The New York Times Magazine released a piece on Saturday, Nov. 3 titled, U.S. Law Enforcement Failed To See The Thread Of White Nationalism. Now They Don’t Know How To Stop It. It’s a long read, and does a good job going into depth on the level of unpreparedness law enforcement is facing as far right wing extremists continue to ride a rising tide of violence that began in 2008.
The NYT Mag does a thorough job of outlining what the problem is today, and some part of how it came to exist. The short version of the answer, the one that law enforcement puts forward, and that on the surface, the NYT Mag seems to accept, is that from the federal to local level, law enforcement has been so hyper focused on the threat of terrorism from ISIS, Al Qaeda or other extremist Muslim groups that the growing threat of the far right broadly, and white supremacists more specifically, didn’t register on their radar.
The NYT Mag piece doesn’t explicitly lay it out, but following the line of reasoning that goes through the piece, it does suggest that federal and local law enforcement just didn’t or wouldn’t see any threat from the possibility of radicalized white men in the United States. It’s not explicit in the piece, but it is the suggestion of the article, overall.
It’s important to look more closely at this. It’s important to be explicit about the conclusions that can be reached.
There are three specific possibilities for law enforcement finding itself unprepared for what is now the most dangerous threat of terrorism in the US. The first, most charitable explanation, is incompetence from leadership, at the federal and local level. Not that any of the reasons for this failure is encouraging, but frankly, incompetence is a problem without a straightforward solution. These are supposed to be the most well trained and highly competent law enforcement officials we have. If they aren’t competent to see the threat, who is?
The second, less charitable, but more likely explanation is that they didn’t want to see it. There is a straightforward solution to the problem of being unwilling to see there was a growing movement of white hate presenting an ever growing threat of violence. Appoint more people of color in every aspect of leadership, especially black people and Native Americans, whose history with organized violence in the U.S. makes them far less likely to let white hate groups slide by.The evidence suggests that either law enforcement didn’t want to see it or that the third more worrying possibility is true.
The third possibility is the least charitable explanation, and the most disturbing, but the evidence doesn’t preclude it. History suggests it is the most likely reality. This option is that the combination of the white supremacy being part of the historically proven perspective of law enforcement, combined with the Republican party making the calculated decision that it’s future was best served by the politics of white grievance provides for the growth, mainstreaming and motivation of a far right movement that has expressed a desire and ability to commit violence based on race, gender, and religious lines for over a century. The election of the first black president, as a member of the Democratic Party, begins this process. Over the ensuing eight years, the politics of white grievance become a central part of political landscape, leading to the election of the person who may have done more than anyone else to popularize the birther conspiracy targeted against Obama. The other side of the problem being that most of white liberal America has spent their lives operating under the idea that this could never happen here. This creates an environment that allows law enforcement to continue to enforce the law with a racial bias against people of color, while completely ignoring the growth of what has now become a threat to national security in more than one way.
The alarm bells were beginning to ring as far back as 2009. At the time, Daryl Johnson, a Department of Homeland Security analyst was among those who was asked to author a report about the terrorist threats the US was facing. He found that right wing extremism was the most profound threat. The Republican Party and conservative media industry immediately threw a temper tantrum, claiming that it was a “targeting” of right leaning political beliefs. DHS and the Obama administration backed away, and basically all investigation into right wing extremism was put on hold. Interestingly, no one seemed to make the connection that the Republican Party and the conservative media industry were defending as part of their tribe a movement which has a long history of bombing churches, government buildings, lynchings, and a long, long, long list of other violence. Looking back from todays vantage point, where the Republican Party had for decades been accused of issuing “dog whistles” to the kind of virulent racism that produces terrorism, this was a genuine embrace, an escalation of their signal to far right extremists as being part of the Republican/mainstream conservative tribe.
As this relates to local law enforcement, it begs this question: Are they so inured to a conservative political identity that they are able to ignore a report by another law enforcement professional as partisan, just because the conservative movement makes the cynical accusation that it is? What does it tell us about local law enforcement if they never even bothered to read the report to find out? The central complaint of local law enforcement in the NYT Mag piece is that they had nowhere to turn for intelligence. A federal agency had produced a report detailing the how and why of what the threat was, in 2009, but local law enforcement didn’t even start attempting to gather their own intelligence? This is only true of the white supremacist movement. No other political actors in the country, even those who have no history of injuring or killing other people, are given this kind of leeway. Local police will have files on every conceivable protest organization in their local jurisdiction, but not a movement with an already long history of domestic terrorism?
Just for a bit of perspective on this, in 2005, the FBI was infiltrating a group of Quakers, religious pacifists, because they planned to protest military recruiters being on high school campuses. Quakers were under surveillance, and having their meetings infiltrated. Quakers. The next social movement to come along following the anti-war protests of the early 2000’s is Occupy Wall Street. Again, even as there are no attacks resulting in injury or death attributed to anyone associated with it, the surveillance by local and federal authorities is vast, and intense. Then later, when #BlackLivesMatter takes to the national stage, always putting the need for non-violent protest at the center of their movement and public statements from organizers, surveillance by local and federal authorities is intense. Then, there’s the US Muslim community, which has been laboring under a blanket of surveillance of such scope that even federal authorities say it took up so many resources, there wasn’t enough left to recognize the growing threat of far right violence. All of that also ignores that the violence of white supremacist organizations was the original domestic terrorism in the United States, and it’s campaign of terror was carried out, essentially in the open for over a century, after slavery was abolished.
Let’s look at a few instances related to other movements involving courts ruling arrests as illegal.
- $18 million in restitution for illegal arrests at the 2004 Republican National Convention.
