TONIGHT: What Happens When Terroristic Threats Come From Someone Wealthy & White?

Editor’s Note: Jonathan Hutson is the author of a forthcoming article in The Public Eye magazine fully examining the case of David Lenio and the disparate treatment of offenders from different backgrounds and ethnicities by the criminal justice system.

In the wake of a controversial decision this month to drop the felony intimidation charge against David Joseph Lenio—a 29-year-old White Nationalist who tweeted threats last year to shoot up a grade school in Kalispell, Montana, and “put two in the head of a rabbi,” then retrieved a weapons cache—the Investigation Discovery channel will premier the next installment of “Hate in America,” which explores the growing movement of strong-man worshiping populists, nativists, and armed anti-government militants across the country through the lens of Montana’s Flathead Valley.

Preview:

In “Hate in America: A Town on Fire,” which premiers Thursday, March 24 at 8pm ET / /7pm CT, Emmy Award-winning journalist Tony Harris introduces America to this beautiful valley nestled outside Glacier National Park.

The case of David Lenio is opening up many questions about the criminal justice system and White supremacy. Specifically, questions about how terroristic threats are treated when the person making them comes from a wealthy White background versus someone who is low-income or a person of color.

Armed and Ready

On December 30, 2014, the day he arrived in Montana, Lenio tweeted several times that he felt so angry at being economically disadvantaged that he wanted to “shoot up” a grade school in Kalispell. This short-order cook and snowboarder who falsely claimed to be destitute and homeless but who is actually the son of influential banker Remos Joseph Lenio, who co-founded the private investment bank Tillerman & Co. of Grand Rapids, blames a Jewish conspiracy for his sense of being disinherited from his economic birthright. He bragged that, in retaliation for his supposed life of poverty, he could kill more people than the 20 school kids and six adults who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012.

Specific Threats

Screenshot of a David Lenio holding a semi-automatic pistol in a video uploaded to YouTube in 2012.

Screenshot of a David Lenio holding a semi-automatic pistol in a video uploaded to YouTube in 2012.

Here is one of his tweets from the day he arrived in Kalispell, threatening Kalispell school children and teachers: “I David Lenio am literally so indebted & #underpaid that I want to go on a sandy hoax style spree in a kalispell, MT elementary #school 2014.” There are only five elementary schools in Kalispell.

From then until his arrest six weeks later, he obsessed about mass shootings and terrorist attacks – which he invariably claimed were hoaxes and false-flag operations perpetrated by Israel or the federal government.

By February 12, 2015, Lenio was calling for the rise of a new strongman to lead a White supremacist movement in fixing the American economy, stating that he was prepared to go down in a hail of bullets while killing Jews. “USA needs a Hitler to rise to power and fix our #economy,” he tweeted, “and i’m about ready to give my life to the cause or just shoot a bunch of #kikes …”

Calling for a Chapel Hill-Style Mass Shooting of Jews

Lenio also seized on the February 10 murders of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to call for a Chapel Hill-style mass shooting of Jews in retaliation for those murders and for his sense of economic disempowerment. On February 13, he tweeted: “I think every jew on the planet deserves to be killed for what kikes have done to our #dollar and cost of living Killing jews > wage #slave.” He added, “Best way to counter the harm #jewish #politics is causing is #ChapelHillShooting styling [sic] killing of #jews til they get the hint & leave.”

“I bet I could get at least 12 unarmed sitting ducks if I decide to go on a killing spree in a #school,” he tweeted on February 12th. “Sounds better than being a wage slave.”

The same day, he tweeted, “What do you think costs more in most U.S. cities? A gun with enough ammunition to kill 100 school kids or the security deposit on an apartment,” he tweeted. Then he wrote: “What would I rather do? Be a #wage slave for the rest of my life or tell society fuck you & do your kids a favor by shooting up a #school?”

‘I Bet I’d Take Out At Least a Whole Classroom’

Two days later he expressed a desire to emulate the shooting in Chapel Hill, North Carolina – in which a White man was arrested and charged with fatally shooting three Muslim students – Lenio wrote: “I bet I’d take out at least a whole #classroom & score 30+ if I put my mind to it #Poverty is making me want to kill folks #mental health.”

The line between free speech and true threats is crossed when one goes beyond scapegoating and conspiracy theories to threaten the indiscriminate shooting of 30+ school kids and teachers, as well as threatening to put two bullets in the head of a rabbi (of which there are only two in the Flathead Valley) to salve a sense of economic grievance and to advance White supremacy. There is also reason to believe that Lenio planned to put his murderous ideas into action.

Police found that on February 15, just after I reported his threats to law enforcement, Lenio had retrieved a cache of rifles and ammunition from his storage locker. He also had a loaded semi-automatic handgun with him in his van at the time of his arrest – along with extra ammunition clips and jugs of urine.

The First Amendment protects unpopular, crude, and controversial speech. But First Amendment protection is not absolute. Certain speech acts, such as extortion, false advertising, and true threats which would make a reasonable person fear violence and take precautions are not protected. Nor should they be.

In the Lenio case, the threats resulted in a nationwide effort involving FBI, police, and sheriffs from three states. Flathead County schools contacted every parent to let them know that the schools had enacted a security plan to respond to the Twitter threats, and extra police and sheriff deputies were deployed to guard the schools. When parents received the calls, they were scared for their kids, as any parent would be. And, for the first time ever, the Flathead Valley’s synagogues hired security guards.

As Rabbi Fancine Green Roston and I  wrote in the Flathead Beacon, “Each of us writing this piece knows what it is to be threatened by Lenio. One of us (Francine) is one of only two Flathead Valley rabbis and has kids in the local schools. Lenio tweeted to the other of us (Jonathan) to ask where his kids go to school. Lenio crossed the line between hate speech and hate crime.” However, we presciently titled our op-ed “David Lenio Reloaded?” because the justice system was already bending over backward to show Lenio undue leniency—unlike other defendants.

In the “Hate in America” series, produced by NBC’s Peacock Productions for the Investigation Discovery channel, former CNN news anchor and Emmy-winning journalist Tony Harris teams with noted civil rights advocacy organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), to showcase stories from the organization’s files, including the David Lenio case, which SPLC’s HateWatch has reported on in detail.

Lingering Questions

Why did the justice system give David Lenio preferential treatment by releasing him into the custody of his wealthy banker dad without bail in July 2015? Why did the authorities fail to act when Lenio violated his release conditions at least 348 times in August 2015 even though 37 other Flathead County Detention Center residents had been rearrested for violating their release conditions? Why did the prosecutor and judge keep delaying the trial and finally agree to drop the felony charge of intimidation against him without any meaningful conditions? And what could be the significance of those jugs of urine in Lenio’s van? Those are topics about which I plan to write more extensively in the future.

The same week Lenio received a deferred prosecution, a 24-year-old mentally ill transient in Oregon (who actually was homeless, unlike Lenio, who merely pretended to be while enjoying expensive snowboarding jaunts in the nearby resort in Whitefish) got 18 months in prison for making Facebook threats against unnamed police officers. In the Oregon case, the offender, Timothy Loren McCoy Fleming, didn’t possess a real, working gun; he had an inoperable pellet gun. In contrast, Lenio had fetched a working semi-automatic pistol and a working semi-automatic rifle along with a busted bolt-action rifle and spare ammunition clips after making his threats specifically against a Kalispell grade school as well as threats to put “two in the head” of a rabbi, in a Montana valley where only two rabbis reside.

Meanwhile, here’s a Investigation Discovery channel finder. Don’t miss “Hate in America: A Town on Fire” tonight, March 24, at 8ET / 7CT.

Crime Control & Political Repression: From the War On Drugs To The War On Terror

Click here to download the article as a PDF.

Click here to download the article as a PDF.

This article appears in the Winter 2016 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

American political time is often rhetorically divided into before and after the attacks of September 11, 2001. In this model, “before” signals liberty and respect for individual rights while “after” brought increasing restrictions and surveillance as a result of terrorism. But this distinction both romanticizes the past and obscures some of the institutional architecture underlying the War on Terror. In fact, there’s a direct line between the pervasive infiltration of Muslim communities seen since 2001 and the militarized street-surveillance and home invasion experienced by African American communities, which has steadily escalated from the early 1980s until the present.

The national emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement speaks to the level of rage (and community organizing) that exists beneath the surface of marginalized communities, but also to the impact of systematic law enforcement-driven repression. The steady expansion of both the power and use of law enforcement in multiple areas of life reflects (and institutionalizes) right-wing worldviews regardless of the political party or identity claims of the speaker.

Informants and undercover agents have been central to a significant proportion of federal prosecutions of “homegrown” Islamic terrorism cases.1 Those informants typically do much of the actual work to transform loose talk into concrete action.2 The procedural elements of these prosecutions, however, originated long before today’s War on Terror; the methods employed by the FBI against Muslims have been developed and refined for decades in the War on Drugs, as can be seen in brief descriptions below of a current homegrown terrorism case and a 1990s drug trafficking case.

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Statue depicting the traditional “Blind Justice,” in front of the Albert V. Bryan U.S. Courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia.. Photo by Tim Evanson via Flickr. 

On April 10, 2015, a 20-year-old Kansas man named John Booker was charged3 with three counts of attempted terrorism: attempt to use a weapon of mass destruction at Fort Riley, in northern Kansas; attempt to damage and destroy U.S. government property (again at Fort Riley); and attempt to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization (specifically the Islamic State, or ISIS/ISIL). The FBI complaint details the involvement of two confidential informants who had actively participated in every stage of planning the “plot” underlying the charges: they provided Booker with a list of the materials needed to make a bomb, they volunteered to build the bomb for him, delivered the supposed bomb to him in a van, and provided him with a map of the Fort Riley area.

A year earlier, in March 2014, Booker had come to the attention of the FBI after posting messages on Facebook indicating that he was planning to engage in violent jihad. Booker was interviewed by FBI agents and described his plans in considerable detail, but was allowed to go free with no other action taken, suggesting that the FBI agents involved did not consider him a credible threat. It seems clear that John Booker ideologically supported ISIS/ISIL and had some aspiration to engage in violence, but these encounters with the FBI suggest that, on his own, he had little capacity to turn his provocative statements into action. The key event leading to the terrorism charges occurred in October 2014, approximately seven months after his first meeting with the FBI, when he met the first of the two informants who set in motion the events that led to his arrest in April 2015. (The information currently available on this case comes from the FBI, and does not describe the motivations of the informants or whether they received compensation of some kind for their participation.)

Compare Booker’s arrest and prosecution with that of a man identified only as Miguel in an article written by a former Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent. In 1996, Miguel, an immigrant from Bolivia who worked as a parking lot attendant in Washington, D.C., was charged as a drug kingpin based solely on the testimony of a paid informant with an extensive criminal record.4 The informant had fled to the United States to avoid prosecution for a variety of criminal charges in Argentina and Bolivia, and over the preceding four years had been paid by the DEA for information in several other cases. Miguel had spent three of those years working 60 hours a week for a large parking lot company.

The informant was a distant family friend of Miguel and, based on his past experience, saw an opportunity to make money by fabricating a story to sell to the DEA. He proceeded to invent a fake “cocaine deal,” wherein Miguel was the “kingpin,” even though Miguel had no prior involvement in drugs or drug dealing. While the informant developed his story with the DEA, he simultaneously lured Miguel into playing along with a supposed one-time deal that would net them both considerable cash, if Miguel pretended to be a major Bolivian cocaine dealer. It ended with a staged transaction in which Miguel accepted a bag of cash in exchange for a promise to deliver cocaine a few weeks later; he was arrested as he left the room. The informant was paid $30,000 for arranging the encounter, and after several years in and out of court Miguel ended up taking a plea bargain than gave him a four-year sentence.

Informants have played such consistent and central roles in the War on Drugs that the provision of information has repeatedly generated elaborate economic relationships between prosecutors and inmates. In 1990, an L.A. County grand jury found that a well-developed network of jailhouse informants investigated cases based on newspaper accounts and any other sources they could acquire, and provided (largely false) testimony for the prosecutor’s office in exchange for reduced jail time, privileges, and other incentives.5 Between 2004 and 2006, a similar network of informants was found to be operating in Texas prisons, investigating cases based on publically accessible material and providing testimony for the prosecutor’s office, resulting in some cases being thrown out.6 Informants in homegrown terrorism cases, similarly, often receive some form of compensation, including money or assistance with immigration or other legal issues.7

The Right and the War on Drugs

U.S. drug policy has deeply racist roots. The Harrison Act of 1914, the first law to significantly control access to opiates and cocaine, was passed in part by exacerbating prejudices against Chinese immigrants and impoverished southern African Americans.8 In the early 1930s, Harry Anslinger, head of the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics, claimed that use of marijuana caused half of the violent crime committed in Black, Mexican and other Latin American immigrant neighborhoods.9 The War on Drugs both continued and dramatically amplified this historical pattern. Nixon’s 1971 declaration that drugs were a threat to the nation occurred within the context of significant social conflict and change, during which conservative resistance to the Civil Rights movement included defining social unrest as criminal activity.10 Ronald Reagan, in turn, built upon two of Nixon’s more toxic legacies: the “Southern Strategy” of using mildly-coded racism to align southern Whites with the Republican party, and the War on Drugs, with its attendant images of Black urban crime and drug dealing. (It’s worth noting that Whites and Blacks use and sell drugs at very similar rates.11)

The ideological valuing of order, discipline, and traditional social hierarchies are definitional characteristics of right-wing movements, from fascism to the KKK, and the Moral Majority to the Tea Party.

One of the challenges in describing the links between the Right Wing and both the War on Drugs and the War on Terror is the extent to which the political discourse of U.S. society has moved to the Right culturally. Over the last 40 years, the U.S. has grown increasingly sensitive to the perception of risk and the need for safety, accepting “freedom from” over “freedom to.” This is characteristic of societal moves to the Right, as German philosopher Erich Fromm noted in relation to the cultural psychology underlying the growth of Nazism. The ideological valuing of order, discipline, and traditional social hierarchies are definitional characteristics of right-wing movements, from fascism to the KKK, and the Moral Majority to the Tea Party. Yet core elements of this mindset have become normalized in the U.S., with Democrats as well as Republicans wanting to appear tough on both crime and foreign policy, and the presence of police officers in schools treated as normal (even when individual officers’ behavior may be questioned). Throughout the War on Drugs, personal privacy and individual liberty were steadily constricted by the need to keep us “safe” from the dangers of drug use and drug dealing, laying the legal and cultural groundwork for the much greater invasiveness of the War on Terror that would follow.

Race, Searches, and the Presumption of Guilt

In the movie CitizenFour, filmmaker Laura Poitras implicitly and explicitly makes the point that much of what we now talk about as “privacy” used to be called liberty. When the War on Terror began, the justification of mass searches of body and property on the grounds of safety had already become astoundingly normalized, and complaints were met with the assertion that only the guilty need worry. Once a society has accepted the need for chronic, invasive control of one vulnerable community on the grounds of protecting society, it’s a small step to target additional communities and employ somewhat different forms of surveillance.

Much of what we now talk about as “privacy” used to be called liberty.

Routine drug testing has become perhaps the most widespread example of the erosion of judicial and Constitutional protections against searches without probable cause. Urine tests for evidence of recent drug use have become a commonplace experience for health care workers, transit workers, and numerous other public service occupations, and are a standard element of participation in high school team sports. However taken-for-granted this has become, prior to 1989 routine drug tests without individual suspicion only took place in the military. In 1986, the Reagan Administration recommended testing employees for drug use as part of the War on Drugs, and the 1988 Drug Free Workplace Act required that companies with federal contracts provide a workplace free of illicit substances. In response, there were multiple cases in which courts ruled against mass-testing of firefighters,12 school bus drivers,13 and public school students,14 on the grounds that testing without individual suspicion would violate due process, privacy and protections against unreasonable search and seizure. In 1989, however, the Supreme Court discovered a “legitimate [state] interest” in protecting the public from drug use that justified an exception to the due process and individual suspicion requirements in the Fourth Amendment.15 Widespread testing in aviation, trucking, railroads and mass transit quickly followed. By 1995, the court’s understanding of legitimate state interest had moved so far that it approved random mandatory testing of student athletes.16

Silent March against "Stop and Frisk," New York City, 2012. Photo by Michael Fleshman via Flickr. License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Silent March against “Stop and Frisk,” New York City, 2012. Photo by Michael Fleshman via Flickr. 

At the same time, Fourth Amendment protections were being eroded in other ways as well. The most egregious and destructive violations of privacy and person in the War on Drugs may be the development of the no-knock warrant. In 1970, an anti-crime bill authorized judges to issue search warrants that permitted agents to break down a door without first knocking and identifying themselves. The warrants were initially permitted for use only in a small number of federal anti-drug investigations, but they are now more common and associated with SWAT team raids, which increased from 3,000 in 1981 to 50,000 in 2005.17 An ACLU review18 of SWAT raids found that almost 80 percent were used to serve a search warrant (62 percent for a drug search) but only 35 percent of cases clearly resulted in finding contraband of any kind.

No-knock warrants and SWAT raids have resulted in an uncountable number of unnecessary injuries and deaths that are in some ways intrinsic to the process of militarized forced entry into a home. In Massachusetts in 2011,19 a 68-year-old African American man was watching TV in his pajamas when a SWAT team broke down his door with a no-knock warrant to search for his daughter’s boyfriend, who did not live at the house. The man was shot while lying facedown on the floor, and it was later revealed that the suspect they were looking for had been arrested outside the home before the door was broken down. In Georgia in 2014,20 officers executed a no-knock warrant at 3 A.M. at a home with children’s toys in the yard. They threw a flashbang or “stun” grenade into the home as they entered, and the grenade landed in the crib of a 19-month-old toddler. Given the number of no-knock warrants issued annually, it is literally impossible to know the exact number that have resulted in injury or death to innocent parties, but the process puts the people inside the home at significant risk.

Cases and Trials: Prosecutors and Courts

The expansion of law enforcement powers over the past 40 years has not been limited to invasions of privacy, but has moved into the operation of criminal law in the courts as well. Progressives have historically viewed the federal courts as upholders of basic rights and protections, largely based on the work of the Civil Rights division of the Department of Justice. But the criminal branch of the federal system has become fully complicit in law enforcement assaults on vulnerable communities in both the War on Drugs and the War on Terror.

Drug laws have had a significant effect on criminal charging, trials and convictions in the federal courts in ways that enabled the subsequent, and higher profile, prosecutorial abuses of the War on Terror. The road from arrest to prison, from police practices to mass incarceration, passes through the courts. Theoretically, judges hold significant power, both direct and indirect, to modify law enforcement practices through questions about the admissibility of evidence, the constitutionality of particular actions, and the ultimate sentence imposed on a guilty party. An obscure but crucial element of the War on Drugs has been to shift power from judges to prosecutors,21] with multiple consequences for criminal defendants. These changes have both grown out of and accelerated the politicization of crime and punishment.22

Mandatory minimums

In 1984, the Comprehensive Crime Control Act replaced the federal Parole Commission with the Sentencing Commission, a bureaucratic declaration that punishment now trumps rehabilitation in the federal prison system. From 1984-88, the Sentencing Commission and subsequent anti-drug bills eliminated parole in the federal prison system and instituted escalating mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, including dramatically higher sentences for crack cocaine over powder cocaine.23 The sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine was the most overtly racialized element of the anti-drug bills, since crack was known to be a form of cocaine largely used by Blacks while cocaine in powder form was more common among Whites. The elimination of parole for all federal convictions after 1987, when the rule was passed, has been less visible since state prison systems still have parole and the vast majority of incarcerated people are in state prisons. The recent attention to the early release of 6,000 people convicted of federal drug offenses24 might not have happened if they could have been quietly released on parole without the need for formal action.

