“A History of the War on Drugs”: Public Eye Artist in the News

On September 15, hip-hop artist Jay Z and author and illustrator Molly Crabapple collaborated (along with dream hampton, Jim Batt, and Kim Boekbinder) on a short, animated video, “A History of the War on Drugs, from Prohibition to Gold Rush,” for The New York Times. In the four-minute piece, Jay Z chronicles U.S. drug policy from 1971 to the present day, highlighting these laws’ ineffectiveness and their uneven application across race and class lines. Juxtaposing the mass incarceration of Black and Latino men arrested on petty drug charges with the White bankers and college students whose drug use gets a pass, the video also calls into question who will profit now that some states have legalized the sale of marijuana. The same drug sales that left a generation of men of color in prison will now enrich White entrepreneurs.

The piece is a continuation of Crabapple’s video work on social justice issues, including “broken windows” policing. PRA recently used a still from Crabapple’s viral video explanation of broken windows on the cover of our Spring 2016 issue of The Public Eye. Crabapple’s work accompanied a cover article by activist, lawyer, and author Andrea Ritchie on the right-wing roots of broken windows theory.

The Spring issue of Public Eye featuring a still from Molly Crabapple’s video “How ‘broken windows’ policing harms people of color.”

As Ritchie writes, broken window policing is based on the premise that if small signs of disorder—like broken windows, turnstile jumping or loud music—are left unchecked, they will eventually lead to greater crime. Neoconservative thinkers George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, who popularized the broken windows theory in a 1982 Atlantic article, argued that the stringent enforcement of all misdemeanor laws was necessary in order to maintain safety and avoid community breakdown.

However, in reality, this type of policing manifests as both excessive force towards minor offences and heightened police presence in low-income Black communities—to the extent that it often appears to criminalize Blackness itself. Similar to the drug policing Jay Z and Crabapple discussed in their video, broken window policing doesn’t reduce crime rates, but just assuages White fears of poorer communities of color.

The current culture of policing appears to be based not on the protection of people of color, but rather their criminalization. From the drug wars to broken window policing, it is evident the current law enforcement system is in dire need of reform – immediate reform.

The Transformation of a Goldwater Girl: Why It Matters in the Time of Trump

Click here to download the print version of this article.

A version of this article appears in the Fall 2016 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

This is, in some respects, a ghost story. A political ghost story in which the mythic, the symbolic, the demon archetype come to substitute for sustained engagement with ordinary human beings. Both major political parties love to tell scary stories about the other side, while offering their own followers a vicarious sense of power—of superiority—over those dehumanized opponents, those ghosts. It’s intoxicating stuff.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what that means when it comes to Donald Trump.

The short answer: A lot more than one election and a fear- contempt- and ridicule-based campaign that demonizes not only Trump but his overwhelmingly White followers. Scot Nakagawa and Tarso Luís Ramos recently wrote at PRA about the need to increase the social justice movement’s capacity to disrupt and defuse the momentum of the Right, and to offer an appealing alternative to the likes of Trump:

We compete by going up against the Right and vying directly for the loyalty of those who make up the immediate projected base of their support: White working-class people. Most right-wing groups’ core support is drawn from the White middle class, but right-wing movements don’t stop there. They traditionally organize “down” the economic ladder and reach for working-class Whites, whose numbers are vital to their success. Successfully competing will require us to authentically express empathy and compassion to White poor people and to those who fear falling into poverty, and to do so while marrying economic justice to racial and social equity.

As it happens, I know something about winning over the Right’s rank and file supporters.

"Goldwater Girls" during Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign for President. Photo courtesy of Marilyn M via Flickr.

“Goldwater Girls” during Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign for President. Photo courtesy of Marilyn M via Flickr.

When I was growing up in southern Colorado, the daughter of “respectable blue collar” parents in a lunch-bucket steel mill town, I was an ardent teenage supporter of Barry Goldwater during his failed but pivotal 1964 campaign for the presidency. Pundits said, and many believed, that his loss dealt a death-blow to the Right. It was a premature obituary.

Just four years later, former Alabama governor George Wallace (“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!”) ran a surprisingly strong third party, right-wing populist campaign for the presidency, at one point polling a possible 23 percent of the national vote. Then Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, and Richard Nixon was elected president.

The Right had reinvented itself, but I’d changed, too. By this time, still in Colorado, I was a state college student, becoming ever more deeply immersed in movements to fight racism, support farmworker organizing, and oppose the war in Vietnam. My personal political transformation hadn’t been a “road to Damascus” epiphany. It was complicated and slow—often painful, always humbling, and sometimes shattering. But ultimately liberating.

I’m no expert in the science of political transformation, and I doubt that anyone is, or that there’s much science to it. Yet I believe my experience holds some relevance for the current political moment. Because even if Trump drops or is maneuvered off the Republican ticket tomorrow, or Hillary Clinton beats him by a landslide in November, this story won’t be over.

That’s because everything that Trumpism represents is so much larger and more complex than one man or one campaign. While the views of Trumpism are announced without the usual rhetorical filters and political sophistication, it isn’t an aberration. Its authoritarian and White nativist roots extend throughout all of American history; for decades, the conservative movement and the Republican Party have strategically stoked the racism and xenophobia animating today’s Trump phenomenon.

I don’t minimize the danger of Trump’s campaign, which is soaked in White supremacist and xenophobic fear, grievance, and suspicion, and blended with intense doses of braggadocio, narcissism, celebratory climate change denial, American exceptionalism, and triumphalism. Nor do I dismiss the influence of supporting groups of militant White nativists, “sovereign citizens,” and neonazis who constantly chum the political waters.

But here I’m talking about ordinary White blue collar and working class people who aren’t reflexively prone to racist violence or White supremacist fanaticism. Many of them just breathe in casual, normative racism like air, never thinking to question what is all around them. That’s what I did when I was growing up, as did my family and community—many of whom had been written off in a variety of ways for much of their lives, perhaps for generations. Pegged by society as losers or disposable workers, and treated with contempt and ridicule by those with greater social and economic status, they are recognized only at election times by opportunistic politicians struggling for greater standing.

Supporters of Donald Trump at a rally in Arizona this year. Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

Supporters of Donald Trump at a rally in Arizona this year.
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

Because a sense of belonging is especially important in a society where you know your life matters little except to those closest to you, appeals to group loyalty—and a willingness to name and persecute those who challenge that loyalty—often carry special resonance. White identity permits even White people in economic free-fall that sense of belonging. And because White identity is so significant (even if not consciously acknowledged), these are people whose racial anxieties and prejudices are easily inflamed and manipulated.

I’m not suggesting we appeal to the Right’s lay supporters on the basis of economics and class alone. We can’t excuse or minimize the enduring emotional power and elastic utility of overt and coded appeals to White identity. But we also can’t simply write these people off as “tools,” “idiots” or “morons,” and expect them to miraculously disappear or instantly reverse course based on sudden insight. (“Oh, damn! I’ve been voting against my own interests! I need to stop doing that!”) Without actual engagement, these communities will continue to gravitate towards leaders who scapegoat communities of color, queers, Muslims, and immigrants. Some other demagogue will always be on hand to tap into this reservoir of racism—usually blended with legitimate economic grievance—and another right-wing populist crusade will commence.

Toward Transformation

My conservative Republican parents didn’t drag me into the 1964 Goldwater campaign. They weren’t rabid Right Wingers like the folks in the John Birch Society, whose billboards and literature denouncing Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights movement, and “the communist conspiracy” littered our civic landscape.

Campaign buttons for the Barry Goldwater (Republican Party) presidential campaign of 1964 Part of the Littlejohn Collection, Wofford College (via Flickr).

Campaign buttons for the Barry Goldwater (Republican Party) presidential campaign of 1964
Part of the Littlejohn Collection, Wofford College (via Flickr).

But our family was worried about the future; it seemed so tenuous. When I was very young, Dad lost a promising job that was supposed to be the first step on the ladder leading into the middle class, and he never got a better one. Mom, who was simultaneously furious over and humiliated by teachers’ inquiries as to whether my sister and I were getting enough to eat, went back to work, as a low-paid medical insurance secretary. And while my father was grateful for the lunch bucket job he finally got, monitoring gauges at pump stations for the local water works (a job he kept till he retired), he hated that he had to join the union. We desperately needed the benefits, but he believed guys on the way up didn’t belong to unions, that unions were for losers. He put on a good public front, but my father always felt like a failure. That was abundantly clear at home. Try as I might to feel optimistic, I often felt like a loser, too.

But even if we fell short in terms of economic status, at least we were White. Not Ku Klux Klan White, although the Klan once had an influential presence where I grew up. But the kind of Whites who thought Anglo domination was the right thing in a town that was probably almost half “Mexican” (as we said then), and which until 1963 still had a segregated black orphanage. The kind who, while not especially mean-spirited, nonetheless never questioned “respectable” expressions of bigotry or structural forms of racism.

When I was in ninth grade, a friend’s mother—who was a rabid Right Winger—seemed to sense my hunger to belong to something bigger and more powerful than myself. (For me, church and the Girl Scouts weren’t the answer.) She swept me into the 1964 campaign. As a young Goldwater Girl, I read endless right-wing screeds, poured hundreds of cups of campaign ginger ale (from promotional cans labeled “Gold Water”), and tromped from rally to meeting to state convention, alternately absorbing and parroting warnings about impending racial and communist doom.

The author prepares to ride her decorated bicycle with a contingent of Teen Age Republicans (TARs) in the Colorado State Fair Parade, circa 1964

The author prepares to ride her decorated bicycle with a contingent of Teen Age Republicans (TARs) in the Colorado State Fair Parade, circa 1964. Photo courtesy of Kay Whitlock.

Tailor-made for people anxious about their futures, Goldwater’s campaign was steeped in the fear of enemies. Civil Rights agitation, court rulings, and litigation constituted a criminal assault on individual liberty and states’ rights. The Civil Rights movement would produce a federal police state in which people, both Black and White, would lose the freedom to live their lives as they choose (that is, in segregation). Protest was framed as a breakdown of moral order and an indicator of criminal unrest. Such “welfare state” initiatives as Medicare (proposed at the time, but not yet enacted into law) and Social Security (longstanding) could only foster pathological and parasitical dependencies—primarily in Black communities, we understood. But vicariously, through Goldwater, we would beat back those enemies. We would win.

Liberals cheered Goldwater’s epic defeat. But their glee was misplaced. Even in losing, Goldwater changed mainstream political possibilities. He’d been willing to wage tactical nuclear warfare. His campaign helped set the stage for what would become the Republican “Southern Strategy,” which refined racist dog whistling to an art and ultimately delivered the historically Democratic South to the GOP. Fear, resentment, and the presumption of superiority were the glues that bonded people, including me, to his campaign. Paradoxically, to supporters, those sentiments had felt comforting, even hopeful. I was stunned by the magnitude of the loss, though I tried not to show it—our family ethos was “never let them see you hurting because they’ll think you’re weak.” That liberal glee, stamping me once again as a loser, cut to the quick.

My arc toward a more progressive direction began in 1965, during my last two years of high school, thanks to one courageous classmate and three remarkable teachers who challenged me to reconsider my views. They did it individually, in a multitude of ways, including sharing their own beliefs and telling me more about themselves. I never felt singled out as their conversion project. While often putting me uncomfortably on the spot, they were never demonizing, ridiculing, or demeaning. No one tried to tell me what I should believe. They listened as much as they talked.

One teacher said that if I could draw on credible sources to back up my arguments about Vietnam, and the history of French and American presence there, he would, every day for a week, announce before the class that I was right and he was wrong. After sequestering myself in the public library for many hours, I came away with piles of research that refuted my beliefs. But my teacher didn’t laugh at me. Rather, we sat together one day after class, and I talked to him about how much it meant that he took me seriously. When I could so easily have been a symbolic representation of everything they held in contempt, my classmate and these teachers looked more deeply and, with no guarantees, reached for the most human and the best in me. And at some point, I started to reach back.

The Goldwater folks taught me to build community by defining myself against enemies, but when you do that, you’re always anxious about anyone who isn’t just like you.

I began to see what was obvious, but what I’d never really paid attention to before. Poverty was widespread in my hometown, and it was intensely raced, as was every aspect of civic, social and economic life. The Red Scare was a way to avoid facing injustice at home while barricading yourself against danger and creating a military on steroids. The Goldwater folks taught me to build community by defining myself against enemies, but when you do that, you’re always anxious about anyone who isn’t just like you. There had to be a better way to exist in the world. These realizations gave me the motivation and psychic space in which to re-examine my (increasingly shaky) convictions—to see my community, and the world and other people, through new lenses.

It’s excruciating to feel your own edifice of defense begin to crumble, to see your own beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors in a clearer, harsher, light. But those three teachers and that classmate made it possible for me to come through it without feeling so cornered that I had no choice but to hit back out of anger and shame. What could have been only mortifying was instead mortifying and transformative, within a context of building genuine, trustworthy relationships.

This is why I think it’s so important to try, as progressives, to compete for the part of Trump’s audience that may be reachable. People didn’t write me off. I must do the same.

Beyond Goldwater, Wallace, and Trump

In 1968, in the wake of the assassinations of King and Kennedy, so-called “race riots” broke out in more than 100 U.S. cities. Anti-war protesters at the Democratic National Convention were met with violent responses from Chicago police. And George Wallace ran for president as an independent. Although he ultimately lost, I was shocked by how much support he elicited in my hometown, then a reliably Democratic stronghold. (I shouldn’t have been. The political center was already shifting to the right. Nixon won the local vote that year.)
georgewallaceAlthough many of Wallace’s supporters were openly racist, some people I knew personally were not and did not think of themselves as bigoted. But most of them, including many of the same blue-collar people who’d voted for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, were responding to the racial and economic anxieties that formed the taproot of Wallace’s campaign. Where Goldwater had stood at something of a remove from working class White people—relying on coded phrasing to convey his racial views, largely ignoring class—Wallace spoke bluntly and emotionally, directing his message to blue collar Whites in ways that honored them, even as they reinforced racist themes.
From the outside, Wallace’s right-wing populist crusade looked like nothing more than crude demagoguery. But people I knew who supported Wallace felt that he alone understood their struggles and fears. The local steel mill, a huge employer, was already feeling the discomfiting stirrings of what, in a little more than a decade, would become a full-fledged steel market crash. Simultaneously, an emergent Chicano movement for cultural self-determination, political and economic power, and reclamation of stolen lands was making itself known. Anglo supremacist norms were being challenged. The world they knew was coming apart, and they desperately wanted someone to put it back together. In Wallace’s vision, their lives became meaningful, their futures more hopeful. Unlike Goldwater, Wallace played directly to people whose lives were of no concern to those who dominated the political discourse.