- $600,000 for illegal arrests on New Years Eve during Occupy Wall Street
- October 1, 2010, 732 people are arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. 93% of those cases are dismissed.
- 70 BLM protesters are arrested following the acquittal of an officer in the murder of Alton Stirling in July 2016. In 2018, Baton Rouge pays $136,000.
- City of Berkeley pays $125,000 for wrongful arrest and police brutality in Black Lives Matter protest.
In comparison, from 2008 to 2016, Reveal News (a project that is from the Center for Investigative Reporting) finds there are 116 attacks by right wing extremists, 78 murders.
In 2015, a new, different DHS report finds the threat from far right extremists is still the most likely source of a terrorist attack. Also in 2015, the non-partisan New America Foundation finds far right extremists have killed more Americans than Muslim extremists since 9/11.
Taking a long look at the last ten years, the choices law enforcement has made, in relation to estimating the threats to public safety that have existed, and that do exist now, the picture is grim. The evidence has to be stretched to believe that law enforcement just chose not to see that far right extremists are now the most persistent danger of terrorism, when it has so quickly perceived some kind of violent threat where none existed in so many other places.
To not stretch the evidence is to admit that law enforcement has always existed as the arm of the governments ability to use force to maintain order. The history of order in the United States is one of white supremacy, in it’s most broad sense. It has been a history of wealthy and powerful white men using whatever power, including government when they can or terrorist violence when they can’t, to insure their hold on wealth and power. What we refer to as progress, has been those instances where some degree of their hold has been wrenched from them, to allow for other people who haven’t had access to wealth and power some level of access, even the most minimal.
Law enforcement has been used against labor, attempting to secure living wages and safe work environments.
Law enforcement has been used against women attempting to secure the right to vote.
Law enforcement has been used against black people, to prevent them from escaping slavery, against their attempts to gain recognition of their human rights, voting rights, just even the very basic right to live.
In its assigned duty to enforce order, law enforcement has always been the means power has used in attempts to prevent the expansion of access to power. Petitions of grievance to government, the seat of elected power, are one of those means, protest being the most socially acceptable. The history of police violence against protest movements is well documented, over more than a century.
The early 2000’s anti-war movement was a challenge to power. The Occupy movement was a petition for the expansion of power. Black Lives Matter is specifically a movement a petition to undue the white supremacist perspective in law and order, which is in itself a protection of power. Law enforcement perceived all of them as a potentially violent threat, but didn’t perceive the threat from the longest running threat of political violence in the country.
It’s in this understanding of what we believe order is that we can see exactly why the institution of law enforcement, as a whole, has failed to identify this continuously growing threat far right terrorism. The order it protects is one that has been historically white supremacist. The far right seeks to protect and advance that order as well. Law enforcement is also tasked with being the arm of that order which is given permission for the use of violence. It sees violence as necessary, as does the far right. If law enforcement as an entity or institution were interested in justice, it would have begun addressing the issues of mass incarceration and the shocking level of violence it continues carry out against communities of color (a goal the far right aspires to). This is beyond individual officers, no matter the consciousness they put behind a badge. Individual officers answer to their superiors. Their superiors answer to leadership. Leadership decides how to attempt to enforce the law. The law is about establishing order, and the perspective on what order looks like has always been seen through or very heavily colored by white supremacy.
On August 3, of 2017, the Justice Department revealed it would be looking into “Black Identity Extremist” groups. No previous law enforcement officials had any idea what that was or why they would feel it was necessary to focus on.
This has been something white America has been trying desperately avoid. Even considering that on August 11, and August 12 of 2017, far right extremists including white supremacists, neo-nazis, came from 29 separate states to hold a small city in Virginia hostage through violence, brutality, and ultimately murder. Law enforcement, state and local, stood by. “Charlottesville” stopped being a location at that point, and became a reference to far right terrorism. It became an emotional frame of reference to express the disbelief, shock, fear and shame. Still, most of white America has clung to the idea that law enforcement can not possibly be infected with white supremacy. There had to be some other explanation for the videos of police standing by as white supremacists beat people indiscriminately.
The FBI has worried enough about infiltration of law enforcement by white supremacists to prompt investigations, and still the refusal to see has been steadfast. This is backed up by former members of the white supremacist movement, who have gone on to establish organizations and well regarded reputations based on getting people out of that movement, trying to undue what harm they may have helped create. Still, we argue about the presence of monuments celebrating violent white supremacists in our cities and towns, while refusing to acknowledge the scope of the problem they symbolize.
This has been the miscalculation of so much of white America. The inability to recognize and/or address the reality of white supremacy as the perspective on which our society is based (and don’t think that as a whole white supremacy is limited only to matters of race, it is intimately interested in gender and class as well). It’s interesting to consider as well, that it’s just within these last few weeks, Republican Party leadership stood in front of the world and referred to people, mostly women, yelling at them as a “mob” and that they were “under attack.” It was the same week that a group of about 20 far right goons associated with The Proud Boys assaulted protesters on the street. The police just stood there and watched.
Now, maybe, as this far right white supremacist movement has been recognized as a genuine threat to national security, as it is recognized to be indiscriminate enough that it is an active threat to everyones safety, the majority of white America that doesn’t subscribe to this dehumanizing ideology will realize what so many have been trying to find a way to get us to hear.
Our conception of law enforcement, of establishing order and what that order looks like has to be re-evaluated in total, if we actually want to even be able to say we’re trying to meet the demands of the ideals that we claim to believe in.Not even to necessarily achieve them, but to even be able to say we’re trying, this needs to be re-evaluated. To refuse to do so is going to mean that the order you believe in is going to end anyway. It’s just going to end with fascist and white supremacists deciding what the new order is going to look like, and who gets to live to see it.