Oath Keepers leader, 10 others charged with seditious conspiracy for Capitol insurrection

The most serious federal charges yet in the Jan. 6 insurrection were unsealed Thursday. The leader of the Oath Keepers, a right-wing paramilitary group, and 10 of his members were charged with seditious conspiracy for attempting to overthrow the U.S. government. Kathleen Belew, assistant professor of history at University Chicago and the author of "Bring the War Home," joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The most serious federal charges yet in the January 6 insurrection were unsealed today. The leader of the Oath Keepers, a right-wing paramilitary group, and 10 of his members were charged with seditious conspiracy, attempting to overthrow the United States government.

    Amna Nawaz picks up the story there

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy.

    Stewart Rhodes is a Yale Law graduate. He's also head of a nationwide network of anti-government militants known as the Oath Keepers. He and many of his comrades were on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol last January 6. The Justice Department alleges in a complaint released today that the Oath Keepers conspired to violently overthrow the U.S. government.

    Joining me now to discuss the significance of these charges and the strength of extremist movements like the Oath Keepers is Kathleen Belew. She's an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago and the author of "Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America."

    Kathleen, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    This seditious conspiracy charge is not one a lot of Americans are familiar with. So, and tin basic terms, how often is it used? And what is it prosecutors are — have to prove to make it stick?

    Kathleen Belew, University of Chicago: So, seditious conspiracy has been used only in a handful of cases across the 20th and early 21st centuries.

    We see it deployed for things like Puerto Rican nationalists who were trying to attack Congress in one case, for Islamist terror in another. And there was a recent case in 2012 with a local sort of militia group in Michigan.

    But the biggest cognate example, I think, is the prosecution of 13 activists in the white power and militant right groups of the early 1980s. That case happened in 1987 and '88 in Fort Smith, Arkansas. And it tells us a lot of things about how this trial could signify to people in these ideologies and to prosecutors trying to get somewhere with this.

    In basic terms, what they have to prove is, conspiracy would mean that a group of activists had contact with each other, had a plan, and worked together over a period of time. And then the sedition part has to do with their capacity and their will to violently overthrow or interfere with the function of the United States government.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So what about this group, the Oath Keepers? For anyone unfamiliar, just briefly speaking, who are they? What do they believe in?

  • Kathleen Belew:

    The Oath Keepers is a militia-styled group, which it is to say, they are an extralegal private army. This is extralegal in every state.

    And the Oath Keepers use an ideology that is very consistent with the sort of conspiratorial anti-government militia ideologies people might remember from the early 1990s. They believe in a sort of version of the New World Order, which is to say that there is a conspiracy by the government to take rights away from citizens, and they're interested in curbing government authority.

    The other important thing about this group is that they actively recruit veterans, active-duty troops and police officers in order to create a very highly trained, militarized presence at the actions that they seek out.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You also mentioned previously there's a lot of overlap between Oath Keepers and white power and white supremacist movements in America.

    And I want to share with you some of what prosecutors say about Rhodes, the leader, the founder and leader, what he told his group, what he told the Oath Keepers on Election Day, to — quote — "stock up on ammo" and to prepare for a full-on war. He urged them to support President Trump, who he called duly elected, even after he lost the election.

    And he said, according to them — quote — "You can call is an insurrection or you can call it a war or a fight."

    In these cases, Kathleen, where is the line between sedition and free speech?

  • Kathleen Belew:

    So, this is tricky. And this has been a problem in previous cases as well.

    So, in the Fort Smith case, in 1987-'88, one of the things that came up that ended up preventing a conviction, even in that case, where it was very clear that these activists were interested in seditious conspiracy — they said that's what they were doing. They were outfitted with high-capacity weaponry and explosives.

    They — one of them immediately after acquittal founded a journal called "The Seditionists." So, they were not even sort of contrite about what they were doing.

    And one of the things that came up in that trial was the question of whether or not a plot to interfere with or overthrow the U.S. government could possibly succeed.

    This is a big question, because, in order for the answer to that question to be yes, you have to sort of be immersed in how the ideology of these groups works, because what they're operating through is the idea of sort of sabotage, guerrilla-style warfare, cell-style terrorism.

    And acts like January 6 are not mass casualty attacks in this sort of a system, but acts of performative activism that pave the way to the eventual sort of violent moment.

    So one of the interesting things in the complaint filed today is that Rhodes himself refers to what they're doing on January 6 not only as war, but also as an action to pave the way for future battles to come. And there's an entire section of the complaint that has to do with the aftermath of January 6, where we see these groups continuing to acquire ammunition — or at least we may see this in court.

    The piece of paper alleges that they continue to acquire weapons and ammunition to train in a paramilitary facility and to prepare to galvanize other militia groups to interfere with the inauguration.

    So whether or not those plans come to fruition is one of the sort of the challenges of this kind of a prosecution.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The most serious charges we have seen so far more than a year after that attack. We will be following it, for sure.

    Kathleen Belew from the University of Chicago, thanks so much for being with us.

  • Kathleen Belew:

    Thank you for having me.

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