The Oath Keepers, an extremist anti-American government group, was founded in 2009 by a Plano, Texas resident named Elmer Stewart Rhodes. The Oath Keepers are primarily made up of former military and law enforcement personnel who took oaths to forever defend their understanding of the U.S. Constitution. The group has formed militarized militias to defend white Americans from what they call the conspiratorial “New World Order.” They gained national prominence in 2015 when they provided vigilante “security” to white-owned businesses in Ferguson, Missouri, during Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the Michael Brown killing by a local police officer.


Rhodes, a Yale Law School graduate, and nine of his followers were indicted on January 13, 2022, on federal charges involving the unlawful assault on the nation’s Capitol Building on January 6, 2021. Nine other Oath Keepers were already under indictment for their involvement in the 01/06 insurrection—at least four of whom have agreed to cooperate with the government’s investigation into the attempted overthrow of the legitimate November 2020 presidential election. The insurrection left five people dead, hundreds injured (most of whom were law enforcement officers defending the Capitol), and millions of dollars in damage to the Capitol Building.


Oath Keepers Indicted on Seditious Conspiracy


All 19 of the Oath Keepers stand charged with corruptly obstructing an official proceeding. Eighteen of the defendants are charged with conspiring to obstruct an official proceeding and conspiring to prevent an officer of the United States from discharging a duty. Eleven of the 19 Oath Keepers, including Rhodes, have been indicted for the more serious “seditious conspiracy.”


Sedition became a fixture in American jurisprudence in the wake of World War I with the enactment by Congress of the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918.


These legislative acts were a response to the nation’s First Red Scare—a social and political fear of communism induced by the Russian Revolution of 1917. This Red Scare phobia resulted in literally a thousand seditious conspiracy prosecutions—all of which were given constitutional blessing by the U.S. Supreme Court in several landmark decisions.


The Second Red Scare came in the immediate years following World War II as Stalin’s Russia became a world power. This Red Scare produced the Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950, the Communist Control Act of 1954, and the infamous, lunatic “McCarthy era” of the mid-1950s. These acts—spurred by President Harry S. Truman and enforced by former F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover—were designed to force a professed loyalty to the United States, keep communists out of labor unions, and purge the government of anyone suspected of being a communist.


There were two other periods in the 20th Century when seditious prosecutions resurfaced: the Vietnam War, and the “black liberation” movement in the 1960s and 1970s. These prosecutions were orchestrated by the racist presidential administration of Richard M. Nixon following trumped-up investigations by F.B.I. Director Hoover.


1993 World Trade Center Bombing Plot


The last successful seditious conspiracy prosecution in this country occurred in 1995 when Sheikh Omar Abel-Rahman, known as the “Blind Sheikh,” and nine confederates were convicted of conspiring to bomb the World Trade Center in February 1993. The group was also convicted of plotting to bomb the F.B.I. building, the United Nations, tunnels, and bridges in New York City in 1993; and conspiring to assassinate public leaders, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during a 1993 United Nations visit. All of these seditious conspiracy plots were tied to Rahman’s publicly stated intent to “wage a war of urban terrorism” against the United States. 


Rahman and his cohorts were convicted on seditious conspiracy-related charges under 18 U.S.C. §2384 (1994), which provides that any two or more people who conspire to overthrow or harm the U.S. Government will be subject to this seditious conspiracy statute. The statute defines sedition as a crime when two or more people:


  • Conspire to overthrow or destroy by force the government of the United States or to levy war against them.
  • Oppose by force the authority of the United States government; to prevent, hinder, or delay by force the execution of any law of the United States.
  • Take, seize, or possess by force any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof.


Right-Wing, Authoritarian Militias Target Democracy


The conservative, right-wing leaning legislators who gave federal prosecutors the Espionage Act of 1917, the Sedition Act of 1918, the Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950, and the Communist Control Act of 1954 never entertained the thought that these “protect American Democracy” laws would be used against individuals or groups descended from their own conservative political ideologies. These laws were created and reserved for liberal, left-wing leaning individuals or groups—the communists, socialists, and unionists.


But then came Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge in 1992, David Koresh at the Waco Siege in 1993, and Timothy McVeigh (an original Oath Keepers type) with the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. American democracy, and the rule of law that sustains it, suddenly faced not a foreign-inspired threat but a domestic, religious tinged threat that morphed into the violent insurrection of January 6, 2021.


The U.S. Justice Department recognized this threat in 2010 when it charged six Michigan residents, two Ohio residents, and one Indiana resident with “seditious conspiracy, attempted use of weapons of mass destruction, teaching the use of explosive materials, and possessing a firearm during a crime of violence.” 


These nine individuals were members of a right-wing Christian militia group called the “Hutaree”—an anti-government group that planned to kill a law enforcement officer to attract a large law enforcement presence at the officer’s funeral who could then be killed en masse through explosive devices. 


These Hutaree “Christian warriors,” as they call themselves, believe that law enforcement officers are the guardians of an “anti-Christ” government who should be killed on the “battlefield” because “God wills it.”


In 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Victoria Roberts acquitted the seven Hutaree warriors ultimately brought to trial before a jury could decide the case by granting a defense motion to acquit. The court found, “prosecutors failed to prove that members of the Hutaree were doing more than talking about their hatred of the government.”


Whether Elmer Stewart Rhodes, and his band of anti-government militia, will receive the same judicial result remains to be seen.  


Based on the anti-government public rhetoric of Rhodes and like-minded militia groups, it is clear that these groups do not believe that America should be a democracy that respects the equal application of the rule of law for all. Instead, Rhoades and his ilk believe America should be a totalitarian “Republic” where white, “Christian” people control the rule of law at the expense of everyone else. These domestic terrorists are an imminent threat to the great democratic experiment that is America. How we respond to this violent authoritarian movement and the rhetoric of their right-wing sympathizers will determine the success or failure of our democracy.