Rachel Maddow compared the George Wallace campaign of 1968 with the 2016 campaign of Donald Trump on MSNBC.

Rachel Maddow compared the George Wallace campaign of 1968 with the 2016 campaign of Donald Trump on MSNBC.

I see so much of Wallace in Trump. Like the former governor, Trump has an instinct for tapping the same racial and economic anxieties in emotionally-charged and, to many, compelling ways. But ghost stories, whether told by the Right or the Left, only amplify anxiety. They don’t produce more just societies. Demonizing Trump’s followers won’t dismantle White supremacy, or transform an oppressive criminal legal system, or produce the kind of economic justice that extends beyond the middle class. (Nor will a Democratic victory produce these things just because it stands in opposition to Trump. But that’s a discussion for another time.)

Somebody’s got to do the work of engaging ordinary White folks who support Trump, as well as other right-wing agendas.

Somebody’s got to do the work of engaging ordinary White folks who support Trump, as well as other right-wing agendas, and initiatives from both major parties that solidify the racial and economic status quo. If we don’t, right-wing populism will reappear again and again, in forms that have evolved to adapt to changing conditions. White people—including me—bear primary responsibility for this task.

It’s not sexy work. It requires a kind of radical compassion that resists the easy politics of contempt and dehumanization. And it can’t be our only work. Even as we compete, with imagination and persistence, for the loyalty of blue collar and working class White people, we must balance that with support for anti-racism and anti-Islamophobia struggles, immigrants’ rights, Indigenous sovereignty, environmental protection, and more.

It would be so much easier to simply distance ourselves from people we’ve come to regard as bigoted, benighted, and lost—the “basket of deplorables,” if you will. But “easier” never created political transformation. And believe me, as someone whose almost 50 years of progressive activism speaks to the power of engagement with real human beings rather than demonized ghosts, I know that it can be done.

About the Author

Kay Whitlock is a writer and activist who has been involved with racial, gender, queer, and economic justice movements since 1968. She is coauthor of Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics with Michael Bronski, the award-winning Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States with Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie, and cofounder and contributing editor for the weekly Criminal Injustice series at CriticalMassProgress.com. She lives in Missoula, Montana.

Black Lives Over Broken Windows: Challenging the Policing Paradigm Rooted in Right-Wing “Folk Wisdom”

Click here to download the article as a PDF.

This article appears in the Spring 2016 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

When protesters developed a platform to end police violence in the wake of the 2014 police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the first of their 10 demands was to end “broken windows” policing, the law enforcement paradigm marked by aggressive policing of minor offenses and heavy police presence in low-income Black communities.1

Broken windows policing is what led Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson to approach Michael Brown simply for walking in the middle of the street. It is what motivated police to repeatedly harass Eric Garner, a 43-year-old Staten Island resident who was killed earlier that summer by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, using a banned police chokehold during an encounter initiated over Garner’s alleged sale of loose cigarettes. And in 2015 it was what brought Baltimore police into contact with Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Baltimore man who was initially stopped while allegedly fleeing from police officers in his low-income Black community—and who died after his spinal cord was severed while he was in police custody.

The role of broken windows policing in each death quickly became the focus of protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement and other civil rights advocates. Just days after Brown’s death, national president of the NAACP Cornell William Brooks said, “The death of Michael Brown strikes me as the latest, sad chapter in an ongoing national narrative about a form of policing, broken windows policing, that is simply not right for the country.”2 In New York City, This Stops Today—an ad hoc coalition taking its name from Eric Garner’s words on the day he died to the officers who had repeatedly harassed him—made ending broken windows one of their 11 demands. (The 11 demands were issued in honor of the 11 times that Garner was seen on video telling the officers who killed him, “I can’t breathe.”3)

Regrouping for day 3 of the week of outrage surrounding the denial of justice for Eric Garner on December 10, 2016. Source: hollow sidewalks License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Regrouping for day 3 of the week of outrage surrounding the denial of justice for Eric Garner on December 10, 2016. Source: hollow sidewalks License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Broken windows policing is not only all too often lethal, it also contributes to the use of excessive and illegal force in the context of the most mundane police encounters. It led a New York City officer to put Rosan Miller, a seven-months pregnant Black woman initially approached for grilling outside her home, into the same banned chokehold that had led to Garner’s death just a few weeks before.4 It was the excuse for another officer to slam Stephanie Maldonado to the ground in New York City’s West Village for “jaywalking” like Mike Brown.5 It was what led police to arrest Duanna Johnson, a Black transgender woman, for prostitution—one focus of broken windows policing—while walking down a street in Memphis, Tennessee, in 2008, only to beat her bloody with metal handcuffs at the police station in an incident captured on video because she refused to answer to “faggot.”6 Broken windows policing also created opportunities for recently convicted Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holzclaw to stop women as they walked down the street to inquire as to what they were doing and where they were going, thus facilitating his sexual harassment, assault, and rape of 13 Black women and girls.7

The “Folk” Origins of Broken Windows

What does broken windows policing have to do with the Right? In part, the answer lies in where it came from: an outgrowth of the conservative “law and order” agendas of the early 1980s. Neoconservatives George Kelling and James Q. Wilson outlined the theory underlying broken windows policing in a 1982 Atlantic Quarterly article.  8 Kelling is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and Wilson, before his death in 2012, was a board member at the American Enterprise Institute, both right-wing think tanks.9 According to Wilson and his colleagues, liberal concessions to civil rights movements and protest cultures of the 1960s and ‘70s were significant contributing factors to the urban chaos broken windows policing purports to address.10 In 1985 Wilson co-wrote a book, Crime and Human Nature, with Richard J. Herrnstein, a co-author of The Bell Curve, which notoriously advanced a theory of racial differences in intelligence. Wilson’s own 1975 book, Thinking About Crime, argued that crime is the product of individual and social “predispositions,” rather than socioeconomic conditions. 11 His theories echoed those of his mentor, Edward Banfield, who theorized about a “culture of poverty,” which Wilson believed required a punitive response,12 and those of The Bell Curve’s other co-author, Charles Murray, whose arguments suggest that crime is the result of individual mental and moral deficiencies.13 Wilson decried single parenthood, claiming “illegitimacy was eroding the nation’s values,”14 and, as Pam Chamberlain wrote in PRA’s Defending Justice: An Activist Resource Kit, argued for “returning to a path where religion is influential and where families remain intact.”15

New York City became the first municipality to aggressively implement broken windows policing theories rooted in these right-wing intellectual traditions in the early 1990s. Under the leadership of former Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and bolstered by right-wing media like the New York Post and right-wing think tanks like the Manhattan Institute, the city put Kelling and Wilson’s theories into practice with an internal police memorandum, “Reclaiming the Public Spaces of New York,” citing both the pair’s Atlantic article and the infamous 1965 Moynihan Report, which blamed social dysfunction on Black families, and particularly, Black mothers.16

Rally outside of the Manhattan Institute on December 10, 2014. Source: hollow sidewalks License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Rally outside of the Manhattan Institute on December 10, 2014. Source: hollow sidewalks License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

The broken windows theory, brilliantly summarized in a recent video created by Molly Crabapple,17 goes something like this: if signs of disorder—like broken windows—and minor offenses—like loitering, panhandling, and graffiti—are left unchecked, then it’s only a matter of time before a community descends into chaos and violence. According to Kelling and Wilson, the only way to prevent this from happening is through aggressive enforcement and prosecution of minor offenses. At its core, broken windows relies on fear-mongering, stoked by familiar right-wing themes about the need for increased “security” and a compulsion to root out certain groups of people as embodied threats to a particular way of life .

But even Kelling and Wilson acknowledged back in 1982 that it is “not inevitable that serious crime will flourish or violent attacks on strangers will occur” if signs of disorder are left unchecked. Indeed, the two wrote that their entire premise is admittedly drawn from what they themselves call “folk wisdom” rather than objective data, based on the belief that perceived disorder somehow renders an area more “vulnerable to criminal invasion” such that “drugs will change hands, prostitutes will solicit, and cars will be stripped.”18 It’s a theory, they implicitly admitted, based more on people’s fears and beliefs than on hard evidence.

The theory later evolved to advance the premise that individuals who commit minor offenses—like fare evasion in public transit—will, if not caught and punished, eventually commit more serious offenses: a sort of slippery slope of criminality. The new logic of broken windows, according to Tanya Erzen, a scholar of American conservatism, writing in Zero Tolerance: Quality of Life and the New Police Brutality in New York City, is that “graffiti taggers, turnstile jumpers and kids in a public park are either already criminals, or simply criminals in the making.”19>

Even the theory’s biggest proponent, New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton—who spearheaded its implementation in New York City under Mayor Giuliani, actively promoted its spread around the country both as a consultant and as Los Angeles Police Commissioner, and pursued it with renewed vigor in his second tenure in New York City under current Mayor Bill de Blasio—concedes that neither premise has ever been conclusively proven.20 In fact, several studies undermine the theory’s claims.21 In a comprehensive review of the literature and a summary of his own research, Columbia law professor Bernard Harcourt concludes that, “Taken together, the wealth of research provides no support for a simple disorder-crime relationship as hypothesized by Wilson and Kelling in their broken-windows theory…. What I have come to believe is that the broken windows theory is really window dressing, and it masks or hides more profound processes of real estate development and wealth redistribution.”22

Like so many policies of the Right, broken windows policing is rooted in fear: fear of poverty, fear of youth, fear of unregulated sexuality and gender nonconformity, and deeply, at its core, a fear of Blackness.

Like so many policies of the Right, broken windows policing is rooted in fear: fear of poverty, fear of youth, fear of unregulated sexuality and gender nonconformity, and deeply, at its core, a fear of Blackness. According to George Kelling’s recent defense of the theory in Politico, published a year after Michael Brown’s death, “The goal is to reduce the level of disorder in public spaces so that citizens feel safe, are able to use them, and businesses thrive.”23 Kelling concedes that it is, in essence, an approach based on public perception—that is, on feelings—rather than proof. In the end, fear—of crime, yes, but also, as the original article explains, of “being bothered by disorderly people,” like panhandlers, “addicts” or people living with mental illness—is the moving force behind the theory.24 As Bratton once put it, “Aggressive panhandling, squeegee cleaners, street prostitution, ‘boombox cars,’ public drunkenness, reckless bicyclists, and graffiti have added to the sense that the entire public environment is a threatening place.”25

Although not explicitly stated, given that the communities described in Kelling and Wilson’s original article and others that followed are Black, it is clear that the “disorderly people,” the people driving “boombox cars,” and the graffiti taggers are also imagined as Black. As gentrification of New York City proceeded through the 1990s, “disorderly people” came to mean those displaced into public spaces in the context of neoliberal devolution and cuts to social programs.26 In other words, broken windows policing isn’t about reducing crime, it’s about assuaging white fear of poor people, Black people, and people of color—no matter how irrational or racialized.*

From Black Codes to Broken Windows

Scratching the surface of broken windows policing reveals that, in the end, the paradigm is simply a repackaged and sanitized version of the ways age-old “vagrancy” laws were enforced. These laws were explicitly created to criminalize and control the movements of people deemed undesirable throughout U.S. history: Indigenous peoples, formerly enslaved people of African descent, immigrants, women, and homeless and poor people. In his recent defense of broken windows, Kelling himself directly acknowledged the lineage, stating in reference to his 1982 essay, “Given the subject of our article, the Black Codes—vague loitering and vagrancy laws passed in the South immediately after the Civil War—were of special concern for us. Under these laws police arrested African Americans for minor offenses and, when they could not pay the fines, courts committed them to involuntary labor on farms—in a sense, extending slavery for many into the 20th century.”27 Without offering a means of distinguishing present-day broken windows policing from these practices, Kelling simply submits that he and Wilson were just arguing for “doing a better job at maintaining order.”28

The question though, is whose order? In their 1982 article, Kelling and Wilson acknowledge that there are “no universal standards…to settle arguments over disorder…” and that charges of being a “suspicious person” or of vagrancy have “scarcely any legal meaning.”29 Ultimately, they wrote, “These charges exist…because [society] wants an officer to have the legal tools to remove undesirable persons from a neighborhood when informal efforts to preserve order in the streets have failed.”30

This is to say that, since its inception, broken windows policing has self-consciously been about promoting a particular type of community, maintaining particular structural relations of power, and policing the borders of “desirability.” Delving deeper into its theoretical premise, a desirable community, as described by Wilson and Kelling, is one of “families who care for their homes, mind each other’s children, and confidently frown on intruders.”31 Broken windows policing is posited as the last bulwark against a “frightening jungle”—a term fraught with racial meaning—in which “unattached adults”—that is, single people—replace traditional families, where teenagers gather in front of the corner store, litter abounds, and panhandlers stalk pedestrians.32 In this framework, conservative values with deep racial overtones ultimately drive how an individual’s presence will be perceived and valued,33 and promote disregard for youth, adults living outside of hetero-patriarchal families, and low-income and homeless people who live in this idealized community.34

Whose Quality of Life?

