FERGUSON, Mo. — The return of an armed militia group patrolling the streets of Ferguson drew criticism Tuesday from both protesters and the county police chief overseeing security amid demonstrations marking the anniversary of 18-year-old Michael Brown's shooting death.
St. Louis County police Chief Jon Belmar said the overnight presence of the Oath Keepers, wearing camouflage bulletproof vests and openly carrying rifles and pistols on West Florissant Avenue, the hub of marches and protests for the past several days, was "both unnecessary and inflammatory."
Belmar plans to ask county prosecutor Bob McCulloch about the legality of armed patrols by the far-right antigovernment activist group, which largely comprises past and present members of the military, first responders and police officers. But Missouri law allows anyone with a concealed carry permit to openly display a firearm anywhere in the state.
John Karriman, a representative of the group who teaches at the Missouri Southern State University police academy, said there were five armed Oath Keepers at the Monday night protests and a considerably larger number of unarmed members stationed nearby to try to help keep the peace. He said members plan to remain in Ferguson "at least through the end of the week."
"A handful of us were visible," said Karriman, a former police officer in Joplin, Mo., who ran unsuccessfully as a Libertarian Party candidate for county sheriff in southwest Missouri. "The rest of us are behind the scenes."
Oath Keepers previously showed up in Ferguson in November after a grand jury declined to indict former Officer Darren Wilson in Brown's death a year ago, saying they stationed themselves along several downtown rooftops to protect businesses from rioting and looters. Karriman said the group stepped in only after Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declined to summon the National Guard in the aftermath of the grand jury decision.
County police ordered them to leave then, but group members intermittently returned. The five armed Oath Keepers, all of whom appeared to be white, interacted freely with police late Monday and early Tuesday but endured catcalls and jeers from demonstrators.