White nationalism is resurgent in the streets of America. It’s driving federal policy in the Trump administration. It’s leading to the murders of people like Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. White supremacists are gunning people down in synagogues and supermarkets.
Yet despite this—and despite the fact that white nationalist terror has been a constant in America going back at least to the founding of the Ku Klux Klan over 150 years ago—law enforcement agencies and their sympathizers are now claiming that the cops just weren’t able to spot this massive threat.
In a recent New York Times Magazine cover story entitled “U.S. Law Enforcement Failed to See the Threat of White Nationalism. Now They Don’t Know How to Stop It,” journalist Janet Reitman wrote about what she described as the “failure” of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and state and municipal law enforcement agencies to identify and combat far right violence due to “broken” practices which created “an atmosphere of apparent indifference” to white supremacists.
Experts interviewed for the Times article claimed that law enforcement now has no clue what to do. “How much of our city do we literally turn into a quasi-police state to manage this?” now-retired Gainesville, FL, cop Dan Stout told the magazine.
Stout’s question tells readers everything the need to know about how cops think about solutions: namely, that the only answer is to expand their own power. But the piece’s main thesis makes no sense.
It would be impossible for law enforcement not to know about far right violence when threats are filed to police departments, cops are routinely deployed to provide security for far-rightists at their protests, and far-rightists themselves (including Heyer’s alleged killer, James Alex Fields, and the organizers of the Charlottesville march) have been catching charges. Law enforcement didn’t “miss” an historic pattern of far-right violence that has been thoroughly reported in the press, studied by academics, and been the rallying cry of activists.
Reitman also writes of law enforcement’s “inability to reckon” with the far right, but even that seemingly critical view gives cops far too much credit. Police and law enforcement are not merely—or even apparently—“indifferent” to white nationalists. Nor are they “unable to reckon” with the spread of white supremacy. This is the conclusion one will come to if they primarily speak to cops about what’s wrong with policing. Far from falling prey to “blind spots”—another term Reitman uses—police have often served as the shock troops for white supremacy, and have directly supported far right groups. Reitman seems to approach an acknowledgement of this at times, but never quite gets there.
Law enforcement agencies have been somewhat keener to bust far-right activists in the past. In the 1980s, for instance, the FBI brought down the white supremacist, anti-government cell The Order, which was responsible for a series of bank robberies, counterfeiting cash, and the murder of liberal, Jewish radio host Alan Berg. The proceeds from the bank robberies were used to help fund other white nationalist organizations. Eventually, several members of The Order (a group still revered by contemporary far-rightists) were hit with RICO charges, and three others were charged with violating Berg’s civil rights. Other leaders in groups connected to The Order, including the National Alliance, also got caught up in racketeering charges.
Convictions on these charges obliterated The Order and sent a new streak of fear throughout far right circles. (In her piece, Reitman also details the spurt of federal investigations against various anti-government white supremacist groups throughout the 1990s, including the Branch Davidians in Waco, TX.) But after racketeering charges against The Order and others, the movement was forced to change tactics.
In the aftermath of The Order’s demise in the ‘90s, the white nationalist Tom Metzger published a manifesto that specifically advocated for the use of “leaderless resistance” and the so-called “lone wolf” strategy. “Lone wolf” is a term devised by the racist far right and popularized by the mainstream press to describe far-rightists who commit crimes (especially violent ones) so that they are seen as separate from the broader far right. More than anything, this strategy was devised in order to prevent the possibility of charges that could implicate entire groups.
As Reitman correctly says in her piece, “lone wolf” is now common parlance in the counterterrorism community, and the FBI called “lone wolf” white supremacists “the most significant domestic terrorist threat” in 2009—a fact that would appear to contradict her theory that law enforcement “failed to see” the threat.
This style of organizing has since helped far right organizations and figure-heads who might otherwise be called terrorists or gangs to evade too much scrutiny from the feds, in particular, and has also misled the public about how far rightists operate. Far-rightists are often referred to as “crazy” or “loners” in the press, which prevents journalists and readers from making connections between acts of violence and the white nationalist movement.
This is not to say that the feds were exhaustive in their pursuit of white nationalists prior to the movement’s adoption of “leaderless resistance.” While the FBI made some significant busts, far right street violence posed a serious threat to marginalized communities across the country throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. Police didn’t concern themselves much with racist street gangs then, as now.
When skinheads were running wild in the ‘80s and ‘90s, communities protected themselves from far-rightists in their neighborhoods. Militant anti-fascist and anti-racist crews routinely confronted far right groups in public, kept track of far right activism in their communities, and generally organized to keep fascists out of the public sphere, much like today’s anti-fascist activists. Skinheads are very much still around, but their activity diminished significantly in the 2000s due to anti-fascist organizing.
Law enforcement was also not then (and has never been) friendly to anti-fascists and other leftist or even progressive activists. To name only a few of the feds’ major offensives against the left: one of the FBI’s “first major cases,” according to the Bureau itself, was the Palmer Raids, a sweeping raid on the International Workers of the World; federal agents shot and killed Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton after the Party had been targeted by COINTELPRO for years; and the FBI launched a probe into anti-fascist activism just last year. In attacking and stymying the same people who are also targeted by the far right and who resist the far right, police agencies provide essential support to far right movements.