Building in New York City with the words, "stop and frisk. just another quality of life offense" on March 27, 2014. Source: carnagenyc. License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

Building in New York City with the words, “stop and frisk. just another quality of life offense” seen on March 27, 2014. Source: carnagenyc. License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

Key to implementing broken windows policing is the proliferation of “quality of life” regulations, which criminalize an ever-expanding range of activities in public spaces, including standing or walking (recast as “loitering”), sitting, lying down, sleeping, eating, drinking, urinating, making noise, and approaching strangers, as well as a number of vaguer offenses, such as engaging in “disorderly” or “lewd” conduct. This broad range of potential offenses gives police almost unlimited license to stop, ticket, and arrest. According to one researcher, enforcement of such low-level offenses has become the “most common point of contact between the public and the criminal justice system.”35

Of course, what conduct is deemed “disorderly” or “lewd” is more often than not in the eye of the beholder, informed by deeply racialized and gendered perceptions. Where offenses are more specific, they criminalize activities so common they can’t be enforced at all times against all people. When I speak publicly about broken windows policing, I often ask how many members of the audience have ever fallen asleep on a train or ridden a bicycle on a sidewalk at some point in their lives. Dozens of hands shoot up. When I ask how many have ever been ticketed or arrested for it, almost all hands come down—that is, unless I am at a drop-in center for homeless youth or adults, or in a low-income Black neighborhood. There, many hands remain in the air.

As former Yale law professor Charles Reich notes, “Laws that are widely violated…especially lend themselves to selective and arbitrary enforcement.”36 As a result, both vague and specific “quality of life” offenses are selectively enforced in particular neighborhoods and communities, or against particular people, by officers wielding an extraordinary amount of discretion, largely unrestrained by constitutional protections. As legal scholar Dorothy Roberts notes in “Race, Vagueness, and the Social Meaning of Order-Maintenance Policing,” over the last several decades, conservative commentators have called for a relaxation of legal doctrines disfavoring vague offenses and reining in police discretion in the name of “law and order” agendas.37

Communities in the Crosshairs

Given all of this, it’s easy to predict who gets targeted by broken windows policing. Despite proponents’ contention that the approach targets specific behaviors, not specific people, the article on which the theory is premised explicitly names particular types of people—youth, homeless people, people perceived to be engaged in prostitution—as embodied signs of disorder.38 According to Pete White of Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), a community organization that has been fighting the effects of broken windows policing on Los Angeles’ homeless population for decades, the inspirations for Kelling and Wilson’s 1982 article were much more explicit about the racial and gender make up of signs of neighborhood disorder: “young Black men, young women in short shorts hanging out on corners, interracial couples, and gay folks.”39 The result: dramatically increased frequency and intensity of police interactions with Black and Brown youth, low-income and homeless people, public housing residents, people who are—or who are perceived to be—engaged in street-based prostitution, street vendors (many of whom are immigrants), and anyone else who is hyper-visible in public spaces, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender nonconforming people.

The results are striking. Broken windows policing has contributed to widespread criminalization of Black youth in New York City under a range of offenses, including disorderly conduct, unreasonable noise, turnstile jumping, performing on the subway, riding a bike on the sidewalk, and being in a city park after dark. Between 2001 and 2013, 81 percent of the 7.3 million people charged in the city with a violation were Black or Brown. 40  In 2015 the greatest number of arrests—29,198—were for not paying the $2.75 fare on city subways; 92 percent of those arrests were of people of color.41 In Park Slope, a Brooklyn neighborhood heavily populated by white families, police issue an average of eight tickets a year for riding bicycles on the sidewalk. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, a gentrifying but still predominantly Black community, police issue more than 2,000 a year.42 Eighty-five percent of summonses issued for “open container” violations in Brooklyn are issued to Black and Brown people, even as countless white revelers spill onto the sidewalks of the city on any given evening to smoke a cigarette outside a bar or art gallery while sipping on an alcoholic beverage, or pop open a bottle of bubbly to accompany a symphony in the park, without any consequence whatsoever. One judge presiding over summons court in New York City said he had no memory of having ever adjudicated an open container ticket given to a white person.43

Contrary to Kelling’s recent defense of his broken windows theory, the results of this approach are not an error of application, but rather deeply embedded in the theory itself. In fact, the authors asked themselves in 1982, “how do we ensure that age or skin color or national origin or harmless mannerisms will not also become the basis for distinguishing the undesirable from the desirable?”44 Their answer was that they were not confident that there was one—except that police must understand the outer limits of their discretion to be that their role is “not to maintain racial or ethnic purity of a neighborhood,” only to regulate behavior.45 The statistics above suggest that officers are, in fact, exercising their discretion—just in racially discriminatory ways.

Consequences

Poster from rally at the Manhattan Institute on December 10, 2014. Source: hollow sidewalks License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Poster from rally at the Manhattan Institute on December 10, 2014. Source: hollow sidewalks License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

The consequences for those targeted are far from minimal. Broken windows policing not only places Black lives at risk of lethal and excessive force, as well as sexual harassment, assault, and extortion in exchange for avoiding a ticket or arrest, it also subjects Black people to the daily indignity of being stopped and questioned in their own communities, being ordered to put their hands on the wall and spread their legs to be frisked in front of their neighbors, and sometimes spending 24 hours wending their way through police vans, precincts, and central booking pens between arrest and arraignment. Even if they simply receive a summons, they are still required to spend at least one day in court defending themselves against minor charges, to pay exorbitant fines and criminal court fees, and to comply with community service and other mandates imposed on people convicted of offenses as minor as spitting or littering.

Black people of all genders and sexualities come within the crosshairs of broken windows policing. In fact, one of the less frequently discussed realities is that it facilitates racialized policing of gender and sexuality.46 According to Tanya Erzen, broken windows policing “enables officers to act upon racial and gender biases they may have when they enter the police department—under the guise of enforcement of ‘unified guidelines.’”47 All too often, officers read actual or perceived gender disjuncture as inherently out of order, resulting in stops, harassments, and arrests of transgender, gender nonconforming, and queer people of color—along with anyone perceived to deviate from racialized “rules” of gender or sexuality—for “disorderly” or “lewd” conduct offenses.48 Stereotypes framing gender nonconforming people as inherently violent and deviant also lead gender nonconforming young women to be profiled and targeted in the context of “gang policing.”49

Broken windows policing is also a driving force behind aggressive policing of street-based prostitution, which has been documented to have racially disparate impacts. These are rooted both in profiling of Black women and women of color—trans and not trans—as being engaged in prostitution based on age-old stereotypes, and also in the makeup of sex work which, like every other industry, concentrates Black women and transgender people in its most visible and risky sectors (such as street-based prostitution, which more Black women are pushed into, versus legal strip clubs, which frequently discriminate against women of color).50 Gay and gender nonconforming men, for their part, are profiled and discriminatorily targeted for enforcement of lewd conduct laws in public bathrooms and public parks. The broad discretion allowed in enforcement is fueled by perceptions of Black and Brown men—and particularly those who are gender nonconforming or perceived to be queer—as hypersexual uncontrolled manifestations of sexual deviance, with predictably racially disparate impacts.51

Black Lives over Broken Windows

Even as the broken windows theory trades in fear of Black people, it claims the mantle of protecting Black communities seeking more safety, and thereby, protecting Black lives.52 Heather MacDonald of the right-wing Manhattan Institute twists the logic of Black Lives Matter to argue that broken windows policing “has saved thousands of black lives, brought lawful commerce and jobs to once drug-infested neighborhoods and allowed millions to go about their daily lives without fear.”53

Right-wing commentators claiming to be concerned with the welfare of Black communities are not alone. Progressives like David Thacher of the Gerald Ford School of Public Policy in Michigan, writing in a blog for The Marshall Project, have critiqued Campaign Zero’s call for an end to broken windows policing, pointing to Black communities’ right to safety and safe public spaces.54 Thacher, like Kelling, acknowledges the pitfalls of enforcing vague offenses like “disorderly conduct,” as well as more specific ones like bans on skateboarding or public drinking, which are not enforced in white suburbs as they are in Black communities. He acknowledges that, “As long as modern police forces have been around, they have used disorderly conduct statutes and many other public order rules to investigate suspicious and unpopular people in circumstances when doing so overtly would be forbidden,” noting that “the Ferguson Police Department’s intensive use of a city code provision regulating a pedestrian’s ‘manner of walking in the roadway’ to run warrant checks and question suspicious people is only one of many examples.”55 Although he argues for a kinder, gentler form of broken windows in the interests of Black community safety, Thacher’s arguments in fact support the notion that it is bound to produce the same results.56 Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped some community leaders, legislators, and policymakers from continuing to promote and invest in this flawed approach in the name of safety for Black and Brown communities.

The Black Youth Project 100's 2014 report "Agenda to Keep us Safe." Source: http://byp100.org

The Black Youth Project 100’s 2014 report “Agenda to Keep us Safe.” Source: http://byp100.org

Increasingly though, Black communities across the country are speaking for themselves, loudly and clearly, demanding safety from all forms of violence—including the violence of profiling, discriminatory enforcement, and police violence intrinsic to broken windows policing. They are resisting the false choices presented by broken windows proponents, demanding both authentic safety and an end to police violence, harassment, and surveillance, along with respect for rights and dignity. As the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement of New York City stated in the wake of Eric Garner’s killing, the “’broken windows’ philosophy of policing, which purports that focusing resources on the most minor violations will somehow prevent larger ones, has consistently resulted in our rights being violated.”57 They emphatically state that safety cannot come at the price of daily harassment, violation, and the taking of Black lives.

Black voices and communities are articulating their own visions of safety through Black Youth Project 100’s Agenda to Keep us Safe 58 and Agenda to Build Black Futures, Campaign Zero, and demands articulated by Black Lives Matter59 and Ferguson Action.60 What ties many of these agendas together is the notion that the best strategy to promote safety in Black communities is to divest from policing and punishment and instead invest in and support Black communities, leaving no one behind.  Together, they issue a clarion call to combat and dismantle systems of structural discrimination that foster violence while limiting opportunities and life chances of Black people—including “broken windows” policing.


About the Author

Andrea Ritchie is a Black lesbian police misconduct attorney and organizer who has engaged in extensive research, writing, litigation, organizing and advocacy around policing of women and LGBT people of color over the past two decades. She is a 2014 Senior Soros Justice Fellow, author of Law Enforcement Violence Against Women of Color, in The Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology, and co-author of Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women; A Roadmap for Change: Federal Policy Recommendations for Addressing the Criminalization of LGBT People and People Living with HIV, and Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States. She is currently at work on Invisible No More: Racial Profiling and Police Brutality Against Women of Color, forthcoming from Beacon Press in early 2017, and is a contributor to Who Do You Serve? Who Do You Protect?, published by Haymarket Press in June 2016


Endnotes

*Editor’s note: PRA’s convention is to capitalize both Black and White, to emphasize that both are constructed categories. At the request of the author, this article departs from that convention.
1 Campaign Zero, www.joincampaignzero.org (last visited January 18, 2016).

2 Tierney Sneed, “From Ferguson to Staten Island, Questions about Broken Windows Policing,” U.S. News & World Report, August 14, 2014, http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/08/14/michael-brown-eric-garner-deaths-add-scrutiny-to-broken-windows-policing.

3 “About #ThisStopsToday,” This Stops Today, http://www.thisstopstoday.org/aboutus/ (last visited April 5, 2016).

4 Emily Thomas, “Pregnant Woman Allegedly Put in Chokehold by NYPD Officer,” Huffington Post, July 28, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/28/pregnant-woman-chokehold-nypd-rosan-miller_n_5628306.html.

5 Jim Hoffer, “Investigation: Woman Claims Brutality Against NYPD Officer,” Eyewitness News, ABC 7 NY (New York, NY: WABC – TV, August 1, 2014). Available at: http://abc7ny.com/news/investigation-woman-claims-police-brutality-against-nypd-officer/229978/ (last visited January 18, 2016).

6 Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock, Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011).

7 Jessica Testa, “The 13 Black Women Who Accused a Cop of Sexual Assault, In Their Own Words,” BuzzFeed, December 10, 2015, https://www.buzzfeed.com/jtes/daniel-holtzclaw-women-in-their-ow.

8 George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” The Atlantic, March 1982, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1982/03/broken-windows/304465/.

9 Sam Roberts, “Author of ‘Broken Windows’ Policing Defends His Theory,” New York Times, August 10, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/11/nyregion/author-of-broken-windows-policing-defends-his-theory.html; Matt Schudel, “James Q. Wilson, scholar identified with ‘broken-windows’ theory of crime prevention, dies at 80,” Washington Post, March 2, 2012, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/james-q-wilson-scholar-identified-with-broken-windows-theory-of-crime-prevention-dies-at-80/2012/03/02/gIQA2eHynR_story.html.

10 Alex Vitale, “The Neoconservative Roots of the Broken Windows Theory,” Gotham Gazette, August 1, 2014, http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/opinion/5199-neoconservative-roots-broken-windows-policing-theory-nypd-bratton-vitale.

11 Matt Schudel, supra note 9.

12 Alex Vitale, supra note 10.

13 Jacob Ertel, “Broken Windows, Workfare, and the Battle for Public Space in Giuliani’s New York,” Cyrano’s Journal, January 8, 2015, http://www.cjournal.info/2015/01/08/broken-windows-workfare-and-the-battle-for-public-space-in-giulianis-new-york-2/.

14 Matt Schudel, supra note 9.

15 Pam Chamberlain, “James Q. Wilson: A Dominant Figure Among Conservative Crime Theorists,” in Defending Justice: An Activist Resource Kit, ed. Palak Shah, (Political Research Associates, 2005), 62. Available at: http://www.politicalresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2012/12/Defending-Justice.pdf (last visited April 4, 2016).

16 Rudolph W. Giuliani and William J. Bratton, Police Strategy No. 5: Reclaiming the Public Spaces of New York, July 6, 1994. Available at: http://marijuana-arrests.com/docs/Bratton-blueprint-1994–Reclaiming-the-public-spaces-of-NY.pdf (last visited April 4, 2016).

17 Molly Crabapple, “How Broken Windows Policing Harms People of Color,” YouTube video, posted by Fusion, February 3, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXI1QJRqPD8, (last visited January 17, 2016).

18 Kelling and Wilson, supra note 8.

19 Tanya Erzen, “Turnstile Jumpers and Broken Windows: Policing Disorder in New York City,” in Zero Tolerance: Quality of Life and the New Police Brutality in New York City, 19-49, eds. Andrea McArdle and Tanya Erzen, (New York: NYU Press, 2001).

