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Oath Keepers verdict hampers far-right group, but movement endures

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For a decade, the incendiary founder of Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, preached a violent revolution against the federal government with remarkable impunity that ended this week with a historic seditious conspiracy conviction for his role in the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The verdict and the lengthy prison sentence Rhodes faces could be a deathblow for one of the most visible leaders of the anti-government militia movement, extremism watchers have said, but not necessarily for the network. interstate which he founded in 2009 to recruit military and law veterans. law enforcement officers to combat federal “tyranny”. Tuesday’s seditious conspiracy conviction in Washington federal court made Rhodes the first activist not associated with Islamist extremism to be convicted of the charge in more than 30 years.

While Rhodes has long proclaimed the inevitability and necessity of violence against American authority, that message has found new resonance amid the public anger stoked by then-President Donald Trump against the government in 2020 about pandemic restrictions, social justice protests against police killings and their false and inflammatory claims of a ‘stolen’ election.

“The biggest difference with [Rhodes’s] comments in the past is that this time someone actually acted on that unspoken message that Rhodes repeated,” said Sam Jackson, specialist in extremism. Jackson’s book ‘Oath Keepers’ charts the transformation of the far-right fringe group into a national movement, grounded in the extremist belief in an absolute constitutional right not only to bear arms but also to decide which federal laws to obey .

Analysts who study armed groups say it is too early to be certain of the verdict’s effect on the broader militia movement. They said the lawsuits against Oath Keepers stemmed from a unique set of circumstances – a singular attack that exposed security flaws and prompted the public to demand a tougher government response to the violent right.

Rhodes’ main supporters “are not going to stop being extremists. They will go to other groups” or rebrand the Oath Keepers under new leadership, said Mark Pitcavage, an Anti-Defamation League extremism researcher who has tracked far-right militant groups for decades.

There could be a more chilling effect for people who want to get involved in the anti-government movement but are not far-right ideologues, extremism researchers have said. The verdict, they said, makes it clear that paramilitary movements will face legal consequences — a responsibility these groups have sometimes shied away from in unsuccessful Justice Department prosecutions.

“Beyond those who are already convinced that the 2020 election was stolen and that the US government is increasingly tyrannical and that there is a global conspiracy to destroy the ‘real’ America, this could be a signal that this group is not, in fact, made up of “patriots,” Jackson said.

After a two-month trial, a federal jury convicted Rhodes and four co-defendants tied to one of the indelible images of the Capitol attack – a column of oath keepers, dressed in military-style tactical gear, smashing through a path through the crowd to enter the building on the day lawmakers gathered to confirm Joe Biden’s election victory.

Although only Rhodes and another member of the Oath Keepers, Kelly Meggs, were convicted of seditious conspiracy, all five defendants were convicted of obstructing Congress.

Although Rhodes did not enter himself, the Justice Department showed jurors that he had purchased $20,000 worth of firearms and related equipment in previous days, conspired to stockpile an ‘arsenal’ arms at nearby hotels with co-defendants who have entered and mobilized followers over weeks of public and private communications to be ready to take up arms at his direction to prevent Biden from taking office.

“He really crossed a big line that in the past he seemed to have the good sense to know not to cross,” Pitcavage said, “and he got nailed for it, and nailed for it in a very important.”

Some who know Rhodes personally have expressed surprise that he has crossed the line between constitutionally protected speech and illegal action after years of caution. But others say it was a matter of time.

“I kind of fired Stewart after I left things [in 2018] and I didn’t think it would go much further, and I think the feds probably felt the same way,” former Oath Keepers spokesman Jason Van Tatenhove said in an interview.

After high-profile clashes, including joining rancher Cliven Bundy’s gunfight against the Nevada government in 2014, Rhodes tied the Oath Keepers’ fortunes to Trump in 2016, joining other anti-government leaders who suspended the traditional distrust of federal powers while “their guy” was in office. Armed oath keepers have been dispatched to polling places, social justice protests and pro-Trump rallies.

After the 2020 election, Rhodes, along with other conspiratorial extremists, called on Trump to mobilize the military and sympathetic militant groups to retain power by invoking the Insurrection Act. Such an invocation was discussed by Trump and those around him to quell civil unrest earlier in the year, leading to a rift with key military leaders, or to use martial law to relaunch elections.

