Oath Keepers Greg Schillen (left) and Adam Bulder stand guard in front of a military recruitment offices in Burlington, Wash., last year, with Schillen's two dogs, Clyde (left) and Buddy. Credit: Scott Terrell/Associated Press

A militia-style group that sent a handful of fully armed members to Ferguson, Missouri, last year is encouraging as many followers as possible to go to polling stations today to document “criminal activity.”

The Oath Keepers are advising members to leave the heat at home this time – or at least study up on local laws first.

In a three-hour webinar last week on potential election-related violence, the group covered everything from how long to stay down if a bomb explodes nearby to how to park cars strategically to keep bands of armed marauders out of your neighborhood.

The presentation made clear that the group’s leaders believe Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign is more likely to cause violence than Republican Donald Trump’s.

Between Trump’s call to supporters to watch polls in Pennsylvania, legal challenges seeking to stop alleged voter intimidation and increased monitoring for violations of the Voting Rights Act, polling places and the sidewalks outside could be crowded, and the possibility of confrontation – perhaps violence – is real.

Here’s what Oath Keepers leaders are telling their followers to do:

  • Go incognito: In a video introducing the group’s poll-watching effort, nicknamed Operation Sabot, Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes told members to wear whatever is necessary to blend in at the precincts they monitor.“Go without Oath Keepers gear on,” he said, because being undercover might keep the “bad guys” worried that they’re being watched. Also, “We don’t want anyone to accuse us of intimidating voters,” he said. The group also promises to use hidden cameras at unspecified precincts.
  • Watch buses: “Covertly record vans or buses,” advised John Karriman, who is listed on the Oath Keepers’ website as a board member and a police instructor in Missouri. “Perhaps work in teams of two or three, and perhaps follow them and make sure they’re not going from (polling) station to (polling) station.”
  • Watch ballots, too: “If you start seeing someone walking around with stacks and stacks of mail-in ballots, make sure you report that to local law enforcement,” said Greg McWhirter, introduced in the video as a new member of the Oath Keepers board.
  • Avoid confrontation: Call the police. “The more information we can get to the media, to the police, the better off we are,” said Ernie Bridges, introduced as a retired police officer and former member of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. “We have pictures, we have proof, we have witnesses; there’s not a lot people can say we did wrong.”

The Oath Keepers say their efforts at documentation, whether or not they actually capture criminal activity, could help challenge a Clinton win in the courts or on the streets. And whether or not members take guns to polling places, they are preparing for violence on or after Election Day.

The top risk, on a list presented by “Navy Jack,” a frequent writer on the Oath Keepers website and introduced by Rhodes as one of the organization’s “lead intel officers,” is widespread social unrest, perhaps peaceful, by voters unhappy with the outcome, no matter who wins.

More worrisome to Navy Jack was “provocateured” riots. In his assessment, these “undercover actions” would aim to suspend the vote before or on Election Day or kick off government “emergency powers” after voting ends. Post-vote provocations, Navy Jack asserted, would be instigated only by the Clinton side, to “demonize” and “delegitimize” a Trump victory – which the group expects.

Federally imposed martial law is a persistent worry of the Oath Keepers, which says it is made up of current and former members of the military and law enforcement. The oaths they keep are to defend the Constitution and to refuse a number of imagined orders, including to disarm the American people or enforce federal powers against a state without that state government’s consent.

It’s unclear how many Oath Keepers there are, let alone how many might heed the call to turn their skills of observation and intelligence gathering onto the polls today. Almost two weeks after Operation Sabot launched, the 15-minute announcement video had been viewed more than 13,000 times on YouTube.

It is clear the group is part of the passionate political divide in this country. And if that divide erupts – or even burbles – into violence by anyone this Election Day, it wouldn’t be the first time. In 1856, three years before the Civil War, abolitionists killed five supporters of slavery after a vote to determine whether Kansas would be a slave or free state, according to an account in “Deliver the Vote” by historian Tracy Campbell.

In 1868, according to Campbell, vigilante groups in Georgia killed nine African Americans before an election as an act of intimidation. Armed men in Mississippi kept others away from voting places.

One Trump supporter, unaffiliated with the Oath Keepers, says he doesn’t plan to be part of any unrest come Election Day – even if Clinton becomes president.

Michael Augustine, of Pahrump, Nevada, says he will be disappointed. But he’ll leave it there.

“If she wins, I’m not going to kill anybody,” said Augustine, who had never been to a political rally before he went to see Trump earlier this year. “I’m not going to kill myself. I’m not going to kick my dog.”

And he thinks Americans could, eventually, put this divisive election behind them.

“I’m going to pray to God that we are safe, that there can be unity in this country,” he said.

Reporter and producer Katharine Mieszkowksi contributed to this story.

Emily Harris can be reached at eharris@cironline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @emilygharris.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Emily Harris is a former senior reporter and producer for Reveal. She previously served as an NPR international correspondent, based first in Berlin and later in Jerusalem. Her 2016 series on Israelis and Palestinians changing their minds about some aspect of their conflict won the Overseas Press Club’s Lowell Thomas Award, and her 2014 coverage of Gaza was honored with an Overseas Press Club citation. She also was part of the NPR team that won a 2004 Peabody Award for coverage in Iraq. Harris lived in and reported from Russia during the upheaval of the 1990s. In the U.S., she covered a range of beats for NPR’s Washington desk and reported jointly for NPR and PBS’ “Now” with Bill Moyers. Harris helped start and host “Think Out Loud,” a daily public affairs talk show on Oregon Public Broadcasting. She worked to evaluate and share new financial models for journalism as editorial director of the Journalism Accelerator startup. She’s drafted a screenplay about relationships born in war and collects audio stories of awful and mind-changing moments in people’s lives. Harris was based in Portland, Oregon.