Tanzina Vega: Last week, during protests in Wisconsin against police brutality in the shooting of Jacob Blake, a white teenager who was armed with an AR15-style rifle killed two of the protesters and injured a third. In a video from before the shooting, 17-year-old, Kyle Rittenhouse, said he and other armed vigilantes were there to protect property. In a subsequent video, which captured the shooting and its aftermath, Rittenhouse throws his hands in the air, his rifle dangling in front of his chest, and walks toward police in heavily armored vehicles. Police, however, appear to ignore Rittenhouse driving right past him. He was arrested later in a neighboring town and has since been charged with homicide. He's expecting an extradition trial in September.
Rittenhouse's presence at the protest in Kenosha, however, are part of a larger trend. According to data that postdoctoral fellow, Alexander Reid Ross, recently shared with HuffPost, white vigilantes and far-right actors have also shown up at least 497 times at Black Lives Matter protest during the year. Ross's data also documents 64 incidents of simple assault carried out by the far-right at protests, nine incidents where vigilantes shot at protesters. I'm Tanzina Vega, and today, on The Takeaway, we break down the relationship between armed white vigilantes and law enforcement. I'm joined by Michael German, a former FBI special agent and a fellow at the Brennan Center's Liberty and National Security program. Michael, thanks for joining me.
Michael German: Thanks for having me.
Tanzina: Also with me is Alice Speri, a journalist at The Intercept, covering justice. Alice, welcome to the show.
Alice Speri: Thanks for having me.
Tanzina: Michael, let's start with you. There's been a lot of speculation about the ideology of Kyle Rittenhouse and whether he was connected to any specific far-right groups. What do we know so far?
Michael: Not very much, frankly. One thing that people have to understand is that there is basically no obstacle to joining these groups. If you wanted to put on a Hawaiian shirt and a flak jacket over that and carry some heavy weapons in public, you would automatically be representing the boogaloo movement. These organizations don't have top-down, organizational structure, and heavy membership requirements.
They're pretty fluid, and that's both by design, a practice called leaderless resistance that they use because they understand that they're under police scrutiny, but also, because they need members, they need people who will contribute or participate in these events, so if they start having any kind of rigorous screening process, they'll not have very many people showing up with them.
Tanzina: Michael, in the video of Rittenhouse, one of the videos at least, he clearly says that he's there to protect businesses. That's in his words. Michael, what is this-- Who has deputized these folks, and we're talking largely about white men, in these militias who are armed? Who has deputized them to come around the country, and in their own words, protect people in businesses?
Michael: That's just it, nobody has. These militants are acting as vigilantes, claiming to have a positive mission during the protests. Again, they're completely unregulated. They have no legal authority to be there. As we see in many of these cases, it's not just a business hiring a security guard. Most states have licensing requirements for security guards, particularly, armed security guards because, number one, you don't want people who aren't allowed to have weapons to be carrying out those duties, but also, you want to make sure they have proper liability insurance for when they make a mistake.
This is not any a legal operation at all, which is what's troubling about the police allowing this activity to happen. They've done it so much for so long since over the last couple of years that it's not surprising that people believe that they're authorized to go out and do that. That's because law enforcement has not been aggressive in tackling the legal violations these militants engage in while they're out at these protests.
Tanzina: Alicia, when we see the video of Rittenhouse, which we described at the very top of the segment, here, he is walking hands up in the air, has just shot multiple people, killed two people, and these armored vehicles are just driving right past him. I mean, this was a stunning display of how law enforcement, either willingly or not, just ignored this threat. How common is that, Alice?
Alice: I think law enforcement is quite comfortable with the presence of individuals like this and groups like this. In fact, government has known about the threat posed by far-right, white supremacist, right-wing extremists for a long time, and it hasn't really done a whole lot to address it. Not only that, but we also know that the government institutions and the FBI, for instance, have been very much aware of the close ties between these groups and these individuals and law enforcement itself. That's something that the public has rarely been made aware of. It's something that the FBI certainly not discussing publicly, even though they are very much on alert about this threat.