In combination, the sentencing guidelines and elimination of parole shifted the balance of power in the federal courts.25 Mandatory minimum sentences mean that the parameters of prison time are primarily determined by the charge itself, and negotiations then focus on the charge as a way to manage the sentencing outcome. In practical terms, this gives prosecutors enormous power to determine the fate of an arrestee through the minimums associated with different charges, and facilitates a pervasive system of plea bargains in which a defendant’s fate is determined outside the courtroom and with little judicial oversight. This dynamic was exacerbated by cutbacks to public defenders and other indigent defense resources.

Plea bargains

Approximately 90 percent of cases settle through the plea bargain process, and defendants who insist on going to trial usually receive harsher sentences,26 although this may reflect the power of sentencing guidelines. Plea bargains involve manipulation of the charges and sentencing recommendations made by the prosecutor, without meaningful judicial review or meaningful documentation of the negotiation process. The sentencing guidelines for drug offences exacerbate this situation dramatically, with punitive threats of charges that carry high mandatory minimums used to coerce bargains.27 A particularly toxic element of the process comes from a clause in the drug-related sentencing guidelines that recommends reduced sentences for defendants who “cooperate” with police and prosecutors. This clause has generated a quasi-underground economy of “snitching” in which information buys sentence reductions, generally at the expense of those too powerless to exact revenge.

Use of informants

Informants have become a pervasive aspect of drug cases at both federal and local levels, but with little or no oversight by the Department of Justice.28 The system of mandatory minimums paired with leniency in exchange for information offers significant incentives for defendants to provide information to police and prosecutors and creates a legal context that invites corruption from all players.29 Over time, this constant supply of informants has generated some dependence among prosecutors, exemplified by Miguel’s story, as informant testimony provides a less expensive and time consuming alternative to building cases based on material evidence.30 The resulting system invites slanted or outright false testimony from informants while providing significant incentives for prosecutors to overlook indications of problems with informant sources and lack of supporting evidence.31 It also uses the weak to punish the weak: turning in an impoverished neighbor safely reduces prison time, while providing information about higher-level drug dealers could cause more problems than it solves.

Federal prosecutions of “homegrown terrorism” build on elements of the War on Drugs: defendants face extreme prison sentences, power lies primarily with prosecutors and investigators, and cases are built through dependence on informants and plea bargains coupled with extended pre-trial detention.

This system of threats, harsh prison sentences, informants, and plea bargains should sound very familiar to anyone paying close attention to terrorism cases. Federal prosecutions of “homegrown Islamist” terrorism build on elements of the War on Drugs: defendants face extreme prison sentences, power lies primarily with prosecutors and investigators, and cases are built through dependence on informants and plea bargains coupled with extended pre-trial detention.32

Prosecuting “terrorists”

U.S.-based Islamist terrorism cases, commonly called “homegrown,” have the same core procedural elements as drug prosecutions although they are anchored in a different set of criminal laws. People charged with committing certain offenses (e.g. weapons possession) for political reasons face “terrorism enhancements” rather than mandatory minimums, but with similar consequences. Terrorism enhancements add a multiplier to the standard sentencing recommendations for a charge, again shifting significant power to the prosecutor in the choice of what charges to file. The resulting threat of extreme sentences creates pressure for negotiated guilty pleas and sentencing bargains. Informants again play a central role in the building of cases, and typically receive significant legal or financial incentives for their cooperation with authorities. Threats of deportation or prosecution as well as plea bargains on existing charges have proven as effective in generating informants in terrorism cases as they have in drug cases. The process again creates cases that get resolved largely behind the scenes, with vulnerable defendants pressured into guilty pleas in exchange for reduced sentences. The resulting spectacle reinforces the perception of Muslim communities as centers of terrorist activity, although a closer look at prosecutorial activity raises questions about the definition of certain legal terms.

Theories of prevention

Many civil rights advocates have pointed to the increased militarization of police forces as a factor in political repression. Photo by Tony Webster via Flickr. License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/.

Many civil rights advocates have pointed to the increased militarization of police forces as a factor in political repression. Photo by Tony Webster via Flickr. 

Legally, the defense of entrapment requires prosecutors to demonstrate that the defendant would have committed a crime of this type regardless of the informant or undercover agent. Homegrown terrorism cases have been built around a theory of radicalization to support prosecution arguments that Muslim defendants would have engaged in terrorism without the instigation of the informant or law enforcement officials,33 a claim to “pre-emptive” prosecution as a form of national defense. While focused on religion and national security, the core logic of the argument builds upon and extends the presumptions of danger and guilt embedded in the criminalization of low-income Black and Latino communities through frisking young Black men walking down the street or calling the police to handle misbehaving students in inner city public schools. In all these cases, the justification rests on a presumption that membership in certain racial/ethnic groups constitutes a predisposition to commit particular kinds of acts, and that militarized police practices are necessary to protect society.

Politics by other means

Among progressives, the War on Drugs and mass incarceration are increasingly understood in relation to the larger history of legal repression of Black people in the U.S. The focus on post-1970s racially disproportionate incarceration and its consequences,34 however, overlooks both the deeply racialized history of U.S. drug law and the multiple contexts for the expansion of law enforcement over the past 40 years.

U.S. drug law has been a tool of racial control throughout its 100-year history, 35 but the War on Drugs shifted the legal environment in qualitative, and not just quantitative, ways. As described throughout this article, the past four decades have seen changes in constitutionally-derived legal protections regarding searches and the right to privacy of home and person which affect all of us to some degree, but have specifically targeted African American communities. Within the court system, there has been a systematic shift of power from judges to prosecutors and the creation of incentives for the use of informants and other practices that reduce transparency and sidestep open judicial process. These gradual but steady reductions in civil liberties and the protections of due process were initially developed to “protect” the public from exposure to drugs and drug use, but have expanded into other areas of law enforcement. Over the past few years, the mandatory minimums and mass incarceration of the War on Drugs have been rolled back in certain ways, as with the decision to release several thousand federal prisoners as part of a rollback of mandatory minimum sentences.36 Meanwhile, the War on Terror continues unabated and employs many of the same legal strategies at an even higher level against Muslim communities in the U.S.

The War on Drugs and the War on Terror invite us to think about ways law enforcement engages in political repression outside contexts of heightened mobilization.

The War on Drugs and the War on Terror invite us to think about ways law enforcement engages in political repression outside contexts of heightened mobilization. In the 1960s, COINTELPRO (a portmanteau for the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program) targeted activists, organizations, and black communities during a period of widespread collective action. In contrast, the War on Drugs and War on Terror focus on communities primarily defined by vulnerability, not active resistance. The systematic targeting of Muslim communities has generated more fear than mobilization, and the targets of FBI anti-terrorism activities are often poor and socially or emotionally troubled.37 While African American communities have historically experienced recurrent waves of political mobilization and unrest, that had not been their primary condition for many years until the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

While the legal changes described in this article can be traced directly to the War on Drugs, the past 30-40 years have seen an overall pattern of criminalization of the poor justified by the need for order and discipline. The increased use of paramilitary police units like SWAT teams to execute search warrants and other routine procedures has expanded in small towns and rural areas as well as major cities.38 In a process sometimes described as the school-to-prison pipeline, police officers have become part of the normal disciplinary apparatus in public schools, and now arrest students, primarily low-income students of color, for behavior that used to be handled within the school.39 Homelessness has effectively become a crime in many cities, with local laws prohibiting sleeping, lying down, or even sitting for long periods of time in public spaces.40 Criminalization has extended into sexuality and public health, as laws to protect living children are used to prosecute pregnant women for child abuse for, say, delivering children born with drugs in their system or refusing a doctor’s orders,41 and young gay men and trans women of color are charged as sex workers for carrying more than three condoms.42 Simultaneously, the consequences of having a criminal record have expanded in ways that further marginalize the poor, such as limiting access to public housing and a range of social welfare programs, including some forms of student financial aid.43

The distinction between crime control and political repression has eroded, with criminalization used as a method to contain populations that might otherwise be politically problematic.

One lesson of the War on Drugs may well be that the distinction between crime control and political repression has eroded, with criminalization used as a method to contain populations that might otherwise be politically problematic. The War on Drugs and the school-to-prison pipeline have resulted in high levels of incarceration and other forms of legal supervision (such as probation) among young African Americans, which in turn creates other forms of vulnerability such as lack of education, employment, and housing. The stigma of being labeled a criminal compounds the technical disenfranchisement of loss of voting rights, access to social welfare programs, and a wide range of employment opportunities. In addition, mainstream Civil Rights organizations have historically been slow to engage with criminal law,44 and the growing critique of drug law and mass incarceration are a relatively recent phenomenon.

From a political perspective, one advantage of the tactic lies in the stigma and fear associated with criminalization. People accused of stigmatized crimes are difficult to defend, even for Civil Rights advocates, and civil liberties protections can be rolled back under the mantle of crime control and community safety. As a result, a highly developed and refined contemporary system of legal coercion, repression, surveillance, and associated institutional infrastructure remained largely outside of the progressive political vision, even as it was adapted for targeting Muslim communities.

Beyond the officially declared wars on drugs and terror, the expanding circles of criminalization described above have steadily encroached on social justice discourse in multiple arenas, eroding social movement gains through legal assaults on the young, poor, and otherwise vulnerable. The unwillingness of many progressives to challenge the criminal justice system and defend those caught in its net enabled mass incarceration to grow largely unchecked for over 30 years, as low-income Black communities experienced growing devastation. In order to truly roll back the power of right-wing movements in the U.S., progressives will have to challenge the politics of fear and criminalization, and stand in alliance with those pushed outside of society through the legal system. Black Lives Matter activists model this every day by refusing attempts to implicitly justify police violence through criminalizing Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and others. Will other movements follow that path?


About the Author

Naomi Braine is an Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at Brooklyn College, CUNY, and a lifelong activist in struggles for social justice. Her political and intellectual work has addressed mass incarceration, the war on drugs/drug policy, HIV and collective action, and, more recently, the war on terror.


Endnotes

[1] Thomas Cincotta, “Platform for Prejudice: How the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative Invites Racial Profiling, Erodes Civil Liberties, and Undermines Security.” Political Research Associates, March 2010, http://www.politicalresearch.org/resources/reports/full-reports/platform-for-prejudice/

[2] Human Rights Institute, Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions. (New York: Columbia School of Law and Human Rights Watch, 2014); Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the “Homegrown Threat” in the United States. (New York: NYU School of Law, 2011).

[3] All information on the Booker case comes from the formal complaint filed on April 10, 2015: USA v John T. Booker, Jr a.k.a. “Mohammed Abdullah Hassan”, Case Number: 15-mj-5039-KGS, D.C. KS (Topeka Docket).

[4] Michael Levine, “King Rats: Criminal informants are the real winners in then DEA’s drug war,” Utne Reader, May-June 1996, http://www.utne.com/politics/king-rats-criminal-informants-judicial-folly.aspx.

[5] Los Angeles County Grand Jury, “Investigation of the Involvement of Jail House Informants in the Criminal Justice System in Los Angeles County,” June 26, 1990.

[6] Randy Balko, “Guilty before proven innocent.” Reason.com, May 2008, https://reason.com/archives/2008/04/14/guilty-before-proven-innocent.

[7] Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the “Homegrown Threat” in the United States. (New York: NYU School of Law, 2011).

[8] Nancy Campbell, Using Women: Gender, Drug Policy, and Social Justice. (New York: Routledge Press, 2000); David Musto “Opium, Cocaine, and Marijuana in American History.” Scientific American 40, no. 7 (July 1991).

[9] Susan Speaker, “Demons for the Twentieth Century: the Rhetoric of Drug Reform, 1920-40.” in Altering American Consciousness: The History of Alcohol and Drug Use in the United States, 1800-2000, edited by Sarah Tracy and Caroline Acker, (Univ of Mass Press. 2004).

[10] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. (New York: The New Press, 2010).

[11] Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

[12] Lovvorn v City of Chattanooga, (861 F.2d 1388 (D.C. TN 1986)); Capua v City of Plainfield, (643 F.Supp. 1507 (D.C. NJ 1986)).

[13] Jones v Mckenzie, (833 F.2d 335 (D.C. DC 1986)).

[14] Odenheim v Carlstadt-East Rutherford School District, (510 A.2d 709 (S.C. NJ 1985)).

[15] National Treasury Workers Union v. Von Raab, 489 U.S. 656 (1989).

[16] Vernonia v. Acton, Washington School District, (23 F.3d 1514 (9th Cir. 1995)).

[17] Peter Kraska and Louis Cubellis, “Militarizing Mayberry and Beyond: Making Sense of American Paramilitary Policing.” Justice Quarterly 14 no. 4 (December 1997); American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), War Comes Home: the Excessive Militarization of American Policing. ACLU, 2014, https://www.aclu.org/report/war-comes-home-excessive-militarization-american-police.

[18] ACLU, War Comes Home: the Excessive Militarization of American Policing.

[19] ACLU, War Comes Home: the Excessive Militarization of American Policing.

[20] ACLU, War Comes Home: the Excessive Militarization of American Policing.

[21] Jamie Felner, An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty. Human Rights Watch, December 5, 2013, https://www.hrw.org/report/2013/12/05/offer-you-cant-refuse/how-us-federal-prosecutors-force-drug-defendants-plead.

[22] Jonathan Simon, Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear. (New York: Oxford Univ Press, 2007).

[23] Felner, An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty.

[24] Michael S. Schmidt, “US to Release 6000 Inmates From Prisons,” New York Times, October 6, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/07/us/us-to-release-6000-inmates-under-new-sentencing-guidelines.html?_r=0

[25] Felner, An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty.; Alexander Natapoff, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice. (New York: New York University Press, 2009).

[26] Lindsey Devers, Plea and Charge Bargaining: Research Summary. Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Dept of Justice, January 24, 2011.

[27] Felner, An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty.

[28] Natapoff, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.

[29] Natapoff, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.; Felner, An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty.

[30] Natapoff, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.

[31]Los Angeles County Grand Jury, “Investigation of the Involvement of Jail House Informants in the Criminal Justice System in Los Angeles County.”

[32] This summary and the material in the next section, Prosecuting Terrorists, all comes from the following two reports: Human Rights Institute, Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions.; Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the “Homegrown Threat” in the United States.

[33] Stephen Downs, Esq, and Kathy Manley, Esq, Inventing Terrorists: the Lawfare of Preemptive Prosecution. (Albany NY: Project SALAM and the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, May 2014), http://www.projectsalam.org/inventing-terrorists-study.pdf.

[34] Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

[35] Campbell, Using Women: Gender, Drug Policy, and Social Justice.; Musto, “Opium, Cocaine, and Marijuana in American History.”

[36] Schmidt, “US to Release 6000 Inmates From Prisons.”

[37] Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the “Homegrown Threat” in the United States.; Downs, Esq, and Manley, Esq,  Inventing Terrorists: the Lawfare of Preemptive Prosecution.

[38] Kraska and Cubellis, “Militarizing Mayberry and Beyond: Making Sense of American Paramilitary Policing.”

[39] Karen Dolan and Jodi L. Carr, The Poor get Prison: the Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty. Report from the Institute for Policy Studies, DC.

[40] Dolan and Carr, The Poor get Prison: the Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty.

[41] Lynn Paltrow and Jeanne Flavin, “Arrests of and Forced Interventions on Pregnant Women in the United States, 1973-2005: Implications for Women’s Legal Status and Public Health.” Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law 38 no. 2 (January 2013).

[42] Margaret H. Wurth, Rebecca Schleifer, Megan McLemore, Katherine W. Todrys and Joseph J Amon, “Condoms as evidence of prostitution in the United States and the criminalization of sex work,” Journal of International AIDS Society 16, (May 2013).

[43] Dolan and Carr, The Poor get Prison: the Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty.

[44] Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

35 Years of Demonization: The Criminalization of Black Women

Click here to download the article as a PDF.

Click here to download the article as a PDF.

This article appears in the Winter 2016 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

In December 1990, when Alice Johnson lost her job, she never imagined she would end up in prison. The African-American single mother had been supporting her five children as a manager of a FedEx store in Memphis. She soon found another job, but at one-third the pay. Meanwhile, the bills mounted. When she was offered a quick way to make money—by passing phone messages about where to buy drugs—she took it. Johnson is now serving a life sentence for conspiracy to possess cocaine, attempted possession of cocaine, and money laundering.1

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of people in U.S. prisons and jails increased from 292 per 100,000 to 481 per 100,000.2 But the number of women in prison rose even more sharply, doubling over the ten-year period.

The numbers keep growing. The number of women sent to prison grew by another nearly three percent (or 2,800 people) between 2012 and 2013. The imprisonment rate for Black women is 113 of every 100,000, more than twice that of White women (who are imprisoned at a rate of 51 per 100,000). At the end of 2013, nearly one quarter (or 23,100) of the 104,134 women in state or federal prison were Black.3 In contrast, Black women make up just 13 percent of women in the United States.4 Today, approximately 206,000 women are in jails or prisons nationwide.5 Johnson, who was arrested in 1994 and charged with conspiracy to possess cocaine, attempted possession of cocaine, and money laundering, is one of those women.

In July 2015, hundreds of people marched in Minneapolis to honor Sandra Bland and protest the deaths of Black women who have died in police custody. Photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr.

In July 2015, hundreds of people marched in Minneapolis to honor Sandra Bland and protest the deaths of Black women who have died in police custody. Photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr.

Johnson’s imprisonment did not happen in a political vacuum. The same policies of mass incarceration and racial policing that have sent disproportionate numbers of Black men to prison have also hit Black women hard.6 In 1996, the year Johnson was convicted, the rate of incarceration for Black women was seven times higher than for White women. The right-wing rhetoric that fueled those policies affecting Black men also reinforced a narrative in which Black women are seen as inherently criminal, a narrative that continues to influence public perception and law enforcement today.7

In 1971, Richard M. Nixon declared a War on Drugs. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan expanded that war. But, as Michelle Alexander notes in her pivotal study of the hyper-incarceration of African Americans, The New Jim Crow, this expansion came at a time when neither media nor most members of the public were particularly concerned about drugs. Reagan’s administration launched a public relations campaign, focusing largely on crack, to build both public and legislative support for his drug war. The war was not race-neutral—images of Black people addicted to crack, whether in the form of “crack whores,” “crack dealers” or “crack babies,” were utilized to strike fear into the public and garner support for harsher laws and more punitive sentences.8

The image of Black women continues to be fueled by the right-wing narrative of Black women as welfare frauds, liars, and cheats.

