By Eric K. Ward
When President Biden spoke to a joint session of Congress to mark his first 100 days, fencing was still up around the Capitol; the seat of democracy, still defended by the National Guard.
“The insurrection was an existential crisis — a test of whether our democracy could survive,” the President reminded us; “the images of a violent mob assaulting this Capitol — desecrating our democracy — remain vivid in our minds.”
He went on to pose the questions at the heart of this moment: “Can our democracy deliver on its promise that all of us — created equal in the image of God — have a chance to lead lives of dignity, respect, and possibility? Can our democracy deliver on the most pressing needs of our people? Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart?”
The President’s job was to project confidence and determination: “We have to prove democracy still works. That our government still works — and can deliver for the people.”
Our job is to work with him to make this commitment a reality. He cannot do this without us.
Having reached the 100 day mark since the Biden-Harris inauguration and the insurrection that tried to stop it, it’s a good time to ask how seriously we as a nation are taking the threat of white nationalism.
Democracy is hard work. Authoritarianism is easier. Let us be clear: this is the crossroads at which we stand. The choices we make in this moment — as elected officials, civil society leaders, and as movements — are not neutral.
We can see the evidence every day that our actions make a difference. We cannot take our eyes off the prize.
If we want to live in a country and a world where everyone can live, love, worship, and work free from bigotry and fear, this is what we need to do:
3 STEPS TO COUNTER THE THREAT OF WHITE NATIONALISM
- We have to recognize and remediate how deeply white nationalist ideology and organizing is embedded in our government and institutions, particularly in law enforcement. We have to wake up to how fundamentally anti-democratic white nationalism is, and how strongly it continues to invite authoritarianism.
- We have to deprive white nationalism of the oxygen that feeds it by standing united against racism, antisemitism, and the other strategies and systems that divide us. We have to eliminate systemic inequities, repair the damage they have caused, and manage with both clarity and compassion the backlash to these necessary changes.
- We have to do all of this in a way that offers real alternatives to the winner-loser narratives and policies of division, despair, and dystopia that increase the appeal of authoritarian and anti-democratic solutions.
Much of this work is cultural. (I hope you’ll read my recent essays, The Hard Work of Democracy: A Case for Leisure and Artists Can Help Rebuild American Democracy One Song at a Time, or one from last year, The Struggles That Unite Us.) It’s about getting to know each other in new ways.
I am convinced that the single greatest barrier to unifying as “We, the people” is segregation. Most of us spend far too little time with those who differ from us. Whether the lines are drawn by race, income, ideology, geography, religion, or national origin, we barely know each other. It’s part of what allows so many to see governance structures as “them” and not “all of us.”
Strangers put in a house together wouldn’t be expected to get along right away — especially strangers who’ve been told lies about each other, whose ancestors did harm to each other, or who’ve been taught that somebody else’s gain is their loss. But when we have a chance to tell each other our stories and to feel fully heard, we reconnect to what we’ve forgotten: our shared humanity. On the level of basic needs and values, we’re not as different as those who profit from our division would like us to believe.
A certain amount of tension is always going to be present in a pluralistic, multi-racial society. The goal of a functioning democracy is not to make intergroup tensions go away. Rather, the goal of a healthy democracy is to provide a means to manage those tensions.
The greatest promise of democracy is as a governance model that includes all and excludes none in “We, the people.” That is why we, as social justice movements, need to support the effective functioning of democratic governance. The people who’ve been elected may not be our top picks; we may not agree with them on everything or many things. But if we truly believe that Black Lives Matter and want to move forward as a 21st century civil rights movement and not backwards into greater harm, we need the practice of democratic governance to succeed.
This is the litmus test we should use in these precarious times as we judge the effectiveness of our elected officials, our community institutions, and our movements: How seriously are they taking the continuing threat to inclusive democracy?
I spend a lot of my days and nights looking around and saying: If a President/ Governor/ Mayor/ movement were taking white nationalism seriously as a threat — would it look like this?
A PRESIDENCY DEDICATED TO DEFENDING DEMOCRACY
On the day he was sworn in as President, I wrote: “I thank Joe Biden for stepping back into service as the leader who will bring the political power of the presidency to bear behind the moral imperative of rejecting white nationalism. President Biden, we stand with you, shoulder to shoulder, to do the work of inclusive democracy.”
I truly believe that the Biden-Harris administration is one of the most consequential in this country’s history. And that’s why we need to push them.
The upswelling of support for racial justice catalyzed by George Floyd’s murder and the Movement for Black Lives, combined with Biden’s willingness to take seriously the threat of white nationalism, creates a clear but fragile opportunity to address systemic racism and truly advance inclusive democracy. We have already seen that this administration is responsive to movements — finally lifting the cap on refugees after significant pressure, for example.
To stand shoulder to shoulder with this administration means to push from within and outside, to keep the pressure on and our energy up — as allies must — when the stakes are this high.
There is a lot that this administration is doing right thus far. They are beginning to root out white nationalists from the federal government and in the military. They are investigating and prosecuting the insurrectionists. They are championing improvements in hate crime reporting and tracking, including specific initiatives to counter the rise in anti-Asian violence. They are holding police departments to account in an encouraging way, from Portland to Minneapolis.
