A local connection: Indiana Oath Keepers confirms group in Bartholomew County

COLUMBUS, Ind. — An Indiana group that shares the name of a national organization branded as a loosely organized network of right-wing, anti-government extremists has come under scrutiny in recent weeks after a man from Edinburgh was charged with committing acts of violence during the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot while wearing a hat with the group’s logo.

The group, Indiana Oath Keepers Inc., was founded in 2017 and is currently registered as a non-profit organization with addresses in Fort Wayne and Westfield, according to state records. In the wake of the Capitol riot, Kroger and Amazon removed the Indiana group from their charitable giving programs.

On Jan. 17, Jon Schaffer, a member of the heavy metal band Iced Earth, turned himself in to the FBI has been charged with several felonies, including engaging in an act of physical violence and knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful entry. As of Friday, Schaffer remained incarcerated in the Marion County Jail in Indianapolis awaiting extradition to Washington D.C., after waiving an initial hearing.

Schaffer was photographed and captured on video surveillance Jan. 6 spraying Capitol police with bear spray while wearing a hat that read “Oath Keepers Lifetime Member,” according to court documents filed Jan. 16 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The FBI listed Schaffer as a Columbus resident, but the Johnson County Clerk’s Office said he is currently registered to vote under an Edinburgh address.

Since Schaffer’s arrest, Indiana Oath Keepers has tried to distance itself from the national organization, although they share a name, logo and mission statement.

In a statement posted on the Indiana Oath Keeper’s website, the group said Schaffer was not a member of the Indiana Oath Keepers and said it is not a militia or anti-government group, instead describing itself as a “grassroots charitable organization” that seeks to educate people about the U.S. Constitution.

“The individual arrested in Columbus, Indiana and was wearing an Oath Keepers (not Indiana Oath Keepers) hat in the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, is NOT a member of Indiana Oath Keepers,” the statement reads.

The Republic attempted to contact the leadership of the Indiana Oath Keepers. On Thursday, an individual who claimed to be a “board member” of the Indiana Oath Keepers and resident of Hamilton County contacted The Republic using a “restricted” phone number and declined to give his name.

The individual estimated that membership in the Indiana Oath Keepers is in the thousands and said the group remains active in Bartholomew County. However, he said it was difficult for him to know exactly how many people are currently members because of how those records are “compartmentalized,” though he said Schaffer was “certainly not” a member.

He said the Indiana Oath Keepers separated from the national Oath Keepers organization about three years ago.

The Indiana Oath Keepers primarily engages in “training activities,” ranging from wilderness survival to emergency medical care and maintains a “pretty heavy gardening group,” he said.

The training activities are typically held in state parks or other similar outdoor areas. He said he did not know where Oath Keepers in Bartholomew County meet.

Who are the Oath Keepers

The national Oath Keepers organization is officially based in Nevada and is registered as a non-profit under the address of a law firm located two miles west of the Las Vegas Strip, according to Nevada public records.

The group was founded in 2009 by Stewart Rhodes, a former Montana attorney and aide to former Sen. Ron Paul, R-TX. The group is considered by experts as part of the “Patriot” movement, which is a broad set of groups that includes militia, sovereign citizen, tax protest movements, among others, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

The Oath Keepers believe that the United States is “being taken over and destroyed by forces within the federal government that are plotting strip people of their rights and fear that the government may impose martial law, confiscate guns and turn U.S. cities into giant concentration camps,” according to the organization’s website

The group mainly targets current and former military, law enforcement and other first responders and urges members to uphold the oath they took in those roles to defend the Constitution by disobeying orders they deem unconstitutional, often drawing parallels between themselves and the Founding Fathers and those who fought against the British during the Revolutionary War.

The number of Oath Keepers is unclear. Oath Keepers has claimed to have about 35,000 members nationwide, though the Anti-Defamation League has said membership is likely in the 1,000 to 3,000 range.

