In early August, on the first anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, Ferguson was simmering again. Near midnight, a gunfight erupted between four plainclothes detectives and an 18-year-old black man on West Florissant Avenue, the main commercial drag. Hours later, a different group of cops charged with their batons at a different group of black men who were standing near a car outside a hair salon. An angry crowd threw rocks and Ferguson’s favorite weapon: frozen bottles of water. A state of emergency was declared; police were out in riot gear; sirens whined; the bitter scent of tear gas filled the air.
Arriving amidst the chaos was a middle-aged white man named Sam Andrews. Andrews, a member of the notorious militia group the Oath Keepers, had come to Ferguson on a mission: Joe Biggs, a journalist for the conspiracy-minded website Infowars.com, was in the city to cover the anniversary, and Andrews, who lives nearby, had offered protection. With their body armor and semiautomatics, Andrews and his handpicked detail — an Air Force air-controller, a Navy engineer, a retired cop and a young Marine — looked like they had just stepped out of Soldier of Fortune magazine. They were immediately heckled by a group of black protestors standing at the barricades who assumed that they were cops — or members of the Klan.
“Black people see white people dressed in military gear, with AR-15s,” says Tony Rice, a local black protester who was on the street that night, “and their first thought is: They’re here to hurt us.”
Andrews, however, was accustomed to the turbulence in Ferguson. Nine months earlier, amid the much more violent riots that had broken out after the decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the local cop who killed Mike Brown, he had spent three weeks in the city on his debut operation with the Oath Keepers. Armed with fire buckets — and a large private arsenal — Andrews and a team of 30 men had established a position on the rooftop of a bakery and set about their self-appointed goal of protecting local residents and their property.
It was during that mission that Andrews met Tony Rice; they had struck up an unexpected friendship talking about the First Amendment and the destructiveness of setting it aside in lieu of violence. Now, in August, when Rice saw Andrews and his team getting heckled, he offered them a lifeline. “I went up and talked with Sam,” Rice says. “And everyone assumed, since they know me and I knew him, that maybe he wasn’t so bad.”
Within a matter of minutes, Andrews and the crowd were engaged in a debate, discussing everything from Donald Trump to police brutality. Eventually, Andrews says, many of the protestors asked about his gun. “They were like, ‘Yo, man, what are you carrying? What kind of gun is that?'” He says. “And I just told them, ‘It’s the kind that you should have.'”
The conversations that ensued took Andrews by surprise. One after another, the black men in the crowd told him that if any of them tried to wear a gun like he and his teammates had — openly and on the streets of Ferguson — the police would shoot them down. Andrews was skeptical at first. He quoted the Constitution. He cited Missouri’s open-carry law. At one point, Andrews says, he even called a state trooper over to tell the men that it was perfectly legal, given the proper permit, to own and carry a weapon in the state.
“I told them, ‘As long as you don’t point the thing at anyone, nobody’s going to shoot you,'” Andrews says. But the protesters were unconvinced. No matter what the law maintained, they argued, the reality was different: if one of them walked along West Florissant with a rifle on his shoulder, he’d be dead. “I must have heard it a hundred times that night,” Andrews recalls. “And that’s when I thought, ‘Whoa, we’ve got a problem here.'”
Andrews is, if nothing else, a problem solver, one of those diversely skilled and eminently competent men who can operate a milling machine, play a decent classical piano and kill a deer from the length of several football fields. As he brooded about what he had heard in Ferguson, Andrews had an epiphany: He would hold a public protest, an open-carry gun-rights march in which the white Oath Keeper militiamen and the city’s black residents would join forces in an armed demonstration.
“I wanted to show that you could carry weapons, even in front of the police station, and that nobody would do a thing about it,” Andrews says. “Then, just maybe, people would start to think, ‘Hey, we have some power.””
From the start Andrews’ work in Ferguson was not your typical Oath Keeper fare. Although the group professes an almost fetishistic respect for the Constitution, its best-known engagements over the years have tended more toward armed confrontations with the government than political or legal efforts to safeguard citizens’ rights. Its most famous operation was a near-bloody standoff, in April 2014, in which a company of Oath Keeper gunmen mustered near Bunkerville, Nevada and chased off federal agents sent to enforce a cattle-grazing judgment against the rancher Cliven Bundy. (This week, Bundy’s son Ammon, took over an Oregon wildlife refuge at gunpoint, accusing government officials of violating ranchers’ constitutional rights.) By virtue of its membership — which is to say, mostly white men of a constitutionalist or libertarian bent — the organization has rarely mounted missions on behalf of black people.