20 Ken Auletta, “Fixing Broken Windows,” The New Yorker, September 7, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/09/07/fixing-broken-windows.

21 Randall Shelden, “Assessing ‘Broken Windows’: A Brief Critique,” Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, April 2004, http://www.cjcj.org/uploads/cjcj/documents/broken.pdf; Ken Auletta, “Fixing Broken Windows,” The New Yorker, September 7, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/09/07/fixing-broken-windows; K. Babe Howell, “Broken Lives from Broken Windows: The Hidden Costs of Aggressive Order-Maintenance Policing,” N.Y.U. Review of Law & Social Change, vol. 33 (2009): 271, 274; William Harms, “Study Conducted in Chicago Neighborhoods Calls ‘Broken Windows’ Theory into Question,” University of Chicago Chronicle, vol. 19, no. 7 (January 6, 2000).

22 Bernard E. Harcourt, “Punitive Preventive Justice: A Critique” (University of Chicago Public Law & Legal Theory Working Paper No. 386 / Coase-Sandor Institute for Law & Economics Working Paper No. 599, 2012). Available at: http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/law_and_economics/401/ (last visited January 15, 2016).

23 George Kelling, “Don’t Blame My Broken Windows Theory for Poor Policing,” Politico Magazine, August 11, 2015, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/08/broken-windows-theory-poor-policing-ferguson-kelling-121268.

24 Kelling and Wilson, supra note 8.

25 Rudolph W. Giuliani and William J. Bratton, supra note 16.

26 Jacob Ertel, supra note 13.

27 George Kelling, supra note 22.

28 Ibid.

29 Kelling and Wilson, supra note 8.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid.

33 Dayo F. Gore, Tamara Jones, Joo-Hyun Kang, “Organizing at the Intersections: A Roundtable Discussion of Police Brutality Through the Lens of Race, Class, and Sexual Identities,” in Zero Tolerance: Quality of Life and the New Police Brutality in New York City, 19-49, eds. Andrea McArdle and Tanya Erzen, (New York: NYU Press, 2001).

34 Erzen, supra note 19.

35 K. Babe Howell, supra note 20.

36 Charles Reich, qtd. in: Phillip Beatty, Amanda Petteruti, and Jason Ziedenberg, The Vortex: The Concentrated Racial Impact of Drug Imprisonment and the Characteristics of Punitive Counties (Washington, D.C.: Justice Policy Institute, 2007), 14.

37 Dorothy E. Roberts, “Foreword: Race, Vagueness, and the Social Meaning of Order-Maintenance Policing,” Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 89, no. 3 (1999), 775, 777-78.

38 George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, supra note 8.

39 Pete White, Los Angeles Community Action Network, presentation at preconference convening held in conjunction with U.C.L.A. Critical Race Studies Symposium, Los Angeles, CA, October 17, 2015.

40 Sarah Ryley, Laura Bult, Dareh Gregorian, “Daily News analysis finds racial disparities in summonses for minor violations in ‘broken windows’ policing,” New York Daily News, August 4, 2014, http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/summons-broken-windows-racial-disparity-garner-article-1.1890567.

41 Jeremy Berke, “REPORT: The NYPD Makes The Most Arrests for a $2.75 Crime,” Business Insider, May 10, 2016, http://www.businessinsider.com/nypd-farebeating-arrests-2016-5.

42 Christopher Mathias, “This is What Broken Windows Policing Looks Like,” Huffington Post, October 9, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/broken-windows-policing-new-york_us_5617f428e4b0082030a2573f.

43 Ibid.

44 Kelling and Wilson, supra note 8.

45 Ibid.

46 Mogul et al., supra n. 6.

47 Mogul, et al., supra n. 6; Tanya Erzen, supra note 19.

48 Mogul, et al., supra n. 6.

49 Amnesty International, Stonewalled: Police Abuse and Misconduct Against LGBT People in the United States, AMR 51/122/2005 (2005).

50 See e.g., Shana Judge and Mariah Wood, “Racial Disparities in Enforcement of Prostitution Laws,” APPAM, November 6, 2014, https://appam.confex.com/appam/2014/webprogram/Paper11163.html; Noah Berlatsky, “Black Women Profiled as Prostitutes in NYC,” Reason, October 1, 2014, http://reason.com/archives/2014/10/01/nypd-profiles-sex-workers-too.

51 Mogul, et al., supra n. 6.

52 Ibid.

53 Heather Mac Donald, “The New Nationwide Crime Wave,” Wall Street Journal, May 29, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-new-nationwide-crime-wave-1432938425.

54 David Thacher, “Don’t End Broken Windows Policing, Fix It,” The Marshall Project, September 9, 2015, https://www.themarshallproject.org/2015/09/09/don-t-end-broken-windows-policing-fix-it.

55 Ibid.

56 Ibid.

57 Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, “Statement on the Murder of Eric Garner by the NYPD,” July 19, 2014, http://mxgm.org/malcolm-x-grassroots-statement-on-the-murder-of-eric-garner-by-the-nypd/.

58 Terrance Laney and Janaé Bonsu, Agenda to Keep us Safe, Black Youth Project 100, September 2014,  http://byp100.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/BYP100-Agenda-to-Keep-Us-Safe-AKTUS.pdf; Black Youth Project 100, “BYP100 Announces Release of the Agenda to Build Black Futures,” January 15, 2016,  http://byp100.org/bbf/.

59 Black Lives Matter, Guiding Principles, http://blacklivesmatter.com/guiding-principles/, (last visited January 18, 2016).

60 Ferguson Action, Our Vision for a New America, http://fergusonaction.com/demands/, (last visited January 18, 2016).

Tracking Blackness: A Q&A with Dark Matters Author Simone Browne

Click here to download the article as a PDF.

This article appears in the Spring 2016 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

We tend to think of mass surveillance as a relatively new phenomenon, a byproduct of the digital revolution. Examples of high-tech surveillance spring readily to mind, including the NSA scooping up our emails, Samsung televisions picking up living room chitchat along with your voice commands, and Oral Roberts University collecting data on its entire student body via Fitbit activity trackers. But, as it turns out, our high-tech surveillance society had lower-tech precursors.

Simone Browne, an associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, describes her new book, Dark Matters: On The Surveillance of Blackness, as a conversation between Black Studies and Surveillance Studies—the latter a young discipline devoted to investigating the technological and social dimensions of surveillance. Browne’s research shows that surveillance was an essential part of transatlantic slavery, a system that held millions of people against their will and tracked them as property. And she argues that slavery created an ongoing demand for technologies to monitor Black bodies. The day-to-day enforcement of slavery raised familiar-sounding questions: Is this person who they say they are? Are they allowed to be here? How do we know? Dramas of surveillance and counter-surveillance played out constantly.

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Browne argues that awareness of being under constant surveillance is an enduring condition of Black life. Source: Carley Comartin License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

If surveillance is the state watching the individual, sousveillance is the individual looking back at the state. The history of slavery is full of examples of both kinds of watching. Slave catchers hunted down runaway slaves for money. The catchers were themselves carefully watched, and the news of a slave catcher’s whereabouts could also spread rapidly through the Black community. Abolitionists also circulated handbills warning free Blacks and their allies to be on guard against slave catchers.

Surveillance still goes both ways today, as activists counter police oversight by recording interactions on their own cameras and protesters at rallies for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump film their own attacks, not trusting event security cameras to hold anyone accountable.1

The long history of mass surveillance in the United States began with slavery.

The long history of mass surveillance in the United States began with slavery. Slaves sought to free themselves by escaping to free territories or impersonating free people, and the system had well-developed mechanisms to thwart them. Slave traders branded the flesh of their captives to mark them as slaves. Further, slavery in the United States was so thoroughly racialized that being Black was tantamount to proof of being enslaved—skin color becoming evidence of legal status. Slaves who gained their freedom by “passing” as White had, in effect, eluded the biometric profiling of their day.

To this day, communities of color are subject to intensive surveillance, both public and private. Police helicopters are a familiar presence in some neighborhoods. Young men of color are overwhelmingly more likely to be selected for stop-and-frisk police encounters. Browne argues that awareness of being under constant surveillance is an enduring condition of Black life.

This March, Lindsay Beyerstein interviewed Simone Browne about Dark Matters and what it says about surveillance in our current political climate.

How did you come to write this book?

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Dark Matters: On The Surveillance of Blackness, published by Duke University Press, October 2015. Photo: Duke University Press.

I was working on my dissertation on Canadian/U.S. border security and I got into reading the Surveillance Studies literature. One thing that I found that was missing was a discussion of the archive of slavery because it seemed so important to situate surveillance as a key practice that underwrote transatlantic slavery. So, when it came time to write my own book, I wanted to put Surveillance Studies in conversation with Black Studies.

An enslaving society does a lot of work to keep track of people as property. How does that technology and expertise carry forward into our modern surveillance society?

I didn’t want to make the link that they are one and the same, but that some of the practices that we see happening now have earlier articulations or iterations. There were a few instances that I looked at: Mainly biometric technology, but also tracking people with passports, which we still use now. Also, the ways in which bodies and people become disciplined by way of light. That is, how illumination can make bodies visible, trackable, countable, and controllable. I looked at branding and biometric technology. I also looked at the Book of Negroes [a record of Black Loyalists, former slaves who were eligible to leave the U.S. to settle in Canada after serving in the Revolutionary War] as an early passport to cross the Canada-U.S. border.

There were also lantern laws. These were 18th century laws in New York City and other places that said that Black and Indigenous people had to carry a lit candle after dark if they weren’t in the company of White person. Lantern laws existed in other times and places but there was something specific about the regulation of Black people on the move that I saw as a way to think about how certain technologies become supervisory devices.

So, the lantern was a piece of technology that was mandated because Black people were deemed more suspect than everybody else?

That’s one way of putting it. It was a form of identification. Other people would have been walking with lanterns, too. But the idea was that that any White person would be deputized to seize that Black/enslaved person who was walking without a lantern. You can think about the ways in which White people become deputized through White supremacy today around Black bodies in and out of place. I’m thinking of a Trump rally. Even with people who go to a rally as protest or as observation might be marked as out of place there and subjected to violence. Being Black, wearing a hijab, other markers of being out of place at a Trump rally, and then being subjected to violence from police or Trump supporters.

You talk about slave branding as a precursor to modern biometric ID. How did that work?

There was branding for identification, but also as a form of punishment.

I looked at the ways that the body becomes a mark or a measure of enslavement. If you think of biometrics simply as marking or measurement. How we use it today as identification, verification, or automation, thinking of iris scans, face scans, finger scans…. All of those ways in which the body is reduced to parts, pieces, and performances for identification and verification purposes. I wanted to see if there were moments when those get racialized. Branding became a racialization process during transatlantic slavery.

You write about the hearings at the Fraunces Tavern in New York City and the creation of the Book of Negroes, a document that listed 3,000 Black Loyalists who served with the British during the American Revolution and who sought to be evacuated to freedom after the war. What happened?

A page of the Book of Negros, compiling the name of the 3000 Black people who left New York City in 1783. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A page of the “Book of Negroes,” compiling the name of the 3000 Black people who left New York City in 1783. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

This was something that happened around the British evacuation of New York City [after the American Revolution]. Many people who had answered the call to fight with the British had entered into a bargain with them. These were people who had escaped slavery. They’d worked with the British as soldiers but also as support staff: cooks, spies, laundresses, and so on. Also at this time you had slave catchers coming to New York to seize former slaves who were set up on ships ready to leave the country mainly bound for Canada or Europe. People would be seized on those ships and taken to New York’s Fraunces Tavern every Wednesday from May to November to argue for their freedom by demonstrating that they were behind British lines at time of occupation and therefore entitled to go free.

What was the process of arguing for one’s freedom?

The tribunal was tasked with adjudicating claims under Article Seven of the Provisional Treaty of Paris, which said that the British could not leave with Patriot property, namely “Negroes,” and that that “no person is permitted to embark as a Refugee, who has not resided Twelve Months within the British Lines, without a special Passport from the Commandant.”

The British created the Book of Negroes, which was basically a record of the loss of human property. It was a record of who left [the country]. They would record their names, where they were born, who had enslaved them, how they ran away, information about their bodies, how they were branded, racial descriptors, and so on.

[The people pleading their cases at the Fraunces Tavern] had claimed their freedom. At that moment, you had slave catchers or others deputized to “take them back.” We’re using the term “property” but these were human beings.

You talk about the difference between surveillance and sousveillance. Would it be fair to say that surveillance is the powerful watching the powerless (like the NSA opening our emails) and sousveillance is the powerless watching the powerful (like citizens filming police brutality)?

A drawing by Mann's six-year-old daughter, illustrating surveillance versus sousveillance. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A drawing by Mann’s six-year-old daughter, illustrating surveillance versus sousveillance. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

There’s a graphic in the book designed by surveillance scholar Steve Mann. For Mann, sousveillance is the b-side of surveillance. Surveillance is mainly oversight, governing, policing, and the protection of private property. Mann sees it as almost always repressive. The b-side would be about undersight, about looking back—often through wearable computing, like body cameras and cellphone cameras.

There are other forms of surveillance and sousveillance. Uberveillance is surveillance through bodily data, like a chip. Dataveillance is the use of surveillance through aggregate data algorithms. In the book, I also coined the term “redditveillance” [to talk about crowdsourced review of surveillance] using publicly accessible CCTV, Flickr, and 4chan. You saw redditveillance, for example, during the Boston bombing, but there it misidentified [innocent] people.

So for me it wasn’t particularly useful to think of surveillance as always repressive or always liberatory. It’s not necessarily good or bad.

There was a low-tech equivalent of “redditveillance” during slavery where people would be “open-sourcing” which slaves had escaped lately, right?

Yes. Collective eyes and watching. Of who’s really Black? Or who’s passing? Or who’s meant to be enslaved? You can also think of that in terms of women fighting online harassment. Women are being doxxed and being “swatted” (law enforcement teams maliciously sent a person’s house through collective sousveillance online).

When Black Lives Matter protesters bring their own cameras to Donald Trump rallies to document abuses, is that sousveillance?