Cops haven’t even made white nationalist threats a priority in their own workplaces, despite ample intel from the FBI itself. During the George W. Bush administration, the FBI released a report in 2006 detailing how far right racists, including skinheads, infiltrate law enforcement as part of their recruitment and activism strategy. Though the report clearly identified white supremacists within law enforcement as a concern, it did not prompt any crackdown. That same year, however, some higher-ranking officers in the U.S. military softened their policies on accepting white supremacists to their ranks in order to meet recruitment goals to fuel the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In addition to having individual white supremacists among their ranks, local and state police departments have been quite literally on the front lines of fascist marches, rallies, and street brawls, providing security to even outright neo-Nazis in the streets. Law enforcement is typically deployed not to the “keep the peace” between two opposed sides, as they often claim, but to repress counter-protesters, as their actions demonstrate.
The Times article does note that sometimes cops sometimes take a hands-off approach at fascist gatherings, and stand by as fascists attack counter-protesters. “The police didn’t step in really at all,” a legal observer from the National Lawyers Guild quoted by the Times said of a neo-Nazi rally in Sacramento last year. (At that same rally, a fascist stabbed independent journalist Cedric O’Bannon, who is a black man; the Guardian later reported that police had then monitored O’Bannon’s social media and sought to charge him with various crimes he did not commit.)
But it’s not just Portland. At a rally of neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement members in Newnan, Georgia this past April, some cops pulled guns on counter-protesters, and 10 protesters were arrested. Michigan State University spent $18,000 on materials for a barely-attended event hosted by the white nationalist Richard Spencer in March. More than 200 cops from several police departments, including the school’s own, policed anti-fascist protesters outside the venue who were confronted by members of multiple fascist groups including the now-defunct Traditionalist Worker Party. An Intercept report also revealed that MSU-employed cops had infiltrated student leftist groups who organized protests against Spencer. Neither of these things are mentioned in Reitman’s piece.
The police also have been shown to use far right propaganda to justify going after anti-fascist protesters, and have also been exposed for collaborating with far-rightists against anti-fascists. The Times notes that a cop in Portland solicited the aid of a far-rightist in making an arrest against counter-protester during a fascist demonstration in 2017.
Instances of law enforcement collaboration with fascists seem even more calculated and strategic. In Newnan, police justified their massive presence (700 officers were deployed for a rally of about 20 Nazis) and use of military equipment by using disinformation about anti-fascists posted to a far-right Facebook page. In California, a disturbing pattern of police sympathizing and collaborating with pro-Trump far-rightists in their pursuit of anti-fascist activists has emerged in recent years, including the police who sought to bring charges against O’Bannon after he was stabbed in Sacramento. Berkeley police gave support to far-right Trump supporter Daniel Quillinan at 2016 rally, even though Quillman was armed with a knife and told police he’d attacked someone.
And then there’s the related matter of the Department of Homeland Security, which the Times magazine article included in its list of law enforcement agencies that missed the threat of white nationalism. The article explains that DHS officials have access to only scant information about white supremacists, but this was by design as well.
Just as the the FBI did in 2006, the DHS cast aside internal warnings about white supremacist violence in 2009. That year, former DHS counterterrorism analyst Daryl Johnson was dragged through the mud by conservatives after he published a report on “right-wing extremism.” Johnson, who created his own database while professionally researching white supremacists and neo-Nazis, saw his team dissolved in 2010 after the DHS denounced his findings, Wired reported. “There’ve been no hearings about the rising white supremacist threat, but there’s been a long list of attacks over the last few years. But they still hold hearings about Muslim extremism. It’s out of balance,” Johnson told the magazine in 2012.
The Times details some of the horrors Johnson uncovered while working at the DHS, and how Tea Party Republicans pressured the department to denounce the report, but this also does not amount to a “failure.” It amounts to a federal agency that claims to fight “terrorism” in all its forms caving to political pressure from the right and strategically opting not to pursue Johnson’s concerns. That’s not a broken system, or even neglect; it was political aid to Republicans.
The DHS, like all other policing agencies, was born of racist and reactionary policies, and the insidiousness of this executive department has become all the more obvious under Donald Trump’s eliminationist regime. Trump decided in 2017 to cut $10 million in DHS funding to organizations that counter right-wing extremism, demonstrating both that the agency has an ongoing awareness of right-wing extremism and that it continues to be a low priority.
Joshua Phanco, a Texas prosecutor who once oversaw charges against Texan white supremacist William Fears (Fears fired a gun into a crowd of protesters outside a Richard Spencer event at the University of Florida last October and was arrested on gun charges), lamented to the Times that white supremacist violence is going wholly unchecked. “Nobody’s watching it, nobody’s tracking it. And that’s what’s got me scared,” Phanco told Reitman. But that’s not really true, either. Law enforcement clearly hasn’t made white supremacist violence a priority, but anti-fascist and anti-racist activists have, as have diligent members of the press. Organized wholly separately from and often in hostility to law enforcement, anti-fascist activists in particular have spent years tracking, exposing, and confronting the far right.
It’s plain to see that all levels of police institutions did not miss or fail to see the threat of white nationalist violence. The truth is that what is a threat to marginalized people is not a threat to the police or to the social hierarchies they are sworn to uphold. Fighting for the benefit of the oppressed is just not compatible with the business of policing. How could the people who routinely kill black people and get away with it and guard neo-Nazis at their rallies be tasked with bringing down white supremacists?
Cops and their sympathizers in government and the press will continue to claim ignorance was responsible. But the police—from rookie beat cops all the way up to the FBI—are far too powerful to get away with that. The cops know all about the threat of white nationalism; it’s just rarely been their duty—or their desire—to deal with it. Pretending otherwise only obscures the full threat of white supremacist violence, which includes law enforcement.