In 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, mandating a five-year sentence for a five-gram sale of crack cocaine; in contrast, the same sentence only took effect for 500 grams of powder cocaine. Although Whites and Blacks used drugs at similar rates, enforcement of the Act targeted Black people, drastically increasing the number of Black people sent to prison—in 1980, African Americans made up 12 percent of the country’s population, but 23 percent of all people arrested on drug charges. By 1990, however, they made up more than 40 percent of those arrested for drugs and over 60 percent of those convicted.9 The Act also took its toll on women, particularly Black women. Under the Act, police and prosecutors were able to arrest and charge spouses and lovers with drug trafficking “conspiracy” for everyday actions such as taking a phone message or sharing finances. This is what happened to North Carolina mother Phyllis Hardy, whose ordeal I have described elsewhere.10 In 1991, Hardy’s husband was arrested for conspiracy to import and sell cocaine. He told me that prosecutors asked him if he had ever given money to his wife. “She’s my wife. Of course I gave her money,” he told them.

Andrea Ritchie, co-author of the "Say Her Name" report speaks at the 2015 New York City #SayHerName vigil in remembrance of Black women and girls killed by the police. Photo by The All-Nite Images via Flickr.

Andrea Ritchie, co-author of the “Say Her Name” report speaks at the 2015 New York City #SayHerName vigil
in remembrance of Black women and girls killed by the police. Photo by The All-Nite Images via Flickr.

But, under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, sharing money with a spouse—even for household expenses like groceries or the mortgage—ropes him or her into the conspiracy. Phyllis Hardy was arrested and charged with conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine as well as money laundering. Believing that justice would prevail, she went to trial. She lost and was sentenced to 30-and-a-half years in federal prison. Her husband, who accepted a plea bargain, served 15 years.

Reagan’s War on Drugs coincided with a less-trumpeted right-wing war on women. Invoking images of Black welfare mothers driving Cadillacs and having children solely to collect more taxpayer dollars, Reagan and his acolytes whipped up public furor against welfare recipients and the idea that society should support those most in need. The frenzy continued past his presidency; in 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) was introduced as part of the Republican Contract with America and heavily pushed by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other Republicans, as well as right-wing think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, home of Charles Murray, whose racist writings formed the foundation for welfare reform. In 1996, Clinton signed it into law. The bill, popularly known as “welfare reform,” placed a five-year lifetime limit on welfare, excluded benefits to children born to mothers already on welfare, required recipients to work after two years, and enacted a lifetime ban on welfare benefits for people with drug felonies or who had violated probation or parole.11

The demonization of Black women extended beyond welfare and, even 35 years later, continues to inform police interactions. In 2013, of all women stopped by New York City police, over 53 percent were Black although Black people make up only 27 percent of the city’s residents.12

“The image of Black women continues to be fueled by the right-wing narrative of Black women as welfare frauds, liars and cheats,” Andrea Ritchie, a Soros Justice Fellow examining police violence against women and LGBT people of color, told The Public Eye. “These images drive interactions from whether to write someone a traffic ticket or arrest them for not putting their cigarette out to what to charge someone.” Ritchie pointed to the example of Charlena Michele Cooks, a Black mother in Barstow, California, who was eight months pregnant when she was brutally arrested in January 2015. While dropping her second-grade daughter off at school, Cooks had a driving dispute with another mother. The other mother, who is White, called the police. According to his body cam footage, the officer, after listening to the White mother’s statement, said, “I don’t see a crime that’s been committed,” but offered to speak with Cooks. The officer approached Cooks and, when she refused to give her full name and began to walk away, the officer twisted her hands behind her, forced her against a fence and arrested her as she screamed in pain and fear. She was charged with resisting arrest. A court later dismissed the charge; the ACLU of Southern California confirms that Cooks did indeed have the right to refuse to give her name.13

Whenever interactions like this occur, the underlying justification demonizes Black women, noted Ritchie. “Every police interaction is informed by the perception that they’re lying, cheating and not worthy of protection.” The brutal 2015 arrest of Sandra Bland, who died in police custody in Texas following a questionable traffic stop, illustrates the way in which these ingrained perceptions can be deadly.

National Day Of Action to end State violence against Black girls and women. Photo by The All-Nite Images via Flickr

National Day Of Action to end State violence against Black girls and women. Photo by The All-Nite Images via Flickr

Even when they are not deadly, the narrative informs who police choose to target—and arrest. In the 1990s, New York City, under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his police commissioner Bill Bratton, instituted a policy of “stop, question and frisk,” soon shortened to “stop and frisk,” in which police stop and search people whom they perceive to be acting suspiciously. Not surprisingly, most of the stops involved people of color. In 2011, nearly 90 percent of these stops involved Black or Latina/o people.14 But stop and frisk is not limited to New York; other cities also employ the tactic and, as in New York, people of color are often the targets.

Those stopped and frisked can be arrested not only for weapons or drugs, but also for carrying legal items such as condoms. Until recently in New York, police could—and would—seize condoms as evidence of sex work. But this policy didn’t just affect people engaged in sex work. Trans and gender non-conforming people, particularly people of color, also felt the brunt in a phenomenon known as “walking while trans.”15 Nearly 60 percent of trans and gender non-conforming people of color living in Jackson Heights, one of New York City’s most diverse neighborhoods, reported being stopped by police, who profiled them as sex workers solely because of their race and gender identity. None were actually sex workers, but they were charged with prostitution-related offenses if they were carrying condoms.16 Considering that the city’s Department of Health distributes over 35 million condoms each year, the practice of using condoms as evidence seems particularly absurd. But not absurd enough to abolish the practice. In May 2014, Bratton (once again New York’s police commissioner) announced that police will no longer use condoms as evidence—unless they suspect people of sex trafficking or promotion of prostitution.17 

Nearly 60 percent of trans and gender nonconforming people of color living in Jackson Heights reported being stopped by police, who profiled them as sex workers solely because of their race and gender identity.

Undoing 35 years of demonization requires approaches on several different levels. Andrea Ritchie is the co-author of Say Her Name, a July 2015 report examining police violence against Black women and girls, which includes some examples of policy demands that address Black women’s particular experiences of policing, such as a ban on using Tasers and excessive force on pregnant women or children and the passage of the End Racial Profiling Act of 2015, which prohibits any agency from engaging in racial profiling.18 In New Orleans, years of organizing and attention to the city’s racist policing practices ended in a 2012 consent decree in which the New Orleans Police Department was ordered to implement bias-free policing.19

At the same time, the underlying narrative that promotes these policies and interactions needs to change. The popular hashtag and associated movement #BlackLivesMatter have helped challenge this script, calling attention to the racism and violence against Black people. While #BlackLivesMatter, started by three Black women, does not focus exclusively on the violence against Black men, activists and media makers made sure that the call was expanded to ensure that Black women and Black trans people were not forgotten with calls for Black Trans Lives Matter and Black Girls Matter. Activists, media makers and members of the general public need to continue challenging the stereotypes of Black women and rewrite the script so that gender and gendered violence remain integral in the struggle to transform the criminal justice system.


About the Author

Victoria Law is a freelance writer focusing on the intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women.


Endnotes

[1] Victoria Law, “Mothers Serving Long-Term Drug Sentences Call for Clemency,” Truthout, September 11, 2015, http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/32745-mothers-serving-long-term-drug-sentences-call-for-clemency.

[2] Allen J. Beck and Jennifer C. Karberg, Prisons and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2000, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Department of Justice, March 2001, 3, http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/pjim00.pdf.

[3] E. Ann Carson, Prisoners in 2013, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, September 30, 2014, 9, http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p13.pdf.

[4] Maria Guerra, Fact Sheet: The State of African American Women in the United States, Center for American Progress, November 7, 2013, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/report/2013/11/07/79165/fact-sheet-the-state-of-african-american-women-in-the-united-states/.

[5] Aleks Kajstura and Russ Immarigeon, States of Women’s Incarceration: The Global Context, Prison Policy Initiative, http://www.prisonpolicy.org/global/women/ .

[6] Department of Justice, “State and Federal Prisons Report Record Growth During Last 12 Months,” December 3, 1995, 4, http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/pam95.pdf.

[7] This past summer, Texas district attorney called Sandra Bland “it” and re-directed the blame for Bland’s brutal arrest and subsequent death on her own behavior, stating, “It was not a model traffic stop … and it was not a model person that was stopped on a traffic stop. I think the public can make its own determinations as to the behaviors that are seen in the video.” Michael Gracezyk, “Texas Prosecutor Says Too Soon to Say How Woman Died in Cell,” Associated Press, July 21, 2015, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/00ba536ef2c24db1bb1609e9bcb6df1d/texas-officials-release-video-jail-sandra-bland-case.

[8] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010), 5.

[9] Jonathan Rothwell, “How the War on Drugs Damages Black Social Mobility,” Brookings, September 30, 2014, http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/social-mobility-memos/posts/2014/09/30-war-on-drugs-black-social-mobility-rothwell.

[10] Victoria Law, “Will Obama’s Commutation Allow Grandma Hardy and Thousands of Drug War Prisoners to Finally Go Home?” Truthout, August 20, 2014, http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/25497-will-obamas-commutation-allow-grandma-hardy-and-thousands-of-drug-war-prisoners-to-finally-go-home; Victoria Law, “Phyllis ‘Grandma’ Hardy is Home! But Over 98,000 People Remain Prisoners of the Drug War,” Truthout, April 7, 2015, http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29973-phyllis-grandma-hardy-is-home-but-over-98-000-people-remain-prisoners-of-the-drug-war.

[11] Bryce Covert, “Clinton Touts Welfare Reform. Here’s How It Failed,” The Nation, September 6, 2012, http://www.thenation.com/blog/169788/clinton-touts-welfare-reform-heres-how-it-failed.

[12] Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and Andrea J. Ritchie, Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women, (New York: African American Policy Forum, 2015). 7, http://static1.squarespace.com/static/53f20d90e4b0b80451158d8c/t/55a810d7e4b058f342f55873
/1437077719984/AAPF_SMN_Brief_full_singles.compressed.pdf
.

[13] Michael Martinez and Kyung Lah, “Police Video Shows ‘Horrifying’ Arrest of Pregnant Woman, ACLU Says,” CNN, May 29, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/28/us/barstow-california-police-video-pregnant-woman-arrest/.

[14] New York Civil Liberties Union, Stop‐and‐Frisk 2011 Report 8 (2012). 5.

[15] People’s Law Office, “Criminalization of LGBTQ People,” n.p., n.d., http://peopleslawoffice.com/issues-and-cases/criminalization-of-glbt-people-in-the-us/.

[16] Make the Road New York, Transgressive Policing: Police Abuse of LGBTQ Communities of Color in Jackson Heights, October 2012, 4, 15, http://www.maketheroad.org/pix_reports/MRNY_Transgressive_Policing_Full_Report_10.23.12B.pdf.

[17] Emma Caterine, “Condoms as Evidence: Terrible for Sex Workers, Terrible for Public Health,” RH Reality Check, March 8, 2013, http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2013/03/08/condoms-as-evidence-terrible-for-sex-workers-terrible-for-public-health/.

[18] Crenshaw and Ritchie, “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women,” African American Policy Forum, July 2015, 33 (See also: Cassandra Osei, “Reports in Review,” The Public Eye, Fall 2015, 20); End Racial Profiling Act of 2015, H.R. 1933, 114th Congress (2015), https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/1933.

[19] New Orleans Police Department, “NOPD Consent Decree,” City of New Orleans Mayor Mitchell J. Landrieu, n.d., http://www.nola.gov/nopd/nopd-consent-decree/. It should be noted that, three years later, “the pace of reform continues in many areas to be slower than desired.” Ken Daley, “Third Year in Consent Decree ‘Critical’ for New Orleans Police,” The Times-Picayune, October 5, 2015, http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2015/10/federal_monitors_warn_nopds_th.html.

Franklin Graham: Falwell Prodigy, Putin Lover, and Trump Fan

This week, Franklin Graham—son of famed evangelical Billy Graham and current president of both the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and Samaritan’s Purse—begins a 50-state tour of the United States. The “Decision America Tour” will feature prayer rallies across the country, calling on Christians to vote, run for office, and “boldly live out their faith.” He insists that he won’t tell people whom to vote for, and even announced recently that he was formally cutting ties with the Republican Party, opting to declare himself independent instead.

Donald Trump chats with Franklin Graham at Billy Graham's 95th birthday party in 2013. Image by Demoss.

Donald Trump chats with Franklin Graham at Billy Graham’s 95th birthday party in 2013. Image by Demoss.

But distancing himself from established political parties doesn’t make him any less political. In December, Graham expressed support for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump following Trump’s comments calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Whereas prominent leaders from across the political and religious spectrum responded with sharp criticism (even Christian Right leader Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called on Christians to denounce the candidate’s “reckless, demagogic rhetoric,” and former Vice President Dick Cheney argued that Trump’s anti-Muslim plan “goes against everything we stand for and believe in”), Graham quickly jumped to the multi-billionaire’s defense. In a Dec. 9 Facebook post, he pointed out that Trump’s proposal is actually similar to what Graham himself has been saying for months.

Jibril Hough, a spokesman for the Islamic Center of Charlotte, called Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump “the political version of Franklin Graham.” Both Graham and Trump are well known for their bombastic diatribes, and the two seem to be increasingly ideologically synchronized.

On social media, at public engagements, and in interviews, Graham regularly rants against Muslims, LGBTQ people, and just about anyone else who doesn’t fit into his specific Christian Right paradigm. Historically, his comments have been filed away as irrelevant and isolated to a particular breed of [dying] Christianity (like those of the late Fred Phelps of “God Hates Fags” infamy), but with Trump making outright bigotry seemingly acceptable in mainstream media outlets, Graham’s previously dismissible rhetoric is increasingly validated.

And unlike the late Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church followers, Graham’s bigotry is backed by some significant capital. With a reported revenue of over $460 million (according to 2013 tax returns), his Boone, NC-based Samaritan’s Purse is a powerful organization with an expansive global reach (the organization currently operates country offices and/or relief programs in over 14 countries. To better understand the potential impact of Samaritan’s Purse on LGBTQ people internationally, consider its local work: in 2012, Samaritan’s Purse contributed over $150,000 to North Carolina’s anti-marriage equality amendment, and more recently, Graham mobilized opposition against an ordinance proposed in Charlotte, NC that would have expanded the city’s nondiscrimination protections to include “marital status, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.” The ordinance did not pass.

In some ways, the Decision America Tour seems inspired by the elder Graham’s ambitious travel schedule—over the course of this career, Billy Graham is said to have conducted more than 400 crusades in 185 countries and territories on six continents. Franklin’s father, however, was comparatively more moderate, and on some issues even took relatively progressive stands. As early as the 1950s, Billy Graham insisted that his revivals and crusades be racially integrated, and he was a strong supporter and friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1965, following the brutal attack against Civil Rights activists attempting to cross the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL, Graham canceled a trip to Europe in order to host a 10-day, racially integrated crusade in Montgomery.

But as anti-Black violence continues to rage in the U.S. today, BGEA’s Franklin Graham has abandoned his father’s efforts toward a more racially just America. Not unlike Trump’s comments that a Black Lives Matter protester who disrupted a November rally in Birmingham, Alabama deserved to be “roughed up,” in a Facebook post published in March 2015, Graham callously responded to the growing national outrage about racist police brutality by suggesting that Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Jessie Hernandez, and countless other victims of police violence were at fault for their own deaths.

“Most police shootings can be avoided,” he wrote. “It comes down to respect for authority and obedience. If a police officer tells you to stop, you stop. If a police officer tells you to put your hands in the air, you put your hands in the air.” For Franklin Graham, racism isn’t an issue. For him, the real crisis facing America is that LGBTQ people are emerging from their closets, daring to demand rights and recognition; that women are asserting their bodily autonomy and demanding safe, affordable reproductive healthcare; and that Islam, which he previously described as a “very evil and wicked religion,” simply exists.

If anything, Franklin seems to be following in the footsteps of the late right-wing evangelical Jerry Falwell. In 1976, exactly 40 years ago, Falwell also went on a 50-state expedition called the “I Love America Tour.” The effort is credited with laying the groundwork for the eventual establishment of the Moral Majority, which played a pivotal role in mobilizing conservative Christians into a voting bloc, ultimately advancing a sharp rightward shift in American politics. The fallout of this shift is still deeply evident today, and Graham seems determined to lead a new phase of right-wing Christian influence in local, state, and federal elections across the country.

Graham’s interests and influence also extend far beyond U.S. borders. On a recent trip to Moscow, he met with President Vladimir Putin and discussed “the critical role of the church in restraining evil and fostering biblical values in society.” Lest there be any question as to what “evil” Graham was referencing, he continued: “Thankfully, Russian leaders in the church and government have stood steadfastly against the rising homosexual agenda in their country.”

Specifically, Graham praised Putin’s protection of “traditional Christianity” and for “protecting Russian young people against homosexual propaganda” (a reference to the 2013 “anti-gay propaganda” law which effectively criminalized public LGBTQ advocacy efforts). Graham, who has blamed the Syrian refugee crisis on President Obama’s support for LGBTQ rights, was also full of praise for Russia’s alignment with Syria, and emphasized the importance of protecting Christians there.

Over the last decade, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has flirted with various elements of the U.S. Christian Right (most notably with leaders and affiliates of the World Congress of Families—who convened their latest international gathering of culture warriors in the U.S. for the first time this year), but Graham’s appearance on the scene suggests a whole new level of game-changing developments. Bill Yoder, an American working for the German Evangelical Alliance of Eastern Europe, reported that during his visit, Graham appealed for a new East-West alliance in order to “ward off present-day dangers.”

Yoder indicates that the ROC, which enjoys increasingly friendly relations with President Putin, is endeavoring to form “an alternative global movement” to the historically progressive World Council of Churches. At a press conference in Moscow, it was announced that in the next 12-18 months, BGEA and the ROC will jointly organize an international conference to “discuss the problems of persecution of Christians in different countries of the world.”

So the ROC is aligning itself with Putin, Putin is aligning himself with the Assad regime in Syria, and Franklin Graham is aligning himself with the Putin and now Trump. This can only spell trouble for Muslims, the LGBTQ community, women, reproductive justice, true religious freedom, and for human rights more broadly.

U.S. Hard Right Being Bolstered by the Mainstream

On Monday, November 23, 2015, a group of Black Lives Matter protesters in Minneapolis, Minnesota were shot at—leaving five wounded. Shortly afterward, the police made four arrests, and it became clear that those allegedly involved in the shooting were influenced by the Hard Right Patriot movement. The day before the shooting, in a video that went viral on social media, two of those who were later arrested recorded themselves making racist comments and flashing a gun while driving to the #4thPrecinctShutdown, an Occupy-like encampment that had sprung up in the wake of the police shooting death of Jamar Clark.

Black Lives Matter demonstration in Minneapolis, 4th Precinct Shut Down. Photo courtesy of Fibonacci Blue via Flickr.

This most recent shooting fits into an escalating pattern of confrontation between social movements, such as Black Lives Matter, and the Right, both in terms of terror attacks and in mainstream discourse. This reality played out in Olympia, Washington in September, when neo-Nazi skinheads and White nationalists took to the streets (but were quickly driven from them) in support of the police, who faced protests after officers shot and wounded two young men accused of shoplifting alcohol. Harkening back to their heyday of the 1990s, the Racist Right is brazenly gathering in public.