I think it would be. The other question is: To what end?

You sent me a story about Adedayo Adeniyi,2 who wasn’t even a protester. [Editor’s note: Adeniyi is a Black Nigerian student who attended a Donald Trump rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina in March 2016. He was unfairly ejected by security after two strangers started arguing next to him, but not before 70-year-old Trump supporter Jason Wilton Wetzel hit him in the face. Adeniyi recorded the assault on his cellphone.] I watched the video. I could hear him saying, “That’s not me, I’m not with them. I don’t even know those people.” And he still got punched by a Trump supporter.

It’s clear from the video [that Wetzel] must have known the camera was on him. The camera might have become an invitation. So the idea of having a recording is important, but it gets tricky for a couple of reasons, even with those videos, since there’s still an anti-Black lens that those videos are watched through. Rodney King raising his arms to protect himself gets interpreted as a form of violence, as a hand about to hit. Ramsey Orta, who had recorded the killing of Eric Garner, there are reports of him being harassed by NYPD after Garner was killed and the video went viral. Last fall in Sacramento, a man recorded a SWAT team raiding a house across the street. Police shot him on his own property. They said the camera could have been a gun.3  A camera can make a person the target of more harassment from police, or literally target practice for police.

You write about the ways in which surveillance changes our subjectivity. We start acting as if we’re being watched. Do you think Wetzel felt like he had to perform White aggression because the camera was on him?

It’s possible. We’d have to ask him what he felt. He later said he didn’t know what came over him, that he’s not a racist. So, there was a performance of an excuse for it after the fact.

In the book I was talking about how Black hyper visibility shapes Black people’s ways of being—shopping while Black, walking while Black, driving while Black—and what that might do to the psyche.

You write about modern biometrics and Black bodies, how these devices are calibrated, and what they see and don’t see. Some devices read stereotypically White features with ease, reliably picking up on the subtle nuances that distinguish one blue eye from another, but failing to register stereotypically Black features. Being “legible” to a security system can make the difference between entering effortlessly and being shut out.

Teej Meister, “Whites Only?,” YouTube video, uploaded September 2, 2015.

Teej Meister, “Whites Only?,” YouTube video, uploaded September 2, 2015.

Think of biometrics doing a few things. Identification: Who are you? Are you enrolled in this database? Verification: Are you who you say you are? Are you the person whose biometric is encoded in this passport or Green Card? Automation: Is anybody there? Like a sensor on a faucet in a washroom.

In some cases you have certain bodies that, in biometric parlance, “fail to enroll” or “become illegible.” Earlier technology would read light irises quite successfully but darker irises might not be read.

So the question becomes who is the prototype? I called it prototypical Whiteness. There’s a famous video4 of a sink in a convention center. You have a seemingly Black hand, and soap dispenser is not working. With a White hand, soap appears. How are these technologies designed to serve particular bodies?

It’s interesting that racialized surveillance has made Black people more visible in some ways, but then you’ve got all these technologies that are decreasing Black visibility because they’re calibrated to capture the nuances of White bodies.

That’s the conundrum. It might be quite liberatory to be unseen by these technologies.

I close the book looking at a YouTube video5 with about three million views. It was of two workers in Texas testing the face-tracking camera of an HP computer. One worker, he calls himself Black Desi, asks us to watch what happens “when [his] Blackness enters the frame.” The camera doesn’t pan or zoom or tilt of follow him. But when his White colleague enters the frame, it seemingly works just fine. I use the question “what happens when my Blackness enters the frame?” What happens when Blackness enters discussions of the discussions of surveillance, what does it do to those very discussions?


About the Author

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.


Endnotes

1 Trump’s campaign manager appears to have been caught assaulting a reporter on his own campaign’s security system. “I’m rich,” Trump told his supporters, “So, I have tapes.” Trump claims his footage vindicates the campaign’s version of events. Meanwhile footage was being posted, reposted, and critiqued all over social media. The police reviewed the tapes and charged the campaign manager with misdemeanor battery, but prosecutors ultimately dropped the charge. See: Eli Stokols, Hadas Gold, and Nick Gass, “Trump Turns Blame on Reporter in Battery Case,” Politico, March 29, 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/03/trump-campaign-manager-charged-with-misdemeanor-battery-221336. Also, Dylan Byers, Tal Kopan, and Tom LoBianco, “State will not prosecute Donald Trump’s campaign manager,” CNN, April, 14, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/04/13/politics/corey-lewandowski-donald-trump-charges-dropped/.

2 Shaun King, “Trump Supporter’s Sorry Excuse After Assaulting Black Teen At Rally Undeserving of Sympathy,” New York Daily News, March 14, 2016, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/king-charge-trump-supporter-assaulted-black-student-article-1.2563579?cid=bitly.

3 “Police Shoot Man For Recording Them With Phone, Claim They Feared For Their Lives,” Counter Current News, September 12, 2015, http://countercurrentnews.com/2015/09/police-shoot-recording-man/.

4 Teej Meister, “Whites Only?,” YouTube video, uploaded September 2, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHynGQ9Vg30.

5 Wzamen01, “HP Computers Are Racist,” YouTube video, uploaded December 10, 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4DT3tQqgRM.

Racial Double Standards in a Mass Shooting Threat Case: David Lenio & White Nationalism

Click here to download the article as a PDF.

This article appears in the Spring 2016 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

When I worked for a gun violence prevention organization in 2015, I often spent time on Twitter as part of my job.1 And that’s what I was doing on Valentine’s Day 2015: tweeting worldwide news2 about two deadly shootings in Copenhagen, Denmark. One of the shootings was at a free speech event in a café and the other was at a local synagogue, both following the publication of controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed.3 My tweets drew the attention of a Holocaust denier who, I subsequently learned, was also a White nationalist who owned three guns and lived on the outskirts of a White separatist community in Montana. His online interactions with me over the next few hours led me to discover that one day before, and episodically over the previous seven weeks, he had tweeted threats to shoot grade school children and Jewish leaders.4 During our encounter, he repeated some of these threats, specifying that he wanted to “put two in the head of a rabbi.” I reported him to the FBI and to local law enforcement as a potential mass shooting threat who also appeared to be planning a suicide-by-cop scenario.5 (Apparently referring to how some mass shooters have been killed by police, the man tweeted his desire to massacre school children “until cops take me out.”6) “Thank God Monday is a holiday,” one officer in Montana later told me, “because we have another 24 hours to catch him before the schools open.” And catch him they did. Two days after our Twitter encounter, police arrested David Joseph Lenio, a 28-year-old who had recently moved to Kalispell, Montana, from his parents’ home in Grand Rapids, Michigan.7

Photo of author Jonathan Huson on the documentary, Hate in America: A Town on Fire by Investigative Discovery released in 2016 talking about David Lenio's case,

Author Jonathan Hutson in the 2016 documentary, Hate in America: A Town on Fire, which is about David Lenio’s case. Photo courtesy of Investigation Discovery.

This essay explores two journeys. One is that of a wealthy and privileged young man who sought a White supremacist “homeland,” but ended up taking a detour through the criminal justice system, before being released this spring without bail and without facing prosecution. The other journey is my own: the story of what happened after our paths crossed and what I learned from our respective involvements in the judicial system and what those experiences say about the state of race and justice in the United States.

While people of color and Muslims encounter many “on-ramps” into the system, a White mass shooting threat suspect instead found numerous easy exits and “Get Out of Jail Free” cards.

I didn’t know it then, but getting involved in Lenio’s case would change my life and inform the national conversation about how to detect and deter online threats of mass violence.8 From this relatively front row seat to the legal process, I would come to witness what many communities of color already have intimate knowledge of—the structural disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system. While people of color and Muslims encounter many “on-ramps” into the system, a White mass shooting threat suspect instead found numerous easy exits and “Get Out of Jail Free” cards.9 The case would come to illustrate the kind of disparate prosecution of far-right terrorism cases which Naomi Braine has detailed in these pages, writing in the Spring 2015 issue of The Public Eye that:

The differential treatment of Islamic and far-right terrorism cases only becomes explicable through the lens of political calculation. The Right Wing is an entrenched element of the U.S. cultural and political power structure, raising the costs of high profile law enforcement action. The primary targets of federal anti-terrorism investigations have been Muslim men defined by their vulnerability rather than their power.10

Perhaps law enforcement obtains more convictions of Muslims because the FBI focuses on Muslim communities, and constructs scenarios to entrap their members, while simultaneously failing to act promptly on information about possible terror threats from the Right until their militant actions become all but impossible to ignore.

Much of this story plays out on Twitter, where David Lenio’s tweets serve as road markers for an ideological tour of the outer reaches of the Far Right, its culture of conspiracism, and the xenophobic anger of White men who feel dispossessed of their economic birthright in the kind of fury that drives the supporters of Donald Trump.

The Making of ‘A Potential Terrorist’

He would go on to find a calling as part of a populist, nativist movement which advocates the rise of a new strongman in the U.S., scapegoats minority groups, and seeks to establish a White homeland in the Pacific Northwest under authoritarian rule.

At the time of his Twitter spree of horrific threats, Lenio was a line cook in a restaurant who falsely claimed he was homeless and blamed his economic struggles on Jews. He would go on to find a calling as part of a populist, nativist movement which advocates the rise of a new strongman in the U.S., scapegoats minority groups, and seeks to establish a White homeland in the Pacific Northwest under authoritarian rule—an ideal most adherents call the Northwest Territorial Imperative11 and which Lenio sometimes calls Cascadia.12 In the bio of one of his several Twitter feeds, Lenio indicated his support for 9/11 conspiracism and bombastically described himself as “a potential terrorist.”13 This picture is far different than the one we could paint of Lenio, as the snowboarding son of an influential investment banker in one of Michigan’s most affluent cities.

Lenio’s father, Remos Joseph Lenio, co-founded a private investment bank in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in September 2015.14 For decades, he has specialized in serving closely held, family-owned businesses. A conservative Christian who shows support on Facebook for libertarian conservative congressman Justin Amish (R-MI)15 and the libertarian classic Atlas Shrugged, Remos Lenio also shares close business, social, and philanthropic ties16 with the billionaire Dick and Betsy DeVos family of Grand Rapids.17 The elder Lenio also seems to share the DeVos’s vision of turning Grand Rapids into a “Christian Wall Street.” He initiated the $28 billion church financing industry’s first-ever loan syndication deal when he was a partner in Hartwick Capital of Grand Rapids in 2004. Lendees included mega-churches such as Mars Hill Bible Church,18 where Betsy DeVos serves on the board in nearby Grandville, Michigan.19

The multi-billion dollar fortune of the DeVoses, who are Christian Right leaders and one of the conservative movement’s guiding families, flows from their founding of the Amway Corporation. As Mother Jones reports, “DeVos family members have invested at least $200 million in a host of right-wing causes—think tanks, media outlets, political committees, evangelical outfits, and a string of advocacy groups. They have helped fund nearly every prominent Republican running for national office and underwritten a laundry list of conservative campaigns on issues ranging from charter schools and vouchers to anti-gay marriage and anti-tax ballot measures.”20

David Lenio’s own political evolution may have begun with his father’s politics, but it appears to have spanned a wide range of conservative ideologies, from Ron Paul Libertarianism21 to the Far Right.22 Though his religious identity is unclear from his public statements, Lenio has described himself in a Twitter bio as a supporter of the Second Amendment “and Jesus, too.”23

Rather than publicly identify with any particular ideological camp, Lenio seemed to exemplify the free-floating anxieties and rage of some White men who feel dispossessed.

But his politics diverged from conventional libertarianism and Christian Right positions at some point, taking a turn towards the conspiratorial and the overtly White supremacist. Rather than publicly identify with any particular ideological camp, Lenio seemed to exemplify the free-floating anxieties and rage of some White men who feel dispossessed. His tweets often focused on mass shootings and terrorist attacks, which he invariably labels as “false flag” attacks—covert operations perpetrated by Israel or the CIA. He claimed on one occasion that Israel was behind the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut (which he called “Sandy Hoax”),24 and on many other occasions, charged that Israel was responsible for 9/11. He also wrote in support of White separatist movements, tweeting in November 2014, “White people need to organize racially, because the other races & democrats are organizing on some anti-white bullshit that needs countering.”25

A month after that tweet, he moved to the town of Kalispell in Montana’s Flathead Valley, which is well-known on the Right, as well as in human rights and law enforcement circles,26 as a locus of one of several White supremacist enclaves known collectively as Pioneer Little Europe (PLE).27

The PLE movement was founded over a decade ago to be, in the words of its organizational prospectus,28 “a conscious white community” that “comes to dominate a geographical area.” Investigative reporter Judy L. Thomas writes:

The manual describes a plan to “swamp” a target area by taking over its local political and economic systems, forcing out those who don’t share their beliefs. White nationalists would live in close proximity to businesses that offer cultural facilities and services, some of which would openly support their political revival.

The movement has gained some traction in Montana.

In the past few years, dozens of white supremacists have relocated to the Flathead Valley, where civil rights activists say they are forging alliances with anti-government Patriots because of their shared hostility toward the government. 29

A Citizen Report

On the day that he arrived in Kalispell in late December 2014, Lenio tweeted his desire to shoot up a grade school in the town, linking his threat to his economic situation. “I David Lenio,” he wrote, “am literally so indebted & #underpaid that I want to go on a sandy hoax style spree in a kalispell, MT elementary #school 2014.”30

Over the next several hours, he fired off four similar tweets.31 He wrote that he wondered how long it would take before he generated national media coverage and other forms of attention for beating the “shooting spree high score” of the 20 kids and six adults who were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School—one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history.32

Jonathan Hutson’s tweet asking about the location and identity of @PyschicDogTalk2 on Febuary 14, 2015. Photo courtesy of Investigation Discovery.