It was six years ago, on April 19, 2009 — 234 years to the day after the opening battle of the American Revolution — that E. Stewart Rhodes, the Oath Keepers’ president, appeared in Lexington, Massachusetts and announced the founding of the group to a cheering crowd of cops, firefighters, military veterans and period re-enactors in Yankee Doodle hats. A former paratrooper with a law degree from Yale, Rhodes told his followers that their once-proud republic was in jeopardy of crumbling. His inaugural event had come only three months after President Obama’s own inauguration at a moment when reactionary movements like the Tea Party were already springing up. Rhodes was not a movement activist, per se, but something like the leader of its Freikorps: a self-styled general in charge of a cabal of armed men who had come together, as he once put it, “to stop a dictatorship from ever happening here.”
Though it is hard to get a count of the Oath Keepers’ membership — the outfit claims 30,000 people have signed up — under Rhodes’ leadership, it has formed itself as a not-for-profit group with a board of directors and business cards with a 10-point list of orders they will not obey. (No. 6: “We will NOT obey any order to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps.”) If the Oath Keepers have a vision, it is perhaps a dystopian mix of Oswald Spengler and Alex Jones, one that conceives of the United States as an empire in decline, threatened by collectivism, gun control, burdensome taxation, the domestic use of drones and false-flag government operations that pave the way for martial law.
Though such a worldview can be paranoid, Rhodes, who was once a staffer for Congressman Ron Paul, is himself a charismatic leader who frequently appears on cable TV. Two years ago, he told Police Magazine that he founded the Oath Keepers after watching troops and military contractors seizing guns from the residents of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. “We focus on the guys at the tip of the spear, the ones who will be giving the orders,” he explained. “The big concern we have is if we have a legion of oath breakers and traitors in Washington D.C., who have utter contempt for the Constitution then all they care about is power. They just do whatever they think they can get away with.”
Ever since, his tactical teams have roamed the country, inserting themselves into land disputes and local politics under the guise of protecting the Constitution. In April, one of those teams — at times joined by Andrews — established a defensive camp at the Sugar Pine gold mine in Oregon after its owners asked for help in staving off a stop-work order from the federal Bureau of Land Management. Over the summer, another team went to Priest River, Idaho where reports had surfaced that the Department of Veterans Affairs was about to seize the gun collection of a former soldier. Around the same time, after four Marines and a Naval officer were fatally shot at a recruiting station in Chattanooga, Oath Keeper volunteers assumed protective posts at similar facilities across the country.
Though the group has operated quietly on the margins, it has not held back from thrusting itself into controversial issues and the media klieg lights that surround them. In September, for example, the Oath Keepers offered to defend Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk sent to jail for refusing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. (Davis declined the offer.) The very next month, in the wake of the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, Rhodes announced the S.T.O.P. — or Students Taking Over Protection — program, in which he proposed to teach college students how to subdue armed killers by providing them with gun and knife training and instruction in hand-to-hand combat.
“The same submissive and servile sheep-like mindset that children are being taught is exactly what they’re going to do politically, too, when it comes to their own government,” Rhodes said in an interview promoting the initiative. “I think the conditioning is intentional to make them easily murdered by mass shooters, and I also think it’s intentional to make them servile and submissive before the powers that be.”
These provocations and interventions have captured the attention of watchdog groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, which views the Oath Keepers as right-wing extremists who are essentially looking to pick fights with the government. Though Rhodes has tried to distance himself from other organizations that have openly advocated antigovernment violence, he has not always kept his own troops under control. This fall, an Oath Keeper in Phoenix publically threatened to arrest any lawmaker who supported the nuclear deal with Iran. A few years ago, a man in Georgia who claimed to be an Oath Keeper traveled to Tennessee, armed with an assault rifle, plotting to storm a courthouse and take into custody a group of state officials that had refused to indict President Obama on charges of having a fake birth certificate.