Only four days after the shooting in Minneapolis, a Hard Right activist opened fire inside a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colorado, killing three and injuring nine. Planned Parenthood, which provides free and reduced-cost medical care to poor and working people (including abortions), has already faced a series of cuts in Colorado and other states, as well as media attacks from the anti-abortion movement and the Republican establishment. The recent video from The Center for Medical Progress, which generated much of this aggression, features doctored videos of Planned Parenthood staff discussing the donation of fetal tissue for purposes of medical research. The videos falsely characterize this as the “illegal sale of baby parts,” and many believe they helped set in motion a string of arsons, protests, and attacks against clinics across the U.S. What’s more, the alleged gunman, Robert Lewis Dear, after surrendering to police, is reported to have stated “No more baby parts,” in apparent reference to the manipulated videos.

The recent shooters may be different in terms of motivations and targets, but they may also be joined by radicalization via internet as well as a social movement. It could be said that the keyboard is the new gun show.

The recent shooters may be different in terms of motivations and targets, but they may also be joined by radicalization via internet as well as a social movement. It could be said that the keyboard is the new gun show. For instance, the shooters in Minneapolis were part of —and met through—the infamous internet message board website 4chan, which they also used to organize their armed “disruption” of the BLM encampment. Launched in 2003, 4chan is an internet image sharing and message board website, that has helped to launch key players on both the Left and Right, including the “hacktivist” group Anonymous. Likewise, Robert Dear may have been driven to act by the right-wing campaign this summer that went viral due to a YouTube video, although it is unknown if he actually watched the video itself. It is important to note, as Naomi Braine pointed out in her Public Eye article “Terror Network or Lone Wolf,” those taking part in these “lone wolf” actions, like Dylann Roof in Charleston, are tied to and influenced by larger movements and aboveground groups, although they may only interact with them from afar.

Supporters at a Donald Trump rally in Birmingham, AL, kick and punch a Black Lives Matter protester to the ground. Image via screenshot.

Supporters at a Donald Trump rally in Birmingham, AL, kick and punch a Black Lives Matter protester to the ground. Image via screenshot.

But while the internet continues to be a fertile recruiting ground, segments of the Hard Right are also acting in a context where their discourse continues to push into mainstream and is magnified around Donald Trump’s campaign trail. From making heinous comments about Latinos and immigrants, telling protesters to “go back to Africa,” retweeting neo-Nazi sound-bytes, declaring that all Muslims should be barred from the U.S., to proclaiming that Black Lives Matter demonstrators should have been “roughed up,” Trump has encouraged a new generation of White nationalists—much like David Duke did in the late 1980s. It is no surprise, then, that the Minneapolis shooters were reported to have fled the scene while yelling, “Donald Trump 2016” and “Race War!” Like the shooting in Minnesota, other collective acts of violence across the U.S.— from beatings in the street to confrontations at Trump rallies—have all been given steam by “The Donald’s” campaign. This is not to mention the shot in the arm White nationalists have received thanks to Traditionalist Worker Party leader Matthew Heimbach getting invited to do media interviews on White working-class voter dissatisfaction. Indeed, at the most recent Stormfront—a popular White nationalist message board website—convention, undercover anti-racists reported lots of pro-Trump paraphernalia.

Trump is quick to distance himself from violence, while at the same time feeding off its promotion. Likewise, anti-abortion Republicans were largely silent on the Colorado slayings. In so doing, these leaders seek to obscure the connections between this “lone wolf” and the broader right-wing movement.

This is true in the Right’s backlash against the movement for Black lives and advances in LGBTQ rights, as well as in the attacks, both in legislatures and on the ground, against Planned Parenthood. This reality continues to stack up the corpses of everyday people, gives support to the ramping up of government repression, and fosters and deepens systems of oppression and exploitation.

‘Trumping’ Democracy: Right-Wing Populism, Fascism, and the Case for Action

This article is part of the Winter 2016 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

The candidacy of Donald Trump has prompted a vigorous public debate over whether or not Trump is flirting with fascism. Some analysts suggest his political dance partner is leading him to the tune of right-wing populism. Other analysts say Trump’s marriage to fascism already has been consummated. Either way, Trump is stomping on the dance floor of democracy in a way that could collapse it into splinters. It’s a “scary moment for those of us who seek to defend civil rights, civil liberties, and democracy itself,” warns political analyst Noam Chomsky.1

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. Image via Flickr, Gage Skidmore.

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. Image via Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

Back in 2010 Chomsky started lecturing about the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany into the abyss of Hitler’s totalitarian Nazism.2 There are parallels to our current political climate than need to be examined cautiously, even though conditions in the U.S. are not nearly as bad as those faced by the Weimar Republic.

Is it really fair to suggest Trump—neofascist or not—poses a danger to civil society itself, as occurred in Germany at the end of the Weimar Republic? A review of Trump’s rhetoric makes this a legitimate question. Trump keeps gaining ground. As New York Daily News columnist Shaun King wrote in November:

For nearly six straight months, no matter how racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, or anti-Muslim Trump gets, he has maintained his lead in the polls. In fact, from all indications, it appears the more his public talk resembles that of a white supremacist, the more rabid and entrenched his support gets.3

The examples of Trump’s fascist-sounding rhetoric are numerous. In June, Trump tweeted, “I love the Mexican people, but Mexico is not our friend. They’re killing us at the border and they’re killing us on jobs and trade. FIGHT!”4 In July Trump falsely asserted, “The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.”5

Trump’s sexism was displayed at the Republican debate on August 6 when he was asked by Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly about referring to women as “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.” Trump later attacked Kelly on CNN, saying, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.” The London Guardian reported that the “insinuation that Kelly was menstruating crossed a line for organisers of the Red State Gathering, a conservative event featuring GOP presidential hopefuls.” That group cancelled an appearance by Trump.6

Forging ahead, Trump claimed in September that the United States had become the “dumping ground for the rest of the world” for undocumented immigrants and proposed rounding up and deporting some 11 million of them, including their children, who are U.S. citizens.7 In a series of rambling and contradictory statements, Trump called for widespread surveillance of Muslims and refugees in the United States, and seemed to agree to the need for a federal database registering all Muslims, although he later backed off to say he was only considering it as a possibility. He confirmed that he wanted such a database for all Syrian refugees.8

As Trump’s viciousness ballooned, the corporate press shifted from portraying him as a carnival sideshow geek to recognizing that he posed a threat to civil society and even democracy itself.9

The media reported with palpable disgust when, during a press conference, Trump mocked the physical disability of New York Times seasoned political reporter Serge Kovaleski.10 Amid mounting disruptions of his campaign rallies by anti-Trump activists, Trump began to mock them, tried to silence them, and even ask that they be forcibly removed. In one incident Trump appeared to approve of the physical attack on a Black Lives Matter protestor who interrupted a November rally in Birmingham, Alabama.11

Supporters at a Donald Trump rally in Birmingham, AL, kick and punch a Black Lives Matter protester to the ground. Image via screenshot.

Supporters at a Donald Trump rally in Birmingham, AL, kick and punch a Black Lives Matter protester to the ground. Image via screenshot.

The Washington Post reported that Trump yelled, “Get him the hell out of here… Throw him out,” whereupon the protestor “fell to the ground and was surrounded by several white men who appeared to be kicking and punching him,” while CNN filmed video.12 Trump later remarked on Fox News that “Maybe [the protester] should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”13

This was the same rally at which Trump announced to his cheering supporters, “I want surveillance of certain mosques.”14

Trump’s appeal to White Nationalism became increasingly obvious. While Trump can’t control who supports his candidacy, the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos observed with disdain that even “the Daily Stormer, America’s most popular neo-Nazi news site, had endorsed him for President.”15

Writing about Trump’s nasty rhetoric, and the alarming welcome it has found during the Republican pre-primary media blitz, American Prospect journalist Adele Stan put it bluntly:

What Trump is doing, via the media circus of which he has appointed himself ringmaster, is making the articulation of the basest bigotry acceptable in mainstream outlets, amplifying the many oppressive tropes and stereotypes of race and gender that already exist in more than adequate abundance.16

A Weimar Moment?

The Weimar period is crucial to understand because it was that precise moment in Germany’s history when a broad united front, crossing traditional political boundaries to defend democracy, could have blocked the mass base of a right-wing populist movement threatening to morph into a fascist juggernaut.17

Professor Paul Bookbinder at the University of Massachusetts in Boston has studied the Weimar Republic as it eroded into fascism in Germany. His collection of essays at the Facing History and Ourselves website, in a section entitled “The Fragility of Democracy,” explores the moments when public interventions might have altered what happened in Europe.18

As Bookbinder told me, “right now our society is facing some of the same tensions as seen in the Weimar Republic. People didn’t take seriously the threat to democracy when they could have; and when they did see the dangers it was too late.”19 He continued:

There are certainly some similarities to the rhetoric of the Weimar Period in Trump’s speeches, but also in that of some other Republican candidates, and Trump especially seems to be playing to an audience of angry White men who have held a privileged status as a group, but now see their status being challenged by people who they see them as undeserving.

Some commentators now are referring to Trump as a fascist demagogue, and Bookbinder thinks “they have a point” since “Trump is a strange combination of a fascist demagogue and a late night talk show host comedian. But we shouldn’t laugh at him because his is dangerous. When I watch Trump, even his facial expressions have the character I associate with the fascist demagogue Adolf Hitler. Trump’s crude humor also plays to some of the prejudices of many in his audiences.”

Mass Media, Demagogues, and Scripted Violence

Perpetrators of ethnoviolence and attacks based on race, religion, or gender “often take their cues from what they hear in the media,” wrote Robert Reich in a column on his website after the deadly attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs in November.20 Reich, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, warned that “the recent inclination of some politicians to use inflammatory rhetoric is contributing to a climate” in which fear of violence is real and growing among targeted groups.

Reich, now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, was shocked when Republican Presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina continued to allege “that Planned Parenthood is selling body parts of fetuses,” even though the claim has been proven baseless. Fiorina isn’t alone, Reich continued. Mike Huckabee calls it “sickening” that “we give these butchers money to harvest human organs,” noted Reich. And after the Colorado shootings, Trump falsely claimed “some of these people from Planned Parenthood [are] talking about it like you’re selling parts to a car.” Much of Reich’s column consists of a horrific list of physical attacks on facilities operated by Islamic groups and Planned Parenthood in recent months.21

While violence is often used by ultra-right groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and various neonazi groups in the U.S., it is less common in conservative social and political movements. But Trump’s use of alarming right-wing populist rhetoric, aimed at mobilizing his predominantly White base, is changing that status quo.

The conservative Right generally tries to avoid this obvious and threatening sort of inflammatory language. In the Washington Spectator, political journalist Rick Perlstein, who has written several books about U.S. conservatism, observed of Trump that, “Previous Republican leaders were sufficiently frightened by the daemonic anger that energized their constituencies that they avoided surrendering to it completely, even for political advantage.”22 The Nazis cultivated the idea of an apocalyptic battle between good and evil. This, coupled with claims of a Jewish financial conspiracy and a sense of national humiliation that demanded redress, helped mobilize the mass base for fascism among the electorate in Weimer Germany. And it also legitimized the violence that followed Hitler’s rhetoric. Street fighting became rampant during the collapse of the Weimar Republic, as “Brownshirts” took to the streets to attack the targets singled out in Hitler’s speeches as a “threat” to Germany.

Similarly, Trump’s use of demagoguery aimed at scapegoated targets is laced with references to conspiracy theories involving President Obama—namely that he was not born in the United States. Tea Party conspiracists claim Obama is a secret Muslim and part of an evil plot. Trump also portrays Muslims in an apocalyptic framework, implying Muslims are a threat to the survival of the United States. Journalist Deborah Caldwell suggests this has touched a chord precisely because “people find his apocalyptic rhetoric enticing and familiar—because America has end-times obsession deeply embedded in its national psyche.” Conspiracism and apocalypticism are among the core components of right-wing populism, along with demonization, scapegoating, and “producerism,” which is the division of the population into “productive” members of society struggling against the “parasites” above and below who are subversive, sinful, or lazy.23

In their study of how media manipulation for political ends can help incite genocide, Mark Frohardt and Jonathan Temin looked at “content intended to instill fear in a population,” or “intended to create a sense among the population that conflict is inevitable.”24 They point out that “media content helps shape an individual’s view of the world and helps form the lens through which all issues are viewed.” According to the authors:

  • In Rwanda prior to the genocide a private radio station tried to instill fear of an imminent attack on Hutus by a Tutsi militia.
  • In the months before [conflicts] in Serbia, state television attempted to create the impression that a World War II–style ethnic cleansing initiative against Serbs was in the works.
  • Throughout the 1990s Georgian media outlets sought to portray ethnic minorities as threats to Georgia’s hard-won independence.

Frohardt and Temin found that demagogues facilitated the likelihood of violence against specific demonized and scapegoated target groups by creating a widespread fear in the general population that serious—perhaps lethal–attacks on them were “imminent;” even though “there was only flimsy evidence provided to support” these false claims. They continued:

When such reporting creates widespread fear, people are more amenable to the notion of taking preemptive action, which is how the actions later taken were characterized. Media were used to make people believe that “we must strike first in order to save ourselves.” By creating fear the foundation for taking violent action through “self-defense” is laid.

Thus demagogic rhetoric can produce “scripted violence,” in which the demagogue can claim there is no direct link between the inciting language and the violence of “random” perpetrators.25

Using the F-word — Why Terminology Matters

There are good reasons why Trump’s statements cause our progressive antennae to wiggle. Trump’s swaggering demeanor recalls that of Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. A number of journalists have suggested that Trump is using rhetoric similar to that used by Adolf Hitler in mobilizing Germans to support fascism. Some just call Trump an outright fascist.26 In doing so, however, some writers have fallen victim to a hoax quote on fascism wrongly attributed to Mussolini: “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power.”27

It’s not clear where this fake quote originated, but it confuses Italian corporatist syndicalism with modern business corporations. The spelling is the only major similarity. Mussolini and his adviser, fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile, consistently wrote that under fascist rule corporations (and all other sectors of society) must bend to the iron will of the fascist ruler.28

Despite how loosely or inaccurately the terms are sometimes used, “fascism” and “totalitarianism” have very specific meanings. A totalitarian state is a central goal of fascist movements, including neofascism and neonazism. Totalitarian states enforce total control over every aspect of a person’s life—political, economic, social, and cultural—in order to reshape the individual and unify society. Totalitarianism is like authoritarianism on methamphetamines. Public debate and opposition are not tolerated. Core democratic systems are crushed. Dissidents are rounded up and sometimes executed. Political theorist and author Hannah Arendt argued that Nazism and Stalinism were the prime examples of totalitarian movements that gained state power.29

However frightening Trump’s ascent might be to progressives, the candidate is neither a neofascist nor a totalitarian ideologue, but a right-wing populist bully. And the distinction matters for reasons that go beyond simple taxonomy. Calling Republicans fascist or totalitarian leads progressive organizers into a dead-end of crafting the wrong tactics and strategies for the moment in which we live.

Professor Roger Griffin is a world-class authority on the subject of fascism, and author of several books including The Nature of Fascism.30 Griffin defines fascism as:

… a revolutionary form of nationalism, one that sets out to be a political, social and ethical revolution, welding the “people” into a dynamic national community under new elites infused with heroic values. The core myth that inspires this project is that only a populist, trans-class movement of purifying, cathartic national rebirth (palingenesis) can stem the tide of decadence.

Another expert, Emilio Gentile, author of The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy, says fascism raises politics to the level of a sacred struggle seeking totalitarian control over society. It is “a mass movement with multiclass membership” that

…believes itself invested with a mission of national regeneration, considers itself in a state of war against political adversaries and aims at conquering a monopoly of political power by using terror, [electoral] politics, and deals with leading groups, to create a new regime that destroys [electoral] democracy.31

Despite Trump’s campaign slogan—the promise to “Make America Great Again”—neither of these definitions describe his program, even though he appears to be getting close to neofascist rhetoric. Trump’s obvious early mass appeal is built around right-wing populism. Matthew N. Lyons and I defined the term in our book Right-Wing Populism in America:

Populism is a way of mobilizing “the people” into a social or political movement around some form of anti-elitism. Populist movements can occur on the right, the left, or in the center. They can be egalitarian or authoritarian, inclusive or exclusionary, forward-looking or fixated on a romanticized image of the past. They can either challenge or reinforce systems of oppression, depending on how “the people” are defined.32

Populism is confusing because it is at once an ideology, a strategic organizing frame, and a rhetorical narrative storyline that names friends and enemies. While left-wing populism often organizes people around expanding economic fairness, right-wing populism relies on prejudice and bigotry, demonization and scapegoating of an “Other,” and fears of traitorous, subversive conspiracies.

Trump uses populist rhetoric to appeal to “the people,” even as he campaigns on his status as an elitist member of the one percent. Margaret Canovan, author of Populism, a key academic book on several populist variants, calls this “politicians’ populism.”33 It’s a cynical scam, but one with a history of short-term success in political contests as the means of one set of elites unseating the faction of elites currently running the government. Italian philosopher Umberto Eco called this a “selective…qualitative populism” and warned that there “is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.” Thus we now have Trumpism: the use of right-wing populism to mask the fascistic demonization of targeted groups.

Although they can look similar, right-wing populism is distinct from fascism. As the University of Georgia’s Cas Mudde, an internationally-recognized expert on global right-wing movements, told the Washington Post in an article on Trump, “The key features of the populist radical right ideology—nativism, authoritarianism, and populism—are not unrelated to mainstream ideologies and mass attitudes. In fact, they are best seen as a radicalization of mainstream values.”34

Mudde, author of Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe, sees Trump’s ideology and rhetoric as comparable to several European movements,35 particularly Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France, and the Danish People’s Party. These right-wing populist movements flirt with fascist themes, but are not full-blown neofascist movements, although they share many similarities in terms of exclusionary rhetoric, organic nationalism, and nativist bigotry.36 The trickiest part is that many scholars now see right-wing populism as a building block of neofascist movements. Fascism emerges from right-wing populist mass movements when a faction of the one percent decides it is necessary to promote violence to regain control of a rapidly destabilizing nation facing a crisis. Fascism is the last resort of those in power trying to maintain control.

Fascism emerges from right-wing populist mass movements when a faction of the one percent decides it is necessary to promote violence to regain control of a rapidly destabilizing nation.

Terminological distinctions matter because some of the strategies and tactics we craft while organizing against a right-wing populist movement must be categorically different from organizing to block the rise of a totalitarian fascist state.

To challenge the current wave of vicious anti-democratic attacks in the United States we must study the forces that have unleashed them as well as determine the exact moment in history in which we struggle against them. People’s lives may depend on it.

As fascism builds toward grabbing state power, the situation quickly unravels.37 Sporadic attacks and acts of terrorism against the named scapegoats become more frequent and widespread. People need to focus on organizing around physical self-defense. This is not that moment. Things are bad, but not as bad as when Weimar collapsed into the hands of Hitler and his thugs.

