Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes taught his own brand of government class at a Wichita Falls Tea Party meeting Thursday night.
It was about politics, preparedness, and how to get Democrats — and everybody — to participate. And there’s homework.
Rhodes used a white board and question-and-answer style to explain his two-pronged proposal.
“I want to make it very clear to you my goal here is not to get you to join Oath Keepers,” Rhodes said. “My actual goal is to share what I know about how to organize and strengthen your community.”
He said he uses a Founding Fathers model also based on his experience “of trying to advise groups to get their s*** squared away, pardon my language.”
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Rhodes told audience members to start a nonpolitical group, possibly called the Wichita County Volunteers, and a sister political group, perhaps dubbed Concerned Citizens of Wichita County.
The Wichita County Volunteers should be inclusive.
“It should be everybody who lives here,” he said. “The only people you should exclude are people that want to overthrow the U.S. Constitution.”
He said communists, neo-Nazis and white supremacists fall in that category.
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Who are the Oath Keepers?
Rhodes’ students were a rapt audience who came to hear from the man who founded the armed group in 2009.
He said Oath Keepers functions solely as a deterrent against trouble.
Visibly armed members have shown up at former President Donald Trump’s rallies, natural disasters, a standoff between rancher Cliven Bundy and federal agents from the Bureau of Land Management, and other situations either highly charged or with the potential.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, the Antidefamation League and others monitoring extremist groups warn the Oath Keepers are a radical, antigovernment organization claiming to defend the Constitution.
Rhodes rejects those terms for Oath Keepers, as well as “militia” and “vigilante.”
“A vigilante takes the law in his own hands,” he said during an interview ahead of Thursday’s meeting. “We provide volunteer security.”
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For instance, Oath Keepers provided security after Hurricane Harvey at the request of the owner of a warehouse storing disaster-response supplies, Rhodes said.
The warehouse was in a crime-ridden area where black and Hispanic gangs were battling each other, he said.
“All we did is just protect it, same as you would get if you contracted with a retired security force,” Rhodes said.
He said Oath Keepers is made up mostly of retired and current military members and law-enforcement officers, as well as some civil service workers and politicians.
The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the organization as “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. today.”
The group’s founder graduated from Yale Law School and is a former Army paratrooper. He is from Montana but lives in Texas now and has a “We the People” tattoo on one forearm.
He wears an eye patch because of a injury suffered in a firearms accident and contended the nation was descending into Civil War in the violence ahead of the last presidential election, according to an investigative article in The Atlantic.
In any case, Rhodes knows how to engage an audience.
“The best thing would be if your sheriff started a posse,” he said as the meeting continued into the evening.
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Thursday night, the audience included Wichita Falls City Council member Steve Jackson, businessman and Navy veteran Steve Cooper — who can loosely be referred to as the local Oath Keeper organizer, a family practice physician, a Texas GOP operative whose area includes Wichita County, and a man who identified himself as another group’s leader.
Just after the Pledge of Allegiance, Rhodes asked if anyone else wanted to say something.
A man loomed up out of the audience, a black bandana obscuring most of his face.
“I run the state of Texas for the AP Three Percent,” he said. “I run all training, everything that happens within this group.”
The American Patriot Three Percent is identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as part of the radical, antigovernment movement.
The man in the bandanna later specified he would answer audience members’ questions privately after the meeting, but he wouldn’t identify himself or reveal his group’s plans for the area.
“I usually don’t dip my hand in politics, but unfortunately the government here has infringed upon constitutional rights. So we will not stand for that. We have made some plans that have already been released somehow, so we have backed up our plans further,” he said.
“I’m not going to release the date or what’s going to happen,” the man said. “But we basically are going to make a change in this government in Wichita Falls.”
He said his organization has been labeled a terrorist organization, which happens to groups like the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers.
Friday morning, Cooper said he and Rhodes think the unidentified man was an “antifa plant” and don’t know who he is.
Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes’ advice
Thursday evening, Rhodes outlined proposals for Wichita County to organize two separate groups.