From that day until his arrest about six weeks later, his tweets focused obsessively on mass shootings. At times, it appeared that he was grappling with his mental health, as with this February statement: “If I can’t even afford habitat to live on, why the fuck shouldn’t I shoot up a #school and #teach the world something about ‘mental health’?”33 In a prior YouTube video posted in August 2012,34 Lenio voiced a desire for the kind of infamy that comes to mass shooters. He also expressed a distrust of psychiatry and prescribed medications, as well as a fear that his guns might be taken away if he were found to be seriously mentally ill in a way that could make him a danger to himself or others.35

When a White male suspect threatens or carries out a mass shooting, the public conversation often rejects the label of terrorist while highlighting the suspect’s perceived mental state in an attempt to explain his acts.

Lenio’s tweets suggest that, consciously or not, he was setting himself up to be viewed as mentally ill—a factor which, if he could prove it, might mitigate his guilt. That he would introduce this concept is not surprising. When a White male suspect threatens or carries out a mass shooting, the public conversation often rejects the label of terrorist while highlighting the suspect’s perceived mental state in an attempt to explain his acts primarily as a result of mental illness, which could result in an acquittal or a lighter sentence. “It’s as if one cannot, according to the conservative playbook, be both white and a terrorist,” writes Black Lives Matter activist and Daily News columnist Shaun King.36

In contrast, when a person of color or a Muslim engages in similar behavior, the public conversation tends to disregard questions of possible mental illness while emphasizing the suspect’s ethnicity or religion. This dynamic, and the racial double standard it represents, stymies discussion of how White male privilege or even White supremacist ideology—a potentially aggravating factor that could result in a harsher sentence—motivates violence.

It’s also ironic, since White males commit a majority of mass shootings in the U.S. According to data compiled by Mother Jones on 80 U.S. mass shootings between 1982 and 2016, White suspects, almost exclusively males, were responsible for around 60 percent of the attacks.37 That survey notes that most of the shooters had displayed signs of possible mental illness, such as paranoia and depression. The report’s lead author concludes, “Maybe what we need is a better mental health policy.”38

But the fact that most of these shooters displayed signs of possible mental illness does not amount to proof of mental illness, nor does it demonstrate causality. In 2014, Eric Madfis, an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Washington, used an intersectional approach to examine the disproportionate rate of mass killings by White men in the United States. He reached a different conclusion:

Among many mass killers, the triple privileges of white heterosexual masculinity which make subsequent life course losses more unexpected and thus more painfully shameful ultimately buckle under the failures of downward mobility and result in a final cumulative act of violence to stave off subordinated masculinity.39

But whatever his motivations and mental health status, by February 12, 2015, Lenio was calling for the rise of a new strongman—“a Hitler”—to lead a White supremacist movement in fixing the U.S. economy, and stating that he was prepared to go down in a hail of bullets while killing Jews. He continued the same day with the “bet” that he could easily kill a dozen schoolchildren, which, he claimed, “Sounds better than being a wage slave.”40 Minutes later, he imagined more than 30 dead grade school students and called attention to his motives by tweeting, “I bet I’d take out at least a whole #classroom & score 30+ if I put my mind to it.” He then wrote. “#Poverty is making me want to kill folks #mental health.”

FBI studies show that terrorists, including school shooters, often signal their intentions in advance—sometimes to peers or authority figures, and other times to complete strangers.41 While I would normally ignore such hateful rhetoric, David Lenio seemed to fit the profile with the dozens of threatening tweets he’d posted since arriving in Kalispell. When Lenio began to confront me on Twitter, after my own tweets related to the shootings in Copenhagen, I read through his feed and became concerned. I saw his repeated threats to shoot schools and synagogues, and tried to crowd-source the problem of identifying and locating him, tweeting, “WHO and WHERE is @PsychicDogTalk2, who tweeted on Feb. 14 about shooting up a school and executing grade school kids?” Lenio responded by asking where my kids go to school.

I decided to make a citizen report to law enforcement, sending a timeline of Lenio’s threatening tweets, contextual information about Lenio’s apparent White nationalist sympathies, and a profile overview of his threats and his seeming desire for a suicide-by-cop scenario.

When police investigated the next day, on February 15, they discovered that Lenio had taken steps to put his ideas into action: he’d retrieved a cache of rifles and ammunition from a storage locker near his apartment.42 He also had a loaded semi-automatic handgun with him in his van at the time of his arrest and two extra ammunition clips, as well as several jugs of urine—materials that could potentially be used to create a primary charge for a bomb.43

SIDEBAR: What’s in a Jug of Urine?(click to expand)

That fact that Lenio stored jugs of urine in his van invariably catches observers’ attention. But neither federal nor state or local police ever asked Lenio about this bizarre find.

We don’t know why Lenio was storing jugs of urine because law enforcement failed to explore this potential lead. But if they had they might have made a shocking discovery.

Urine has been used to make urea to serve as the main charge in homemade urea nitrate bombs69 in the U.S., as well as in Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq, and Pakistan. In the U.S., the best-known case of a urea nitrate bomb is the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.70 In fact, it is a serious enough problem that the Department of Homeland Security offers a training curriculum that includes teaching firefighters and other first responders to be on the lookout for jugs of urine71 as a possible sign of what scientists have called “exceptionally easy-to-make” improvised explosive devices (IEDs).72 The Associated Press reports, “One instructor noted that the discovery of jugs of urine led to the arrest of potential bombers in New Jersey.”73

One bomb-making manual, published by a self-described militia member a few weeks after White supremacist Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995, calls urea nitrate IEDs “piss bombs.”

Although urea nitrate bombs are well known to much of law enforcement, experts in counterterrorism, and the violent, revolutionary precincts of the Far Right, most of the rest of us have been left in the dark about it. Unfortunately, some of “the rest of us” include law enforcement officers responsible for an area that is infested with growing numbers of White supremacist revolutionaries.

Urea nitrate looks like sugar and can be made with accessible and non-traceable materials, such as urine, ordinary coffee filters and pans. Such items are at the fingertips of most people, and particularly available to someone like Lenio, who was working as a restaurant cook.74 Later, a Kalispell police officer to whom I spoke75 said he could not recall whether they had found coffee filters, pots, aluminum foil, and something that looked like sugar crystals near the jugs of urine. He didn’t know whether the jugs actually contained urine, or whether the urine had been boiled down to urea, or whether the evidence still exists.

That the investigators did not appear to be interested in the possible domestic terrorism implications of the jugs of urine stored by this suspect—who had already threatened the mass murder of children and Jewish leaders, and who appeared interested in joining a local clan of White supremacists—is troubling.

Homeland Security to this day teaches first responders nationwide to be on the lookout for jugs of urine as a possible sign of bomb-making activity. When alert first responders who had undergone counterterrorism training encountered jugs of urine in a New Jersey apartment in 2004, they knew they were seeing potential bomb making materials. An investigation turned up evidence of a plot to make urea nitrate bombs to target tunnels linking New Jersey with New York City.76 But in that case, an instructor for the Homeland Security training course stated77, the apartment was occupied by people from the Middle East, who were subsequently deported.

Maybe there’s an innocent explanation for Lenio storing jugs of urine or urea in his van— which, of course, by itself is not a crime. What is perplexing and significant is law enforcement’s lack of curiosity, from the federal level on down, and the implications of such a blind spot toward a White suspect and the double standard of dealing with potential domestic terrorists for our national security.

This dangerous double standard persists despite that fact that, as Naomi Braine has written for The Public Eye, “In the nearly 14 years since 9/11, more people have died in the U.S. from politically-motivated violence perpetrated by right-wing militants than by Muslim militants.”78

Two local law enforcement agencies deployed extra officers to guard area schools and notified every parent in the school system about the security threat.44 And on February 16, the FBI, along with law enforcement officers from four other agencies,45 arrested Lenio. He confessed on video to issuing the tweets, stating that he was glad that law enforcement had increased school security in response. However, Judge Heidi Ulbricht would later rule this confession inadmissible because the FBI failed to Mirandize Lenio until after he made these statements.46

Too White to Jail?

After the arrest, however, the investigation of Lenio for his myriad threats softened. To begin with, police said they could find no connections between Lenio and Kalispell’s local White supremacist networks, despite publicly available posts on social media and blogs documenting Lenio’s ties to White nationalist leaders in the Flathead Valley, particularly members of the White supremacist community Pioneer Little Europe.

The mostly conservative, libertarian, and gun-friendly population in Montana’s Flathead Valley takes a live-and-let-live attitude toward White nationalists who espouse rugged individualism and back-to-the-land lifestyles.

Pioneer Little Europe (PLE) is not so much a location or an organization as an organizing method for bringing White nationalists together. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, two White supremacists named Hamilton Michael Barrett and Mark Cotterill developed the PLE concept and promoted it on the neonazi website Stormfront47 as a way for White nationalists to develop affinity communities within existing towns in order to gain political influence and provide each other social and economic support.48 The mostly conservative, libertarian, and gun-friendly population in Montana’s Flathead Valley takes a live-and-let-live attitude toward White nationalists who espouse rugged individualism and back-to-the-land lifestyles. Two-hundred-and-fifty people in Kalispell earn their living making guns or gun parts,49 which provides economic security from skilled labor as well as a steady supply of potentially untraceable weapons.

Unsurprisingly, the result of PLE’s presence in an area can be polarizing. In Kalispell, it led to episodes of violence, as documented in the recent film “Hate in America: A Town on Fire,” co-produced by NBC’s Peacock Productions and the Southern Poverty Law Center.50

caption here

Screenshot captured by Jonathan Hutson of one of the many tweets made by David Lenio on Saturday, February 14, 2015.

While the police would say they struggled to link this group and Lenio, it appeared that not only had Lenio been drawn to the region by members of the PLE, but his expressed opinions and threats mirrored those of PLE activists. Recruiter and spokesperson for PLE April Gaede had tweeted to Lenio from her account @AprilintheNorth at least four months before he moved to Kalispell. Gaede, who makes bolt-action hunting rifles51 in Kalispell and is an outspoken Donald Trump supporter, encourages White supremacists to move to Kalispell for its job security, low crime rate, and the opportunity to build community with White nationalists.

Gaede also has close ties with right-wing terrorists. For example, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reports that in 2007, Gaede was accorded the “honor” of disposing of the ashes of David Lane, the leader of a neonazi group called The Order who died while serving a 190-year federal sentence in connection with the murder of Jewish talk show host Alan Berg in 1984.52 On New Year’s Day 2016, Gaede tweeted: “When Trump is elected, we will have a new national holiday. #DayoftheRope.”53

Both Gaede’s association with The Order and her “Day of the Rope” tweet are related to William Pierce’s noxious 1978 novel The Turner Diaries, a fantasy of race war and genocide that the SPLC dubbed “the bible of the racist right.” The Order was inspired by a fictional group in Pierce’s book that aimed to overthrow the U.S. government, which they believed was controlled by a cabal of Jews; in real life, The Order’s terrorist attacks included robberies of banks and armored cars to fund White nationalist groups,54 as well as the bombings of a theater and a synagogue. The Turner Diaries also describes a day of lynching during which neonazis string up “race traitors” from lamp posts: an event which comes to be known, in the book, as “The Day of the Rope.”

Over the years, the book’s description of race war has been used as an inspiration and blueprint for other White nationalist terrorists, including Timothy McVeigh—the man responsible for bombing the Oklahoma federal building in 1995—who had several pages of the novel in his possession at the time of his arrest.55 (It’s also worth noting that McVeigh used what was called a “fertilizer bomb,” a truck loaded with ammonium nitrate, in his attack in Oklahoma City. A “piss bomb” of the sort that David Lenio may have intended to make is another kind of fertilizer bomb, composed of urea nitrate.)

Excepts from the letter written by former Aryan Nations leader Karl Gharst calling for support for David Lenio. Photo courtesy of Investigation Discovery

Lenio’s association with Kalispell White nationalists didn’t end with Gaede. While Lenio spent five months in the Flathead County Detention Center following his arrest, another PLE adherent and former Aryan Nations “staff leader,” Karl Gharst, supported him and possibly visited him. Gharst turned to the internet to rally White supremacist support for Lenio,56 falsely claiming that I had baited Lenio into making his threats—this despite the fact that Lenio had been tweeting his threats for six weeks before he initiated contact with me. (Gharst was himself arrested in 2004 for threatening to kill a Native American woman who worked for Child Protective Services.57 He was taken into custody on the Idaho compound of Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler and spent five months in the same jail where Lenio would later be held.)

A White Supremacist in the Criminal Justice System

The deficiencies in the handling of Lenio’s case continued with its prosecution. In July 2015, Judge Heidi Ulbricht released Lenio into the custody of his father, without bail.58 The prosecution did not object. As conditions of Lenio’s release, the judge ordered him to stay off social media, to get a mental health evaluation, not have access to guns, and refrain from contacting witnesses. However, the justice system failed to ensure that Lenio comply with the terms of his release. He refused to obtain the mental health evaluation until finally Judge Ulbricht granted his defense attorney permission to obtain a mental health evaluation from Lenio’s own physician and to file it under seal.59 So the public does not know whether Lenio has received a diagnosis and, if so, whether he is receiving any treatment. The deferral of the evaluation and the secrecy as to its findings is of a piece with the preferential treatment which Lenio has received.

Additionally, though law enforcement wasn’t aware of this fact, Lenio’s Facebook page had been updated several times60—including with antisemitic statements and quotes from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke—while he was in jail, although inmates are not supposed to have access to cell phones or the internet.61 Further, although PLE member Karl Gharst posted messages online suggesting he might have visited Lenio in jail—messages that described Lenio’s conditions of confinement and describing their conversations—the justice system had no record of whether or not a visit had occurred, because the jail kept no logs of Lenio’s visitors.

The trial was originally slated for August,62 and then rescheduled until November 9. On November 9, it was delayed again, as Deputy County Attorney Stacy Boman stated that her office and the defense were trying to resolve the case in the judge’s chambers, out of public view.63 One outcome of this would be that if Lenio were not adjudicated as mentally ill, or convicted of a felony, then the state of Montana would return his three guns and ammunition, and he would be able to pass a Brady background check that would let him purchase an arsenal.

Photo of author Jonathan Hutson in the 2016 documentary, Hate in America: A Town on Fire, which is about David Lenio’s case. Photo courtesy of Investigation Discovery.