During a period of right-wing populism, as we are experiencing now, the focus of organizing must be to defend the scapegoats targeted by demagogues like Trump. Millions of White people seem to be having panic attacks in the face of the changing racial demographics of our nation. Our task is to build citywide and even neighborhood coalitions to defend economic and social equality. The coalitions must be multi-issue and cross boundaries of race, gender, class, age, ability, and more.

The focus of organizing must be to defend the scapegoats targeted by demagogues like Trump.

Suzanne Pharr, author of In the Time of the Right, talks about “divisions that kill.”38 By keeping us divided, the defenders of the status quo have an easier time exploiting us. She suggests that in the current political climate, organizers must bring the discussion back to the neighborhood level. “We have to get people to talk about what duress they are experiencing and the losses their communities are experiencing. Then we need to talk about what has been stripped away from our community and family support systems.” This is how we can reach out to our neighbors and convince them to “stop blaming poor people and people of color and start looking in the direction of the forces holding us down.”

But be aware that the targeting by our right-wing adversaries is opportunistic and can shift in an instant to reproductive rights, the LGBTQ community, the environment, or “tax and spend” liberals. Back in 1994 the main target of the Right was the gay community, and right-wing strategists were using race as a wedge issue to get Black ministers to denounce the “Homosexual Agenda.”

The current crop of Republican candidates includes several active with the Christian Right and their agenda to curtail reproductive rights, force gay people back into the closet, and make women handmaids to male supremacy. Meanwhile, Carly Fiorina makes wildly inaccurate statements about Planned Parenthood and Jeb Bush is beating the militarist war drums with a frenzied ad campaign. Behind these candidates are millions of dollars of donations from wealthy “Free Market” fanatics pushing “neoliberal” policies to gut government services and cut taxes for the rich.

No matter who becomes the Republican candidate for President in 2016, the damage is already being done, and it is increasingly harming a range of scapegoated targets. This is a new political and social moment. Republicans have used bigoted rhetoric in the past, but anger has grown as buying power and status have shrunk among many Whites. This is producing a more virulent strain of White Nationalist nativism and masculinist rage.

Why Are These People So Angry?

The crowd listening to Trump’s stump speech in Massachusetts this October cheered his attacks on Mexican immigrants. The supporters my partner and I spoke with were fed up with the status quo, suspicious of President Obama, and very much liked Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Great for whom? Cleary not everyone. Trump supporters are angry. They resemble the folks in the film Network, who were told by a raving demagogue to open their windows and shout: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”39 This is the quintessential right-wing populist primal scream. Who is kicking them down the ladder of success? Someone has to be blamed for turning their American Dream into a liberal, “politically correct” nightmare.

When Trump uses the phase “politically correct” he is using a concept re-engineered by the Right in the 1980s as a way to silence activists demanding equality for traditionally oppressed peoples and groups in the United States. This is similar to the propagandistic use of terms such as “radicalization” and “extremism” to demonize dissent on both the Left and the Right.

Image via Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

Image via Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

Trump’s rhetorical propaganda is aimed at appealing to a growing base of angry and frustrated White middle and working class people. In a script broadcast by Trump ad nauseum, he is telling them who to blame for their slipping economic, political, and social status. According to sociologist Rory McVeigh, people who join right-wing movements tend to be convinced they are losing or about to lose status, power, or privilege in one or more of three civic arenas: economic, political, or social.40

We have seen exclusionary, repressive, or right-wing populist movements in the United States before. President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) was cheered as a champion of “the people” even as he kept Black people in chains and forced the Cherokee nation out of their ancestral homeland to make room for White pioneers.41 After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan launched a murderous wave of violence against freed slaves and their supporters in the South. The large populist movements of the late 1890s began as an overwhelmingly progressive force, seeking economic fairness and curtailing the abuses of economic elites, but some supporters later turned their anger against Jews and Blacks. The backlash against the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s frequently used populist-sounding conspiracist rhetoric, suggesting that communists and Jews were stirring up otherwise happy Black people in order to prepare the United States for a takeover by the Soviet Union. The presidential campaigns of George Wallace and Pat Buchanan were built using clear and coded right-wing populist appeals to a White nationalist base.42

In more recent history, the rise of the Tea Party exemplified right-wing populism, as an angry constituency was mobilized back in 2009.43 The Tea Party idea originated with supporters of uber-libertarian Ron Paul, but the franchise was scooped up by conservative billionaires who funded trainings and rallies around the country. Over time Christian Right activists played a leading role in local Tea Party groups, shifting the focus to a toxic blend of nativist anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric coupled with homophobia and antiabortion propaganda.44 Now the Tea Party grassroots is heavily populated by White nationalists.45 This is Trump’s voter base.

Folks who support the Tea Party and other right-wing populist movements are responding to rhetoric that honors them as the bedrock of American society. These are primarily middle class and working class White people with a deep sense of patriotism who bought into the American dream of upward mobility.46 Now they feel betrayed. Trump and his Republican allies appeal to their emotions by naming scapegoats to blame for their sense of being displaced by “outsiders” and abandoned by their government.

Emotions matter in building social movements. The linkage of emotion and politics are at the heart of a forthcoming book by University of California, Berkeley, sociologist and author Arlie Hochschild. In it, Hochschild reports on many conversations with Tea Party members in the South, where the movement is strongest.47 Many she spoke with long doubted that Obama was American; even after the publication of his long-form birth certificate some still suspect that he is Muslim and harbors ill will toward America. Hochschild also observes that this set of beliefs was widely shared among people who otherwise seemed reasonable, friendly, and accepting. How she wondered, could we explain this?

Her premise is that all political belief

is undergirded by emotion. Given the experiences we’ve undergone, we have deep feelings. These shape our “deep story.” And this is an allegorical, collectively shared, “honor-focused,” narrative storyline about what “feels true.” We take fact out of it, judgment out of it. A “deep story” says what happened to us from the point of view of how we feel about it.

The “deep story” of the Tea Party is that the American Dream has leveled off. Ninety percent of Americans between 1980 and 2012 received no rise in salary while dividends from a rising GDP rose dramatically for the top 10 percent.

Since the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, the one percent has enriched itself while pushing most of us into a downward spiral of exported jobs, lower wages, unsafe working conditions, and tax breaks for the wealthy. Government social services such as public health and food stamps have been slashed. Public works projects, from bridges to sewers, have been gutted. Shifting tax dollars to private charter schools has strangled public education, the keystone of democracy. This has been happening in communities of color for decades. Now it is front-page news because research shows it is devastating White working class and even middle class communities.48

Amid a rising gap between the rich and poor, the middle has been pressed out—especially blue-collar men, the bottom of the middle. Their search for other sources of “honor”—what Hochschild feels is an underlying crisis among Tea Party members—has also encountered resistance, and they have met with criticism, insult, and injury, from upper-middle class liberals who look down on them as “rednecks.”

Most Tea Party supporters feel the government is allowing them to be shoved aside, displaced, dispossessed, and disrespected by newcomers, outsiders, and immigrants who they don’t see as proper citizens (no matter their legal status).

Trump is popular among many Tea Party movement activists, although national leaders are remaining coy in terms of an endorsement.49 The Tea Party and Trump conspiracy theories feed off each other, and bolster a sense that there is a plot to disempower White people.

Trump and other Republican candidates capture their hearts and minds by telling them their anger is justified and then point them at scapegoats rather than the institutions that have failed them. A culture permeated by the legacies of White supremacy leads the White middle and working class to blame their real downward mobility on people of color and “non-White” immigrants, and in that way reproduces both structural racism and the class-based power of the one percent.

Much of this rhetoric, like Trump’s, began as a specific attack against Mexicans and Latinos, but it keeps expanding. There is a “Trump Effect increasingly sweeping through the country,” warned immigrant rights activist Pablo Alvarado, Director for the National Day Labor Organizing Network.50 For example, after the Paris attacks a number of Republican governors banned all refugees from entering their states.51 The Puente Human Rights Movement, a grassroots migrant justice organization based in Phoenix quickly responded with a statement declaring, “Scapegoating and xenophobia don’t make us safer.”52 But the attacks aren’t only coming from the Republican Right. Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein, for example, is now criticizing immigrant-sheltering sanctuary cities.53

The center of the entire political spectrum in the United States is being shifted to the Right. The political views of today’s “centrist” Democrats resemble the views of many Republicans during the Nixon administration. White voters have been maneuvered into choosing White racial privilege over their own economic security. This explains the question asked in Tom Frank’s 2014 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas?54 In 2015, the same mass base cheers Trump while he is mobilizing resentment. That tactic, which Jean Hardisty explored in her 1999 book of the same name,55 is a longtime part of right-wing politics in the U.S. But now, as demographers predict that the majority of the U.S. will be non-White by the middle of the century, the existing emotional response behind that resentment is getting stronger.

From Analysis to Action

The debate over what we should call Trump’s vicious political movement should not stop us from organizing now to protect the people being demonized and scapegoated as targets of White rage. The current wave of right-wing populism in the United States is breeding a backlash movement that will take creative and bold strategies and tactics as we organize to defend democracy and diversity in the public square.

Debate over what we should call Trump’s vicious political movement should not stop us from organizing now to protect the people being demonized and scapegoated as targets of White rage.

Trump is a political performance artist portraying the psychological Id of the American Dream. He unleashes the fearful and angry feelings of people who live in a society run as a zero sum game requiring the successful to climb up over those labeled as inferior. So as the old “Liberalism” consensus collapses from the center while the Right is on the rise, what do we do?

Our challenge is to expose the ideas and policies of Trump and his Republican cronies while competing for folks in their voting base who are legitimately concerned about their declining economic and social future. At the same time we need to put pressure on backsliding liberals who now have the space to abandon justice for unauthorized immigrants and other targets of Republican venom.

Our challenge is to expose the ideas and policies of Trump and his Republican cronies while competing for folks in their voting base who are legitimately concerned about their declining economic and social future.

Activists need to build broad and diverse local coalitions that tactically address local issues while strategically linking them to national struggles. Building broad, inclusive, and egalitarian coalitions is hard. Bernice Johnson Reagon is a progressive scholar, singer, and activist. She helped found the women of color a Capella vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Reagon advises that, when doing real coalition building, “Most of the time you feel threatened to the core, and if you don’t, you’re not really doing no coalescing.”56

There are times when liberals and progressives can form alliances, but it can be frustrating. PRA’s founder, Jean Hardisty, explained this in her essay My On-Again, Off-Again Romance With Liberalism. At times when the Right is a growing threat and the Left is weak, she argued, “liberal reforms have to be defended. Now we are swimming against a tide that is thick with peril…and like it or not” progressives must “work with liberals, as well as with any other left-leaning sectors” in a “united front against the agenda of the Right.”57 Also keep in mind the right-wing backlash is a coalition that has fissures and cracks that can be wedged apart. We need to analyze and take advantage of the stress cracks in any right-wing coalition while making sure in our coalition work these strains are openly discussed and resolved honestly and equitably.

The late progressive activist Audre Lorde reminded us that there is “no hierarchy of oppressions.” Race, class, and gender issues are all complex and related, and no single form of oppression trumps another. That’s why the concept of intersectionality is so important. All systems of oppression need to be unraveled. Currently the focus is on the hierarchies of power and privilege that maintain the system of oppression on which this nation was founded: White Nationalism. That’s the primary text and subtext of the Trump campaign rhetoric. At the center of our struggle today is the idea of a “White Race”—which in scientific terms is nonsense. But in terms of the struggle we face, “Whiteness” is at the center. There is a White Race in the minds of millions of Americans. Whiteness is a social, cultural, political, and economic fact.

Right now we need to be organizing against right-wing populist scapegoating, especially racist White Nationalism and anti-immigrant xenophobia. White people need to reach across the political divide and engage White neighbors in conversations about how the nasty rhetoric is making it difficult to have serious discussions on how to fix what is broken. We all need to be engaging in struggles in our local communities, schools, workplaces—even on the supermarket checkout line.

White people need to reach across the political divide and engage White neighbors in conversations about how the nasty rhetoric is making it difficult to have serious discussions on how to fix what is broken.

Back in 2010 as the Tea Party Movement was first brewing, Chomsky raised the example of the Weimar period in Germany as a warning. At a meeting held by Z Magazine, Chomsky fielded a set of questions on how the Left should organize against the racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and antigay backlash arising out of the Tea Party.58

“First of all,” he said, “you need to understand it. They say to themselves ‘We work hard, we’re Christians, we’re White…and now They are taking it all away from Us.’”

Chomsky points out that, though often bigoted, these “feelings are genuine…and they have to be dealt with.” Organizing has to be “done in a way which doesn’t frighten people,” that doesn’t “elicit their worst emotions and reactions.” Hochschild’s sociological analyses and Chomsky’s political analysis reinforce each other.

According to Chomsky, we need to pay attention to the feelings of resentment which are “very understandable” from their point of view. You begin by recognizing that their anger “does have legitimate roots. People feel…seriously threatened…people’s way of life is being taken away from them.” It’s not the immigrants who should be blamed, however, but the greed of the financial sector, Chomsky says.

And when organizing, “You don’t want to brazenly flaunt in front of people your attacks on their values.” You need to help them understand that their values should lead them to tolerance instead of hate. Chomsky was asked how activists can build a successful movement. He replied to the whole room, “We all know how…by education, by organizing, by activism.”


Chip Berlet, co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America, has written scores of scholarly and popular articles on human rights, fascism, and right-wing movements. He served as a researcher at Political Research Associates for 30 years, and is creator of Trumpism.usAn expanded set of resources is being updated at Research for Progress.


Endnotes:

1 Correspondence with author.

2 Chomsky first raised the issue of Weimar at a lecture at Left Forum in New York City. Another Chomsky lecture mentioning Weimar presented at the Haven Center at the University of Wisconsin is available as a transcript, http://chomsky.info/20100408/

3 Shaun King, “King: Donald Trump shows he’ll do anything to appeal to his racist supporters,” New York Daily News, (updated) November 22, 2015. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/king-trump-hits-new-racist-tweet-article-1.2443413

4 Affan Chowdhry, “Trump leads in polls despite gaffes,” The Globe and Mail, July 15, 2015. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/trump-leads-in-republican-race-despite-gaffes/article25516246/.

5 Washington Post, “Fact Checker” column, July 8, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/07/08/donald-trumps-false-comments-connecting-mexican-immigrants-and-crime/.

6 Edward Helmore and Ben Jacobs, “Donald Trump’s ‘sexist’ attack on TV debate presenter sparks outrage,” August 8, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/aug/09/megyn-kelly-donald-trump-winner-republican-debate.

7 David Leopold, “The shocking reality of Donald Trump’s plan to deport millions, MSNBC, 09/15/15. http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/donald-trump-shocking-reality-deportation-plan

8 Lauren Carroll, “In Context: Donald Trump’s comments on a database of American Muslims, November 24th, 2015, http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2015/nov/24/donald-trumps-comments-database-american-muslims/.

9 Jason Stanley “Democracy and the Demagogue, Opinionator – A Gathering of Opinion from Around the Web, The Stone, October 12, 2015, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/10/12/democracy-and-the-demagogue/

10 The Guardian,New York Times slams ‘outrageous’ Donald Trump for mocking reporter’s disability,” November 26, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/nov/26/new-york-times-outrageous-donald-trump-mocking-reporter-disability.

11 Jenna Johnson and Mary Jordan, “Trump on rally protester: ‘Maybe he should have been roughed up’,” November 22, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/11/22/black-activist-punched-at-donald-trump-rally-in-birmingham/.

12 David Mark and Jeremy Diamond, “Trump: ‘I want surveillance of certain mosques’” CNN: Politics, November 21, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/21/politics/trump-muslims-surveillance/index.html  The video of the attack is in a section titled “Scuffle breaks out at rally,”

13 http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/22/politics/donald-trump-black-lives-matter-protester-confrontation/

14 David Mark and Jeremy Diamond, “Trump: ‘I want surveillance of certain mosques’” CNN: Politics, November 21, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/21/politics/trump-muslims-surveillance/index.html  The video of the attack is in a section titled “Scuffle breaks out at rally,”

15 Evan Osnos, “The Fearful and the Frustrated: Donald Trump’s nationalist coalition takes shape—for now, The New Yorker, “The Political Scene,” August 31, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/31/the-fearful-and-the-frustrated.

16 Adele M. Stan. 2015, “A Nation of Sociopaths? What the Trump Phenomenon Says About America,” American Prospect, September 9, 2015. http://prospect.org/article/nation-sociopaths-what-trump-phenomenon-says-about-america.

17 Paul Bookbinder, “Choices and Consequences in Weimar Germany,” Section: The Fragility of Democracy, (Weimar Republic Readings): four essays (Brookline, MA, Facing History and Ourselves, no date), https://www.facinghistory.org/weimar-republic-fragility-democracy/readings/choices-and-consequences.

18 Ibid.

19 Interview with the author, December 9, 2015.

20 Robert Reich, “Why Hate Speech by Presidential Candidates is Despicable,” November 29, 2015 http://robertreich.org/post/134235925280.

21 Ibid.

22 Rick Perlstein, “Donald Trump and the ‘F-Word’: An unsettling symbiosis between man and mob,” Washington Spectator, September 30, 2015. http://washingtonspectator.org/donald-trump-and-the-f-word/

23 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, 6-9. Terms explained in right sidebar here: http://www.rightwingpopulism.us/.

24 Mark Frohardt and Jonathan Temin, Use and Abuse of Media in Vulnerable Societies, Special Report 110, Washington, DC, United States Institute of Peace. October 2003, http://permanent.access.gpo.gov/websites/usip/www.usip.org/pubs/specialreports/sr110.pdf, (accessed 26/9/2012). Although an excellent study, the report is flawed by the failure to include a single footnote. See also Kofi A. Annan, Allan Thompson, and International Development Research Centre of Canada, The Media and the Rwanda Genocide (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2007).

25 Chip Berlet. 2014. “Heroes Know Which Villains to Kill: How Coded Rhetoric Incites Scripted Violence,” in Matthew Feldman and Paul Jackson (eds), Doublespeak: Rhetoric of the Far-Right Since 1945 (Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag, 2014). Excerpts at http://www.researchforprogress.us/topic/concept/scripted-violence/.

26 Chip Berlet, “Trump a Fascist?” Research for Progress. http://www.researchforprogress.us/topic/concept/trump-a-fascist/.

27 Chip Berlet, “Mussolini: The Fake Quote,” Research for Progress. http://www.researchforprogress.us/topic/concept/mussolini-fake-quote/

28 Benito Mussolini (with Giovanni Gentile), “The Doctrine of Fascism,” in Enciclopedia Italiana (1932); Benito Mussolini (with Giovanni Gentile), The Doctrine of Fascism (Firenze: Vallecchi Editore, 1935), this was the official English translation of the article in the Enciclopedia Italiana;  Benito Mussolini (with Giovanni Gentile), Fascism: Doctrine and Institutions (Rome: ‘Ardita’ Publishers, 1935), an expanded version of “The Doctrine of Fascism.” A discussion of the use of the fake quote is at

29 Hannah Arendt,  The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951). See also: Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1963).

