FERGUSON, Mo. – The return of an armed militia group patrolling the streets of Ferguson drew criticism Tuesday from both protesters and the county police chief overseeing security amid ongoing demonstrations marking the anniversary of 18-year-old Michael Brown’s shooting death.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said the overnight presence of the Oath Keepers, wearing camouflage bulletproof vests and openly carrying rifles and pistols on West Florissant Avenue, the hub of marches and protests for the past several days, was “both unnecessary and inflammatory.”
Belmar plans to ask county prosecutor Bob McCulloch about the legality of armed patrols by the far-right anti-government activist group, which largely comprises past and present members of the military, first responders and police officers.
But Missouri law allows anyone with a concealed carry permit to openly display a firearm anywhere in the state.
John Karriman, a representative of the group who teaches at the Missouri Southern State University police academy, said there were five armed Oath Keepers at the Monday night protests and a considerably larger number of unarmed members stationed nearby to try to help keep the peace. He said members plan to remain in Ferguson “at least through the end of the week.”
“A handful of us were visible,” Karriman, a former police officer in Joplin, Missouri who ran unsuccessfully as a Libertarian Party candidate for county sheriff in southwest Missouri.
“The rest of us are behind the scenes.”
Protest organizer Nabeehah Azeez called the presence of the armed men “a contradiction in how things work.”
“The rules don’t apply to everyone,” she said. “If those were black men walking around with rifles, they probably wouldn’t be living today.”
On Tuesday night, a handful of members returned to West Florissant, where a crowd of about 100 protesters had gathered. None appeared to be carrying long rifles, though they did have pistols.
While one Oath Keeper was being interviewed by media, several protesters gathered around and chanted loudly enough to drown him out briefly.
Belmar, who was at the protest Tuesday night, said his concern was the potential that protesters could be angered by their presence.
“At this point were too close to developing an understanding to take a step backward,” he said.
Oath Keepers previously showed up in Ferguson in November after a grand jury declined to indict former Ferguson officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death, saying they stationed themselves along several downtown rooftops to protect businesses from rioting and looters. Karriman said the group stepped in only after Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declined to summon the National Guard in the aftermath of the grand jury decision.
County police ordered them to leave then, but group members intermittently returned.