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When the Oath Keepers came to Lexington: a look at the extremist militia’s ties to Massachusetts

In this Sunday, June 25, 2017 file photo, Stewart Rhodes, founder of the citizen militia group known as the Oath Keepers speaks during a rally outside the White House in Washington.Susan Walsh/Associated Press

The far-right Oath Keepers took center stage Tuesday during the Jan. 6 hearings in Congress, with a former spokesman for the paramilitary group telling lawmakers that insurrectionists were prepared for “an armed revolution” during the deadly Capitol breach.

Founded in 2009, the group is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a leading far-right antigovernment organization, advocating for Americans to prepare for conflict with the government by “stockpiling goods and supplies” and “engaging in paramilitary training.”

Members of the extremist militia have staged a number of high-profile actions across the country, including in 2014 in Ferguson, Mo., where protests erupted over a white police officer’s fatal shooting of an unarmed Black teenager. Heavily armed Oath Keepers, the SPLC says, acted as vigilantes, taking up positions on rooftops in what militia members claimed was an effort to protect businesses from rioters.

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But the Oath Keepers have New England ties as well. Founder Elmer Stewart Rhodes III, indicted for seditious conspiracy for allegedly organizing a plot to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, graduated from Yale Law School in 2004. And the group chose Lexington Common as the site of its formal launch in 2009, according to the law center.

Every April, reenactors gather on the Lexington Battle Green to commemorate the “shot heard ‘round the world” that sparked the American Revolutionary War in April 1775.

The Oath Keepers’ 2009 event in Lexington sought symbolically to liken their aims to those that animated the Revolutionary War. The gathering featured speeches about a “looming second revolutionary war, globalism’s threat to American sovereignty, and the need to resist supposedly tyrannical governance that would subvert Americans’ natural rights,” according to the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point.

The center says on its website that Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper, delivered remarks during the 2009 event.

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Rhodes, the center’s site says, told the assembled group his vision for the paramiliary group and “conducted a mass oath-swearing ceremony with those gathered.”

The Oath Keepers returned to Lexington for an event in April 2013, Patch news reported at the time.

“We’re pleased with the turnout and how respectful the officers have been,” said Randy Swanson, then-acting president for the Oath Keepers’ Rhode Island chapter, in the 2013 Patch report. “We’re here out of reverence for the courageous men who stood here in the defense of liberty and fought for our freedom.”

Rhodes also spoke during that gathering, according to a video posted to Patch.

“I want you to understand, those of you who have taken the oath before, you’re under an oath obligation still until you die,” Rhodes said. “We’re asking you to renew your oath today and recommit.”

He also cautioned attendees planning to swear allegiance for the first time not to do so “unless you are willing to give your life in the keeping of that oath. ... You do not take this oath unless you’re serious about it.”

Rhodes added that every “man from Lexington Green on to today who served in Iraq and Afghanistan is an unbroken chain of guardians of the republic who are willing to fight and die for this country. You must be willing to do the exact same thing. It’s a solemn oath, it’s an obligation between you and God. You are saying ‘so help me God’ because God’s going to punish you if you don’t keep it.”

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That 2013 event in Lexington took place amid a dispute with town officials who at the time had put a moratorium on gatherings on the Battle Green itself, owing to public safety threats presented by the Boston Marathon bombings days earlier.

Organizers of the event filed suit against the town in Middlesex Superior Court, where a judge rejected their request for a restraining order against the town so the group could conduct its event on the green. Instead, the gathering was held on the lawn by Buckman Tavern, the historical home where Lexington’s minutemen gathered on the night of April 18, 1775, Patch reported.

In rejecting the organizers’ bid to gather on the green, Judge Kenneth V. Desmond Jr. wrote that in light of “the emergency nature of the moratorium, in light of recent events, [specifically] the Boston Bombing on April 15, 2013, the plaintiff has failed to convince the Court of its likelihood of success on the merits and any potential irreparable harm it may suffer, therefore the motion is Denied.”

The organizers, legal filings show, were represented in that 2013 civil litigation by Rhode Island attorney Blake A. Filippi, a Republican in that state’s House of Representatives who currently serves as House minority leader.

Filippi, whose district includes Block Island, Charlestown, and parts of South Kingstown and Westerly, announced last month that he won’t be seeking reelection. He first took office in 2015.

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Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.

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Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com.