30 Roger Griffin, The Nature of Fascism (London: Routledge, 1993).

31 Emilio Gentile, The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy, translated by Keith Botsford (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996); See also regarding Nazi Germany as sacralized politics: David Redles, Hitler’s Millennial Reich: Apocalyptic Belief and the Search for Salvation (New York: New York Univ. Press, 2005); Klaus Vondung, The Apocalypse in Germany ( Columbia and London: Univ. of Missouri Press, 2000). An expanded bibliography is at http://tinyurl.com/toxic-mix.

32 Chip Berlet and Matthew Nemiroff Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (New York: Guilford Press, 2000) http://www.rightwingpopulism.us/.

33 Margaret Canovan, Populism (New York: Harcourt, 1981).

34 Cas Mudde, “The Trump Phenomenon and the European Populist Radical Right,“ Washington Post, The Monkey Cage, August 26, 2015 https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/08/26/the-trump-phenomenon-and-the-european-populist-radical-right/ .

35 Cas Mudde. Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

36 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America.

37 Bookbinder, “Choices and Consequences in Weimar Germany.”

38 Suzanne Pharr, “Divisions that Kill,” in Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, ed. Chip Berlet (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1995) http://www.publiceye.org/eyes/div_kill.html.

39 Network, Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky (Hollywood, CA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1976), Full quote at Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074958/quotes.

40 Rory McVeigh, David Cunningham, and Justin Farrell. “Political Polarization as a Social Movement Outcome: 1960s Klan Activism and Its Enduring Impact on Political Realignment in Southern Counties, 1960 to 2000 (American Sociological Review 79, no. 6 2014): 1144-171; Rory McVeigh, “Ku Klux Klan activism in the 1960s is linked to the South’s swing to the Republican Party, London School of Economics, the LSE US Centre’s daily blog on American Politics and Policy, December 17, 2014, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/usappblog/2014/12/17/ku-klux-klan-activism-in-the-1960s-is-linked-to-the-souths-swing-to-the-republican-party/.

41 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, pp. 40-46; Google Educational Resources, “Jacksonian Era: Populism,” online resource, https://sites.google.com/site/jacksonianera/Home/populism.

42 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America.

43 Chip Berlet, “Reframing Populist Resentments in the Tea Party Movement.” In Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party. Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost, eds. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2014); Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind, The Tea Party Movement in 2015, online report, (Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, 2015). http://www.irehr.org/2015/09/15/the-tea-party-movement-in-2015/.

44 Abby Scher and Chip Berlet, “The Tea Party Moment,” in Nella van Dyke and David S. Meyer, eds., Understanding the Tea Party Movement (Farnham and London: Ashgate, 2014).

45 Burghart and Zeskind, The Tea Party Movement in 2015.

46 Scher and Berlet, “The Tea Party Moment.”

47 The book is tentatively entitled Strangers in Their Own Land: a journey into the heart of the right, (New York: The New Press, 2016)

48 Michelle Chen, “Now White People Are Dying from Our Terrible Economic Policies, Too,” The Nation, November 6, 2015, http://www.thenation.com/article/now-white-people-are-dying-from-our-terrible-economic-policies-too/ Chauncey Devega, “Dear White America: Your working class is literally dying—and this is your idea of an answer?” Salon, Nov 6, 2015 http://www.salon.com/2015/11/06/dear_white_america_your_working_class_is_literally_dying_and_this_is_your_idea_of_an_answer/.

49 S.A. Miller, “Donald Trump enjoys support of tea party movement that refuses to fully embrace him,” The Washington Times, November 22, 2015, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/nov/22/donald-trump-enjoys-support-of-tea-party-movement-/.

50 Pablo Alvarado, “Reaction: L.A. Sheriff Reverses Course on Jail Deportations,” National Day Laborers Organizing Network, September 22, 2015 http://www.ndlon.org/en/pressroom/press-releases/item/1165-reaction-l-a-sheriff-reverses-course-on-jail-deportations

51 Scott Oathout “Gov. Ducey calls for immediate halt of new refugees to Arizona” KVOA Television, Nov 16, 2015 http://www.kvoa.com/story/30529819/gov-ducey-calls-for-immediate-halt-of-new-refugees-to-arizona.

52 “Puente Responds to AZ Gov. Ducey’s Announcement on Refugees,” Puente Movement, http://puenteaz.org/press-releases/puente-responds-to-duceys-announcement-on-refugees/.

53 Courtney Coren, “Dianne Feinstein Under Fire for Sanctuary City Bill,” August 3, 2015http://www.newsmax.com/Newsfront/Dianne-Feinstein-sanctuary-city-bill/2015/08/03/id/665214. Newsmax is a right-wing website cited here to encourage touring the page to review the rhetoric.

54 Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2004), http://www.whatsthematterwithkansas.com/.

55 Jean V. Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999). http://www.jeanhardisty.com/writing/books/.

56 Bernice Johnson Reagon, 1983, “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century” in Barbara Smith, ed., Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, 1983; Rutgers University Press, 2000. See also http://www.bernicejohnsonreagon.com/publications.shtml.

57 Jean Hardisty, “My On-Again, Off-Again Romance With Liberalism,” The Women’s Theological Center (now known as Women Transforming Communities), in the Brown Paper series, March 1996. Republished with permission by Political Research Associates, 2015 http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/03/24/my-on-again-off-again-romance-with-liberalism/.

58 Chomsky’s comments are assembled by the author from a transcript of a videotape of the event. He was speaking at Z Magazine’s Media Institute (for progressive journalists). Video: “What Went Wrong: A Q & A with Noam Chomsky,” a Z Video Production. Chomsky confirmed these are still his views in an e-mail to the author.

What Is ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorism in the Digital Age?

On July 23 of this year, John Russell Houser opened fire inside a Lafayette, Louisiana movie theater, killing two women and injuring nine others before turning his gun on himself. Houser was a disaffected loner with a history of publicly expressing Far Right views, although most of his political activity had taken place online. In January 2014, reacting to the arrest of a Greek neo-Nazi parliamentarian, Houser wrote on one of the party’s affiliated websites, “you must realize the power of the lone wolf.”

Dylann Roof

Dylann Roof

The concept of autonomous “Lone Wolf” terrorism as a dominant strategy for U.S. political extremists has been widely discussed recently, especially after the horrific mass shooting in Charleston earlier this year, which was allegedly planned and carried out independently by Dylann Roof. It is also the focus of Naomi Braine’s research report “Terror Network or Lone Wolf,” published in the Spring 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine. Braine demonstrates the tendency of U.S. law enforcement and media to frame Far Right terrorists as Lone Wolves, while Muslim militants who act similarly are usually described as part of international jihadist terror networks. She raises the question of whether the Lone Wolf paradigm is a realistic approach to combating right-wing terror: is a landscape of disparate Lone Wolves, standing apart from political networks, really the most accurate representation of domestic terrorism in the United States today?

Indeed, Roof’s case suggests that in the digital age, it may be easier than ever before for individuals to be turned towards political violence in a relative vacuum. But it also suggests that the very concept of what group membership means has shifted with technological changes, thereby blurring the distinction between Lone Wolves and traditionally organized political actors—a difference that is central to the Lone Wolf paradigm.

A long-running debate exists concerning what, exactly, a Lone Wolf is. The concept is linked to the notion of “leaderless resistance”—a tactic promoted by White nationalist Louis Beam in his 1983 essay of the same name. Beam suggests that, in order to avoid detection by the authorities, White nationalists should eschew traditional top-down organizational structures and instead form small “phantom cells,” which operate independently of higher leadership and are more difficult to track. To further enhance security, he also discourages communication between cells. In Beam’s formulation, both individuals and small groups can constitute cells. Lone Wolf terrorism represents an even more strictly decentralized variant of leaderless resistance: it refers to actions wholly planned and carried out by an individual working outside of any organized groups.

The best-known proponents of the strategy under this name were White nationalists Alex Curtis and Tom Metzger; Metzger’s essay “Laws For The Lone Wolf” urges right-wing terrorists to avoid involvement with any and all “membership groups.”

While Lone Wolf terrorists are influenced by the ideologies of external groups, they cannot be affiliated with them in any significant way.

Defining and identifying Lone Wolf terrorism is important because, according to former PRA senior analyst Chip Berlet, “different investigative techniques with different levels of government intrusiveness are required depending on the type of target. Therefore accurate descriptions of target terrorist formations and potential terrorist cells are crucial for the effectiveness of stopping actual acts of terrorism.”

The matter quickly becomes more confusing, however. It is impossible to determine how many White nationalist Lone Wolves have existed who were directly inspired by these doctrines. It is also unclear how much contact Lone Wolves can have with their political milieu, and what forms that contact can take.  Beam, for example, said they could keep abreast of their movement through “newspapers, leaflets, computers, etc.”

The notion of the Lone Wolf has been adopted by right-wing monitors and academics and applied more broadly to include other political movements; it has also changed meaning. Some extend the term to describe people who are members of political groups, but acted alone in their crimes (such as Michael Wade Page, the Oak Creek gunman, who was a member of a Nazi skinhead gang). Others use it interchangeably with leaderless resistance, referring to the actions of more than one person. Some insist that to be true Lone Wolves or members of phantom cells, participants can never have had prior involvement in political organizations. Could a Lone Wolf ever have belonged to a membership group, and if so, how long in the past—one day or twenty years? Finally, the mainstream media has recently tended to erroneously use the term to imply that Lone Wolves are not ideologically motivated actors.

So, does Dylann Roof qualify as a true Lone Wolf? Thus far, under the traditional definition, the answer seems to be yes. Although he self-identifies as a White nationalist in his so-called “manifesto,” Roof was not a member of any organized racist group. The closest he may have come to formal participation was potentially commenting on the White nationalist website The Daily Stormer. And while Roof had expressed White supremacist views in pictures on his Facebook page and personal website, he did not inform anyone in advance of his attack that he was planning to commit racially motivated mass murder.

Nonetheless, something is different here: Roof’s manifesto reads like the testimony of a committed racist partisan, referencing organized White nationalist groups by name and weighing in on some of the movement’s internal debates. Even if he acted alone and never held group membership or had in-person social ties, there is more to the relationship between Roof and the larger White nationalist movement than simply referring to him as a Lone Wolf would suggest.

Tom Metzger

Tom Metzger

There could, perhaps, be a more complicated relationship between Lone Wolf actors and the larger political movements they are aligned with. In 2003, Simson Garfinkel, a researcher who has studied domestic terrorism, wrote that the de facto outcome of leaderless resistance was the division of the Far Right movement into two parts: one seemingly innocent element that publically expressed Far Right ideals, using coded language to name targets for domestic terrorism; and the other an underground element made up of phantom cells, that derived its objectives and views from the first group. The only connection between the two is that the second group is aware of the first’s opinions; the two elements do not communicate directly. (Braine’s article goes further, showing how many so-called Lone Wolves have longstanding social and political ties to larger political movements.)

Newer, Internet-based groups further cloud these questions about what “group membership” means. The Internet is filled with groups and organizations of every conceivable ideology and belief set, but each can have its own version of what constitutes “membership.” For example, the “hacktivist” network Anonymous presents itself as a membership group, but has no formal membership protocols and no membership list, public or otherwise. Inclusion in the group is contingent only on one’s awareness of its cause and willingness to identify as a member—journalist Carole Cadwalladr wrote that “if you believe in Anonymous, and call yourself Anonymous, you are Anonymous.”

Despite well-reasoned claims to the contrary, Dylann Roof may indeed have been what is traditionally considered a Lone Wolf terrorist—but that distinction is based on analytical frameworks developed before the rise of today’s Internet.1

Determining whether an actor fits into the category of Lone Wolf, or is better described as a participant in leaderless resistance or organized terrorism, is based on an outdated binary definition of group membership, in which actors and larger groups are unequivocally either affiliated or unaffiliated with one another. In the digital age, now that belief in the cause and self-identification as a group member can be the only prerequisites for inclusion, it might be entirely possible for a Lone Wolf to act completely independently and still be fully politicized members of political movements, participating in movement debates and interacting with other members online—indeed, for Roof, this seems to have been the case.

To best represent the new nature of domestic terrorism, a new set of terms and a new model of these concepts and acts may be necessary.

*PRA associate fellow Spencer Sunshine contributed to this report.


 

[1] It’s important to note that early proponents of leaderless resistance tactics, such as Beam and Metzger, were no strangers to the Internet’s potential benefits for Far Right political actors. In 1984, one year after publishing “Leaderless Resistance,” Beam established a computer bulletin board system (BBS) called “Aryan Liberty Net,” affiliated with the Aryan Nations white supremacist organization. Soon afterwards, Metzger started his own BBS—the “W.A.R. Computer Terminal,” affiliated with his White Aryan Resistance group. By posting racist literature on their U.S.-based BBSes, Beam and Metzger were able to disseminate White supremacist ideas to people in foreign countries where hate speech was banned or restricted. Despite these computer networks’ connections to the progenitors of Lone Wolf terrorism, however, one aspect of their implementation and content distinguishes them from today’s Far Right Internet: unlike the ubiquitous Internet of today, the narrowly focused BBSes were explicitly affiliated with established hate groups and primarily intended for use by group members; in an article in the Inter-Klan Newsletter and Survival Alert, Beam claimed to be implementing “special electronic code access available only to Aryan Nation/Klu Klux Klan officers and selected individuals.” Although Beam and Metzger employed the Internet for political purposes at the same time that they were promoting leaderless resistance and Lone Wolf terrorism, the engagement of White supremacists with early Far Right BBSes is significantly different from the relationship between the contemporary Internet and Lone Wolf terrorists. Whether users of those BBSes constituted Lone Wolves, under Metzger’s original definition, remains an open question.

 

Policies That Make People Disappear: Activist Shana griffin on Post-Katrina New Orleans Housing

Click here for a printable PDF.

Click here for a printable PDF.

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine

To mark the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this August, a conservative member of the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board, Kristen McQueary, wrote that she wished that a similar “swirl of fury,” “a real storm,” would whip through Chicago and prompt a citywide “rebirth.”1 While 1,833 people died, and more than 400,000 others were displaced by Katrina—many permanently—McQueary found a silver lining in the catastrophe: slashed city budgets and mandatory unpaid furloughs; the demolition of old housing stock, labor contracts, and teachers’ unions; and the rise of “the nation’s first free-market education system.”

“That’s what it took to hit the reset button in New Orleans,” McQueary wrote. “Chaos. Tragedy. Heartbreak.”

Thousands of working-class, African American families were displaced by the Housing Authority of New Orleans in favor of corporate development after Hurricane Katrina. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Culture: Subculture Photography.

Thousands of working-class, African American families were displaced by the Housing Authority of New Orleans in favor of corporate development after Hurricane Katrina. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Culture: Subculture Photography.

Although McQueary was forced to walk back her language after commenters nationwide pilloried her callous “prayer,” she was merely repeating a powerful narrative that’s been created over the past decade. Just weeks after the hurricane made landfall, The New York Times’ longtime conservative columnist David Brooks wrote:

The first rule of the rebuilding effort should be: Nothing Like Before. Most of the ambitious and organized people abandoned the inner-city areas of New Orleans long ago, leaving neighborhoods where roughly three-quarters of the people were poor…. If we just put up new buildings and allow the same people to move back into their old neighborhoods, then urban New Orleans will become just as rundown and dysfunctional as before.2

January 15, 2007 - Martin Luther King Day. St Bernard Public Housing Development. New Orleans, LA. Four to five hundred people assembled on St. Bernard Avenue to force an entry into the St. Bernard Public Housing Development. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Culture: Subculture Photography. License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode

January 15, 2007 – Martin Luther King Day. St Bernard Public Housing Development. New Orleans, LA. Four to five hundred people assembled on St. Bernard Avenue to force an entry into the St. Bernard Public Housing Development. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Culture: Subculture Photography.

Dreams of a blank slate on which to carry out a market-driven recovery weren’t confined to op-eds. Government officials began speculating about how the storm and the area’s subsequent evacuation would change New Orleans’ demographics. Alphonso Jackson, HUD Secretary to President George W. Bush, urged against rebuilding the Lower Ninth Ward and told the Houston Chronicle, “Whether we like it or not, New Orleans is not going to be 500,000 people for a long time.

New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again.”3 Rep. Richard H. Baker, a Republican congressman from Baton Rouge, was quoted as telling lobbyists in September 2005, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”4

Democrats got on board with the blank slate narrative as well. The efforts to get rid of large swaths of the city’s public housing units couldn’t have been successful without the unanimous support of New Orleans’ largely Democratic City Council. Arne Duncan, the Obama administration’s secretary of education, expressed a kind of gratitude for the devastation, telling an interviewer, “I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that ‘we have to do better.’”5

Rep. Richard H. Baker, a Republican congressman from Baton Rouge, was quoted as telling lobbyists in September 2005, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

Now, 10 years later, the results of this enthusiastic promotion of a new New Orleans—one rebuilt along corporate-friendly, neoliberal lines—are clear. A recent New Orleans Advocate article6 describes the city as being “smaller, whiter and wealthier” than it had been prior to Katrina. New Orleans has 79 percent of the population it had in 2000, according to Census data. The city has lost almost a third of its Black population since 2000, but only about eight percent of its White population.7 White residents made up about a quarter of the city’s population before the storm. Now they make up just under a third8 (See also our 2010 report, “The Long Hurricane”).9

Now, 10 years later, the results of this enthusiastic promotion of a new New Orleans—one rebuilt along corporate-friendly, neoliberal lines—are clear.

Shana griffin (lower-case intentional), an activist and New Orleans native, spends much of her time thinking about how the changes of the past decade fit into a longer history of discriminatory housing policy and displacement. As cofounder and board president of the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative (JPNSI), a hybrid community development non-profit and advocacy organization, she implements solutions she hopes will keep the city affordable for longtime residents. The organization’s first development, a renovated four-unit historic building in the Mid-City neighborhood, is scheduled to open this fall.

I spoke with griffin about how not-in-my-backyard attitudes toward public housing residents and housing voucher recipients, weak laws protecting tenants’ rights, and recovery policies that favored homeowners with high property values—conceived of in right-wing policy circles, but embraced by a bipartisan coalition of pro-business politicians—have all contributed to changes in New Orleans’ makeup since Katrina.

In the years since the storm, four of the city’s 10 public housing developments have been demolished.10 Those 5,000 units were replaced by just more than 600 units. The number of housing vouchers, which are often promoted as a way to de-concentrate poverty, tripled from 2000 to 2010.11 How are changes to federal and local housing policy related to changes in the city’s demographics?

We had Rep. [Richard] Baker (R-La.) making the comment that, “We could not clean up public housing, but God did.”12 The idea [being that] those who occupy public housing were dirty, a social ill that the state, in its paternalistic role, could not deal with, but God did. And seeing Hurricane Katrina as a metaphor, something that cleaned up this problem where the government had struggled to.

