FERGUSON, MISSOURI – Four civilians carrying automatic rifles and sidearms patrolled a riot-torn street in Ferguson, Missouri, early Tuesday, saying they were there to protect a media organization but drawing swift criticism from police and protesters alike.
The appearance of the four men, all white, quickly drew stares in the mostly black neighborhood, which exploded into violence again Sunday night as protesters marked the police killing of an unarmed black teen a year ago.
The men identified themselves as part of a group called “Oath Keepers,” which describes itself as an association of current and former U.S. soldiers and police who aim to protect the U.S. Constitution.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization, has described the “Oath Keepers” as a “fiercely anti-government, militaristic group,” and St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar condemned their appearance in Ferguson.
“Their presence was both unnecessary and inflammatory,” he said, adding that police would work with county prosecutors to see if the men had broken any laws.
Led by a man who gave his name only as John, the group, whose members wore bulletproof vests and carried sidearms in addition to combat-style rifles, said they had come to protect a journalist from the conservative “Infowars.com” Web site.
“There were problems here, there were people who got hurt. We needed to be prepared for that,” said the man, who noted that Missouri state laws generally allow the open carrying of heavy weapons of the kind that his group were brandishing.
InfoWars could not be reached for immediate comment.
Ferguson has seen months of violent protest since the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer a year ago.
Riot police clashed early Tuesday with protesters in the streets the city. About 200 demonstrators, some waving flags, beating drums, and shouting anti-police slogans, marched along a street that was a flash point of riots that erupted last year after police officer Darren Wilson killed Brown.
Police carrying shields rushed into a crowd of protesters around midnight, prompting many to scream and run away. Twenty-three people were arrested, some for throwing frozen water bottles and rocks at officers, according to the St. Louis County Police Department.
Authorities declared a state of emergency on Monday for the St. Louis suburb and surrounding areas after police officers shot and critically wounded a man in an exchange of gunfire Sunday night, marring what had been a day of peaceful demonstrations to commemorate the anniversary.
But many in the crowd questioned the wisdom of openly carrying such heavy weapons into an emotionally charged situation.
“You’re going to bring some uncommissioned citizens, white citizens, into a black community like this? It’s disrespectful,” said Talal Ahmad, 30, who is black and has been a fixture of the last year’s protests, which prompted a Justice Department review that found Ferguson’s police department routinely violated city residents’ civil rights.
“Here, in a black neighborhood, we’re already living in a state of terror,” Ahmad said.