“In the grand scheme of things, what Stewart has done is built a domestic army, like Erik Prince built an international army at Blackwater,” says Ryan Lenz, a senior writer for the Souther Poverty Law Center. “Over and over, he has stepped into situations under the guise of providing social order without really thinking that, in a country of laws, he may in fact be creating more disorder.”
A few days after talking with the protesters in Ferguson, Andrews placed a call to Steven Homan, the Oath Keepers’ national vice president. “I said, ‘Here’s the deal: We need to have an open-carry march in Ferguson,'” he recalls. “‘We need 50 black people, all of them armed with rifles, and the Oath Keepers marching right beside them.'”
Homan, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Nebraska, told Andrews that he had to run the plan past Stewart Rhodes, who was camping in Montana at the time. He also said that instead of rushing into the march, he preferred to send a team of Oath Keeper experts to Ferguson to train the local residents in gun-safety skills and Second Amendment rights.
“It was still pretty volatile down there,” Homan tells me. “The last thing I wanted was to inflame the situation and put people into harm’s way. We wanted to work with the local authorities, not just go somewhere using our weapons like a phallus symbol.”
To Andrews, however, this alternate plan seemed like a tactic to delay and then derail the march. Since when, he thought, had the Oath Keepers worked with the local authorities? Since when had they not used their weapons as a phallus? Rather than wait for approval from the group, Andrews went public. On August 19th, he gave an interview to a reporter from Newsweek in which he expanded on the moral rationale behind the march, sounding — for a white guy from the suburbs of St. Louis — not unlike a fist-raising black nationalist.
“What I can tell you is we are going to march side by side with the black residents of Ferguson — armed,” Andrews said. “The point of the march is to have every black child in America see law-abiding black citizens carrying weapons and not being attacked by the police.”
A demonstration for the right to bear arms against abusive cops, in the very city that had become ground zero for police brutality, might seem like the type of antiauthoritarian display that typically excites the Oath Keepers’ board of directors, but Rhodes was unimpressed. When he came back from Montana and saw the Newsweek article, he sent Andrews a pair of sternly-worded emails, acknowledging that the citizens of Ferguson had “a right to do what we did — secure life, liberty and property against looters, shooters, rapists, robbers and burners.” But he also noted that he was “getting backlash from within the gun rights community” and was worried that a public protest would make it seem as if the Oath Keepers wanted local residents “to be armed to directly confront the cops.”
Of course, being armed to directly confront authorities is precisely what the Oath Keepers had done at the Bundy ranch and Sugar Pine. In Rhodes’ notes, Andrews said he sensed a racist double standard. A few days later, when Rhodes and other leaders conclusively rejected the idea of the march, tempers ran high and Andrews angrily hung up on Steve Homan during a conference call. “I asked him, ‘How dark does your skin have to be before you don’t have Second Amendment rights?'” Andrews says.
It was at that point that Andrews got an email from John Karriman, a former cop who runs the Oath Keepers’ chapter in Missouri. Karriman wrote that the march had been scotched because the board “perceived it as pitting the Blacks against the police.” He added that while it was still possible for Andrews, who had showed some promise as an Oath Keeper, to repair his relations with the national organization, that would only happen if he gave up his “abrasiveness” and quit “doing MLK impressions.”
Andrews was outraged. After all, he had joined the Oath Keepers two years earlier in a burst of optimism at having finally found a group that shared both his faith in the law and his skepticism about its government executors. “When I saw on their website that they were asking people to take oaths to uphold the Constitution — and that they weren’t radical knuckleheads — I thought, ‘This is exactly what this country needs,'” he says. “It gave me hope. But then when we got into it about all these racial issues, I was just so disappointed.”
Within a week, Andrews had broken with the group and was on the war path, telling Reason magazine that Rhodes’ reaction to the march was racist. Rhodes swiped back in the article, calling Andrews “a lying sociopath” and refuting claims that his thoughts on the march were based on race. “All we were doing is saying, ‘Look, Sam, don’t make it sound like we’re going to arm violent people who were rioters,'” he said. “We’re going to arm the good people of Ferguson to stand up for their rights against the police and to control the hoods.”
