During the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in early March, Ranking Member Sen. Chuck Grassley tried to convince his colleagues that the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was the work of left-wing and racial justice advocates dressed up as Trump supporters.
Let’s be clear: There’s no evidence to support Grassley’s conspiracy theory. But falsely blaming civil-rights activists is not without precedent in America. And while we must reject Grassley’s lies, we can’t ignore the history of racist scapegoating those claims are rooted in.
In January, President Joe Biden correctly named white supremacy as the force behind the violent insurrection. But to combat this growing threat, the White House must first confront hate from within law enforcement agencies like the FBI, which have long ignored the spread of white nationalist extremism while instead targeting racial justice advocates with unjustified and unwarranted surveillance.
The FBI, law enforcement, and local police forces have used vast surveillance resources to target Black people and others fighting for racial justice for decades. The FBI has criminalized Black Lives Matter activists, anti-fascists, and others fighting for social justice—even as the bureau has downplayed the growth of right-wing extremism and law enforcement’s ties to far-right groups.
In 2017, as fascists, white nationalists, and militias descended on Charlottesville for the Unite the Right Rally, the FBI was busy distributing its racist assessment of so-called “Black Identity Extremists” to law enforcement agencies across the country, warning them of the supposed threat of violence from Black activists. While FBI Director Christopher Wray publicly identified white nationalists as the biggest domestic threat to the nation’s safety, leaked FBI files confirmed that the bureau had secretly named confronting “Black Identity Extremism” as its top priority.
Anyone familiar with the history of Black protest won’t find it at all surprising that law enforcement has failed to focus on combating white supremacist violence. The U.S. criminal legal system is an offshoot of our ugly history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, designed to control Black people through brutality, mass incarceration, and over-policing.
The earliest police departments were created as slave patrols charged with controlling Black people. Starting in the late 19th century, thousands of Black people were lynched across the country, often with the complicity of law enforcement, and with no one held accountable for the crimes. Decades later, officers involved in police killings of unarmed Black people have similarly escaped justice.
In case after case, police departments have shielded white supremacists within their ranks, even as they’ve rolled out policies that harm Black lives. Given this history, it’s disturbing—but hardly shocking—that federal law enforcement and U.S. Capitol Police failed to act in advance on knowledge of the potential assault on the Capitol.
To enact lasting change and protect our communities from racist attacks, the Biden administration needs to root out the bigotry at the heart of law enforcement’s failure on Jan. 6 and jettison any surveillance technology that violates civil rights.
Civil liberties and racial justice advocates have repeatedly sounded the alarm about the rising threat of violent white supremacists, but the executive branch has historically refused to address law enforcement’s abuse of the massive amounts of resources at their disposal.
Radical Black-led organizing for liberation continues to be criminalized and deemed a threat. That’s why white supremacist groups, which have always been violent and have always threatened our safety, were able to storm the Capitol. The FBI isn’t trained in ideology nor practice to seriously confront white supremacist violence. Without congressional leaders stepping in to use their oversight powers to hold them accountable, the FBI is free to continue undermining our movements.
Countless people today still remember the state-sanctioned war against Black activists in the 1960s, when the FBI developed the racist COINTELPRO program, which spied on civil rights activists or leaders for exercising their First Amendment rights. Family members of former Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton are still fighting to uncover the truth behind the FBI’s role in his assassination. Giving the FBI even more resources and power to surveil us when the harms of the bureau from the past and the present remains unresolved will only put our lives in more danger.
The FBI’s practices trickle down and become pervasive at every level of policing. Its racist BIE threat assessment validates officers’ unjustified fear of the movement for Black lives and offers cover for militarized police presence at Black Lives Matter protests and even Black community gatherings.
Police track Black activists both on social media and offline. They monitor activists’ cell phones with “stingray” devices hovering above peaceful protests, track their faces using discriminatory facial recognition technology, and use sweeping aerial surveillance. Protests against state-sanctioned violence are met with an overwhelming show of force where armed officers in riot gear use rubber bullets and tear gas and even drive into crowds. Since the killing of George Floyd, more than 14,000 protesters have been rounded up and arrested for demonstrating.
In a stark contrast, the violent Capitol invaders were met with minimal force, even though they were seeking to harm members of Congress and overturn the election results. A recent study released by Princeton and a group of nonprofits found police are three times more likely to use force against left-wing protesters than right-wing protesters. This is why law enforcement by and large let the insurrectionists go home after they attacked the Capitol, even after five people died as a result of the violence.
If the Biden administration is sincere in its commitment to race equity, it must stop the FBI and local police from labeling and targeting Black activists as “extremists.” The administration needs to confront white supremacy head on. We can’t normalize the threat of far-right violence as white supremacist groups grow, evolve, and build power.
One important step is to begin a full investigation on the far right’s ties to law enforcement and to demand that agencies at the local, state, and federal levels implement policies that prohibit their personnel from affiliating with white-supremacist groups. We can’t leave racist officers in jobs where they have immense discretion to take a person’s life and liberty.
The White House must support congressional efforts to investigate where and how the police use surveillance resources. Biden can begin by compelling the FBI to revoke racist designations that criminalize Black protest. Only then will Biden be confronting the forces of white supremacy that have put Black people and our democracy in harm’s way.