Shana griffin (lower case intentional) is a New Orleans activist, and cofounder of the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative

Shana griffin (lower case intentional) is a New Orleans activist, and cofounder of the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative

I grew up in public housing here in New Orleans called Iberville. I resided in public housing almost 23 years, almost half of my life. I grew up always feeling extreme shame about where I lived. I cringed when people would ask me where I lived. It caused an extreme level of anxiety to say I live in the projects. Just to say “public housing” was basically saying that you’re dirty, you’re bad, you’re dumb, you’re lazy, you’re a problem. I have these memories of extreme shame. As I got older, I realized that shame wasn’t based on my family or me or people who live in public housing being bad, dirty, dumb, lazy, or ugly people; it was based on the fear of being blamed for something that we didn’t cause.

I think that’s what we see now when I think about the demolition of public housing in New Orleans. It’s like these are people that you can blame. It’s like if we have social problems, it has to be the people that are utilizing public assistance; it has to be people living in public housing; it has to be kids going to public schools. There’s something that’s almost inherently bad about anything public. It’s like these people are problems, so if you get rid of them, “the problem” goes away.

These are policies that make people disappear. You don’t see the remnants of what once was public housing. When the buildings are gone, the assumption is the people are gone.

You’ve written13 about the specific impact of such policies on women and girls. Did the displacement in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have a disparate impact on low-income women?

New Orleans after Katrina Photo via Flickr / drp and courtesy of The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode

Housing is not a gender‑neutral issue. Public and subsidized housing programs are disproportionately utilized by women of color and poor women. Black women represent a vast majority of leaseholders within public housing, and the same is true for voucher holders. So you see the ways in which gender and racial inequality came together to deny black women in the city a right to return home.

If you see an advertisement for housing that says, “Blacks not welcome,” that’s an obvious violation. If you see, “Children are not welcome,” that’s a clear violation as well. But whenever you see “No Section 8”—and you see that all the time—that is not a violation. Those who are likely to be poor and who are receiving Section 8 housing vouchers are women, and in the context of New Orleans, Black women.

Women’s perceived fertility rates are often used as an underpinning for affordable housing opposition. It’s this typical, unfortunate thing when there are articles around public housing or affordable housing in the local newspaper, and it’s seen also nationally, when you read the comments section, there are always comments about, “These women are having too many kids. They’re breeding criminals.”

In 2008, John LaBruzzo, Louisiana state representative, Republican, made statements about exploring legislation to pay poor women, those who are on welfare and in public housing, $1,000 to be sterilized because they’re having so many kids they can’t afford to take care of.

In 2008, John LaBruzzo, Louisiana state representative, Republican, made statements about exploring legislation to pay poor women, those who are on welfare and in public housing, $1,000 to be sterilized because they’re having so many kids they can’t afford to take care of.14 He made the statement in the context of people evacuating because of Hurricane Gustav, but also during the same week that the House of Representatives overwhelmingly denied support of President Bush’s $700 billion dollar stimulus plan.

How have homeowners fared in the wake of Katrina?

Under the [federal] Road Home program [which provided funds that could be used to rebuild homes], Black homeowners’ properties were devalued compared to White homeowners and many White homeowners received more Road Home funding. The formula that was used [to determine who got grants] was based on homes’ pre‑Katrina value, not on the destruction that the homes suffered through Hurricane Katrina. The disparities were obvious and resulted in several lawsuits [which led to a $62 million settlement].15

In general, the policies that were enacted did not show any investment or commitment to supporting people’s right to return home, and also sent a clear message in terms of who was wanted, who can come back, who can’t come back.

The lack of affordable housing in New Orleans seems to be caused by a number of factors, including soaring rents, stereotypes about low-income residents, and policies such as the federal Road Home program that left out both renters and Black homeowners. What solutions are you working on?

JPNSI creates the opportunity, rather than waiting for something to occur. We’re not just advocating for this, we’re also developing affordable housing in our communities.

When I think about the housing crisis in the city, I see the community land trust model as being one of many avenues to address the problem. At JPNSI we put a particular focus on permanent affordability as well as advocacy to improve equitable forms of development and resident-controlled development.

Affordability loses its strength in markets where you have poor tenant rights laws.

But a community land trust is not a silver bullet. You can create permanent affordability in an area like New Orleans and still be able to put somebody out of a unit. Affordability loses its strength in markets where you have poor tenant rights laws. Inclusionary zoning, a rental registry [to address blight through code enforcement], and tenant rights unions all need to play a role in broader strategy.

This spring, your organization broke ground on a four-unit development that you’ve said will be the first permanently affordable apartment building owned by a community land trust in New Orleans. In Mid-City, the neighborhood where this project is located, 79 percent of residents rent and rents have increased 44 percent since 2000.16 The need is so great and yet you’ve decided to smart small.

The scale of the project may seem small, but it’s characteristic in terms of New Orleans neighborhoods. It’s these small neighborhood projects that have seen the least of the funding and attention. Our effort to explore different possibilities to turn the tide is really important.

These small-scale projects are important and have a big impact on people. They feel like, “I can see a change.”


About the Author:

Dani McClain reports and writes on race, gender, policy, and politics. She is a contributing writer at The Nation and a fellow with the Nation Institute.


Endnotes:

  1. Kristen McQueary, “Chicago, New Orleans, and rebirth,” Chicago Tribune, August 13, 2015 http://big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/Katrina-Chicago_Tribune.pdf

  2. David Brooks, “Katrina’s Silver Lining, The New York Times, September 8, 2005 http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/08/opinion/katrinas-silver-lining.html?_r=0
  3. Lori Rodriguez and Zeke Minaya, “HUD chief doubts New Orleans will be as black,” Houston Chronicle, September 29, 2005 http://www.chron.com/news/hurricanes/article/HUD-chief-doubts-New-Orleans-will-be-as-black-1919882.php
  4. Charles Babington, “Some GOP Legislators Hit Jarring Notes in Addressing Katrina,” The Washington Post, September 10, 2005 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/09/AR2005090901930.html
  5. Nick Anderson, “Education Secretary Duncan calls Hurricane Katrina good for New Orleans schools,” January 30, 2010 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/29/AR2010012903259.html
  6. Jeff Adelson, “Hurricane Katrina transformed New Orleans, the region’s makeup after unrivaled exodus in U.S.,” The New Orleans Advocate, July 11, 2015 http://www.theneworleansadvocate.com/news/12479410-123/hurricane-katrina-transformed-new-orleans
  7. Paula Martinez, David Eads and Christopher Groskopf. “Post-Katrina New Orleans Smaller, But Population Growth Rates Back On Track,” August 19, 2015 http://www.npr.org/2015/08/19/429353601/post-katrina-new-orleans-smaller-but-population-growth-rates-back-on-track
  8. Katy Reckdahl, “Katrina scattered New Orleans’ entrenched social networks far and wide as census says nearly 100,000 fewer black residents after storm,” The New Orleans Advocate, June 27, 2015 http://www.theneworleansadvocate.com/katrina/12479401-186/katrina-scattered-new-orleans-entrenched
  9. BondGraham, Darwin. “The Long Hurricane: The New Orleans Catastrophe Predates Katrina.” The Public Eye, Nov. 1, 2010, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2010/11/01/the-long-hurricane-the-new-orleans-catastrophe-predates-katrina/#sthash.jvhnrLgA.dpbs.
  10. Rachel E. Luft with Shana griffin, “A Status Report on Housing in New Orleans after Katrina: An Intersectional Analysis,” Katrina and the Women of New Orleans (2008): 50 – 53 https://tulane.edu/newcomb/upload/NCCROWreport08-chapter5.pdf
  11. Stacy Seicshnaydre andRyan C. Albright, “Expanding Choice and Opportunity in the Housing Choice Voucher Program,” The New Orleans Index at 10, The Data Center, July 8, 2015 http://www.datacenterresearch.org/reports_analysis/expanding-choice-and-opportunity-in-the-housing-choice-voucher-program/
  12. Babington, “Some GOP Legislators Hit Jarring Notes in Addressing Katrina.”
  13. Luft with Griffin, “A Status Report on Housing in New Orleans after Katrina: An Intersectional Analysis,” 50 – 53 https://tulane.edu/newcomb/upload/NCCROWreport08-chapter5.pdf
  14. Mark Waller, “LaBruzzo considering plan to pay poor women $1,000 to have tubes tied,” The Times-Picayune, September 23, 2008 http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2008/09/labruzzo_sterilization_plan_fi.html
  15. Michael J. Fletcher, “HUD to pay $62 million to La. homeowners to settle Road Home lawsuit,” The Washington Post, July 6, 2011 http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/hud-to-pay-62-million-to-la-homeowners-to-settle-road-home-lawsuit/2011/07/06/gIQAtsFN1H_story.html
  16. Kate Scott, “Neighborhood Organization Rehabilitates Historic Apartment Building to Provide Permanently Affordable Homes in Mid-City,” Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative Press Release, April 21, 2015 http://media.virbcdn.com/files/54/98c3c2df59d3e8b1-2015-04-21ProjectLaunchPressRelease.pdf

 

History Wars Exposed: Right-Wing Influence in APUSH Curriculum Update

Co-authored by Katherine Stewart.

Click here for a printable PDF.

Click here for a printable PDF.

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

On July 30, 2015, the College Board, creators of college-level curricula and testing for high school students, released an update to its Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) course.1 The revision came after what had already been a two-year battle and was quickly criticized by all sides. Digital news outlet Quartz published an article detailing “All the ways the new AP U.S. history standards gloss over the country’s racist past,”2 while conservative media sites like The Daily Caller quoted conservative “experts” who groused that the changes were merely cosmetic and still don’t adequately emphasize “American Exceptionalism.”3 But as to why the changes had been undertaken in the first place, the media consensus was, as The Washington Post put it, that “Conservatives convinced College Board to rewrite American history.”4 Were these headlines just clickbait or had there been mounting pressure on the College Board to appease right-wing critics?

Jeremy Stern, an independent historian who had consulted on the College Board overhaul,5 cast the revision in a more positive light, telling The Christian Science Monitor, “This is a major success for an unpolitical look at American history.”6 However, there was nothing “unpolitical” about the events preceding the revisions.

Photo via Flickr courtesy of Don Harder. License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode

Photo via Flickr courtesy of Don Harder. License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode

The fight over APUSH had been simmering ever since the College Board released its new version of the framework in 2012; it boiled over in several states after the new curriculum was implemented for the 2014-2015 school year. The original redesign of the course—in the works since 2006—was intended to reflect an ongoing shift in history classrooms from rote memorization to critical thinking skills.7 As the authors of the new curriculum explained in Education Week, 8 they’d been motivated by the concerns of AP teachers who felt the existing APUSH curriculum “prevented them and their students from exploring in any depth the main events and documents of U.S. history.” They sought greater opportunities for their students to “understand the ‘why’ of U.S. history,” and to “make its deeper meanings come alive to students.” The 2014 redesigned APUSH was greeted warmly by academic associations, including the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the National Council for Social Studies, and the National Council for History Education.

But the College Board’s attempt to change how students learn U.S. history was greeted by conservatives as a revision of what U.S. history is.9

Education has long been a front in the U.S. culture wars. In particular, conservatives have argued for at least two decades that secular progressives have taken over history studies to inculcate students with a negative view of the American past and present.10 Thanks to a concerted effort from members of the State Policy Network,11 such as the Boston-based Pioneer Institute12 and the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, high school history has remained a controversial subject on a national level.

“Ben Carson said that ‘most people’ who complete the course would then be ‘ready to sign up for ISIS.'”

The APUSH controversy of the past several years is reported to have started when Larry Krieger, a retired high school history teacher who had started each year with the theme of American exceptionalism,13 slammed APUSH in numerous articles,14 including several written for the Heartland Institute,15 a conservative think tank known for its role in promoting climate-science denial. The Republican National Committee picked up the beat and condemned APUSH as “radically revisionist.” Peter Wood, President of the right-leaning National Association of Scholars and a critic of environmentalism and LGBTQ equality, penned an extensive piece criticizing the APUSH redesign last year,16 using the term “Bowdoin Syndrome” to describe what he called the “intellectual arrogance” fostered by that college as well as by AP examinations. Eventually, Tea Party hero Ben Carson, author of One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future, went so far as to say that “most people” who complete the course would then be “ready to sign up for ISIS.”17

“Little Rebels”

In 2014, the fight received national media attention when nearly 400 high school students in Jefferson County, Colorado, engaged in an unusual form of political theater. A newly elected school board was attempting to create a “curriculum committee”18 that could review any course’s instruction materials, starting with APUSH. Its review criteria held that “Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”19 A Colorado school board member, Julia Williams, summed up this sentiment in an interview with a local TV news station, saying, “I don’t think we should encourage our kids to be little rebels.”

In protest of the school board’s attempt to write civil obedience into the curriculum, the students dressed themselves up as historical figures, including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and sundry founding fathers, and staged a walk out. Some county schools were closed when too many teachers failed to show up for work in protest.20 Jefferson County Board of Education President Ken Witt dismissed the students as “political pawns”21 for the teachers’ unions, but the walkout succeeded in stalling the school board’s plan to change the curriculum22 and helped garner support for the recall of three board members.23

Local Battles, National Strategy

The Jefferson County history battle was colorful enough to capture national headlines. But it was just one in a string of conflicts over APUSH curricula taking place nationwide over the last few years, in Oklahoma, Georgia, Texas, and North and South Carolina.

While the vehement state battles appeared to be driven by local personalities and agendas, there was a larger, national strategy at work.

“In Texas, the infamously right-wing State Board of Education passed a resolution in September 2014 to request that the College Board revise the APUSH framework.”

The opposition to APUSH occurred on two levels. The first, as in Colorado, concerned control of local school boards and school communities. A second prong of the attack focused on legislation at the state level, bolstered by a resolution passed by the Republican National Convention denouncing the course and urging Congress to withdraw funding to the College Board.24 Policymakers in the Carolinas agitated to eliminate or doctor APUSH at the end of 2014. In Texas, a state that represents 10 percent of the College Board’s market,25 the infamously right-wing State Board of Education passed a resolution in September 2014 to request that the College Board revise the APUSH framework.26 In February 2015, Oklahoma state representative Dan Fisher introduced a bill that would bar funds from being used on AP History, although public outcry effectively killed the bill within a month.27 And in March 2015 in Georgia, a lobbyist from the American Principles Project, a right-wing think tank based in Washington, D.C., reportedly showed up urging legislators to adopt anti-APUSH legislation, resulting in a bill that passed the state Senate in March28 (but ultimately stalled in the House).

The American Principles Project (APP), which has been advocating against APUSH since at least the Jefferson County protests, was founded in 2009 by Princeton University professor and Catholic neoconservative Robert P. George in order to ensure that the “dignity of the person” is reflected in local and national policies. Some of the APP’s best-known work has been produced in the fight against Common Core, but its leadership is invested in a broader slate of culture war issues. After the publication of the Manhattan Declaration in 2009, The New York Times called George “the country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker.”29 George was the primary author of the Declaration—part of an effort to unify conservative Catholics and evangelicals around a three-part agenda, which they described as “life, marriage, and religious liberty”30—but other APP figures are also proven culture warriors. APP chairman Sean Fieler also heads the Chiaroscuro Group, whose radio ads attacking a pro-choice politician once featured a talking fetus; the APP’s board president, Francis Cannon, coauthored a post-2012 report on “Building a Winning GOP Coalition”;31 and other board members include anti-marriage equality activist Maggie Gallagher and Luiz Tellez, cofounder of the anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion legal advocacy group the Witherspoon Institute (which helped fund a thoroughly debunked 2012 study by conservative sociologist Mark Regnerus suggesting negative outcomes for children of same-sex couples32).

In their 2015 lobbying document,33 APP charged that APUSH “requires American History to be taught through a leftist, revisionist lens.” According to APP, the course gave “special attention to the formation of gender, class, racial and ethnic identities” and “presents American business in a consistently negative light.”

This type of accusation is an old one, dating back to at least 1994, when Lynne Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities (and wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney) condemned the National Standards for U.S. History as revisionist political correctness in her now-famous Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The End of History.”34 Over twenty years later, Cheney, currently a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, resumed the attack in another Journal op-ed, “The End of History, Part II,” arguing, “The [APUSH] curriculum shouldn’t be farmed out, not to the federal government and not to private groups. It should stay in the hands of the people who are constitutionally responsible for it: the citizens of each state.”35

Whose History?

At the core of this debate over “revisionist” versus “traditional” history is the question of whether U.S. history curriculum should be about facts or a primer on civic duty and citizenship. The College Board’s new curriculum already had to stand the test of certain state laws such as North Carolina’s Founding Principles Act, which since 2011 has required that high school students pass a course on the “Founding Principles” (because “the survival of the republic” depends on students being better “guardians of its heritage”).36

A professor of history at the University of Oklahoma asserted that the 2014 “framework represents a shift from national identity to subcultural identities” and warned, “We will not be able to uphold our democracy unless we know our great stories, our national narratives, and the admirable deeds of our great men and women. The new AP U.S. History framework fails on that count, because it does not see the civic role of education as a central one.”37 (Scholars of Native American history pushed back on this, arguing in Indian Country Today that, “American Indian history is part of the fabric of the state of Oklahoma and who we are today…therefore all of that history is American history.”38)

“At the root of current objections to this highly regarded process is a blatant disregard for the facts.”

In September 2014, the Board had responded to critics, writing in a memo, “At the root of current objections to this highly regarded process is a blatant disregard for the facts…the most vocal critics have prioritized their own agenda above the best interests of teachers, students, and their families.”39 Nonetheless, the force of the pushback was enough to convince the Board to solicit public feedback on their course, which they did through their website from late 2014 through early 2015.40

In the end, with no sign of the debate relenting, the College Board agreed to another revision, which was released this July. News coverage pointed to the pressure the College Board had received using phrases such as “gives in” and “caves to.”

Zachary Goldberg, Director of Media Relations for the College Board, objected to these characterizations, saying that inaccurate media reports about the revision had misled many readers into thinking the Board had removed numerous mentions of slavery from the course. Not only was that incorrect, he wrote, but the revision was hailed as a success “by historians and teachers representing a range of political views [for] presenting a richer and more balanced view of American history. This was achieved not by reducing or minimizing the important narratives of underrepresented groups, but by adding to those narratives and including other important themes and concepts that the 2014 edition was rightly criticized for having minimized.”41

Whether or not the curriculum was rightly criticized, and the College Board was simply “responding to legitimate criticism while avoiding excessive overcompensation” (as consultant Jeremy Stern put it),42 the events preceding the revisions appear to suggest that APUSH, like much school curricula, has been politicized by a right-wing agenda.

The areas of the curriculum that the College Board noted had received the most criticism—the treatment of the founding fathers, founding documents, free enterprise, and America’s role in wartime victories—underwent the most significant changes and expansions.43 And a side-by-side comparison of the two versions of the course shows concrete examples of right-wing influence—some blatant, and some more coded.

“Mention of ‘white superiority’ as a component of Manifest Destiny was stripped from the 2015 revision, along with any mention of “white resistance” to desegregation.”