We actually published a report in 2017, a leaked FBI internal document that warrant that white supremacist groups and far-right groups where we're actively seeking to infiltrate law enforcement. The document basically noted that domestic terrorism investigations often identified active links between these white supremacist extremists, militia extremists, sovereign citizen extremists, and law enforcement officers.
Other than that, and this again was a leaked document, there hasn't been a whole lot of public discussion about this. There's a reason for that, and that is a political reason. There were reports in the past that raised the alarm around this threat, and they were condemned, they were-- There was a big upheaval in response to those reports. The government was forced to basically walk them back. That's why we aren't seeing a lot of public discussions about this yet.
Tanzina: Michael, to Alicia's point, I want to play a clip here from FBI director last year, Christopher Wray, talking about the threat of white supremacist violence in the US.
Christopher Wray: I will say that a majority of the domestic terrorism cases that we've investigated are motivated by some version of, what you might call, white supremacist violence, but it includes other things as well.
Tanzina: Michael, are these militia groups part of what Wray is describing there in terms of domestic terror threats and white supremacist domestic terror threats, in particular?
Michael: The FBI divides their domestic terrorism portfolio into a number of different categories, and it had a separate category for white supremacists. When I was working undercover, in the 1990s, they were one category, white supremacists and far-right militants because there's a lot of overlap between these groups, again, with the low barriers of entry. They changed that over time and had separate groups for white supremacists and far-right militants.
It's an interesting way that Wray frames that because what we have to understand is that white supremacists and far-right militants are far more active than any of the other categories of domestic terrorists that the FBI designates. It's a bit of a subterfuge to say we do more investigations against these groups, and that's why in 2017, Senator Durbin introduced a bill, The Domestic Terrorism Protection Act, that would have required the FBI to produce the data showing the number of what they're considering terrorism incidents, and particularly, the deaths from those incidents on one side of the ledger and the number of investigations the FBI has initiated in each category.
As a result of that bill being introduced, it hadn't even passed, the FBI collapsed its categories so that white supremacists and what the FBI had previously called Black identity extremist, were shoved into one category so it would be unclear which group was more active and which group had the most investigations opened against them. I think that was a way of hiding the fact that even though white supremacists and far-right militants are far more active than any other group, the FBI actually had a disproportionate number of investigation, targeting groups like, what the FBI calls, eco-terrorists, even though there's no homicides relating to environmental activism in the United States or these so-called Black identity extremists, which again, there isn't really a Black identity movement out there. It was a fictitious category created to basically lump any Black militant into a single category to try to build up the idea that there was this movement that doesn't actually exist.
Tanzina: Alice, I wonder if you have any thoughts on this because there's also just-- I think what was so stunning about the video was because when we often talk about what Michael's describing identity extremists here and the idea of who owns and walks around freely with guns and rifles in the way that Rittenhouse did, the differences are striking. If we're talking about Black people, who are heavily armed, who decide to put themselves into a militia position, I don't know suspect that the outcome would be the same with law enforcement.
Alice: Absolutely. Actually, one of the most telling and tragically ironic things about the Black identity extremism report is that it was released by the FBI internally in August 2017, just one week before the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where we know a white nationalist drove into a crowd and killed Heather Heyer, a counter-protester. Just that episode tells you, while the FBI was focusing on concocting this non-existing threat and warning thousands of law enforcement departments across the country about the supposed Black identity extremism threat, there was real organizing going on that led to real violence just a week later. That speaks to that disparity a little.
Tanzina: Alice, in your reporting, what are some of the links that we know between law enforcement themselves and some white extremist groups?
Alice: There have been a number of episodes over the years. There's been cases in almost every state. Actually, Mike just published a report about this. In Los Angeles, for instance, there were members of local sheriff's department that had formed a Neo-Nazi gang in the '90s. In Chicago, there was a police detective that was former KKK member that was essentially torturing hundreds of Black men over decades. In Cleveland, there were officials that were found to scrolled racist and Nazi graffiti in their locker rooms. There are so many examples that we can think about. Just today, we saw some news actually out of- Gothamist actually published a story about racist symbolism and language used by a precinct in Brooklyn.
