Revealed: online chats indicate some members are threatening to unleash harassment tactics on officials and government workers
A national online network of thousands of rightwing, self-described “Oath Enforcers” is threatening to unleash harassment tactics on elected officials and government workers around the country, the Guardian can reveal.
While the network’s founder insists that the group is neither violent nor a militia, internal chats indicate that some members are planning for confrontations with law enforcement and their perceived political enemies.
The chats also indicate that white supremacists and others connected with the militia movement are aiming to leverage the group’s success in recruiting disillusioned supporters of Donald Trump and the “QAnon” conspiracy movement, who are being exposed to a wide range of conspiracy theories, white nationalist material and rightwing legal theories inside the groups.
The group’s founder, who makes videos and organizes under the name Vince Edwards, lives off-grid in a remote corner of Costilla county, in Colorado’s high desert region. Arrest records from 2016 indicate that he has also used the name Christian Picolo, and other public records associate him with the name Vincent Edward Deluca.
Experts say that Edwards’ personal history reflects the potential danger in the spread of “sovereign citizen” ideology – along with voluminous online propaganda, that history includes an armed standoff with Costilla county sheriff’s deputies in 2016.
Edwards initially published videos and a printable flyer promoting the formation of “oath enforcement teams” of at least 30 people in every county in the nation during late January 2021, just weeks after his own self-documented attendance at a rally at the national Capitol on 6 January.
His initial videos explicitly appealed to QAnon supporters, pointing out that “Q”, the supposed Trump administration insider whose gnomic forum posts animated the conspiracy-minded social movement, had not communicated with the movement since December, and that rather than “trusting the plan”, as adherents are enjoined to do, they should begin taking action.
In the wake of the Capitol attack, his efforts seem to have resonated with a growing pool of grassroots rightwingers. The Guardian found over 3,100 members in 50 state-based Telegram chats and a national chat. Some state-based groups – in Texas, Washington and Alabama – were very active and had hundreds of members.
The stated aims of the group include posting flyers designed by Edwards, the formation of “constitutional enforcement groups”, for every person to hand out 1,000 of Edwards’s flyers, and the creation of local hotlines to help “enforce the contract we made with our public servants” by livestreaming interactions with them, or lodging spurious legal claims against them.
In an introductory video entitled “OE training”, Edwards encourages new recruits to the network to emulate so-called “first amendment auditors” (FAAs).
Professor Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism (CSHE) at California State University in San Bernardino, said in a telephone conversation that FAAs are a social-media driven movement of libertarian provocateurs who “go to sensitive locations to see if law enforcement, security guards, or property owners will interfere with their activities, which are annoying, but not usually illegal”.
Meanwhile, some local groups show that well-known extremists are seeing opportunities in the group’s fast growth.
The Oregon Oath Enforcers group, for example, was joined on 5 February by Chester Doles of Dahlonega, Georgia. Doles, a long-time former member of the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazi National Alliance, who was imprisoned in 1993 for beating a black man, and later marched in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017.
Doles received media attention recently as he and other members of the organization he currently leads, American Patriots USA, were among an armed crowd which protested outside the Georgia capitol on 6 January, an action which led Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, who had been demonized by the far right for his role in Georgia’s election count, to flee the building.
In recent months, Doles has reportedly been seeking to build alliances with Three Percenters and other militia organizations in Georgia.
A former member of far-right group Patriot Prayer, Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, joined the Oregon Oath Enforcers chat on 9 February. Toese, a Proud Boy, was a prominent and frequently violent participant in a long string of brawling, contentious street protests in Portland throughout the Trump era. He was jailed in Clark county, Washington, last October after violating the condition of his probation after earlier being convicted for assault over an unprovoked daylight attack on a man in Portland.
In a video message to the Oath Enforcers group, Toese said: “You guys organizing? Me and my people will be there to take a stand with you.”
Elsewhere in the Oath Enforcers’ instructional Telegram channel, Edwards and others have shared documents from a range of organizations around the country which promote false legal and constitutional doctrines associated with the so-called sovereign citizen movement.
One document is presented as a judgment by a self-styled human rights tribunal, with an arrest order for a range of officials and philanthropists, including Anthony Fauci and Bill and Melinda Gates, for the crime of genocide.
The sovereign citizen movement does not hold a universally consistent set of beliefs, but most adherents believe in a false alternative history of the US, and that the present, and especially the law, reflects a conspiracy ordered by esoteric rules. Many treat all legal and governmental authority as illegitimate.
In the Oath Enforcers’ chats, sovereign doctrine is presented side by side with false beliefs about vaccinations and masks, assertions that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, and conspiracy theories about links between anti-fascist activists and powerful figures such as the billionaire George Soros.
Vince Edwards and Chester Doles did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In intelligence assessments and public statements, federal agencies have advised that sovereign citizens pose an ongoing and specific threat to law enforcement officers.
Levin, the extremism researcher, said of the apparent synergies between sovereign citizens and white supremacists that “there has been a realignment on the far-right extremist fringe”, wherein “law enforcement is viewed as an arm of a tyrannical government in much the same way that sovereign citizens viewed them decades prior”.
Levin adds that “not only is the ideology getting a rebranding, so too are many far-right figures like former Klan leader Chester Doles”.
In a 28 March post on the Oregon Oath Enforcers page, a user reposted the white nationalist broadcaster Vincent James’s commentary on a clash between antifa and far-right street protesters in Salem the previous day.
In part, the post read: “Cops never were and never will be your friend. They’re also the American regime. Not allies.”