the deadly insurrection, to images of Capitol police taking selfies with insurrectionists, to a recent report that Capitol police were told to stand down and avoid using crowd-controlling tactics against a violent mob, it’s no secret that past and currently serving members of the military and law enforcement have supported — or are actively engaged with — organizations like the Oath Keepers.
In a recent interview with 60 Minutes, a leader of the Oath Keepers gave a chilling account of just how much help the group alleges they are getting from active-duty police officers.
“Our guys are very experienced. We have active-duty law enforcement in our organization that are helping to train us,” Jim Arroyo, vice president of the country's largest Oath Keepers chapter in Arizona, told 60 Minutes’ Sharyn Alfonsi. “We can blend in with our law enforcement and, in fact, in a lot of cases, our training is much more advanced because of our military backgrounds.” Law enforcement officials have not confirmed that they are working with the Oath Keepers or any other vigilante conspiracy groups. Refinery29 reached out to Arizona police for comment, but they did not respond by time of publication.
As of now, more than 400 people have been charged with federal crimes in connection with the January 6 insurrection, according to 60 Minutes. Of those 400, 13 are believed to be associated with the Oath Keepers — a well-armed conspiracy group that believes in an impending — if not already occurring — civil war. When Alfonsi asked Arizona Oath Keepers members if they truly believed they were living in the middle of a domestic battle, Cathy York responded: “I think that we are. You’ve got good versus evil right now going on in our country.”
Still, some of the Oath Keepers interviewed tried to argue that some of those who stormed the Capitol wearing Oath Keepers emblems were actually imposters trying to sully the organization’s reputation.
“Some of those people with Oath Keepers could have been BLM. They could have been,” York said. “It could have been a false flag as far as I’m concerned,” Mike Rice, also a member, chimed in. “They’re stupid people. It’s stupid,” York added. “We don’t do that. That’s not Oath Keepers.”
Arroyo shared similar sentiments with 60 Minutes, telling Alfonsi: “That goes against everything we’ve ever taught, everything we believe in. It was pre-planned. It was pre-staged. Ten guys go and do something stupid and suddenly, we’re the devil.”
But what took place that day — the reports of fully-armed insurrectionists carrying zip ties, wearing tactical gear, and moving as a coordinated, well-trained unit — is exactly in keeping with the Oath Keepers’ ethos.
The group was founded in 2009 by Stewart Rhodes in response to the election of President Barack Obama. A key component of its ideology, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, is “that its members vow to forever support the oaths they took on joining law enforcement or the military to defend the Constitution.” Currently, it's believed that more than 30,000 people consider themselves Oath Keepers, most of whom claim to be current or former military, law enforcement, or emergency first responders.
When they're not taking part in an attempt to overthrow the government and subvert fair and free elections, Oath Keepers spend their time training and traveling to local or out-of-state Black Lives Matter protests, usually under the guise of “protecting property.” During his 60 Minutes interview, Arroyo claimed armed Oath Keepers coordinated with local Arizona law enforcement during a September 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstration to “keep the peace.” The same sheriff’s department told 60 Minutes they “didn’t ask for their help.”
After 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse traveled to an out-of-state Black Lives Matter protest and shot and killed two people, injuring a third, the Oath Keepers’ Twitter account hailed Rittenhouse as “a hero, a patriot” while Rhodes labeled protestors as “well-funded Marxist and racist agitators,'' as reported by The Washington Post. Both Rhodes' and the organization's Twitter accounts were suspended in September 2020 after predicting “open warfare” in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, per the same report.
At least one Oath Keeper has pled guilty in the wake of the Capitol insurrection and agreed to cooperate with an ongoing investigation — which may lead to charges against Rhodes and the organization, according to 60 Minutes.
As the country continues to grapple with the near-constant police killings of Black and brown people, it remains to be seen what will come of these growing threats of domestic terrorism.