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'Oath Keepers' with rifles roam among Ferguson protesters, raising concerns

'Oath Keepers' with rifles roam among Ferguson protesters, raising concerns
Heavily armed civilians with an anti-government group called the Oath Keepers arrive in Ferguson, Mo., early Tuesday. (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

As protests in Ferguson continued on a sweat-soaked Missouri night, at least three men openly carrying assault rifles approached the south end of West Florissant Avenue -- and began to attract a crowd themselves.

The men wore "Oath Keepers" hats and desert camouflage, declined to identify themselves and it was unclear whether police officers had questioned their armed presence.

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One man, who declined to give his name, told a Los Angeles Times reporter that he was part of a group protecting the Constitution and reporters for the website Infowars.com.

Inforwars.com said Tuesday that members of Oath Keepers were protecting businesses and were with their reporters Tuesday, but were not hired for protection.

"The Oath Keepers went to Ferguson on their own without consulting with Infowars," said an article on the website, run by conspiracy-oriented Texas radio host Alex Jones.

One of the armed men, who identified himself only as John, told a Times reporter that he lives in southwest Missouri and "we're here to show that carrying arms is a right, and we have that right."

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar told NBC News that the Oath Keepers' presence was "both unnecessary and inflammatory."

The  display of firearms was unsettling to many among some 200 demonstrators who had converged on Florrisant Avenue beginning Monday night.

Protests continued into the early morning hours Tuesday, a day after the first anniversary of the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old.

Late Sunday, protests grew violent with rock throwing, break-ins at at least one business, and a gun battle that left one man critically wounded by police after authorities said he fired on undercover officers.

Monday was far more peaceful, with only occasional skirmishes and bottle throwing that ended when police used pepper spray on protesters.

The Oath Keepers' St. Louis chapter says on Facebook that it is composed of "current and formerly serving military, police, and citizens who pledge to fulfill the oath to defend the Constitution."

A small cadre of Black Lives Matter protesters approached the men and demanded to know whether they were at the protest to incite a riot.

They noted that a line of more than 40 helmeted police officers stood across West Florissant Avenue watching 100 or more protesters, while the men openly carrying weapons were left undisturbed.

"The police leave you alone, you're white, what about if I ... carried a gun out there?" asked one black protester.

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According to Missouri law, anyone lawfully permitted to carry a firearm may "briefly and openly display the firearm to the ordinary sight of another person, unless the firearm is intentionally displayed in an angry or threatening manner, not in necessary self defense."

Follow @nigelduara on Twitter for national news.

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