I had initially been called to be a witness in the trial, but when it wasn’t held I traveled to Kalispell anyway to hold a press conference, along with local rabbis, parents of local school children, and leaders from the human rights group, Love Lives Here in the Flathead Valley.64 I felt the public had a right to hear the evidence, to know what the justice system would do to protect school children and religious leaders, and to be warned that Lenio could be rearmed by virtue of the state’s lax prosecution.65

But for the fact that Lenio is White and the son of a politically-connected banker, he might have faced more serious charges; he might have been tried more swiftly; his security in jail would have been tighter and records would have been kept of neonazi leaders visiting him there. If the court had deemed him to be eligible for pretrial release, then he might have been required to wear an ankle monitor and his bail would likely not have been waived. Further, he would have been held accountable for violating the conditional terms of his release: his failure to obtain a psychological evaluation and his continued presence on social media, where he posted at least 348 times since his release in July. Lenio’s flouting of the judge’s orders made news in Montana and nationwide, but local Flathead Valley law enforcement offered no explanation for why he was not rearrested.66 At the same time, 37 other inmates in the same jail were rearrested for violating their release conditions.67

The charges have been dropped, and the state of Montana has returned Lenio’s guns without any further conditions or public explanation.

This March, three weeks before Lenio’s trial was finally set to be held—he was ultimately charged with a felony count of intimidation—the defense attorney announced that the prosecutor and judge had agreed to a deferred prosecution. This means that Lenio, who had already broken the conditions of his release, is expected to be a law-abiding citizen and keep his attorney informed of his location for two years. Meanwhile, the charges have been dropped, and the state of Montana has returned Lenio’s guns without any further conditions or public explanation. If he is found to break the law over the next two years, then the prosecutor could decide to pursue the case. Otherwise, Lenio’s record will be wiped clean.

Did Incuriosity Kill the Case?

Although the prosecution of Lenio may be over, we can say this much about the significance of the case: that it draws sharp attention to the problem of differential prosecution in the U.S. criminal justice system. The case began as one of threats of mass murder on social media by a possibly mentally ill individual. One of the more pressing questions was whether he would be able to get his guns back when it was all over. But over time, serious issues of the disparate treatment of criminal suspects in terms of race and class have come to loom large. What’s more, my further investigation suggests that if law enforcement had been even a little bit curious about the seemingly inexplicable jugs of urine Lenio had in his van at the time of his arrest, they could have understood them as possible bomb ingredients, with clear implications for potential domestic terrorism.  (See above sidebar: “What’s in a Jug of Urine?”) Law enforcement turning a blind eye to a potentially larger threat, which might have involved others, and may have put the rest of us at risk of violence from right-wing terrorists.

The Right’s entrenchment within U.S. cultural and political power structures raises the costs of high-profile law enforcement action against right-wing suspects.

As Naomi Braine writes in her exploration of differential prosecution of Muslim and far-right terrorism cases, the Right’s entrenchment within U.S. cultural and political power structures raises the costs of high-profile law enforcement action against right-wing suspects. What happened in Kalispell exemplified this. White nationalist leaders, such as Gaede and Gharst, make their presence felt there. They have many supporters, and they attract unstable figures such as Lenio to participate in their PLE affinity group. When police claimed not to see any connections between Lenio and the local White nationalist groups, and when they failed to meaningfully investigate evidence of a potential terrorist threat, it seems a case of willful blindness: not seeing what is inconvenient to see.

Beyond the possibility that Lenio could make good on his threats in the future, a second casualty of the case is the public’s confidence in the justice system. In the wake of the prosecutor’s decision not to prosecute Lenio, local resident Jerry Weissman wrote a letter to the editor protesting, “Letting Lenio go is not justice.”68 He continued, “Who will hang their heads in ultimate shame if this powder keg of a person explodes and takes children’s lives? Who will mourn if lives are taken, especially when proper care could have been taken to remove threats to the citizens of our country?”

David Lenio's tweet several weeks after the documentary, "Hate in America" was released.

David Lenio’s tweet several weeks after the documentary, “Hate in America” was released.

On March 24, when the “Hate in America” documentary premiered, David Lenio returned to Twitter. In what seemed like a taunt, he pinned to the top of his profile a series of exchanges from our February 2015 encounter in which I tried to identify and locate the man who had tweeted threats to shoot grade school kids. Several weeks later, on April 12, he indicated that he remained fixated on the idea of shooting school children when he tweeted: “What do you think costs more in most US cities? A gun with enough ammunition to kill 99 school kids or the security deposit on an apartment?”

Whatever Lenio does or does not do, it will take far more vigilance to see that the criminal justice system works without the filters of racial, religious and class bias that fast track the prosecution of some suspects but let others off the hook. That the likes of David Lenio manage to avoid accountability for crimes that would have derailed the lives of most of the rest of us should shock us out of our complacency.


About the Author

Jonathan Hutson is a human rights activist and strategic communications consultant at Global Media Max in Metropolitan Washington, D.C.


Endnotes

1 I served at the time as Chief Communications Officer for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. More than 63,000 people and organizations follow me (@JonHutson) on Twitter, because of my influence in human rights, social justice, LGBTQ issues, transgender equality, reproductive freedom, conservation, and global health. The Montreal Institute on Genocide Prevention has recognized me among its list of 74 Global Humanitarian Twitterati.

2 Here is my tweet at 9:23 p.m. on February 14, 2015: “#Freespeech will not be silenced, even as gunfire erupts at a café and a synagogue in Copenhagen http://nyti.ms/1JekieA #terrorism”. https://twitter.com/JonHutson/status/566784933407248384.

3 Andrew Higgins and Melissa Eddy, “Terror Attacks by a Native Son Rock Denmark.” The New York Times, February 15, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/16/world/europe/copenhagen-attacks-suspect-is-killed-police-say.html?_r=0.

4 Bill Morlin, “Man Arrested in Montana After Alleged Threats to Kill School Children and Jews,” Hatewatch, February 17, 2015, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2015/02/17/man-arrested-montana-after-alleged-threats-kill-school-children-and-jews#disqus_thread.

5 Vince Devlin, “Kalispell School Threat Suspect ‘Tangled’ with Wrong Twitter User,” The Missoulian, February 19, 2015, http://missoulian.com/news/local/kalispell-school-threat-suspect-tangled-with-wrong-twitter-user/article_9c3a4af7-eb20-526a-8598-17304d9e9f24.html. I provided federal and local law enforcement agencies with several things based on my research: a timeline of tweets that appeared to cross the line between free speech and criminal threat; a profile of him, based on his social media presence; and a strategy to identify and locate him.

6 Bill Morlin, “Man Arrested in Montana After Threats to Kill School Children and Jews,” Hatewatch, February 17, 2015, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2015/02/17/man-arrested-montana-after-alleged-threats-kill-school-children-and-jews#disqus_thread.

7> Bill Morlin, “Court Papers Detail Alleged Threats from Holocaust Denier,” Hatewatch, March 19, 2015, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2015/02/17/man-arrested-montana-after-alleged-threats-kill-school-children-and-jews#disqus_thread See also Vince Devlin, “Suspect Threatened to Shoot 100 Kalispell Schoolkids,” The Missoulian, March 17, 2015,http://missoulian.com/news/local/kalispell-school-threat-suspect-tangled-with-wrong-twitter-user/article_9c3a4af7-eb20-526a-8598-17304d9e9f24.html .

8 Martin Kaste, “Awash in Social Media, Cops Still Need Public to Detect Threats,” All Things Considered (NPR), February 23, 2015, http://www.npr.org/2015/02/23/388449799/awash-in-social-media-cops-still-need-the-public-to-detect-threats.

9 Jonathan Hutson, “White Banker’s Son Threatens to Shoot School Kids and Jews, Gets ‘Get Outta Jail Free’ Card.” Huffington Post, November 16, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-hutson/white-bankers-son-threate_b_8579146.html.

10 Naomi Braine, “Disparate Legal Treatment of Muslims and the Radical Right.” The Public Eye, June 19, 2015, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/06/19/terror-network-or-lone-wolf/#sthash.bDPRht1N.MHVeuJjb.dpbs.

11 Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler popularized this term for enclaves of White nationalists in the Pacific Northwest after he set up a neonazi compound in northern Idaho in the 1970s. But overt White nationalists are not the only militants to seek haven in Montana. For example, the Rev. Chuck Baldwin, a Patriot leader who ran for president on the Constitution Party ticket in 2008, moved to the Flathead Valley in 2010. He leads the Liberty Fellowship church in Kalispell, whose members include Randy Weaver, a white supremacist who engaged in a notorious standoff with federal authorities in 1992. Ryan Lenz, “A Gathering of Eagles: Extremists Look to Montana.” Southern Poverty Law Center, November 15, 2011, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2011/gathering-eagles-extremists-look-montana.

12 David Joseph Lenio has held at least four Twitter accounts: @leniodj, @PsychicDogTalk, @PyschicDogTalk2 [sic], and @PsychicDogTalk3. The first of these accounts featured an avatar that read, “I am a potential terrorist. I know the truth about 9/11.” Twitter has shut down @PsychicDogTalk and @PyschicDogTalk2 for violating their Terms of Service by threatening violence. However, the Twitter bio for @PsychicDogTalk can still be viewed online through a third-party app. It describes his location as “Cascadia, at the apex of time.” The Cascadia Independence Party (CIP) is a secessionist movement that advocates the independence of “Washington, most of Oregon and Idaho, parts of Montana and Alaska, and most of the Canadian province British Columbia.” CIP website, “What We Do,” http://cascadiaindependenceparty.strikingly.com/#what-we-do.

13 Bill Morlin, “Court Papers Detail Alleged Threats from Holocaust Denier.” Hatewatch, March 19, 2015, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2015/03/19/court-papers-detail-alleged-threats-holocaust-denier See also Vince Devlin, “Suspect Threatened to Shoot 100 Kalispell Schoolkids,” The Missoulian, March 17, 2015, http://missoulian.com/news/local/suspect-threatened-to-shoot-kalispell-schoolkids/article_075b6e83-1997-5c20-91c3-7ec6db2e2a3d.html.

14 Remos Lenio and Phillip Blanchard launched Tillerman & Co. of Grand Rapids in September 2015. They had previously been partners in turnaround firm DWH, LLC of Grand Rapids. Demetri Diakantonis, “People Moves of the Week,” Mergers & Acquisitions, November 3, 2015, http://www.themiddlemarket.com/news/people_moves/people-moves-of-the-week-tillerman-arsenal-goodwin-258750-1.html.

15 Politico has called Justin Amish, who founded and chairs the House Liberty Caucus, “the House’s new Ron Paul.” James Hohmann, “The House’s New Ron Paul.” Politico, April 1, 2013, http://www.politico.com/story/2013/04/the-houses-new-ron-paul-justin-amash-089485.

16 For example, Betsy DeVos serves as Honorary Chair, and Remos Lenio serves on the executive leadership team for the American Heart Association’s 20th Anniversary of the Grand Rapids Heart Ball slated for December 2016. https://ahagrandrapids.ejoinme.org/MyEvents/20162017GrandRapidsMIHeartBall/Leadership/tabid/766588/Default.aspx In addition, Remos Lenio’s CV states that he holds a seat on the MiQuest board of directors. http://tillermanco.com/images/RemosLenioCV2015.pdf MiQuest is among the groups sponsored by the Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation. https://www.gvsu.edu/cei/competitions-funding-160.htm Remos Lenio’s LinkedIn profile states that he is also a founding board member and past president of the Association for Corporate Growth – Western Michigan, which has featured Dick DeVos as a speaker. Retrieved from http://grsouth.wzzm13.com/content/dick-devos-key-bringing-southwest-airlines-grand-rapids-supporting-airtran.

17 The son of Amway co-founder Richard DeVos, Dick DeVos served as Amway’s President and ran an unsuccessful campaign for Governor of Michigan in 2006. His wife Betsy Prince DeVos, former chair of the Michigan State Republican Party, and Board President of Mars Hill Bible Church, is the sister of Blackwater founder Erik Prince. See Andy Kroll, “Meet the New Kochs: The DeVos Clan’s Plan to Defund the Left,” Mother Jones, January/February 2014, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/01/devos-michigan-labor-politics-gop. See also Benjy Hansen-Bundy and Andy Kroll, “The Family That Gives Together,” Mother Jones, January/February 2014, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/01/devos-family-foundations-heritage-americans-prosperity-blackwater.

18 Daniel Schoonmaker, “Is This Christian Wall Street.” Grand Rapids Business Journal, April 10, 2006, http://www.grbj.com/articles/66232See also Daniel Schoonmaker, “Collection Plate, Meet Wall Street.” Grand Rapids Business Journal, April 10, 2006, http://www.grbj.com/articles/66233.

19 Betsy DeVos also holds the title of President of the Council of Elders. Kelefa Sanneh, “The Hell-Raiser,” The New Yorker, November 26, 2012, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/11/26/the-hell-raiser-3. In 2011, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation gave $525,000 to Mars Hill Bible Church, according to the Foundation’s annual report. http://www.guidestar.org/FinDocuments/2011/382/902/2011-382902412-08bfa3ae-F.pdf.

20 Andy Kroll, “Meet the New Kochs: The DeVos Clan’s Plan to Defund the Left.” Mother Jones, January/February 2014, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/01/devos-michigan-labor-politics-gop#sthash.9BXvf4Kh.dpuf.

21 In an April 2013 YouTube video on the Boston Marathon bombing and the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting, originally posted under his pseudonym David Dave, Lenio endorsed Ron Paul for President. In his video, he also blames the Boston Marathon bombing on the CIA or the Mossad, and characterizes the Sandy Hook mass shooting as a hoax. His YouTube account, in which he currently uses the pseudonym gc hg, links to, and promotes, his writings under his Twitter handles @PsychicDogTalk and @PsychicDogTalk3., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOu7CAFGAyI.

22 Ron Paul is a self-described paleo-conservative who has stated his support for neo-Confederates and secessionists. Rachel Tabachnick and Frank L. Cocozzelli, “Nullification, Neo-Confederates, and the Revenge of the Old Right.” The Public Eye, November 22, 2013,  http://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/11/22/nullification-neo-confederates-and-the-revenge-of-the-old-right/#sthash.RKoqSGLs.dpbs.

