FERGUSON, Missouri — With their hands resting casually on the assault rifles strapped across their chests, the men formed a diamond around their subjects, surveying the area in search of a threat.
The chants from hundreds of young protesters had already started to die down, their engines revving as they peeled out of the parking lot off of West Florissant Ave. Police units were in the midst of standing down for the night, even as men dressed in military fatigues cautiously approached the scene.
A state of emergency had been declared hours earlier, but these were not members of the National Guard.
A day after a rash of gun violence on the streets of Ferguson, a small citizen militia armed with semi-automatic assault rifles was roaming those same streets overnight Monday. Known as the Oath Keepers, the men added another layer of tension onto an already volatile scene.
Their movements tactical and deliberate, as if in a war zone.
“We’re just keeping an eye on activities down here,” said the leader, John, who declined to give his last name. “We’re just keeping an eye on them, making sure they stay safe.”
The immediate reaction from the crowd was swift and fierce. With a mix of fear and anger in their eyes, protesters gawked in confusion. Others yelled out obscenities, calling their presence emblematic of white privilege. Even the police chief later condemned the group’s actions as both “unnecessary and inflammatory.”
Founded in 2009 by a Yale Law School graduate and devout libertarian, the often controversial Oath Keeper organization formed at a time when patriot and militia groups were booming at unforeseen rates. Their political leanings are often difficult to nail down. Leaders adamantly reject labeling the group as “anti-government,” yet their 35,000-member following nationwide of law enforcement and military veterans often openly question federal laws.
Larry Kirk, an Oath Keeper from Old Monroe, Missouri, said the goal of the group is not to instigate unrest.
“To the far right, the people think we’re trying to overthrow the government. On the far left, people think that we’re some Klan organization or white supremacist group, and they don’t really see what our true message is,” Kirk told msnbc. “We take an oath to the Constitution.”
Monday was not the first time the Oath Keepers have been on standby in Ferguson. In November, when a St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, the city roiled in protest. Oath Keepers, perched on the rooftops in the Old Town Ferguson’s business district, were on guard to prevent further destruction and looting.
Police eventually asked them to leave.
This time, they were strutting down West Florissant — the epicenter of the Ferguson protests — wearing military fatigues and carrying semi-automatic assault rifles slung across their chests.
One of the men they gathered around was Joe Biggs, a reporter for InfoWars, a website known for publishing conspiracy theories. Founders of the site denied that they hired Oath Keepers to provide security for their journalists covering the protests. But Biggs admitted he gave leaders in the Missouri chapter a call.
“Whenever I go into a new state, I love to have another ear on the ground,” Biggs told msnbc. “I know that if they’re out here protecting business, it’s a good thing.”
Questions soon swirled over whether the Oath Keepers were within their rights to so brazenly brandish firearms along a busy stretch of the protester’s block. Missouri is an open-carry state, meaning residents with concealed weapons permits are free to bring their guns in public. But the statute stops short of allowing firearms in areas classified as protests. And any weapons wielded in public may not be used in an “angry or threatening” manner.
Brian Schellman, spokesperson for the St. Louis County Police Department, said officials were consulting with county prosecutors over whether the Oath Keeper’s actions were within the law.
Kirk suggested that the team of men self-deployed to the streets of Ferguson, and took the organization’s message too far.
“There may have been a better way to go about it,” Kirk told msnbc. “I would rather last night, as Oath Keepers, be the opportunity to say, ‘Hey, we’re out here to protect you protesters from having militarized police attack you like last year.’”
“I think maybe the way the group went about last night took away from that message,” Kirk said.
‘Only a white man can get away with this’
Within minutes of the Oath Keepers’ arrival, protesters swarmed around the group, some frozen with a mix of anger and confusion. Others fled out of fear that the situation would devolve.
One protester in the crowd, a white man, jumped out in front of the squad unable to control his outrage.
“Only a white man can get away with this,” he yelled. “Can you imagine if a black man came looking like this, walking this way? What do you think would happen to him? He wouldn’t be left alone like you are.”
John Knowles, a protester in Ferguson whose cousin is the mayor of the city, was one of those who felt the scene was too uncomfortable to stick around.
“If they were going to shoot someone, it would have been really bad because people would have thought it was the National Guard coming in, and not the hillbilly militia,” Knowles said. “If an African-American were to show up with legal open-carry weapon, he would be arrested immediately.”