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Oct. 25, 2009
READY TO DEFEND: Oath Keepers speak out at inaugural conference
Group appeals to current, former police, military members to uphold Constitution
By ALAN MAIMON
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
No amount of controversy will keep Oath Keepers from educating people about what it means to support and defend the Constitution.
That was the message Saturday during the kickoff of the group's inaugural national conference, a two-day event that comes at a time when Oath Keepers is experiencing a surge in membership and notoriety.
Started earlier this year by Las Vegas resident Stewart Rhodes, Oath Keepers is a nonprofit organization made up primarily of current and former police and military personnel who renew their oaths to the Constitution.
Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper and Yale University Law School graduate, opened the conference at Texas Station with a warning that Washington politicians cannot be trusted to uphold their oaths to the Constitution.
"That's why we have a civic duty to keep our oaths," Rhodes told about a hundred fellow Oath Keepers in the hotel ballroom.
Less pep rally than American history seminar, the first day of the conference focused in great part on the history and structure of the Constitution. Most of the day's sessions were open to the public.
Navy Cmdr. David Gillie, a board member of Oath Keepers and the group's national Navy liaison, conducted a public oath ceremony Saturday afternoon.
"This group stands for things that have needed to be said for a long time," Gillie said in an interview with the Review-Journal. "It's about fidelity to our oaths."
In a nearly two-hour speech, Rhodes implored members to fight labels that critics, most notably the Southern Poverty Law Center, have put on the group.
Rhodes, 44, said Oath Keepers isn't about the political left or political right, but rather about a commitment to honor the Bill of Rights.
Oath Keepers has a "Declaration of Orders We Will Not Obey." The directives to disobey include unlawfully disarming Americans or forcing them into detention camps, conducting warrantless searches, or imposing martial law.
By honoring the Constitution, Rhodes said, the United States will never become Nazi Germany or again allow abuses like the detention of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II.
The group has close to 2,000 dues-paying members, twice the number it had last week, said Dave Freeman, a board member and the group's national peace officer liaison.
Oath Keepers has heard from thousands more who have expressed interest in becoming members, Freeman said.
A Review-Journal profile of Oath Keepers last week helped thrust Rhodes into the national media spotlight.
Appearing on the MSNBC show "Hardball," Rhodes was questioned by host Chris Matthews about his "vigilante group" and on his "strange view of the world."
Matthews talked about a recent Southern Poverty Law Center report that identified Oath Keepers as a "particularly worrisome example of the Patriot revival," a movement the law center said could carry out acts of anti-government and racist violence.
Lou Dobbs of CNN had a different opinion of Oath Keepers. On his radio show, Dobbs praised Rhodes for efforts that should bring "solace and comfort" to everyone.
Both Dobbs and Rhodes accused the Southern Poverty Law Center of perpetuating the same kind of intolerance it claims to condemn.
Rhodes said during his Saturday speech that he is offended by any suggestion that "anti-illegal immigration, pro-gun, and pro-Constitution" groups are dangerous extremists.
"I have grave fears about the encroachment of federal powers over states and individuals," said Elias Alias, head of the group's Montana chapter.
At its core, Oath Keepers stands for the importance of military and law enforcement oaths, said P. Jeffrey Black, a member of Oath Keepers' board of directors and its national federal law enforcement liaison.
"My oath to the Constitution is to provide protection and welfare for the citizens of this country," said Black, a federal air marshal who has filed numerous whistle-blower complaints against the Transportation Security Administration. "I think all law enforcement officers should be reminded of the true meaning of the oath they took, and their responsibilities to uphold that oath."