“It would be the same people wearing different hats,” he said.
One group would reform the political scene, possibly to the liking of a mix of mostly Republicans, a few independents and Libertarians, and one constitutional conservative who identified themselves among upwards of 35 people at Thursday’s event.
Rhodes is a Libertarian and volunteered to work on former Congressman Ron Paul’s presidential campaign in 2008.
He suggested Wichita County Volunteers would become a sort of combination disaster-preparedness and neighborhood watch group — no politics involved.
“One way to win hearts and minds, forget about politics,” he said. “When I’m doing disaster relief, I don’t ask anybody what political party they belong to before I give them food or medicine or protect them from looters.”
Rhodes added: “Most people don’t give a damn about politics when the real world slaps them in the face.”
The group should be geared to back up professional first responders, and members can train in firearms, medical and ham radio skills.
Rhodes said the group would have all the elements of the militia system and be the next best thing to a militia.
He advised starting at the neighborhood level and being as friendly as possible, he said. No need to talk politics or a worst case scenario you envision like economic collapse.
“In the end, you should either be under the command of your sheriff as the posse or you should elect your own officers for anything you’re doing,” Rhodes said.
But the Wichita County Volunteers should never go away in case a different sheriff who doesn’t want a posse comes on the scene, Rhodes said.
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Oath Keepers accused in Jan. 6 Capitol riot
The FBI contends 16 members of the Oath Keepers conspired at the Jan. 6 insurrection to keep Congress from certifying election results.
The day before the Tea Party meeting, Oath Keepers member Graydon Young of Florida pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy and obstruction.
Oath Keepers going into the Capitol Jan. 6 was not part of any plan of his, Rhodes said in an interview.
“I didn’t even know they did it until afterwards,” he said. “That was not why we were there.”
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Oath Keepers members were in Washington, D.C., to provide volunteer protection for officials and events, he said.
“Some of our guys got caught up and went inside the Capitol, which I think was a massive mistake, but I don’t think there was any conspiracy on their part to do that,” Rhodes said.
Nearly 500 people have been charged as a result of the FBI investigation into the Jan. 6 riot.
“What’s happening now is a persecution campaign against political dissidents,” Rhodes said.
He said he doesn’t condone what people did, but most don’t deserve 20 years in prison for it.
And he believes Young was coerced into a plea bargain, fearing life in prison if he didn’t plead guilty, Rhodes said.
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What’s next for Oath Keepers and Wichita Falls?
Before Rhodes arrived for the Tea Party meeting, Cooper asked the audience if anyone had heard of the Oath Keepers.
“Yes, and it wasn’t good,” a woman said.
Cooper said Oath Keepers’ primary function in the community is to be a force multiplier for law enforcement.
“We are not a militia,” he said. “We are a citizens armed group. That’s it. I don’t like the term militia. It’s a negative connotation.”
Cooper said so far no property protected by the Oath Keepers has been damaged, without a single shot fired.
The group relies on intimidation.
“You’ve got your Bic lighter and your bottle of gasoline, and you walk up and you see all these guys with body armor and rifles. You go, I won’t go burn that one down,” Cooper said.
As Rhodes was wrapping up, Jackson took center stage to air grievances against Wichita Falls Mayor Stephen Santellana, City Manager Darron Leiker and others. He also complained about certain city measures enacted after he was elected.
“I’m sorry. I’m getting emotional, but I’m sick of it,” Jackson said. “If we don’t take a stand right now in our own towns, we’re going to lose this country if we ain’t already lost it.”
Friday, Cooper discussed next steps in light of Rhodes’ talk.
“I think what we’re going to try to do is run the political side through the Tea Party,” he said.
Organizers also plan to create a nonpolitical volunteer group.
“We’re not going to really form the Oath Keepers here, per se, not yet,” Cooper said.
Trish Choate, enterprise watchdog reporter for the Times Record News, covers education, courts, breaking news, politics and more. Contact Trish with news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her Twitter handle is @Trishapedia.
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