Analysis of White racial identity and power as an undercurrent of U.S. history is all but erased. Mention of “white superiority” as a component of Manifest Destiny was stripped from the 2015 revision, along with any mention of “white resistance” to desegregation. From 2014 to 2015, the coverage of Native American history under colonialism shifted from describing indigenous people’s attempts to “forge advantageous political alliances” in order to “maintain their tribal lands” to having “repeatedly evaluated and adjusted their alliances” in order to “maintain control of tribal lands and natural resources”—a subtle tweak that seems to speak more to contemporary conservative complaints about Native American control of natural resources on sovereign lands than an impartial reassessment of what happened during colonial times. Where the issue of White racial identity was added, it often seemed intended to mitigate injustices perpetuated against Blacks, by linking the experience of White indentured servants and poor White sharecroppers with the experience of enslaved Africans and impoverished African Americans in the Jim Crow South.

While Goldberg argues that “The struggles and challenges experienced – and that continue to be experienced – by minorities as America seeks to live up to its ideals in no way are minimized in the new edition,” many complexities of those struggles seem to have been lost in the Board’s new revision. Quoted in a September article in Indian Country Today, K. Tsianina Lomawaima, a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation and a professor at Arizona State University, pointed to the consolidation of “Latino, American Indian, and Asian American movements” into one statement in the course as an example of how the newest curriculum is “once again erasing indigenous sovereignty and sliding American Indians in as just another piece of the so-called racial-ethnic mix.”44

To The National Review, which was pleased with the revision, the changes amounted to “a good rewrite,” and “balanced handiwork.”45 But the biggest question about teaching U.S. history remains: how can you balance coverage of a heritage that was never based on equity?

Information in this chart was compiled from the 2014 and 2015 edition of the College Board's AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description

Information in this chart was compiled from the 2014 and 2015 edition of the College Board’s AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description

APUSHchart2


About the Authors:

Gabriel Joffe is the program coordinator at Political Research Associates. 

Katherine Stewart has written for The Nation, The New York Times, and The Guardian. She is the author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children (PublicAffairs, 2012).


Endnotes:

1 “The 2015 AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description,” Advances in AP, July 30, 2015, https://advancesinap.collegeboard.org/english-history-and-social-science/us-history/2015-ced.

2 Jack Flanagin, “All the ways the new AP US history standards gloss over the country’s racist past,” Quartz, July 31, 2015, http://qz.com/469169/all-the-ways-the-new-ap-us-history-standards-gloss-over-the-countrys-racist-past/.

3 Scott Greer, “Experts: AP U.S. History Still Doesn’t Teach American Exceptionalism,” The Daily Caller, August 5, 2015, http://dailycaller.com/2015/08/05/experts-ap-u-s-history-still-doesnt-teach-american-exceptionalism/.

4 Lyndsey Layton, “Conservatives convinced College Board to rewrite American history,” The Washington Post, July 30, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/college-board-rewrites-american-history/2015/07/30/cadadd4c-36d1-11e5-b673-1df005a0fb28_story.html.

5 Anya Kamenetz, “The New, New Framework For AP U.S. History,” NPR, August 5, 2015, http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/08/05/429361628/the-new-new-framework-for-ap-u-s-history.

6 Kevin Truong, “New guidelines for AP history: Are they still ‘unpatriotic’?,” The Christian Science Monitor, July 30, 2015, http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Education/2015/0730/New-guidelines-for-AP-history-Are-they-still-unpatriotic.

7 College Board, “Announcing AP U.S. History Course and Exam Revisions” (presentation, AP Annual Conference, July 20, 2012), http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/public/repository/ap_ush_course_exam_revisions.ppt.

8 Catherine Gewertz, “AP History Framework Authors Defend Their Work,” Education Week, August 18, 2014, http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2014/08/the_authors_of_the_new.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-FB.

9 Caitlin MacNeal, “Meet The Man Behind The Right’s AP History Freak Out,” Talking Points Memo, October 9, 2014, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/larry-krieger-ap-us-history-conservatives.

10 Katherine Stewart, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children (New York: Public Affairs, 2012), 164.

11 For a more in depth look at the State Policy Network and its links with member organizations see Frederick Clarkson, “EXPOSED: How the Right’s State-Based Think Tanks Are Transforming U.S. Politics,” Political Research Associates, November 25, 2013, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/11/25/exposed-how-the-rights-state-based-think-tanks-are-transforming-u-s-politics/#sthash.kAdMt3Nz.dpbs.

12 Stanley Kurtz, “Madison Scholar Condemns AP U.S. History Redesign,” National Review, September 2, 2014, http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/386849/madison-scholar-condemns-ap-us-history-redesign-stanley-kurtz.

13 Pema Levy, “What’s Driving Conservatives Mad About the New AP History Course,” Newsweek, August 14, 2014, http://www.newsweek.com/whats-driving-conservatives-mad-about-new-history-course-264592.

14 Casey Quinlan, “College Board Caves To Conservative Pressure, Changes AP U.S. History Curriculum,” Think Progress, July 30, 2015, http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2015/07/30/3686060/conservatives-get-major-win-fight-ap-history-classes/.

15 Larry Krieger, “29 Biased Statements In the AP U.S. History Redesign,” Heartland, August 19, 2014, http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2014/08/19/29-biased-statements-ap-us-history-redesign.

16 Peter Wood, “Update on AP U.S. History,” National Association of Scholars, July 10, 2014, https://www.nas.org/articles/update_on_ap_us_history?utm_source=Copy+of+July+2014+Newsletter&utm_c.

17 Valerie Strauss, “Ben Carson: New AP U.S. history course will make kids want to ‘sign up for ISIS’,” The Washington Post, September 29, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/09/29/ben-carson-new-ap-u-s-history-course-will-make-kids-want-to-sign-up-for-isis/.

18 Jesse Paul, “Jeffco students walk out of 5 high schools in school board protest,” The Denver Post, September 23, 2015, http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_26588432/jeffco-high-school-students-plan-walk-out-their.

19 Jefferson County Public Schools Board of Education, “Board Committee for Curriculum Review,” September 18, 2014, http://www.boarddocs.com/co/jeffco/Board.nsf/files/9NYRPF6DED70/$file/JW% 20PROPOSAL%20Board%20Committee%20for%20Curriculum%20Review.pdf.

20 Justin Streight, “Colorado Teacher Protest Shuts Down Schools Over History Censorship,” Inquisitr, October 1, 2014, http://www.inquisitr.com/1511072/colorado-teacher-protest-shuts-down-schools-over-history-censorship/.

21 Dr. Susan Berry, “Colorado Teacher’s Union Uses Students As ‘Political Pawns’ in Teacher Salary Dispute,” Breitbart News, September 24, 2014, http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2014/09/24/jefferson-county-colorado-teacher-s-union-uses-students-as-political-pawns-in-teacher-salary-dispute/.

22 Jack Healy, “After Uproar, School Board in Colorado Scraps Anti-Protest Curriculum,” The New York Times, October 3, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/04/us/after-uproar-colorado-school-board-retreats-on-curriculum-review-plan.html?_r=1.

23 Nicholas Garcia, “Jeffco clerk: School board recall organizers have enough signatures,” Chalkbeat Colorado, August 18, 2015, http://co.chalkbeat.org/2015/08/18/jeffco-clerk-school-board-recall-organizers-collected-enough-signatures/#.VddSnJ1Vikp.

24 Catherine Gewertz, “Republican National Committee Condemns New AP History Framework,” Education Week, August 11, 2014, http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2014/08/college_board_statement_on_ap.html.

25 Merrill Hope, “Exclusive: Texas is ‘Nation’s Last Best Chance’ To Block APUSH, Say Experts,” Breitbart News, September 11, 2014, http://www.breitbart.com/Texas/2014/09/11/Exclusive-Texas-is-Nations-Last-Best-Chance-to-Block-APUSH-Say-Experts/.

26 Merrill Hope, “Texas State Education Board Passes Resolution to Stop Redesigned AP US History,” Breitbart News, September 20, 2014, http://www.breitbart.com/texas/2014/09/20/texas-state-education-board-passes-resolution-to-stop-redesigned-ap-us-history-apush/.

27 Jasmine Song, “Oklahoma Educators Quash Attempt to Ban AP U.S. History,” neaToday, March 16, 2015, http://neatoday.org/2015/03/16/oklahoma-educators-quash-effort-ban-ap-u-s-history/.

28 Martha Dalton, “Georgia Senate Passes Resolution Challenging AP US History Exam,” 90.1 FM WABE, March 12, 2015, http://wabe.org/post/georgia-senate-passes-resolution-challenging-ap-us-history-exam.

29 David D. Kirkpatrick, “The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker,” The New York Times, December 16, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/20/magazine/20george-t.html.

30 Frederick Clarkson, “Christian Right Seeks Renewal in Deepening Catholic-Protestant Alliance,” Political Research Associates, July 23, 2013, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/07/23/christian-right-seeks-renewal-in-deepening-catholic-protestant-alliance/#sthash.w8MSl9lV.dpbs.

31 “Building a Winning GOP Coalition: The Lessons of 2012,” American Principles in Action, October 2013, http://www.americanprinciplesinaction.org/gop-autopsy-report-2013/.

32 Brandon Watson, “New Documents Contradict Regnerus’ Claims on Gay Parenting Study,” The Austin Chronicle, March 29, 2013, http://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2013-03-29/new-documents-contradict-regnerus-claims-on-gay-parenting-study/.

33 Ayman Fadel, “Anti-Advanced Placement US History Movement at Georgia Capitol,” Aym Playing, March 19, 2015, https://aymplaying.wordpress.com/2015/03/19/i-dont-have-time-to-discuss-all-the-scary-ramification-of-this-document-and-the-movement-it-represents-but-i-wanted-to-pass-this-on-to-others-asap/.

34 Lynne V. Cheney, “The End of History,” The Wall Street Journal, October 20, 1994, http://online.wsj.com/media/EndofHistory.pdf.

35 Lynne V. Cheney, “The End of History, Part II,” The Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/lynne-cheney-the-end-of-history-part-ii-1427929675.

36 T. Keung Hui, “NC Board of Education to hear AP US History controversy,” Charlotte Observer, November 27, 2014, http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/education/article9237761.html#.VH0R3THF_kK#storylink=cpy.

37 Wilfred M. McClay, “History, American Democracy, and the AP Test Controversy,” Imprimis Vol. 44, No. 7/8, July/August 2015, https://imprimis.hillsdale.edu/history-american-democracy-and-the-ap-test-controversy/.

38 Tanya H. Lee, “University of Oklahoma Prof: Native History is American History,” Indian Country Today, March 6, 2015, http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/03/06/university-oklahoma-prof-native-history-american-history-159482.

39 “Statement on AP U.S. History.” Advances in AP, September 19, 2014, https://advancesinap.collegeboard.org/english-history-and-social-science/us-history/college-board-statement.

40 Trevor Packer, “Letter from Trevor Packer,” Advances in AP, nd., https://advancesinap.collegeboard.org/english-history-and-social-science/us-history/trevor-packer-letter.

41 Zachary Goldberg, e-mail message to author, September 16, 2015.

42 Jeremy Stern, “Left and Right May Not Be Happy with the New AP Standards. Here’s Why You Should Be,” History News Network, August 14, 2015, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/160264.

43 “The 2015 AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description,” Advances in AP, July 30, 2015, https://advancesinap.collegeboard.org/english-history-and-social-science/us-history/2015-ced.

44 Tanya H. Lee, “New AP US History Exam Perpetuates Lies About Native Americans,” Indian Country Today, September 8, 2015,  http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/09/08/new-ap-us-history-exam-perpetuates-lies-about-native-americans-161628.

45 Frederick M. Hess and Chester E. Finn Jr., “The Overheated Reactions to the New AP U.S. History Framework,” National Review, August 5, 2015, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/422052/ap-us-history-framework-rewrite-defense.

Anti-Death Penalty Activism Reinforces Racist Status Quo

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s widely-protested ruling in Glossip v. Gross, which maintained that execution by lethal injection does not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment,” capital punishment continues to be an issue of national debate. While the partisan divide in death penalty support has been running strong for decades, significant anti-death penalty organizing can now be found on both sides of the aisle.

death penalty

Last May, Nebraska’s Republican-dominated legislature voted to abolish the death penalty, leading to much optimistic discussion about conservatives’ perceived change of heart on this long-divisive issue. This new wave of activism from non-traditional allies—a marked shift from conservatives’ typical platform of strong support of capital punishment and a “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice—has come as a welcome surprise to many progressives working toward criminal justice reform.

However, while abolishing the death penalty would clearly be a positive step forward, it is a limited and inadequate objective—particularly if achieved without any meaningful discussion of the racism and structural inequalities that produced and continue to drive our modern justice system. Even if the involvement of this small band of conservative anti-death penalty activists manages to finally tip the scales in this decades-long struggle, the changes most likely to be enacted will be purely superficial, culminating in what Dean Spade describes as “formal reforms that mask the perpetuation of the white supremacist status quo.”

Eliminating one unjust policy won’t actually change the number of people dying under state control (or the racial disparities that persist among those sentenced to life without parole).

The conservative approach to anti-death penalty organizing not only perpetuates this status quo through the promotion of a harmful “post-racial” ideology, but also manages to enhance support for the rest of the carceral system by centering reform around fiscal restraint, rather than on rehabilitation and justice for incarcerated people.

The unsettling truth about the way policing and sentencing are carried out in this country has been established time and time again; it’s clear that no criminal justice movement can make any genuine change without addressing these problems. Some may argue that abolishing the death penalty will put an end to the racial disparities in whom the state decides to execute, but the alternative to being sentenced to death in an execution chamber is being sentenced to die in a prison cell. Eliminating one unjust policy won’t actually change the number of people dying under state control (or the racial disparities that persist among those sentenced to life without parole). In fact, fighting the death penalty without simultaneously fighting the White supremacy upheld by the justice system at every level will likely exacerbate the problem by making it even easier to ignore.

Ignoring White supremacy is a fundamental facet of conservative anti-death penalty organizing. The clearest evidence of this can be found in these activists’ refusal to talk about the role of race in death penalty sentencing or the carceral system as a whole. Grover Norquist, a conservative criminal justice reform advocate and the founder of Americans for Tax Reform, revealingly accused the Left of not taking these issues seriously because of their insistence on discussing how racism is an integral part of the prison industrial complex. “They’ve left the entire area of reform to the right… [the Left] can’t talk about prison reform for 15 seconds before [they] want to yell ‘racist’… People just shut down as soon as you pull that crap.”

Norquist isn’t alone in his resistance to an anti-racist framework, either. When Right on Crime, an organization dedicated to exploring new conservative approaches to criminal justice, details its “Conservative Case for Reform,” there is no mention whatsoever of race. Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty (CCDP) also tiptoes around this issue, focusing on the fact that life or death often boils down to a “lottery of geography,” and that many defendants wind up stuck with terrible lawyers. The effects of geography and inadequate legal representation on sentencing outcomes cannot be separated from race, yet CCDP rather conspicuously refuses to mention it, as though we are living in a “colorblind” society where race no longer matters.

This is what conservative activists are advocating when they focus their efforts solely on the death penalty and refuse to discuss race—an approach that ultimately won’t do much to address the problems that plague our justice system.

According to journalist Anna Holmes, adopting a “colorblind” perspective means believing that “race relations are soon to be replaced as a major concern,” an attitude that often amounts to “an attempt by white people to liberate themselves from the burden of having to deal with [the U.S.’s racist historical] legacy.” This is what conservative activists are advocating when they focus their efforts solely on the death penalty and refuse to discuss race—an approach that ultimately won’t do much to address the problems that plague our justice system.

Worse yet, their steadfast refusal to acknowledge how the justice system maintains White supremacy facilitates the perpetuation of these systemic injustices. Their methods, especially the way they talk about incarcerated people, reinforces the idea that if you’ve committed a crime, your life is disposable. Marc Hyden, a former NRA representative now working for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, says that “the question is not whether people who commit heinous crimes deserve to be executed – it’s whether we trust the government to efficiently and effectively carry that out.” Senator Caroline McGinn, a Republican fighting for death penalty abolition in Kansas, echoed this sentiment when, speaking about the death penalty, she “urged fellow legislators ‘to think outside the box’ for ways to save money.”

Their focus on fiscal responsibility highlights how the conservatives’ view of criminal justice reform has little to do with rehabilitation, and more to do with swiftly and efficiently keeping criminalized people out of sight and out of mind. Abolishing the death penalty will simply enable the state to continue doing this in the most cost-effective way possible.

The only exception, when conservative anti-death penalty activists have demonstrated significant interest in saving people on death row, seems to be when the condemned is the “right kind” of victim. When Black people are sentenced to die, these activists tend to focus on the injustice of capital punishment in abstract terms of fiscal irresponsibility and excessive governmental involvement, rather than the humanity of those the state wishes to kill. However, when White women are sentenced to die—especially when they’ve experienced a religious conversion—the story is often completely different. This is where the Economic and Religious Right have found a way to come together: both sides can make arguments against capital punishment that support their long-held principles, whether it’s fiscal restraint or the untouchable sanctity of White Christian womanhood.

For example, religious conservatives were vocally opposed to the execution of Karla Faye Tucker, who claimed to have a conversion experience in prison after murdering two people with a pickaxe. With key leaders of the Christian Right like Pat Robertson fighting for her release, she reached near-celebrity status. At the time of her death, polls showed that “despite Texans’ support for capital punishment, those who favor[ed] Tucker’s execution [were] a minority.” More recently, Kelly Gissendaner, another White woman on death row who converted to Christianity in prison, has found a similar outpouring of support from religious conservatives.

The problem is that only a fraction of the people whose lives are taken by the U.S. criminal justice system are White, Christian women. When conservative activism focuses on the humanity of these women but ignores the lives of everyone else, it supports the justice system’s broader lack of concern for the life and well-being of people of color.

If conservatives continue their misdirected advocacy without examining the structural inequalities at work within and outside the justice system, the abolition of the death penalty will be a hollow victory.

If other red states follow in Nebraska’s footsteps, the U.S. will gradually move closer to a national end to capital punishment. The 40 or so people executed by lethal injection each year will instead be sentenced to death by incarceration, but the question of whether any significant change will have been accomplished remains. If conservatives continue their misdirected advocacy without examining the structural inequalities at work within and outside the justice system, the abolition of the death penalty will be a hollow victory. All the mechanisms of mass incarceration will continue to operate as normal, or even with increased public support and fiscal and political resources. Undeniably racist policing and sentencing practices will continue to ensure that race remains a crucial determinant of who goes to jail and who doesn’t. Out of control incarceration rates will continue to tear families and communities apart, contributing to inescapable cycles of poverty that, in conjunction with discriminatory policies in housing, hiring, and lending, make recidivism nearly impossible to avoid. Incarcerated queer and transgender people of color will still be disproportionately subject to sexual violence, often at the hands of prison guards who will never face legal consequences. Incarcerated people will still be denied adequate medical care and could even face coerced sterilization. And prison guards will continue to employ solitary confinement as a means of punishment and control, a process that amounts to nothing short of torture, yet is used with startling frequency. These are the awful, everyday realities of the U.S. justice system, built upon centuries of systemic discrimination, none of which will be disrupted by conservative anti-death penalty activism.

Working to end capital punishment and move toward a less punitive justice system can still be worthwhile, but only if these reforms are part of a much broader strategy to root out White supremacy—in our criminal justice system, and throughout society.