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Armed 'Oath Keepers' Celebrate Montana Miners' Incremental Victory


A group called the Oath Keepers was back in the news during the protest in Ferguson, Mo. this week. Members of this armed group are typically ex-police or military who pledge to, quote, "defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic." In Ferguson, they were seen walking among protesters and standing guard in front of businesses. This was a bit of a different venue for the group, which lately has been better known for organizing armed standoffs with federal land managers in the rural West. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: As armed Oath Keepers mingled with protesters along West Florrisant Avenue in Ferguson this week, the group is also holding a separate self-described security mission, 1,500 miles to the northwest in rural Montana. A group of Oath Keepers had traveled to the mountains near Lincoln, an old logging town. They came to defend two local miners who were in a dispute with the U.S. Forest Service over the legality of a mining claim.


JOSEPH SANTORO: They want to confiscate their property and shut down their claim. To me, that is a travesty of justice.

SIEGLER: In this video, posted on the Oath Keepers' website, Operation Big Sky's commander, Joseph Santoro, is explaining to locals why the Oath Keepers have set up an armed perimeter around the White Hope Mine. This is the same group involved in recent standoffs against Federal Bureau of Land Management at a mine in southern Oregon and at Cliven Bundy's Nevada ranch. In Lincoln, some residents were apparently a little alarmed at out-of-towners walking up and down the main thoroughfare, dressed in camo and heavily armed.

MARY EMERICK: So right away, we told them not to wear that sort of clothing.

SIEGLER: This is Mary Emerick, one of the Oath Keepers' public information officers. She says the group got involved at the request of the mine's owners because they were concerned that the federal government, or others, would forcibly move in and shut it down.

EMERICK: We weren't there to create an incident, but we were going to protect the miners from the threats and the trespass that was going on.

SIEGLER: Federal land managers deny there were any threats, and, as in similar recent standoffs, local law enforcement bristled some at the idea of a group of armed citizens coming into the community.

LEO DUTTON: When I say overzealous, I know they have Constitutional rights to do that, but it caused the citizens to be disconcerted about their safety, and that's where my office comes in.

SIEGLER: This is the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff, Leo Dutton, speaking on Montana Public Radio.

DUTTON: There was never any threat of violence or actions going to be taken by any federal agency in the first place.

SIEGLER: There's a long history of groups like the Oath Keepers in the rural West, where in some corners there's deep mistrust of the federal government which owns and manages the bulk of the land. There's also some history of violent confrontations. Civil rights groups tie a resurgence of anti-government groups here to the election of President Obama. Rachel Carroll-Rivas directs the Montana Human Rights Network, a group that was founded in 1990 but militia and white supremacist groups proliferated in the Northwest.

RACHEL CARROLL-RIVAS: When Oath Keepers get involved, they simply escalate the problem. They divide neighbors, they create anxiety, and, with that, they further their agenda. They capitalize on people's fears.

SIEGLER: Civil rights groups say the Oath Keepers also attract a fringe element, a criticism that the group's Joseph Santoro was quick to respond to in that recent public meeting in Lincoln.


SANTORO: We are not thugs. We are not criminals. We ensure that the people that we bring here into your community have been thoroughly vetted.

SIEGLER: The standoff near Lincoln, Mont., appears to be simmering down for now. This week, the U.S. attorney filed a federal civil suit against the owners of the mine. The Oath Keepers say a day in court for the miners with their goal all along, but their self-proclaimed security operation around the perimeter of the mine will continue. Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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