A group of young black men were incorrectly arrested on suspicion of firearm possession during a protest in Ferguson, Missouri, as a group of white militiamen, armed with rifles and wearing body armour and camouflage claimed they were granted permission to walk through the protests by police officers.
Hundreds of protesters descended on West Florissant Avenue on Monday nightas part of ongoing demonstrations to mark the one-year anniversary of the fatal police shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer, an event that sparked a nationwide discussion about race and policing.
Sporadic scuffles between protesters and police occurred into the night on Monday and 22 arrests were made, following a day of civil disobedience protests around Ferguson and St Louis. County officials had declared a state of emergencyin the area after a black 18-year-old was shot by officers on Sunday, after he allegedly opened fire on them during chaotic protests late in the evening.
On Monday night, a group of at least three black men who were standing by a car next to a hair salon on West Florissant Avenue were arrested after a phalanx of St Louis County police surged towards them, using pepper spray and batons. A spokesman for police department told the Guardian by email on Tuesday that officers had received information “that the occupants or folks near that vehicle were possibly armed with handguns”.
But the spokesman later confirmed that none of those arrested during the swoop were in possession of any weapons.
The treatment of these suspects, who were wrestled to the ground and placed in plastic flexicuffs, came in seemingly stark contrast to a group of white militiamen, who arrived at the protest at around 1am, after the arrests occurred, carrying loaded M-15 rifles with several magazine cartridges strapped across their body armour.
The men belonged to a group named the Oath Keepers, a collective of former and current military servicemen and police officers who claim to defend the US constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic”. The group is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “fiercely anti-government, militaristic group”.
Dennis Kenney, a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College in New York, said that the organization prides itself on being provocative.
“Their movement is anti-government and they believe they have to stay armed because they have to be ready to overthrow the government. They are as much trying to pick a fight with the police as anyone else.”
A spokesman for the group, who declined to give his name but was later identified as John Karriman, leader of the Missouri Oath Keeper chapter, told reporters they were present to protect journalists working for the conspiracy-minded news site Info Wars and had received permission from police to walk among protesters.
“We checked in with law enforcement when we got here, we told them what we were doing and who we were with,” said Karriman.
“We walked up and they [police] came over and we shook hands and smiled. We said we’re here to protecting Info Wars. They nodded and said, ‘Good on ya, just, if you would, please don’t walk through us’,” Karriman added.
On Tuesday morning, St Louis County police chief Jon Belmar, who was present during the protests on Monday, distanced himself from these claims describing their presence as “both unnecessary and inflammatory”.
A spokesman for the county executive office told the Guardian on Tuesday it had not yet been established whether the Oath Keepers had violated any laws in appearing on the streets but the situation was being examined by the county police.
When asked about Karriman’s claims of interactions between militiamen and police on Monday evening, Sergeant Brian Schellman, a spokesman for the county police, said he was not aware which officers Karriman spoke to.
Schellman said the department’s commanding officers were not aware Oath Keepers would be at the protest and they “did not ask for or receive permission” to attend. He added that the St Louis County police department would consult with the St Louis County prosecuting attorney’s office about “the legalities of the issue”.
In September last year, Missouri lawmakers voted to expand gun ownership laws allowing concealed carry of firearms. Ferguson is currently operating under a county-imposed state of emergency following Sunday’s violence, but it is unclear whether this has any effect on firearm regulation.
Members of the group had also arrived in Ferguson during protests and riots last year. They explained their mission was to protect local businesses from looting, but they have previously been ordered to cease their informal armed security patrols by the local police.
“Members of the heavily armed militia group plan to return to the streets of Ferguson on Tuesday evening, Karriman told the Guardian.
There would also be many “plainclothes” members keeping watch on proceedings covertly in the area, he said.
“We are not a bunch of thugs. We are trained, we are patriots, we love our country, our constitution and our fellow men and we want people to behave themselves,” he said.
Joe Biggs, a reporter for infowars.com who is currently reporting in Ferguson, told the Guardian that he was contacted by members of the local Oath Keepers chapter prior to arriving in the town late on Monday night, offering to provide security for him while he is working there.
“When they showed up last night, everyone was shocked. But then people, black and white, came over to have a dialogue with them and then they were cool and calm.”
Biggs said journalists had been injured during demonstrations in Ferguson and maintained that he was hit by a rubber bullet fired by police during one of the nights of rioting last summer and had encountered some local hostility. He said he had accepted the offer of voluntary security services from the Oath Keepers during this visit.
“Me and another [infowars] reporter were side by side and these guys stood around us and made a perimeter. We walked in front of the cops and they walked behind us and it was cool,” Biggs said.
Marcia McCormick, a professor of law at St Louis University, said of the Oath Keepers’ presence at the protests: “Where tensions are high, such as in Ferguson at the moment, and people already feel besieged, it just exacerbates the tension.”
Indeed, the presence of these heavily armed men drew the ire of many protesters on Monday night. During one heated exchange a member of the Oath Keepers was accused of belonging to a racist group.
He responded: “We got black people, white people, Asian people, Indian people in our group. There’s no racists in our group.”
He was then asked where the men intended to point their guns if “shit kicked off”.
“End of story we got your back,” the man responded.
Asked by the Guardian how he believed a group of black men with assault rifles would be treated at the protests, Karriman responded: “If they want[ed] to protect their place of business and their home that would probably be appropriate. If they want[ed] to just walk up the street and draw attention, that would be silly.”
A log of the dozens of arrests made in Ferguson over Monday night, which was released by St Louis County later on Tuesday, listed several men as having been arrested around the same time and location as those who were detained initially on suspicion of possessing handguns.
The log said the arrested men were charged with offences such as interfering with an officer and unlawful assembly, and that two had outstanding charges in other jurisdictions. A St Louis County police spokesman said in an email, however, that he could not confirm whether or not these were the same men who were seized based on information that they had firearms, nor what happened to this group after the discovery they had no weapons.