23 Scoopnest has archived the Twitter bio of Lenio’s @PsychicDogTalk account, which Twitter shut down in January 2015 for violating its Terms of Service, http://www.scoopnest.com/user/PsychicDogTalk/.

24 He also characterizes well-documented mass shootings including those in Copenhagen, in Tucson, Arizona, and Aurora, Colorado, as well as the bombings at the Boston Marathon, among others, as “false flag” attacks for which he blames Israel.

25 This tweet from @PsychicDogTalk is archived at http://vnnforum.com/showthread.php?t=207710&page=14

26 David Holthouse, How White Supremacists Are Trying to Make an American Town a Model for Right-Wing Extremism: A recent influx of white supremacists and Patriot group members to the town of Kalispell, Montana, is causing alarm. AlterNet, November 22, 2011, http://www.alternet.org/story/153162/how_white_supremacists_are_trying_to_make_an_american_town_a_model_for_right-wing_extremism.

27 David Holthouse, “High Country Extremism: Pioneering Hate.” Media Matters for America, November 15, 2011, http://mediamatters.org/blog/2011/11/15/high-country-extremism-pioneering-hate/154613.

28 H. Michael Barrett, “Pioneer Little Europe (PLE) Prospectus a.k.a. ‘Stormfronts of the Street’.” http://s3.mediamatters.org.s3.amazonaws.com/static/pdfs/pleprospectus.pdf

29 Judy L. Thomas, “Neo-Nazi Is Shopping for Land in Kansas.” Kansas City Star, October 2, 2015, http://www.kansas.com/news/local/article37425801.html.

30 Jonathan Hutson, “White Banker’s Son Threatens to Shoot School Kids and Jews, Gets ‘Get Outta Jail Free’ Card.” Huffington Post, November 16, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-hutson/white-bankers-son-threate_b_8579146.html.

31 Jonathan Hutson, “White Banker’s Son Threatens to Shoot School Kids and Jews, Gets ‘Get Outta Jail Free’ Card.” Huffington Post, November 16, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-hutson/white-bankers-son-threate_b_8579146.html.

32“Newtown Shooting Victims,” Newsday, December 14, 2012, http://www.newsday.com/news/nation/newtown-shooting-victims-photos-1.4336461.

33 Bill Morlin, “Man Arrested in Montana After Alleged Threats to Kill School Children and Jews,” Hatewatch February 17, 2015, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2015/02/17/man-arrested-montana-after-alleged-threats-kill-school-children-and-jews#disqus_thread.

34 David Lenio, “Release the Security Camera Footage of the 2011 Tucson AZ Shooting!” YouTube video uploaded August 8, 2012,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPcxszkJ61A Lenio originally uploaded the video under the pseudonym David Dave, and subsequently changed his pseudonym to “gc hg.”

35 The first quote is at 4:30; the second is at 9:39.

36 Shaun King, “Muslim Shooters Like Syed Farook Are Easily Called Terrorists While White Mass Killers Never Get That Label.” New York Daily News, December 3, 2015, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/king-white-mass-shooters-called-terrorists-article-1.2454528.

37 Mark Follman, Gavin Aronsen, and Deanna Pan, “U.S. Mass Shootings: 1982-2016.” Mother Jones, originally published on December 28, 2012, and updated to include data through 2016, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/12/mass-shootings-mother-jones-full-data.

38 Mark Follman, “Maybe What We Need Is a Better Mental Health Policy.” Mother Jones, November 9, 2012, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/11/jared-loughner-mass-shootings-mental-illness.

39 Eric Madfis, “Triple Entitlement and Homicidal Anger: An Exploration of the Intersectional Identities of American Mass Murderers.” Men and Masculinities 17, no 1 (April 2014):67-68, accessed May 17, 2016.  http://jmm.sagepub.com/content/17/1/67.abstract.

40 Bill Morlin, “Court Papers Detail Alleged Threats from Holocaust Denier,” Hatewatch, March 19, 2015, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2015/03/19/court-papers-detail-alleged-threats-holocaust-denier.

41 Peter Bergen, “Who Do Terrorists Confide In?” CNN, February 3, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/03/opinions/terrorists-confidants-leakage-bergen/index.html.

42 Jonathan Hutson, “Guest Post: Nuts to Silence.” Montana Cowgirl, November 28, 2015, http://mtcowgirl.com/2015/11/28/guest-post-nuts-to-silence/.

43 Brendan James, “How a Gun Control Advocate Helped Stop a Man Threatening to Shoot Up a School,” Talking Points Memo, February 20, 2015, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/david-lenio-montana-threats-jews-children.

44 Justin Franz, “Kalispell Man Accused of Threatening Schools Posed ‘A Very Real Threat.” Flathead Beacon, February 18, 2015, http://flatheadbeacon.com/2015/02/18/kalispell-man-accused-threatening-schools-posed-real-threat/. See also Alli Friedman, “Man Accused of Threats Against Flathead Co. Students, Jews.” NBC Montana, February 17, 2015, http://www.nbcmontana.com/news/man-accused-of-threats-against-flathead-co-students-jews/31323966.

45 Agents from the FBI, the Kalispell Police Department, the Whitefish Police Department, the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, and the Northwest Drug Task Force were involved in the arrest of David Lenio. The FBI took the lead in the interrogation.

46 Justin Franz, “As Trial Nears, Details Emerge in Intimidation Case.” Flathead Beacon, June 30, 2015, http://flatheadbeacon.com/2015/06/30/as-trial-nears-details-emerge-in-intimidation-case/. Bill Morlin, “Twitter Threat Defendant Defies Judge, Continues Hate Speech on Social Media.” HateWatch (Southern Poverty Law Center), November 13, 2015, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2015/11/13/twitter-threat-defendant-defies-judge-continues-hate-speech-social-media.

47 Registered users of Stormfront have been behind almost 100 murders, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/group/stormfront.

48 Mark Potok, “Closed Circuit.” Southern Poverty Law Center, November 20, 2013, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2013/closed-circuit.

49 Felicity Barringer, “In Montana Town’s Hands, Guns Mean Cultural Security,” The New York Times, February 20, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/21/us/in-montanas-kalispell-guns-are-a-matter-of-life.html?_r=0.

50 Discovery Communications, “Investigation Discovery Premiers Second Installment of Series ‘Hate in America’ Exploring Growing Domestic Issue of White Supremacists and Anti-government Radicals.” Press release, March 21, 2016, https://corporate.discovery.com/discovery-newsroom/investigation-discovery-premieres-second-installment-of-series-hate-in-america-exploring-growing-domestic-issue-of-white-supremacists-and-anti-government-radicals/.

51 April Gaede, who tweets as @AprilintheNorth, has posted photos of her work in Kalispell assembling bolt action hunting rifles. She tweeted one such photo on December 8, 2015, https://twitter.com/aprilinthenorth/status/674264327268921344.

52 Profile of April Gaede (Southern Poverty Law Center), https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/individual/april-gaede.

53 Retrieved from @AprilintheNorth Twitter account https://twitter.com/AprilintheNorth/status/682834077292969984

54 Beneficiaries included William Pierce’s National Alliance and Frazier Glenn Miller, Jr.’s White Patriot Party. In November 2015, a judge sentenced Miller to death for the fatal shootings of three people at Kansas Jewish sites. Associated Press, “Jewish Site Killings: Death Sentence for White Supremacist Frazier Glenn Miller,” November 11, 2015, http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/jewish-center-shootings/jewish-site-killings-death-sentence-white-supremacist-frazier-glenn-miller-n461071.

55 Camille Jackson, “The Turner Diaries, Other Racist Novels, Inspire Extremist Violence.” Intelligence Report , October 14, 2004, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2004/turner-diaries-other-racist-novels-inspire-extremist-violence.

56 Karl Gharst, a/k/a morserkarl, took to a right-wing conspiracist site, LibertyFight, to post a statement in support of Lenio, in which he falsely claimed that I had provoked threats that Lenio had tweeted between December 30, 2014 and February 14, when I learned of Lenio’s existence because Lenio initiated contact with me. Gharst’s statement is available online at https://disqus.com/by/morserkarl/.

57 Bill Morlin, “Man Accused of Twitter Threats Has Aryan Nations Supporter,” HateWatch , August 20, 2015, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2015/08/20/man-accused-twitter-threats-has-aryan-nations-supporter.

58 Justin Franz, “Man Accused of School Threats Released.” Flathead Beacon, July 20, 2015, http://flatheadbeacon.com/2015/07/20/man-accused-of-school-threats-released/.

59 Megan Strickland, “Twitter Threat Case Faces Another Delay.” Daily Inter Lake, February 8, 2016, http://www.dailyinterlake.com/members/twitter-threat-case-faces-another-delay/article_aec382ca-ce17-11e5-b8ed-d39fa3af80fd.html.

60 Bill Morlin, “Twitter-threat Defendant Defies Judge, Continues Hate Speech on Social Media.” Hatewatch (Southern Poverty Law Center), November 13, 2015, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2015/11/13/twitter-threat-defendant-defies-judge-continues-hate-speech-social-media.

61 Vince Devlin, “HateWatch: David Lenio Has Violated Terms of His Release 348 Times.” The Missoulian, November 13, 2015, http://missoulian.com/news/local/hatewatch-david-lenio-has-violated-terms-of-his-release-times/article_04810fc6-1e7f-515f-bc73-5390e9944fd9.html.

62 The author received a subpoena dated July 16, 2015, in State of Montana v. David Joseph Lenio, Cause No. DC-15-040C, to appear at a jury trial slated to begin August 3, 2015.

63 S. Boman, email to author. October 30, 2015. S. Boman, telephone interview with author, November 5, 2015.

64 Vince Devlin, “Flathead Valley Group Wants Nothing Less Than a Felony Conviction for Lenio,” The Missoulian, November 10, 2015, http://missoulian.com/news/local/flathead-valley-group-wants-nothing-less-than-a-felony-conviction/article_4a720fa1-d82c-562c-8ef4-cb8e3dcccfdb.html.

65 Francine Green Roston and Jonathan Hutson, “David Lenio Reloaded?” Opinion column in Flathead Beacon, November 19, 2015, http://flatheadbeacon.com/2015/11/19/david-lenio-reloaded/.

66 Vince Devlin, “HateWatch: David Lenio Has Violated Terms of His Release 348 Times,” The Missoulian, November 13, 2015, http://missoulian.com/news/local/hatewatch-david-lenio-has-violated-terms-of-his-release-times/article_04810fc6-1e7f-515f-bc73-5390e9944fd9.html.

67 Flathead County Sheriff’s Office – Jail Roster.  https://apps.flathead.mt.gov/jailroster/.

68 Jerrold A. “Jerry” Weissman, “Letting Lenio Go Is Not Justice.” Letter to the Editor, The Daily Interlake, March 24, 2016, http://www.dailyinterlake.com/opinion/letters/letter-letting-lenio-go-is-not-justice/article_ed883820-f1da-11e5-ba98-079703a87180.html.

69 Urea nitrate can be used as a main charge in improvised explosive devices, according to a 1969 U.S. Army handbook on improvised munitions. By 1970, saboteurs were passing around U.S. Army demolitions manuals and using them to make bombs. UPI, “Want to Build a Bomb? Get U.S. Army Manual,” May 6, 1970, https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=110&dat=19700506&id=cpBaAAAAIBAJ&sjid=N0oDAAAAIBAJ&pg=7285,2080077&hl=en.

70 Peter Barnes, “N.M. Tech Class Teaches Response to Terror Attacks.” Associated Press wire story in the Albuquerque Journal, February 1, 2005, http://abqjournal.com/news/state/299694nm02-01-05.htm

71 Peter Barnes, “N.M. Tech Class Teaches Response to Terror Attacks.” Associated Press wire story in the Albuquerque Journal, February 1, 2005, http://abqjournal.com/news/state/299694nm02-01-05.htm

72 Tamiri T., Rozin R., Lemberger N., and Almog J., “Urea Nitrate, an Exceptionally Easy-to-make Improvised Explosive: Studies towards Trace Characterization.” Anal Bioanal Chem, (National Center for Biotechnology Information) 395, no 2 (September 2009):421-428, accessed May 17, 2016, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19575193.

73 Tamiri T., Rozin R., Lemberger N., and Almog J., “Urea Nitrate, an Exceptionally Easy-to-make Improvised Explosive: Studies towards Trace Characterization.” Anal Bioanal Chem, (National Center for Biotechnology Information) 395, no 2 (September 2009):421-428, accessed May 17, 2016, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19575193.

74 The use of urine to improvise explosive devices and gunpowder is so well known in military and paramilitary circles that it has been going on for centuries. Napoleon’s army collected urine from soldiers and livestock to make gunpowder. See Brian Benchoff, “Gunpowder from Urine: Fighting a Gorn,” Hackaday, June 15, 2015, http://hackaday.com/2015/06/15/gunpowder-from-urine-fighting-a-gorn/

75 S. Warnell, telephone interview with author, January 5, 2016.

76 Joseph J. Kolb, “Preparing for the Inevitable: New Mexico Univ. Prepares First Responders for Bombing Incidents.” Journal of Counterterrorism (International Association for Counterterrorism & Security Professionals), Vol. 19, No. 3 (Fall 2013), pp. 54-57, http://issuu.com/fusteros/docs/iacsp_magazine_v19n3. A leading expert in bomb investigations writes in his textbook used by the FBI that the presence of urine at a crime scene indicates possible “clandestine manufacture of urea nitrate.” James T. Thurman, Practical Bomb Scene Investigation, Second Edition (2011), CRC Press, p. 88, http://www.amazon.com/Practical-Investigation-Criminal-Forensic-Investigations/dp/1439819599.

77 V. Romero, telephone interview with author, January 6, 2016.

78 Naomi Braine, “Terror Network of Lone Wolf?” The Public Eye, June 19, 2015, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/06/19/terror-network-or-lone-wolf/#sthash.S10xajqt.dpuf.

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.