When I reached out to Rhodes to discuss the rift, his media liaison sent me a 17-minute YouTube video that bore the title, “Oath Keepers’ Urgent Message about Sam Andrews.” In the video, Rhodes claims that he is in possession of a bombshell family court document from a 2009 custody battle that Andrews was involved in. According to the report, which Rhodes proceeds to read aloud on camera, Andrews allegedly abused his former wife some years ago, under the disputed belief that she was cheating on him with a Florida cop — at one point, his ex-wife claimed, holding a gun to her head and threatening to kill her. “He is potentially unstable and potentially very violent,” Rhodes says in the clip, “and we don’t want to see the people of Ferguson unwittingly following this man into an armed march.”
Andrews, who is now by all accounts happily remarried, forcefully denies these allegations and in spite of the attack pressed forward with his plans. He decided to forgo using Oath Keeper manpower in favor of his own close circle of associates, a group of former military operatives whom he calls the YETIs — You Exterminating Tyrant Ideology. He called Tony Rice and activists from Black Lives Matter and members of the New Black Panther Party and a black minister who works in Ferguson, looking for support. To the Red Dirt Report, an online news site, Andrews compared the demonstration to the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima and to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s march on Washington in 1963.
“It will be an iconic event,” he said.
Two days before the iconic event, I fly out to St. Louis. I had spent the summer talking with Andrews, curious not only about his split with Stewart Rhodes, but also about how he could dress like Rambo yet talk like Bobby Seale. He seemed annoyed by the unconscionable behavior both of the police in Ferguson and his former colleagues in the Oath Keepers. His annoyance was undiminished in October when he texted me a copy of the flier for his march: “Historic Rights March! November 16th, 2015,” the flier read. “Show the world all people of all races have equal rights!!”
Andrews suggests that we meet for dinner at a Bob Evans off the interstate. When I reach the restaurant, it is not yet 5 p.m., but already dark. Dowdy white folks are grazing on sandwiches and heaping plates from the salad bar, looking sallow in the overly-bright fluorescent lights. When Andrews walks in, a half-hour late, I see a tall man in his fifties in a golf shirt, cargo pants and a swooshed Nike baseball cap. He has the long legs of an airborne officer and the watchful mien of someone who spent 20 years of service in the country’s secret wars.
As he tucks into a plate of steak and eggs I ask him what a white man, a onetime Oath Keeper, is doing leading a gun-rights march for black people. Without missing a beat, Andrews launches into a vehement attack on the police. He says that during his first trip to Ferguson, the St. Louis County cops tried “illegally” to disband his rooftop outpost and that during his second, Chief Jon Belmar, who runs the force, harassed him and his men for carrying weapons in the city despite the fact that it was legal. Andrews tells me that he walked away from these encounters, and from what he’d seen of how the local black community is treated, convinced that Belmar and his officers were “serial rights abusers” who either didn’t know — or, worse, didn’t care — about the law.
When I speak to Belmar, he admits that there may have been some sharp words between his officers and Andrews, but that in the end the Oath Keeper outpost was not disbanded and the freelance gunmen were allowed to carry their guns; in short, no one’s rights were abused. “You have to remember that we were trying to keep things calm in a very tense situation,” he adds, “and having people on rooftops with long guns didn’t seem like such a fruitful idea.”
The irony, of course, is that, before Ferguson, Andrews says he was “totally pro-cop.” This is no surprise, given that he earns his living making high-end weapons and has always counted the police among his customers. Beyond his role as “a weapons engineer,” Andrews is also a law-enforcement trainer. He claims to have taught most of the S.W.A.T. teams in the eastern half of the state.
“I’ve got more gun licenses than most two-star generals,” he tells me as we eat. “So when the cops said that I couldn’t carry a gun, what do you think they’re doing to a bunch of black kids, in an alley, at two in the morning, when no one is around?”
Andrews comes with some authority to his concerns about Ferguson. The adopted son of a wealthy man who ran a printing press manufacturing company in Chesterfield, he was born and raised in the area and used to play Little League games in Ferguson. After high school, he attended both St. Louis and Lindenwood Universities, where he was a three-sport varsity athlete — and, at times, the only white guy on his basketball team. “I got over the race thing a long time ago,” he says.
