Depending on whom you ask, Oath Keepers is either “the last line of defense against tyranny” or an extremist militia, reported Politico. They describe themselves as a nonpartisan association of tens of thousands of current and former military, police and first responders who pledge to defend the Constitution and refuse to obey orders they consider unconstitutional. The Southern Poverty Law Center on the other hand lists Oath Keepers as “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. today” and has kept tabs on incidents involving members that may betray the idea that the group is just about defending the Constitution. In 2010, for example, a man in Tennessee driving a truck with an Oath Keepers logo was accused in a plot to arrest two dozen local officials.
Oath Keepers was formed in 2009 after the election of Barack Obama. When the group’s founder, Stewart Rhodes, announced its debut, he wrote in a blog post that its primary mission would be “to prevent the destruction of American liberty by preventing a full-blown totalitarian dictatorship from coming to power.”
Ascertaining how widespread support is for that mission is subject to debate. In 2014, Oath Keepers had about 35,000 members who paid dues to the organization. This year, the Atlantic reported there were nearly 25,000 names on a membership list the magazine obtained.
But Hood County, named after the Confederate Army General John Bell Hood, could offer insight on a very local level of how the group has continued to grow in small but measurable ways across the country.
An early clue came this February at a candidate forum for local Republicans. Dub Gillum a retired state trooper who was running for justice of the peace in Hood County’s Precinct 4, said on Feb. 11 that Oath Keepers was experiencing “a resurgence—or surgence—in Hood County.”
When I reached out to Gillum he told me he did not remember saying that there was a “surgence” of Oath Keepers in Hood County. “Personally,” he said, “I do not see a ‘surgency’ of Oath Keepers in Hood County but rather a resurgence of patriotism.”
Gillum said he started following Oath Keepers on Facebook in 2010, when the social media platform suggested it to him as a group he might like. The Oath Keepers’ mission resonated with him. It felt like a reaffirmation of the oath he took when he became a state trooper in 1990. Oath Keepers was a networking resource for him when he was a trooper, he said, but he’s never attended any of the group’s events. He doesn’t consider himself “active” in the organization.
About a week later, on Feb. 20, Hood County News, the local newspaper, reported that Oath Keepers, “one of the nation’s largest anti-government militia groups,” was scheduled to hold a rally on Feb. 24 at the Harbor Lakes Golf Club in Granbury, the county seat named for another Confederate general that has twice won recognition as the “Best Historic Small Town in America.”
Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper and Yale Law School graduate who once worked for Texas Congressman Ron Paul, was supposed to lead the rally for “all Oath Keeper candidates running in the primary.” The event was also billed as a swearing-in for anyone who wanted to take the “Oath to the Constitution” for the first time.
But the next day, the paper reported that the meeting was canceled after the golf club backed out, saying the event was “misrepresented in the planning” and that the rally’s agenda was “unbeknownst to Harbor Lakes.”
Still, on Feb. 22, a post on the website Hood County Today written by Nathan Criswell, the county’s former Republican Party chair, declared “Oath Keepers emerge in Hood.” A local chapter would soon be operational in the county under John Shirley’s leadership, Criswell said.
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