Then there’s the attention to basic needs and family security, to the role of the government when it comes to health, hunger, housing, jobs. Initiatives to cut child poverty in half. The largest jobs plan since WWII. Truth telling about trickle-down economics — it “has never worked. It’s time to grow the economy from the bottom up and middle-out.”
These policies, and the narrative used to sell them, may appear to steer clear of the culture war. But I suspect that they could go a long way towards addressing the insecurity and scarcity and willingness to blame or sacrifice others that drives much of our current cultural conflict.
This administration has also had its stumbles, and will have more. The same Department of Justice (DOJ) that is pressing police departments and prosecuting insurrectionists has yet to be accountable for the role of federal law enforcement in the lead-up to January 6th.
Our organizational hometown of Portland, Oregon is still reeling from the consequences of last summer’s invasion of poorly-trained federal troops that poured gasoline on protests that had been largely peaceful. Western States Center and our partners filed suit, winning an injunction from a conservative federal judge and modeling an approach to protecting constitutional rights locally that has since been duplicated by several other jurisdictions. The DOJ, however, has yet to take appropriate steps to settle the suit. The executive order permitting the authoritarian imposition of federal troops still stands.
IDEOLOGICAL BIAS IN POLICING
Unidentified federal agents in unmarked vans taking Portlanders off the streets was not the only instance of law enforcement contributing to the rise of anti-democratic activity that reached its high point on January 6th. Sheriff’s deputies in greater Portland’s Multnomah and Clackamas counties provided support to paramilitary groups acting as vigilantes spreading unfounded rumors of antifa involvement in the catastrophic wildfires last summer. One Clackamas deputy was placed on leave and Multnomah County leaders called for an investigation — but we hear very little about these agencies taking further steps to address ideological bias in their ranks.
In Portland, the issue of ideological bias in policing is finally on the table. Old fashioned racial bias, both implicit and explicit, has long been documented in the bureau. It’s been a dozen years since Portland Police Bureau (PPB) adopted its Plan to Address Racial Profiling. And yet in 2019, 18 percent of those pulled over for traffic violations were Black — three times our proportion of the city population. This is not simply a hassle; these are the kinds of traffic stops that resulted in judge-jury-executioner deaths of Duante Wright and countless others who were simply Driving While Black. Data released this year documents that Portland police arrest Black people at a per capita rate 4.3 times higher than white people — the fifth worst disparity rate in the nation. Cops in Portland kill Black people 3.9 times more than white people.
The culture of the PPB reflects more than racism; it is addicted to excessive force. Following up on a 2014 federal intervention into PPB’s excessive use of force involving people with mental health needs, the DOJ found more than 6,000 documented instances of force against protesters in 2020 and cited violations of the earlier agreement in the areas of use of force, training, and officer accountability.
After members of the PPB targeted Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty for her leadership on police accountability, Western States Center joined other community voices in demanding a broader level of inquiry than past reviews. The questions now being investigated create a pathway for accountability around the deep influence of white nationalist beliefs that helped get us to January 6th:
- Racial bias: Are the Police Bureau’s policies, culture or actions influenced by racial bias? If so, what is the extent of that bias, what are its root causes and what are the best practices to address them?
- Political bias: Are the Police Bureau’s policies, culture or actions influenced by political bias? If so, what is the extent of that bias, what are its root causes and what should be done about them?
- Resistance to change: Are the Police Bureau’s policies, culture or actions resistant to change sought by the community? If so, what is the extent of that resistance, what are its root causes and what are the best practices to address that resistance?
Political bias in the Portland police force should be understood as a contributing factor to the January 6th insurrection given the sympathies shown for Proud Boys and other far-right protesters discounted as “street brawlers.” With Proud Boys constituting a significant portion of those arrested for the attack on the Capitol, their multiple incursions into Portland — and the near-impunity with which they acted — served as practice runs for the attempted overthrow of the government earlier this year.
While it took too long, city and state elected officials and community leaders have begun to recognize their role in responding to the rise of white nationalism on Portland’s streets and in the ranks of our law enforcement agencies. Portland’s city council and all bureau chiefs engaged Western States Center for a two-part training on white nationalism — but they have yet to move forward on related police training.
We have yet to see the Portland Police Bureau take a stand like Fresno’s, which recently fired an officer who is a former Proud Boy. “Such ideology, behavior, and affiliations have no place in law enforcement and will not be tolerated within the ranks of the Fresno Police Department,” the Fresno Chief of Police said in a statement. “Public trust and accountability are paramount in our ability to fairly police this community.”
WHAT’S WORKING & WHERE WE’RE LOSING GROUND
Ever since the attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol, subsequent white nationalist mobilizations have brought out smaller and smaller crowds, from the much-touted nationwide “White Lives Matter” rallies (see my comments in the Los Angeles Times and with MSNBC) to the Proud Boys/ paramilitary rally in Salem, Oregon on May Day.
