As mass violence continues, many of us have become rightly afraid for the people we love. We want justice, but we also want protection.
So what are the solutions we’re hearing about following this month’s violence? One idea we must reject is the idea of trusting law enforcement to protect us from white nationalist violence, given how much they contribute to it. If people in law enforcement want to be seen as experts on defeating white nationalism, shouldn’t they have to get rid of all the white nationalists in their own ranks first?
White nationalists pervade law enforcement. There is a long history of the military, police and other authorities supporting, protecting or even being members of white supremacy groups. But it’s not just history. It was revealed last week that a black man in Michigan came upon KKK materials and Confederate flags in plain view while being shown a home for sale – the home of a police officer on the force for more than 20 years who shot and killed a black man in 2009 without consequence.
It’s a widespread pattern. As early as 2006, the FBI flagged it. Another FBI report in 2015, not covered nearly enough, indicated that “domestic terrorism investigations focused on militia extremists, white supremacist extremists, and sovereign citizen extremists often have identified active links to law enforcement officers”. (And that’s the FBI, which has its own history of white supremacy affinity groups.)
White nationalists connect through online networks and offline groups, and openly share tactics for infiltrating and influencing police departments, border patrol, the FBI and the military. That was the case for a Virginia police officer – assigned to a high school – who was revealed to be a longtime white nationalist and served as a recruiter for Identity Evropa, one of the groups behind the Charlottesville hate rallies and violence. He was not shy about his cover. In chat messages, he “discussed ways to downplay appearances of racism, while still promoting white nationalism”.
Another thing many of those like him are not shy about: stoking and celebrating violence, and promoting hateful misinformation and rhetoric. The Plain View Project tracked publicly posted social media material from more than 3,500 confirmed current and retired law enforcement officers, and found that “about 1 in 5 of the current officers, and 2 in 5 of the retired officers, made public posts or comments ... displaying bias, applauding violence, scoffing at due process or using dehumanizing language”. The Center for Investigative Reporting was able to identify almost 400 current and retired law enforcement officials who were members of private Facebook “Confederate, anti-Islam, misogynistic or anti-government militia” groups.
We have seen racist text messages and emails among active officers revealed in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland and more, including among those in management with direct authority over law enforcement practices. As the Portland case proved, we must come to terms with the depth of association between senior law enforcement and white nationalist leaders and groups – people they should be investigating and thwarting, not encouraging and helping to evade justice.
It would be naive to look at cases in which agencies have dismissed white nationalists from their ranks as an encouraging sign, whether in police departments, border patrol (an agent with a pattern of racist text messages ran over a Guatemalan migrant with a truck), the coast guard (a white nationalist aimed to “murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country”), military units (more Identity Evropa members in the Marines), or anywhere else.
In truth, would the level of violence committed by law enforcement in communities of color, and at the border, even be possible if racial hatred weren’t part and parcel of police culture? White nationalists in law enforcement and in many roles in government, such as prosecutors, are dangerous because they routinely abuse their power to attack and debilitate communities of color, including harassment and coercion, financial exploitation, acts of sexual and racially-targeted violence and mass incarceration – all officially sanctioned, and all celebrated as part of the larger white nationalist agenda.
Within the FBI, there has been an active movement among white nationalist sympathizers to protect their own by unfoundedly targeting nonviolent black activists: inventing the idea of a black extremist threat to justify surveillance of nonviolent black activists and divert attention from truly violent white nationalist perpetrators. This policy was codified in an internal “Race Paper” that a federal court allowed to remain secret, despite a move for transparency led by my organization, Color Of Change. (And people who have spoken out about internal racism at the FBI have not been treated well.)
Investigations have not yet uncovered the extent to which people in law enforcement at all levels are actually involved in white nationalist violence more directly: training and mentorship, advice and tips, offering the social validation that people of color and others are, in fact, the enemy, or offering the social validation that violence is, in fact, the answer.
More stories from those who know what’s happening inside law enforcement officers’ lives would help.
But we already know enough. We must change the incentives for law enforcement and their unions – financial, social, cultural and otherwise – that allow the denial of this threat to persist. Instead of allowing news media to praise law enforcement as problem-solvers, we must hold them to account for the harm they enable. Lawmakers across the country must also play their role: investigating the extent of the problem, and forcing a purge of white nationalists and their sympathizers from positions of power and influence – everywhere. Fighting white nationalist violence means doubling down on our fight for police accountability.