After college, he left St. Louis and embarked on a career as “a consultant for the Defense Department,” as he puts it. Though he claims to have had no military training, Andrews says he was recruited to undertake “compartmented projects” in various theaters overseas. When I pressed him to describe those projects, he told me that if the details were revealed he could be subject to a lawsuit. This summer, Andrews told Gawker that he had once worked for “a three-letter agency,” though he refused to say which one, citing a non-disclosure agreement. “Let’s just put it this way,” he says when I push him again. “I’ve been a few places and done a few things in the defense of liberty.”
The longer I spend with Andrews, the more it occurs to me that, however hazy his story, he is clearly not your average patriot militia guy. He is a practicing Baptist who doesn’t drink but plays the rock guitar, a prodigious hunter who is versed in physics, game theory, gear mechanics and can handle himself at chess. Moreover, at a moment when his state has been wracked not only by the turmoil in Ferguson, but also by the campus protests at the University of Missouri, Andrews, who loves his country, has not held back from condemning it with a scathing sense of racial indignation.
“I am almost 60 years old,” he abruptly says at one point during dinner, “and I am just sick of watching black kids getting killed by the cops for fucking misdemeanors.”
That was the indignation that gave birth to the march, the mere idea of which has cost Sam Andrews more than his position with the Oath Keepers. He tells me that in recent months he has been blacklisted in certain local law-enforcement circles — a bitter turn that has lost him friends and money. “I’ve probably dropped $100,000 in business since announcing this thing,” he says with a disillusioned shrug. “My cop buddies think I’m fucking nuts for going into Ferguson to help people.”
When I ask him to describe his politics, he says he is an “anti-drug libertarian,” by which he means that he abhors both legalization and the wasteful violence of the Drug War. He tells me that he plans to vote in the pending presidential election for an anti-politician — possibly Donald Trump. He also pushes the notion that Americans should be allowed to personally allocate their taxes by checking off a box on their returns (for defense or domestic spending) in something like a budget referendum. Although Andrews has tried to separate himself from the so-called “Chicken Littles” — his term for those who think that the New World Order is on the verge of imposing global government — he still holds on to some fairly fringy theories, like, say, the idea that CNN reports directly to the Justice Department.
But at the core of his beliefs is the Second Amendment. While it is not exactly shocking that a warrior-turned-weapons smith would place the gun at the center of his vision for social change, that, by and large, has not been the tactic of Ferguson’s black activists who have focused their attentions more on the First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly. To Andrews, however, there would be no First Amendment without the Second. Owning a gun, to him, isn’t a matter of sport or self-protection; it is a necessary counterweight against “the government’s monopoly on violence.”
While this rhetoric appears to be heartfelt — to say nothing of being free of ideological hypocrisy — it made me think of what Tony Rice, the protester, had said about seeing a bunch of militarized white guys walking down the street. The fact is, many, if not most, black people believe that owning a gun creates more problems than it solves. Two years ago, a Pew Research Center poll found that only 29 percent of American blacks thought that guns were more likely to protect people than harm them. Although that number increased to 54 percent in a more recent Pew poll, it was still lower than the 62 percent of whites who said that guns keep people safe.
It is often the case, as Jelani Cobb recently pointed out in the New Yorker, that the legal right to carry a weapon is “nullified by the realities of race.” Last August, John Crawford was killed by the police in a Walmart in Ohio, an open-carry state, while examining an air gun in an aisle of the store. Three months later, the Cleveland police fatally shot Tamir Rice while he was carrying a pellet gun.
There has, of course, long been a strand of black society that regards the gun as a tool for self-defense and social progress. In 1892, as a spate of brutal lynchings swept the South, the black journalist Ida B. Wells published a pamphlet titled “Southern Horrors” in which she made the case that white-on-black violence was an extrajudicial method of maintaining political and economic dominance. “The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well,” Wells wrote, “is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home.”
Decades later, the Black Panther Party responded to racial violence in California by launching armed patrols of black neighborhoods in what amounted to an effort to police the police. California was at that point an open-carry state and the Panthers would listen to police scanners and ride with their weapons to confront the cops at the scene of an arrest. In 1967, Don Mulford, a Republican state assemblyman, announced in a barely veiled reference to the group that he wanted to save California from “nuts with guns,” especially those from its “urban environments.” When he proposed a bill to ban loaded weapons from being carried in public, Ronald Reagan, who was then the governor and otherwise supported the Second Amendment, got behind it — as did, tellingly, the N.R.A.
