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Colorado law enforcement and elected officials linked to Oath Keepers

Members of the Oath Keepers on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
Members of the Oath Keepers on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

The Anti-Defamation League released a report based on a leaked list of members of the Oath Keepers. The ADL identified 14 law enforcement officers, two elected officials and seven military members with Colorado addresses on the list. The report has renewed concerns about the presence of law enforcement and military in extremist anti-government groups.To learn more, KUNC’s Yoselin Meza Miranda spoke to Jessica Reaves, the Editorial Director with the ADL’s Center on Extremism.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Yoselin Meza Miranda: Let's start with some background. Who are the Oath Keepers?

Jessica Reaves: Yeah, the Oath Keepers are an anti-government group. They're part of the militia movement. They believe that the federal government is inherently corrupt. They believe it's been infiltrated by some shadowy conspiracy. And they do not trust the laws that are passed down from the federal level. And like other militia groups, their members have been involved in a number of violent incidents and violent events, and a number of them have been arrested on violent charges.

Meza Miranda: Can you tell me about the ADL report that came out last week?  

Reaves: Yeah. So the report that came out last week from the Center on Extremism was the result of almost a year of research and reporting from our team. It came out of a data leak published by a nonprofit journalism outfit. They published this list last year, in 2021. So we spent about nine months sorting through the 38,000 names that were listed as people who had at one point or another paid membership dues and signed up for membership in the Oath Keepers, this anti-government group.

And as we continued to sort through the information, we found that an alarming number of public officials, including law enforcement, members of the military, elected officials, first responders, and other people in sensitive positions, were popping up as people who had signed up to be part of the Oath Keepers.

Meza Miranda: Would you say that the findings surprised you? 

Reaves: You know, I've been doing this work for eight years. It's very clear at this point in our country's history that extremism is becoming more mainstream. So I'm not sure that I was surprised by the findings. I was alarmed, as I think we all were.

But we have also seen Oath Keepers, who are identifiably part of the military or military veterans or law enforcement, who were part of the January sixth insurrection. So this didn't come out of nowhere. You know, we've been keeping a close eye on these groups.

Oath Keepers, in particular target, for membership, members of law enforcement and members of the military. And they call on them to sort of ‘protect their oath.’ And that's where their name comes from. Protect their oath to the Constitution, which they believe is being infringed upon by the federal government.

Meza Miranda: Some of the Colorado law enforcement who were on the list have told reporters that they were surprised to be included because they haven't had contact with the group in years. Does being on the list mean that someone is an active member of the Oath Keepers? 

Reaves: No. So we want to make clear that if you are named on the group, it means that during a certain set of years, you signed up for and paid membership dues to the Oath Keepers. It does not mean that you are currently an active member. And in certain cases, it was, you know, ‘well, I didn't realize what I was signing up for’ or, ‘I had no further connection to them. I didn't follow up on these conversations, or I didn't follow up on the membership’.

But the thing to remember is that Oath Keepers have since their inception … in 2009, always been an extremist group. It's not as if they have become more extreme over the years.

And so people can say, ‘Oh, well, I didn't like what they became.’ They have always been the same thing. They have always believed the same things. We want to be careful about understanding that signing up does not necessarily indicate current active membership. But people who signed up were absolutely signing up out of interest in an extremist group.

Meza Miranda: And why does it matter that military or law enforcement officials are members of this group? 

Reaves: Yeah. So we wanted to pay special attention to people who are in those sensitive positions, like law enforcement, like the military, like electeds. These people have outsized power. So let's say there's one person who is in a position of authority within a law enforcement agency or within the military, or has power in their community as an elected official. That person is then able to help share and disseminate extremist information with their entire community, with their office.

And they are also potentially able to take that belief system into the communities where they work. And that is extremely concerning because obviously, we see extremist movements embracing conspiracy theories, embracing all of these ideas about America that we know not to be true. And then to have people who are in authority and who have outsized influence using their positions to bring that extremist ideology into the public space is fundamentally anti-American and it's fundamentally anti-democratic.

Meza Miranda: Extremism has been on the rise nationwide. Here in Colorado, hate crimes are at record highs, according to the FBI. Why does it seem like Colorado and the Mountain West experience such high levels of extremism and white supremacy? 

Reaves: I think that people in every state believe that their state is experiencing alarming extremism, and every state is correct in that assessment. Colorado sort of falls somewhere in the middle in terms of its Oath Keepers numbers. Certainly, we've seen a lot of activity from white supremacist groups, who are a different type of extremist, but certainly raise very strong alarm bells. And we've seen that activity here in Colorado and in the Mountain West, as you mentioned.

Compared to the rest of the country, Colorado is pretty average, all things considered. It is not the most affected by extremist groups and is certainly not the least. But generally speaking, I think people are much more aware of these groups.

They are having sort of an outsized influence because they are so good at making people afraid. That is their goal. They want to make people afraid. They want to make people uneasy and keep them off balance. So they are having success in that sense because every single time they post a flier in downtown Denver or in the Highlands or wherever they're posting it, they then take a picture and perpetuate that. They share it with all of their followers on social media, and then those people share it out again.

And so it has this exponential sort of ripple effect that makes people believe that they're everywhere. They're not everywhere. And I try to remind people of that. They are still pretty small groups, but they are having a significant impact on the broader and more mainstream political conversations in this country and political debates. And that is something that I think we all need to be extremely concerned about.

Meza Miranda: Thank you so much for speaking with us. 

Reaves: Thank you so much for having me.

Jessica Reaves is with the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism. You can find the ADL report here.

This story was produced by KUNC’s Maxine Speier