Over the weekend, the New York Times Magazine published a lengthy and in-depth piece on how U.S. law enforcement has willfully ignored the threat of white supremacist extremism for decades. The author, Janet Reitman, takes an ostensibly deep dive into how law enforcement — particularly federal agencies — has neglected the growth of the violent far right, in part owing to Republican political agenda setting. For a story framed around a “blind spot,” though, the piece itself is hobbled by an egregious case of sightlessness.
The Times tells a story about law enforcement failing and struggling to deal with white supremacy. The elephant in the room, unmentioned by Reitman or any of the sources she chose to cite, is that U.S. law enforcement doesn’t do enough about violent racists because as an institution, U.S. law enforcement is violently racist and contains explicit white supremacists in its ranks.
The problem is that the framing of the New York Times Magazine piece ignores the deep and historic links between policing and racism.
It is not that the Times story doesn’t contain some bits of information that point to this obvious conclusion. Reitman goes as far as to call law enforcement’s indifference to white supremacist extremism “willful”; an entire section of the piece reports on how police regularly permit neo-Nazi violence at rallies, while instead targeting left-wing, anti-racist protesters. She notes how police have been seen posing for photos with the so-called alt-right, and briefly highlights an incident, first reported by Arun Gupta for The Intercept, in which a right-wing militia member aided officers from the Department of Homeland Security in arresting an anti-fascist protester.
Rather, the problem is that the larger framing of the piece ignores the deep and historic links between policing and racism. Throughout the Times Magazine article, a sharp line is drawn between police officers and the white supremacists they interact with — it’s a profound category mistake.
The opening paragraph of Reitman’s piece contains this anecdote about last year’s far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia: “A black man held an aerosol can, igniting the spray, and in retaliation, a white man picked up his gun, pointed it toward the black man and fired it at the ground. The Virginia state troopers, inexplicably, stood by and watched.” The main character of the piece, a Florida police officer, is then said to have “fixated on this image, wondering what kind of organizational failure had led to the debacle.” The fact that Reitman opens with a story that frames a black counterprotester as the instigator of violence is questionable enough. The broader problem with the article is that the Virginia state troopers’ inaction was far from inexplicable, and the organizational failures do not merit a sense of bewilderment.
It has been well-reported that not only is racism endemic to American police culture, but that, in the exact decades Reitman looks at, white supremacist groups infiltrated law enforcement agencies around the country. Somehow, in Reitman’s interrogation of the FBI dealing with far-right extremism, she fails to mention that the agency itself was internally investigating white supremacist infiltration in law enforcement.
“Although these right-wing extremists have posed a growing threat for years,” The Intercept’s Alice Speri reported last year, “federal investigators have been reluctant to publicly address that threat or to point out the movement’s longstanding strategy of infiltrating the law enforcement community.” Speri’s story was based, in part, on a classified FBI Counterterrorism Policy Guide from 2015, which noted that “domestic terrorism investigations focused on militia extremists, white supremacist extremists, and sovereign citizen extremists often have identified active links to law enforcement officers.” (I reached out to Reitman to see if she was aware of The Intercept story, and if so, why she declined to include the information. This story will be updated if I hear back.)
Speri’s report cited numerous examples from the past decade of white supremacist police activity, including the case of a local sheriff’s department in Los Angeles that was found to have formed a neo-Nazi gang in 1991; a Chicago detective and rumored Ku Klux Klan member who was found to have tortured 120 black men while on duty (before eventually being fired and prosecuted); and cops in Cleveland who scrawled neo-Nazi graffiti in their locker rooms.
The Times piece has a passage on a joint 2009 assessment by DHS and the FBI, which warned of the growing white supremacist threat. The assessment caused outrage among adherents of the growing right-wing political movement known as the tea party, as well as conservatives in general; among other complaints, they took umbrage at the report’s claim that veterans were at high risk of right-wing radicalization. Then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano bowed to the pressure, disavowed the document, and apologized to veterans. But as the report’s lead researcher, Daryl Johnson, told Speri last year, “Federal law enforcement agencies in general — the FBI, the Marshals, the [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives] — are aware that extremists have infiltrated state and local law enforcement agencies and that there are people in law enforcement agencies that may be sympathetic to these groups.”
The least we might expect from the New York Times story would be for it to include federal agencies’ own admissions of white supremacist infiltration in policing.
The least we might expect from the Times story — which, according to the author, took over a year to report — would be for it to include federal agencies’ own admissions of white supremacist infiltration in policing. A true reckoning with law enforcement’s role in American white supremacy would address the dark and unfinished history of policing as a racist institution, from its birth in the slave patrols of the 18th century, to its historic presence in the KKK, to the innumerable instances of racism by the police and the continued threat policing poses to black life.
As if to provide an example of how to do it, the day before the Times Magazine story went live, the Washington Post published an article that detailed the systemic racism and misconduct of the police department in Little Rock, Arkansas, including the hiring of an officer who had attended a KKK meeting and went on to shoot dead a 15-year-old black child in 2012. The story of this officer, the Post’s Radley Balko wrote, “isn’t one of a rogue, aberrant cop so much as a glimpse into the police culture of Arkansas’s largest city.”
Reitman’s Times piece mentions that police have shown a tendency to target Black Lives Matter protesters above neo-Nazis, but declines to mention that Black Lives Matter — the central anti-racist movement of our time — is a movement against racist police brutality. Reitman’s piece reads as if the message of Black Lives Matter — that white supremacy undergirds U.S. policing — has fallen on deaf ears.
Meanwhile, Reitman did manage to include a comment from Nate Snyder, a counterterrorism adviser to the Obama administration, recalling local police officers asking for help fighting neo-Nazi skinheads. “They’d be like, ‘Thanks for that stuff on Al Qaeda, but what I really need to know is how to handle the Hammerskin population in my jurisdiction,’” Snyder said. This no doubt took place, but to include this information and leave out explicit police involvement with neo-Nazis and their racist fellow travelers paints a misleading picture of generally well-intentioned local cops, stymied by Washington’s priorities.
I’m not suggesting that Reitman or the editors involved with the story intended to give police or white supremacists a free pass. Compared to some of the Times’s more sympathetic coverage of Trump-emboldened white supremacists and the administration’s racism, this article made a point of stressing the contemporary threat of the far right and appeared to aim, in good faith, to point a finger at the government. But for an investigation with the alleged purpose of unveiling the “whys” of law enforcement’s treatment of white supremacy, it is more than an oversight to ignore that the call has been coming from inside the house. It is journalistic malpractice.