The group’s ideology is considered by experts to be “anti-government” and “right-wing,” the latter meaning that the organization seeks to conserve something that is current in American politics or revert to something that used to exist in American politics, said Sam Jackson, an assistant professor at City University of New York, Albany and author of the book, “Oath Keepers: Patriotism and the Edge of Violence in a Right-Wing Anti-Government Group.”

“Typically, right-wing movements see some idealized past that has been lost or has been destroyed and they want to restore that idealized past, and under that definition of right-wing, it’s hard to argue that Oath Keepers is not right-wing,” Jackson said. “In terms of the anti-government category, I’ve seen Oath Keepers explicitly say things like, ‘We’re not anti-government, we’re just anti-bad government.’ I think the anti-government label is still useful in this particular case because almost all government to them is bad government.”

In 2014 and 2015, members of the Oath Keepers, some wearing bulletproof vests and openly carrying rifles and pistols, patrolled the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, where there were massive protests and sometimes violent unrest in 2014 after the killing of an 18-year-old Black man by a white Ferguson police officer, The Associated Press reported.

Many Oath Keepers were at the 2014 armed standoff in Nevada in which armed ranchers and self-declared militia members forced heavily armed federal agents to retreat and release a herd of cattle in a dispute over fees and cattle grazing, according to wire reports.

Lack of organization

Though there is a formal national leadership, many Oath Keepers at the local levels are self‐organized, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

The national Oath Keepers leadership “are pretty terrible organizers,” said Hampton Stall, a senior researcher at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a nonprofit that tracks political violence and protest events around the world, and founder of the blog Militia Watch, which has tracked extremist groups in the U.S. since 2016.

“Rhodes (the founder) will organize a call to action, and not everybody follows it,” Stall said. “…Stewart (Rhodes) and his company, they do a lot of writing and they do a lot of fundraising. They don’t do a lot of organizational work. That usually comes down to more local leaders.”

However, over the past six months, the group’s rhetoric has become “much more inflammatory,” Jackson said.

The Oath Keeper’s website contains many references to unfounded claims of massive voter fraud and conspiracies related to the 2020 election, according to posts on the website by Rhodes, the group’s founder.

On Jan. 4, Rhodes urged “patriots” to travel to Capitol Hill on Jan. 6 to, among other things, “help keep Trump supporters safe” and “show Congress that we the people will not stand for the election being stolen to plant an imposter (Chinese communist) puppet in the White House.”

The post included an image of former President Donald Trump that includes the date Jan. 6 and says “Take America back,” “Be there” and “will be wild.”

“Stand now or kneel forever,” the post says.

Jackson said he believes the group and its rhetoric pose a “real,” but “relatively rare” threat of violence and criminality.

“Their relationship to violence is not necessarily straightforward,” Jackson said. “They are, at least the national organization and the leadership of the group, typically pretty disciplined about how they talk about violence, and it is almost always in the context of justifying or preparing for defensive violence. So they will say things like, ‘You need to be ready for when the government comes to your door to take your guns. You need to be ready to fight for your rights,’ versus some other types of extremism or even terrorism that we might think of.”

“That gets even more complicated because they say that they want to engage in defensive violence or prepare for defensive violence, but they put themselves in situations where they’re more likely to need to use defensive violence,” Jackson added.

The Oath Keepers group, however, is part of a larger phenomenon that has been playing out in the U.S. in recent years in which there is broader support for the ideas and activities of groups like the Oath Keepers and an erosion of peaceful, deliberative democracy, Jackson said.

For groups like Oath Keepers, political disagreement “is a sign that there are evil actors out there who are willing to do whatever they need to do to benefit themselves, including violating your rights,” Jackson said.

“Just about everything that the group does contributes to an erosion of norms of peaceful deliberative democracy that sees politics as a place where Americans can come together and work through good faith disagreement to try to pursue the public good,” Jackson said. “…So when Oath Keepers talk about American history and talk about the founders, they try to build this legitimacy for themselves. The consequence of that is implicitly, or sometimes explicitly, connecting their political opponents to the British or to pirates or to other things like that, which makes them seem foreign or an enemy or other, or more broadly, just someone who needs to be defeated.”