Over the final three weeks of the Trump administration, many Americans have started to become accustomed to the reality that Black and brown people in the United States have been intimately familiar with for far too long: the terrifying threat of violent white nationalists in our midst. It would be comforting to think of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and ongoing threats as an aberration, an isolated series of events caused by a president for whom truth holds little value and who convinced an alarming share of the electorate that, despite all evidence to the contrary, he had won the 2020 presidential election.
If so, these threats might simply end upon Wednesday’s inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who has called for unity and decency. But this view ignores our history and the role played by white supremacists, who have increased in number during the Trump administration and hold sensitive roles in our public safety systems. For instance, it was reported just on Tuesday that multiple U.S. Army National Guard members had to be removed from the inauguration security force because of “inappropriate” messages. Indeed, the attack on the Capitol and the ongoing threats of violence in D.C. and state capitals nationwide are at least in part a result of law enforcement’s and policymakers’ refusals to address the threat of white supremacy in our public safety system. This threat was present before the Trump administration began and will not disappear with Biden in the White House. To prevent this crisis of democracy from metastasizing, there must be urgent and rigorous efforts to address it head-on at every level of government—federal, state, and local.
Federal investigative agencies have long known, yet refused to address, the infiltration of white supremacists in law enforcement agencies. It is then no surprise that law enforcement officers are alleged to have participated in the Jan. 6 violence and are under investigation or have been criminally charged for their actions during the attack. Leaders within the military, which has also been infiltrated by white nationalists, have at least taken steps this week to screen for members with extremist views before deploying them for inaugural duties, and recognize this problem as a crisis. There has been no systemwide recognition of this crisis among the nation’s 18,000-plus law enforcement agencies as a whole—whose officers wield enormous power to detain, arrest, and use force, sometimes fatally, against people, often with little or no oversight, and who do so disproportionately against people of color. The U.S. Department of Justice, the nation’s largest and leading law enforcement agency, which has oversight authority over local and state law enforcement agencies, has in the waning days of the Trump administration been entirely silent on this crisis.
House committees are now investigating the intelligence and security failures that led to the breach of the U.S. Capitol. However, the refusal to address the threat posed by white supremacists and, at times, law enforcement’s tacit support for white supremacists is a problem that exists throughout agencies nationwide, and must be addressed nationwide. Just last summer, law enforcement officers told militia members, “We appreciate you,” before Kyle Rittenhouse killed two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. And while on Jan. 6, insurrectionists targeted the U.S. Capitol to disrupt our democratic processes, the threat posed by white extremists falls most heavily on Black and brown people and communities. Before insurrectionists tied a noose to a wooden beam in front of the Capitol, conjuring the racial terror of lynchings of Black Americans by ordinary white citizens, there was the white supremacist mass murder at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart in 2019; the Tree of Life synagogue slaughter in 2018; the white supremacist march on Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017; the massacre of congregants by a white supremacist at Charleston, South Carolina’s AME Church in 2015; the Oak Creek Massacre at a Sikh gurdwara in 2012; and on and on.*
But simply removing white supremacists from law enforcement agencies, while necessary, is not sufficient to address the inequities in our public safety systems that have brutalized Black and brown communities and which weaken our democracy. The demands of protesters in 2020, following the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, highlighted the urgent need for deep, systemic changes to our system of public safety. Federal, state, and local governments must support services and programs that reduce criminalization and produce safety while reducing the presence of law enforcement officers in Black and brown communities. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration per capita in the world, within which Black communities are grossly overrepresented due to overpolicing. Yet threats posed even by white extremists are not taken seriously. These inequities in our public safety system expose vulnerabilities that extremists can exploit, as those who breached the Capitol did on Jan. 6 where intelligence agencies and law enforcement failed to take the threat of their plans seriously. Insurrectionists and white extremists walked cavalierly through the halls of Congress after breaching security, carrying a Confederate flag, appearing to assume that they would be welcomed by law enforcement. In some instances, they were.
At the federal level, the Biden-Harris Department of Justice must immediately address the threat posed by white extremists in law enforcement to our democratic processes and communities of color, as well as the failures to investigate the threats posed by white supremacists. At the state and local levels, law enforcement agencies and their oversight bodies must investigate and hold accountable law enforcement employees who participate in white supremacist organizations or hold white supremacist views, whether they were present at the attack on the Capitol or not. And we must radically transform our system of public safety to address the structural inequities in law enforcement strategies, reducing the scope of law enforcement officers in Black and brown communities and investing in services that address communities’ underlying concerns. Our response to the Jan. 6 insurrection cannot be limited to prosecuting those who physically attacked the Capitol; we must address the structural frailties and inequities within our system of public safety that allowed the attack to occur.
Correction, Jan. 19, 2021: Due to an editing error, this piece originally misstated that the El Paso shooting took place at a mall. It took place at a Walmart.