Oath Keepers

A member of the Oath Keepers looks on as supporters of Donald Trump attend a rally protesting the 2020 election results in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.

Henry Vance III was fresh out of the Air Force, a young man who wondered if there was anything he could do to help keep the domestic peace as he watched news reports of social unrest. Dale Weide was a center-left libertarian who worried his government was straying from the principles of the U.S. Constitution. Timothy Bailey was a heavy-metal drummer, sucked into a social-media loop that portrayed an America coming apart at the seams.

All of them found comfort in joining the Oath Keepers.

“It was a short-lived burst of vibrato patriotism,” said Bailey, who described his delve into right-wing YouTube channels and conspiracy talk shows like InfoWars as “a form of psychosis,” or brainwashing.

The three were among at least 100 North Bay residents who in the last decade signed up for the organization now under fire for its involvement in the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol breach, where prosecutors have described members as leaders and key instigators of the mob.

A Press Democrat investigation revealed most local members have drifted away from the Oath Keepers, which extremism experts have labeled anti-democratic radicals.

For Weide, Bailey and Vance, the break was sharper. All three came to reject the Oath Keepers after witnessing the darker side to the organization’s messaging and activity.

“It kind of became almost a white militia,” said Vance, who is 40 and now lives in Washington state. “So I was like, ‘I’m not gonna hang around.’ I know history too well.”


A different ideology

Weide of Napa said the ideology of the Oath Keepers now looks different from what he believed it to be when he became a founding member.

Back then, Weide asserted, the organization was “nonpartisan,” concerned mostly with “upholding the Constitution.” One aspect that especially drew him to the Oath Keepers was founder Stewart Rhodes’ then-critical position toward the U.S. wars in the Middle East.

Rhodes penned a 2010 paper distributed to early members through an email Weide provided The Press Democrat. It decried “the dangerous and unconstitutional Bush Administration claims that the President, as Commander-in-Chief, can have anyone, even American citizens, black-bagged and held in military detention.”

Weide also applauded members of the group who showed up in Ferguson, Missouri, to organize armed patrols of neighborhoods experiencing social upheaval in the wake of the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.

Critics called the group’s presence an incitement, but Weide said, “They went there to prevent violence. ... I saw pictures of Oath Keepers at Black (business) owners’ stores.”

Over time, though, Weide, a registered nurse, noticed the organization’s leadership, epitomized by Rhodes, becoming radicalized around right-wing issues.

“There’s always going to be bad apples, so I overlooked those who I saw as bad apples early on,” Weide said. “But when I saw leadership spout the same ideology, I said, ‘I can’t continue on.’”


Dangerous cosplay

Vance, an Air Force veteran and former cop who worked for departments in Napa and Alaska, saw the Oath Keepers as one option among many for expressing his patriotism.

“It was kind of like a new crypto (currency), just seeing if it would perform or not,” he said. “It was like, ‘This has got some potential, let’s see what it does.’”

What it did, in Vance’s opinion, was descend into confusion as Oath Keepers leadership fell into “a big ego thing” and rank-and-file members focused more on guns and fist-shaking than any principled beliefs.

To Vance — the son of Henry Vance Jr., owner of the well-known Santa Rosa restaurant Hank’s Creekside Cafe — being an Oath Keeper started to look like potentially dangerous cosplay.

“In Alaska, there’s lot of rednecks, a lot of gun fantasy, a lot of hoarding guns, hoarding food,” he said. “People have fantasies about roving bandits. I’m like, ‘How many people have you pointed a gun at in your life? It might not be what you think.’ It changes you. It changed me.”

Bailey, like Weide, has no law enforcement or military experience. He was at the height of his consumption of InfoWars and similar media when he signed up to support the Oath Keepers. Certain the end of American society was looming, he felt that “I’ve got to help,” he said. “I’ve got to save people from the evil.”

People who study extremism cite the internet as a main facilitator of violent radicalization. Although empirical evidence is still wanting on the relatively recent phenomenon of online incitement and polarization, research suggests that social media platforms are particularly effective at algorithmically creating silos and echo chambers of information.

Among those surveyed by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism in PIRUS, a data set of radicalized individuals in the U.S., social media played a role for 27% between 2005 and 2010. That proportion grew to 73% between 2011 and 2016.


Miserable fearmongering

Before abandoning the Oath Keepers eight years ago, Bailey first quit YouTube, where he said he would spend hours watching videos of protests and riots that commentators blamed on “antifa,” the loose collection of “anti-fascists” whose activities tend to be highly exaggerated by right-wing media.

A professional musician, Bailey said his obsession with conspiracies and fearmongering media was making him miserable. He wasn’t playing music or engaging in the many side projects that served as an outlet for his lively imagination.

Bailey compared his time immersed in conspiratorial media to a drug addiction. “If someone says, ‘Are you addicted?’ You say, ‘No, you just don’t see!’” he explained.

But eventually, Bailey said, he began to detach. “The more I backed away, the more clarity I got,” he said. He sold the guns he owned, which included an AR-15, after the shooting of three men, two fatally, by Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August 2020. More recently, he tuned out most news altogether. It’s left him happier and focused on the things that bring him joy.

“You read these stories and every story is like ‘the sky is falling, the sky is falling,’ and then you look outside and you see it’s not falling,” he said. “But sometimes you forget to look outside.”

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