In the last few years, a handful of Panther-like black gun groups have emerged across the country. One of them, the National African American Gun Association, was formed this year by Philip Smith, a black gun collector from Georgia, with a mission “to expose, educate and motivate…African-American men and women to go out and purchase a firearm for self-defense.” Another, the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, in Dallas, was created last year after Michael Brown was killed.
Andrews had in fact planned to ask the Huey Newton club to join him in his march, but when word of the event got out, the organization’s Facebook page erupted with rage. “Fuck the Oath Keepers! Where were they on the day Mike Brown was killed?” One commenter posted in August. That same day, another wrote: “Don’t touch the Oath Keepers. They’re vigilantes whose concept of open carry is about white aggression and the defense of white power.”
Once we finish our dinner, Andrews informs me that he can prove, once and for all, that the local cops don’t give a shit about Missouri’s gun laws — no matter what your race is. Out of the blue, he suggests that we go back to his shop, suit up in some body armor, grab a couple of ARs off the rack and drive through St. Louis proper, at which point, he says, the police will stop us, seize our guns and more than likely throw us both in jail. While I am game (sort of), Andrews eventually thinks better of the plan. In the end, he opts to take a trip to Lindenwood instead to see if he can recruit some students from his alma mater to take part in the march.
So, after we pay the check, we climb into his truck: a massive, jacked-up pickup with a camouflage paint job. For a Saturday night, the Lindenwood campus is eerily abandoned, but trolling down its empty lanes Andrews spots two young women on a sidewalk. He pulls up close to hail them through his window, and asks where the athletes lived these days. They hesitantly tell him Flowers Hall, and off we go in that direction. Within a few minutes, he is speaking across me, through the passenger-side window, with a young black football player. Sight unseen, Andrews offers him $5 a head — plus lunch — for every teammate he can bring to the march.
“Hey, man,” Andrews says, “it’s your chance to show every young black person in America they can exercise their rights and not be intimidated by the police.” Giving the kid his number, he continues: “So what do you think?”
For a long moment, the young student simply stares at this unfamiliar white dude who has suddenly materialized, talking about guns in a camo-painted monster truck.
“You’re gonna call me, right?” Andrews asks.
“Um, yeah, sure,” he says — but never does.
If that is the first sign that things are going wrong it is not the last. With the march approaching, the black minister whom Andrews has reached out to is not returning his calls. Nor are his other contacts in Ferguson’s black community. The one man who is still on board is Paul Berry III, a black bail bondsman from the area who is considering a Republican run for Congress. On the day before the march, Berry, who happens to be Chuck Berry’s grandnephew, pries me away from Andrews to show me a different side of Ferguson.
The first place we go is the Northwinds Apartments, a low-slung complex not more than 100 yards from where Michael Brown was killed. In the shabby parking lot, surrounded by tidy lawns and walkways, we meet a man named Tony Wallace, an aspiring rapper with dreadlocks and a set of gold teeth. Wallace, who is 27, says that he had only been a spectator at the protests, but when I explain to him that the very next morning a group of black people plan to march — with guns — past Ferguson’s police station, he looks at me as though I’d grown a duck’s head.
“Black folk walking in Ferguson with guns?” he says. “That ain’t very smart.”
Over the next few hours, we hear the same thing countless times: Sure, it might be legal, but you had to be out of your mind to be black and armed in Ferguson. “I wouldn’t do it — hell, no,” says Charles Mahone, a 57-year-old cleaning up trash in the Northwinds lot. “Don’t matter what the law say, the cops will shoot you down.”
Even Paul Berry, a gun-owning Republican related to a world-renowned musician, is a bit unnerved by the idea. “I’m going,” he admits, “and I’ll carry, but it does make me a little uncomfortable. Standing up for my principles doesn’t do me much good if I get shot.”