Even though not every officer is a member of the clan, in fact, a vast majority of officers are not, I think we cannot really talk about policing in the US without talking about the racist history of policing in the US. Police in this country started as slave patrols. From the beginning, policing existed to maintain a racial hierarchy in this country. We cannot really talk about reforming policing or addressing racial bias in policing without understanding that history. Of course, we're not saying every cop is a white supremacist, but policing as an institution was founded as a tool of white supremacy. I think it has largely continued to function that way, and that's what we're seeing on display in Kenosha.
Tanzina: Michael, you've had experience with this. In 2018, police actually worked with Neo-Nazis in California to pursue charges against anti-racist activists. How does that happen? In your experience, how do those connections get made?
Michael: Number one, it's a loss of law enforcement intelligence. In the 1990s, the police officers that I worked with understood the tactics that white supremacists and far-right militant groups used where they would plan a march or a rally in an area where they knew the public was opposed to their views. They did that because they wanted to bring out their political opposition so they could attack them. Police understood that when these groups were going out in public like that, that they were the instigators of the violence and responded that way, usually, by making sure that those individuals, and usually it was only a small number, would not have the opportunity to attack the people who come out and counter-protest them.
Somehow, over the decades that have passed, it shocked me to see law enforcement not reacting to these rallies that way. There was the Sacramento rally by the Golden State Skinheads and the Traditionalist Workers Party that went just as these things are planned, where counter-protesters came out and the group attacked them and they were stabbed. A lot of counter-protesters were stabbed, several of them, but yet, rather than recognizing that this was a tactic and this violence was intentional, the police looked at the Nazis as the victims and not just the state police who were doing the actual investigation of the rally violence.
Even the FBI, in a document later, leaked, number one, it erroneously attributed the group as the Klu Klux Klan, but then, identified the Klu Klux Klan as a group that some people believe has a white supremacist agenda. Just that description of what has been the most notoriously violent domestic terrorist group in the United States' history, shows a strange affinity for the white supremacist groups that has crept into law enforcement, and then, we have since seen it all around the country. Klu Klux Klan rally in Anaheim have ended exactly the same way, culminating in Charlottesville, where again, we've seen this aggressively militarized response to protests in Black Lives Matter protest in Ferguson, in the Standing Rock protests by water protectors in--
Tanzina: Michael, one of the things-- I was in Ferguson during those protests, and I feel like now the playbook is essentially ripped from the pages of Ferguson, where there are protests, there are counter-protests, local government then calls in a national or federal aid and on and on. We're starting to see more and more of a pattern of that. I'm wondering, Alice, if you're seeing this threat. Why is it that many more white supremacists and other militia presence are happening to come to Black Lives Matter protests? What's the goal there?
Alice: It's interesting you mention it because I remember, in Ferguson, I was there also. In a few weeks, you started seeing out-of-towners coming in and you started seeing the Oath Keepers coming. The scene that's being presented to us now, it was already happening there. What we're seeing today is amplified by the scale of the protests this summer, but also, of course, by the rhetoric that we're getting from across government, from the top levels of government. There's really an encouragement of this kind of action, almost like an inflaming of conflict from our president and others.
It's interesting, I always go back to Ferguson because that's really where the Black identity extremism report originated, and to this day, there has been only one prosecution of individuals, the FBI accused of being Black identity extremist, and those were two protestors, young guys that were essentially entrapped by the FBI in Ferguson. There has been no Black identity extremist violence, there has been no real plot to threaten any security, and yet, there has been such a massive investment of time and resources on government critics and police critics and dissenters, mostly, Black and people of color in the last few years, meanwhile, all-- [crosstalk]
Tanzina: Michael, I want to just-- Before we end this-- Alice, I'm going to cut you off right there because, Michael, we have one minute left in the segment. How much of a threat does this represent, particularly, in the coming months as we head into a very contentious election?
Michael: It represents a serious threat that we need to keep in mind, and police departments really need to understand the threat posed by white supremacists and far-right militants far better than it does.
Tanzina: That's all for us today. Michael German, a former FBI special agent and fellow at the Brennan Center For Justice's Liberty and National Security Program, and Alice Speri is a journalist at The Intercept, covering justice. Thanks to you both.
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