Rhodes saw in Trump “a marriage of convenience that not only nurtured the possibility of making more money, but gave him more legitimacy and a sense of authority” as the leader of a rampaging American paramilitary movement, said Van Tatenhove. Rhodes “was like Evel Knievel. You have to find a bigger leap, you have to keep growing that audience,” said Van Tatenhove, who has spoken about the dangers of the Oath Keepers since leaving the group and testified for lawmakers investigating the Jan. 6 attack.

After years of dismay at seeing Rhodes’ anti-government organization go unpunished, its critics, including members of its family, celebrated its downfall.

“I’m so relieved,” said Tasha Adams, Rhodes’ estranged wife of more than 20 years, who, along with their children, widely publicized Rhodes’ manic conspiratorial vision and financial mismanagement, funding his divorce. after January 6. “For the first time he is facing the consequences of his own actions and, barring grace after the 2024 election, he can now fade into obscurity where he belongs.

Concretely, the organizational and mobilizing structure of the Oath Keepers no longer exists. In addition to the criminal lawsuits still pending, injured police officers, members of Congress, civil rights groups and the DC government have filed lawsuits, claiming that the group members should pay heavy damages for having caused the violence of January 6. “Fourteen of our defendants [now] have been criminally convicted,” DC Attorney General Karl A. Racine tweeted after Tuesday’s sentencing, “We look forward to continuing our case with this growing body of evidence.

Even before the high-profile lawsuits on January 6, Rhodes’ image was tarnished within the broader movement. Other far-right leaders described their apprehensions about him, saying he had been focused on saving his own skin as they took the heat from the anti-government events he was promoting. Senior leaders have accused Rhodes of using the group’s coffers as a piggy bank for his steak dinners and personal shopping, while chapters of the decentralized movement have broken away, in some cases publicly cutting ties with him.

The Rhodes trial itself revealed a group torn by infighting and schism, and dogged by a pervasive fear of FBI infiltration. Testifying for the government, the ex-Oath Keepers said they quit because of increasingly ‘raging’ rhetoric from Rhodes, calls that sounded like the band was ‘going to war’ with the government and proposals for baiting violence with left-wing extremists. Key evidence against Rhodes included his statements steeped in violent rhetoric recorded by others which were later turned over to the FBI, and a leak during the trial revealed that an Oath Keepers board member was actually a FBI informant.

Another sign of Rhodes’ diminished status is the reaction of the militia movement to the convictions. Other anti-government activist groups, which largely stayed away from the Capitol on Jan. 6, have shared messages about the “garbage” verdict, but do not treat Rhodes as a fallen comrade.

“Many of the militia did not support the insurgency and long before it did not care about Rhodes,” said Amy Cooter, senior fellow at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism. from Middlebury University. “They in particular will continue to see him as an outlier, as not being a ‘real’ member of the movement.”

On social media forums, there was little sympathy for Rhodes personally, only outrage at what the verdict might mean for other armed groups.

Some extremist media buried news of the most serious convictions with a focus on the acquittal of some members: “Three out of five J6ers found NOT guilty of seditious conspiracy,” reads one headline, using the shorthand of the charged on January 6. Others continued to push a “false flag” narrative of the FBI’s involvement in fomenting the attack.

The political utility of the Oath Keepers to the movement now is to fuel the broader right-wing outrage machine representation of a Biden administration crackdown on conservative, gun-owning “patriots.” fire, analysts said.

“Given our general political background, there will be a lot of people who will see him as a martyr, as someone who is being punished for defending himself with justice against a stolen election,” Cooter said. “They will likely point to Rhodes’ conviction and eventual conviction alongside several other emerging events as ‘evidence’ that they need to be even more aggressive in their opposition to a Democratic victory in 2024.”

Since the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, federal authorities have faced mounting public pressure to more aggressively prosecute white supremacist and anti-government militant groups, and many extremist groups have been downgraded in 2020.

Pitcavage said he was initially skeptical that federal prosecutors could mount a convincing seditious conspiracy case, but said his views changed during Rhodes’ trial as prosecutors presented extraordinarily evidence. detailed and overwhelming.

“I’d like to think they learned” from past failures, Pitcavage said. “They really crossed their Ts and dotted their Is and really tried to help the jury understand – and that’s something they’ve sometimes failed to do in the past.”

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