Besides, Berry says, Ferguson’s ailments go far beyond a fear of legally carrying guns; the local residents, especially the black ones, have been preyed upon for years, he says, by the courts and criminal justice system. Though he applauds Andrews’ commitment to the Second Amendment, he is more concerned about a broader erosion of constitutional rights. As we cruise through Ferguson, Berry tells me about a recent Department of Justice investigation that found the St. Louis County Family Court had, for years, failed to provide adequate representation to young defendants charged with crimes. He also mentions a series of federal lawsuits that successfully challenged the county’s illegal tactic of jailing people who could not afford their bail.
“I don’t know if Sam understands what he’s asking black people to do,” Berry tells me over lunch at a Subway. “Basically, the laws in affluent neighborhoods, the white ones, just don’t apply the same way if you’re a black person living a poor neighborhood.”
While the Second Amendment is important, it is only one piece of a much bigger picture, Berry says, one in which local kids cannot get lawyers and impoverished blacks are being locked away in the equivalent of debtor’s prisons. Earlier in the day, Tony Wallace had said, “The Constitution? Naw, man, the Constitution don’t exist in Ferguson.” Berry wonders if Andrews comprehends that pervasive level of unfairness. “I respect Sam and I think his heart is in the right place,” Berry says, “but the issues here are way, way deeper than guns.”
By that point, of course, Andrews has issues of his own. Aside from Berry, he still hasn’t gotten final confirmation from any black marchers. Then, on the night before the march, Andrews had a dream: he went to the Walgreens on State Road 109 to check up on the latest café racers in a biker magazine. What made the dream so strange was that it had been years since he had ridden a café racer. But what made it so disturbing was that he’d dreamt he’d seen another magazine — maybe it was Newsweek — sitting on the rack with the image of a tombstone on its cover. And on that tombstone was an epitaph that read: “The U.S. Constitution.”
When he wakes up in the morning, it is raining. Andrews arrives to fetch me for the march at 10 a.m. As I hop into his truck, he says, a little miserably, “If there’s no one there, we can all just sit around and talk about how pathetic this country is.” In the truck’s backseat is a khaki-colored AR-15 semiautomatic; it matches the one his wife had. Once we reach the park where the march is due to start, there are two old white guys under a pavilion taking shelter from the storm. One, I learn, is a 67-year-old Army vet wearing an N.R.A. cap and a Colt Commander pistol on his hip. The other is a former corporal of the artillery with an assault rifle slung across his shoulder, reading aloud from a pocket Constitution.
By 11:15, only 10 more marchers have arrived — and only two of them are black. When Paul Berry gets there, Andrews calls the protest to attention. He introduces Berry, who gives a brief speech (“I know African-Americans who believe that if they walk down these streets with an AR-15, they’ll be killed”) and leads the group in the Pledge of Allegiance. Then, in a line, in the rain, all of them walk with their weapons out down South Florissant Road, stand in front of the police station, observe a moment of silence, then turn around, in a line, in the rain, and walk straight back from whence they came.
It is hard to know what Andrews thinks about this 20-minute anticlimax. After the march breaks up, he starts giving interviews to reporters. When I see him talking with a young black man taking videos with his iPhone, I go over to listen. Andrews is in the middle of an angry peroration about police brutality. “When are the cops going to stop shooting young black men at Walmart?” he asks. “When are they going to stop shooting young black men, nine times in the back, on traffic stops in South Carolina? When are they going to stop shooting young black men right here in Ferguson?” On and on, in a now-familiar litany, that eventually has his listener nodding his head.
Afterwards, I approach the young man and discover that his name is Darnell Singleton and that he is a fairly well-known activist in Ferguson. “I think he gets it, I really think he does,” Singleton says of Andrews, “though it’s a little strange that he thinks that the solution is the gun. Dudes like me get shot even when we don’t have guns.”
A few hours later, Andrews and I have lunch at a cozy little Irish pub near his gun shop. The rain is still falling and I bring up the march. Sipping from some ice water, Andrews says that he understands why so few black people attended. “They’re afraid,” he reasons. “I get it. But when you think that you don’t have a right, then you really don’t have it. It’s psychological intimidation.”
When I ask him for his own reaction and gently suggest that the march — his Iwo Jima — failed, he disagrees.
“I’m not an amateur at this,” he tells me, setting down his cup. “The nice thing about having a small march this time is that next time, they’ll underestimate us. And that,” he adds slowly, “that will be a profound mistake.”