Four white men carrying military-style rifles and sidearms added a disquieting element to riot-torn Ferguson, Missouri, when they began patrolling the streets before dawn yesterday, which police quickly labelled “inflammatory.”
The men said they were part of a group called “Oath Keepers”, which describes itself as a non-partisan association of current and former US soldiers, police and first responders who aim to protect the US Constitution. They told reporters on the street that they were in Ferguson to protect a media organisation.
The men attracted immediate attention in the mostly black neighbourhood, which exploded into violence on Sunday night as protesters marked the one-year anniversary of the killing of an unarmed black teen by police.
The Southern Poverty Law Centre, a non-profit civil rights organisation, has described the “Oath Keepers” as a “fiercely anti-government, militaristic group,” and St Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar condemned their appearance in Ferguson.
“Their presence was both unnecessary and inflammatory,” he said, adding that police would work with county prosecutors to see if the men had broken any laws. The men told reporters they were licensed to carry firearms. A voter-backed 2014 amendment to the state constitution cleared the way for open carrying of licensed firearms, so long as they are not used in a threatening manner, legal experts said.
“There is no exception for a state of emergency for these laws not to apply,” said Marcia McCormick, a professor of law at St Louis University Law School. State law prohibits brandishing a weapon in an “angry or threatening manner,” McCormick said.
“Clearly the people who are carrying these weapons are trying to send a message that some might see as threatening but it’s probably not a violation of the statute,” McCormick said.
Many in the crowd questioned the wisdom of openly carrying such heavy weapons into an emotionally charged situation. “You’re going to bring some uncommissioned citizens, white citizens, into a black community like this? It’s disrespectful,” said Talal Ahmad, 30, who is black and was a fixture at last year’s protests. “Here, in a black neighbourhood, we’re already living in a state of terror,” Ahmad said.
The group, led by a man identified only as John, wore bulletproof vests and carried their rifles with barrels pointed downward. They said they were in Ferguson to protect a journalist from the conservative “Infowars.com” website. “There were problems here, there were people who got hurt. We needed to be prepared for that,” said John. An Infowars representative acknowledged by telephone that the Oath Keeper’s had a presence in Ferguson but said it had not asked them for security.
Meanwhile, police said yesterday that 22 people had been arrested overnight in Ferguson and another 63 were arrested for trying to block a highway. On Monday, 57 people were arrested for passing barricades that blocked a federal court in St Louis.
A state of emergency declared on Monday was still in effect for the Ferguson area. After former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot Brown a year ago in the city, where the population is predominantly black, a US Justice Department investigation found systemic racial bias among Ferguson officials. A grand jury cleared Wilson of any wrong doing in the incident.
Brown’s death prompted greater scrutiny of racial bias within the US criminal justice system. It also gave rise to the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which gained momentum after unarmed black men were killed by police in New York, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati.
Michael Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr, said on Facebook that the peaceful weekend protests were “meaningful, inspiring and successful … With your support, we properly honoured your friend and my son’s memory.”
Police braced for more protests in Ferguson while some residents expressed frustration over what they see as a persistent cycle of violence and bias. Ferguson resident Roberta Lynch, 51, who was among demonstrators on Monday, said relations between police and the community had hardly improved over the past year. “They are doing the same old stuff, taking our rights,” Lynch said. “They need to give us our space.”