We can’t be lulled into complacency and think the threat has gone away (smaller crowds often means the hardest core of supporters). But we can see the impact of what we’ve been doing right.
Months of pressure demanding accountability for State Representative Nearman allowing far-right vandals access to a closed State Capitol (captured on video) resulted in criminal charges being filed against him the day before he was to speak at the far-right May Day rally in Salem.
Mobilizing a community consensus behind the rule of law is essential. When we chose to defend democracy and not sedition by holding folks accountable, it makes a difference. When community, business and elected leaders speak in a unified moral voice against political violence and bigotry, it makes a difference.
We saw the impact we can have last September when the Proud Boys announced a mass mobilization at a locale of historical importance to Portland’s Black community. We saw it this past weekend in Salem when city council members joined with community leaders and state and national elected officials to denounce political violence. (Unfortunately local law enforcement didn’t get the memo and were absent despite the presence of violent paramilitary and Proud Boy members harassing and assaulting passersby and the media and preventing community access to a public park.)
When municipal leaders strengthen city agencies against anti-democratic attacks and provide staff training, it makes a difference. When caregivers and educators are provided with the resources and support they need to strengthen inclusion and prevent white nationalist influence, it makes a difference. So does providing a place to go next for those wanting to leave conspiracist, white supremacist, and white nationalist formations — organizations like Life After Hate, for example, and the tips for reconnecting with family members who fell down the QAnon rabbit hole.
What’s not helpful is continuing to indulge in false equivalencies conflating extrajudicial police killings and other institutionalized anti-Black racism, with the predominantly nonviolent Movement for Black Lives, and property violence committed by a small segment of protesters.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler ramped up his battle with those willing to damage property last week, drawing criticism from Black community leaders for his clumsy effort to divide racial justice protesters, along with ridicule for encouraging residents to report neighbors seen wearing black clothing.
I’m not sure the Mayor realizes that this approach only fans the flames of white nationalist organizing. After he called for Portlanders to “take the city back” from protesters, declaring, “Our job is to unmask them, arrest them and prosecute them,” a white nationalist group responded with their own call to action.
“Portland, stand Saturday against antifa,” the tweet reads, echoing the Mayor’s language. Taking the Mayor to task and conjuring images of escalating violence, the tweet continues, “your call against antifa is to [sic] late…. We the people, we must stand together or surely we will hang together.”
What we need from the Mayor is a clearer strategy for addressing the underlying conditions that are screaming for attention. We need a more nuanced understanding of anarchism versus vandalism; the Sunday Oregonian publishing Paul Messersmith-Glavin’s op ed, ‘Havoc’ stems from upholding supremacy, not dumpster fires, is a start. We need the city to develop ways to manage political protests that don’t further embolden white nationalists or make authoritarianism sound like a good idea.
Neither political violence nor the demonization of counter-protesters serves the Portland population.
Social justice protest movements should be asking themselves the same question I ask the Mayor: are we acting in this moment like white nationalism is posing an existential threat to the survival of Black and brown communities? Are we providing a clear alternative to the dystopian and divisive narratives of the far-right? What are we building up and making stronger?
Strengthening democracy is our best defense against fascism. Strengthening local governance is how we strengthen democracy.
TRUTH & RECONCILIATION
There are many ways we can pursue accountability for those who seek to overthrow democracy and foment political violence. Lawsuits and legislation leading to changes in policies and practice; investigations leading to employment consequences or peer censure; trainings to increase understanding of the problem and pathways forward; unified statements from elected and community leaders; public pressure including voting white nationalists out of office — all of these tools are important.
But at the end of the day, if we want a democracy that includes all and excludes none, then we need to be willing to explore hard truths about our own conduct, as we hold others accountable for theirs. Each organization — from the streets to the halls of power — needs to take a good look in the mirror to ask whether it is aiding and abetting democracy’s deterioration into political violence.
One model is in a somewhat unexpected place: the U.S. Military. With so many service members and veterans among the insurrectionists, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a “stand down” to discuss extremism among the armed forces in February. Last month he initiated a set of immediate changes to put that talk into action.
We saw a similar kind of fact-facing and truth-telling when Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and other officers crossed the thin blue line to condemn the actions of Derek Chauvin. As Van Jones put it on CNN, Arradondo’s transparent approach is “what we want from modern policing … This is the professionalism people have been begging for, for 20 to 30 years.”
The association of Republican Attorneys General is one of many party-affiliated institutions that’s splitting over the question of accountability following the Trump insurrection.
We’ve gotten caught up in a debate about greater versus lesser harm. And while it’s ridiculous to equate property destruction with loss of life, it’s time for us to focus on how we can do no harm. It’s time for us to envision a real alternative to white nationalism. That can’t happen without us being honest, at a societal level, about the harms we have caused, from the taking of Native lands, to the disproportionate killing of Black people, to persistent misogyny and the deep alienation caused by massive wealth inequality.
Each of our institutions needs to be willing to say there were errors made, intentional and unintentional acts of greater or lesser harms. Two wrongs don’t make a right, they just create more harm.