The protests in Ferguson have exposed a tension between two threads on the populist right. On one side, there are people whose resentment of the federal government is closely bound to the idea that the local authorities' hands should not be tied when meting out violence. On the other side, a relatively libertarian element extends its critique to the local police as well as the feds.
I just called those threads "sides," as though they're entirely distinct. In practice, things can get kind of tangled. Consider the St. Louis/St. Charles branch of the Oath Keepers.
The Oath Keepers are a collection of current and former military, police, and public safety officials who have pledged not to obey unconstitutional orders. Institutionally, the group has been harshly critical of the cops' behavior in Ferguson. Last week it released a communiqué that begins like this:
The events in Ferguson have shown us daily that the looting and violence by a few is not being stopped, while the right of the people to peaceably assemble and petition government for redress of grievances is not being respected. The current riot control tactics of the local police, rooted in outmoded techniques developed in the 1950's—and only made worse by the ongoing militarization of our police—are failing the people of Ferguson, giving them a false choice between rampant looting on the one hand, and hyper-militarized police and curfews on the other (which also fail to stop the looting, leaving the mistaken impression among many of the American people that even more militarization and curtailment of free speech and assembly is needed).
Some earlier comments from the Oath Keepers hit a similar note, declaring: "The police should not be militarized in logistics or in attitudes. The people are not an 'enemy.' Police should not make war on the people." The St. Louis chapter's president, Duane Weed, has a Facebook feed filled with critiques of police behavior in Ferguson, along with conspiracy theories blaming violence among the protesters on agents provocateurs. The photo above shows Weed at a Ferguson protest—he's the one on the right. The woman with him is wearing a T-shirt that says "National Cannabis Coalition."
Meanwhile: Last Friday, the St. Louis County Police Department suspended Dan Page, an officer who achieved some infamy during the protests by pushing protesters and a reporter live on CNN. That isn't what got him relieved of duty. He was relieved of duty because someone dug up a video of him giving a talk to Weed's chapter of the Oath Keepers. In his lecture, Page warned that Washington was plotting to impose a dictatorship, offering a conspiracy story of a sort that Oath Keepers often embrace. But he didn't stop there, or even start there: He also declared that the Constitution is a Christian document, fretted that the military was filled with "sodomites and females," and went off on a variety of other bizarre and sometimes offensive tangents. There's plenty in there to embarrass the St. Louis Oath Keepers, but the most embarrassing thing for them should be the sight of Page participating in the very activity their group just denounced. ("We need officers focused on looters, not on bullying the media and protesters," their communiqué declares.)
Weed has told CNN that Page was merely a guest speaker, not a member of the group. And indeed, Page says in his talk that he didn't realize he was going to be speaking to the Oath Keepers ("I thought that this was just a church meeting"), and he always refers to the organization in the second person. He does accept an Oath Keepers pin patch at the end of the video, but he looks a little uncomfortable as he takes it; I doubt he ever wore it. But Page's presence at the meeting—and the friendly reaction he got from at least some of the audience—show how entangled those two threads can be.
So does this Facebook post from Weed…
…with this weak caveat reserved for the comments below it:
The Page incident speaks to more than just the ongoing evolution of the populist right. The point of the Oath Keepers is to resist unconstitutional commands. If just one of the officers deployed in Ferguson this month had laid down his arms and refused to restrict people's right to free assembly, the effect could have been huge. Instead, the biggest incident involving a cop connected to the Oath Keepers featured a man who interacted with nonviolent people by literally pushing them around. He wasn't a member of the group, but he was the only guy bringing their name into the news. Are there no actual Oath Keepers on the force? Either the St. Louis chapter isn't very good at organizing civil disobedience or the police being deployed in Ferguson have no interest in being organized.
I like the idea of public officials defending liberty by defying unjust orders. I'd like the idea even more if, at some point in the last few weeks, I'd actually seen it happen.