Partners in Crime: The Siege of the Capitol, Police and White Supremacy
That a throng of right-wing thugs, neo-Nazis, and insurrectionists were able to barge into the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday is, to make a severe understatement, troubling. Once again, American cops have expressed support for a right-wing insurrection and, in at least three cases, have taken part in the riot themselves. The obvious contrast between Wednesday’s display and the treatment that Black Lives Matter protesters often face is so easy that it risks obfuscating the long historical connection between law enforcement and white supremacy.
The events on Wednesday didn’t occur without violence and hostilities: U.S. Capitol Police announced on Thursday that one officer, who was injured in a confrontation with protesters, later died; four protesters were killed in the chaos—one of whom was shot by Capitol police. But the links between law enforcement officers and white supremacists groups are appalling—and not surprising.
On Wednesday evening, former Oakland Police Officer Jurell Snyder told Joe Vazquez, a reporter with the Bay Area’s KPIX television station, that he believed it was worthwhile to break the law in order to take a stand against Democrats who, in his mind, had sold out the country.
“What do you think is worse, Joe? Storming the Capitol with a flag, or committing treason against your country?” Snyder asked rhetorically.
Worse yet, on Wednesday, New York magazine reported that David Ellis, the current police chief in Troy, New Hampshire, attended the day’s events, though it’s unclear if he directly took part in the siege on the Capitol. And, late Thursday night, the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees San Antonio, Texas, announced that Lt. Roxanne Mathai is under investigation both internally and criminally for posting photographs on Facebook from the riot. Sheriff Javier Salazar told reporters Thursday that his office had forwarded the images to the FBI. San Antonio news station KSAT reported that Mathai has been on administrative leave since October due to allegations that she’d had an inappropriate relationship with an incarcerated person.
Not to be outdone, other cops announced their support for the siege on the internet. On Thursday, Pinal County, Arizona Sheriff Mark Lamb posted a video on Facebook in which he expressed support for the rioters and said he doesn’t “know how loud we have to get before they start to listen to us.” He has since deleted the video.
Likewise, in an interview with Chicago NPR affiliate WBEZ, John Catanzara, head of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police union lodge, expressed support for the mob and spouted debunked conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election.
“They’re individuals,” Catanzara said. “They get to do what they want. Again, they were voicing frustration. They’re entitled to voice their frustration. They clearly have been ignored and they’re still being ignored as if they’re lunatics and treasonous now, which is beyond stupid.”
A review by The Appeal shows that police forums are awash in misinformation and right-wing conspiracies about the Capitol riots. On Thee Rant, an anonymous forum for New York Police Department members, one user named “James-Bond007” claimed that “2016 was the last free and fair election that this country has seen.” Another user made the antisemitic remark that someone in the federal government had been paid off with “shekels.” On LEOAffairs, a forum popular with Florida police officers, one anonymous user in the Miami Police Department’s forum wrote that this election was “a push to start an agenda of future communism and dictatorship.”
That an angry mob of armed right-wing insurrectionists was able to so easily push itself into the U.S. Capitol is nightmarish on its face. But it may be a much darker fact to realize that quite so many people vested with the authority to kill others seem so willing to sympathize with those who dream of a violent revolt against the government.
This is, of course, a trend as old as American policing itself. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, police forces—which, in many cases, began as patrols to catch runaway slaves—counted scores of Ku Klux Klan members within their ranks. (In fact, Klansmen across the country routinely bragged about the group’s ties to law-enforcement during the terrorist group’s heyday.) In the 1920s, both Los Angeles County Sheriff William Traeger and Los Angeles Police Chief Louis D. Oaks admitted they’d been members of the so-called Invisible Empire as well. On America’s other coast, the Miami Police Department throughout the 1920s worked openly alongside Klan members to harass Black residents in the city’s segregated areas, Miami historian Paul George wrote in the 1979 journal article “Policing Miami’s Black Community, 1896-1930.”
In the years since the Klan fell from prominence, researchers and even the federal government have warned that white supremacists have continued to work closely with local cops. In 2017, The Intercept obtained documents confirming that the FBI had investigated “active links” between local law-enforcement members, white supremacists, and members of armed militia groups. Some of those “links” aren’t entirely secret: According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a worryingly large number of American sheriffs have expressed sympathies with the a group called the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), a militia-adjacent group that pushes cops not to enforce gun-control laws that, in their opinion, violate the U.S. Constitution.
Indeed, CSPOA’s 2012 sheriff of the year—former Grant County, Oregon Sheriff Glenn Palmer—was known for his close ties with local militia groups. According to the SPLC, Palmer had repeatedly met with and expressed sympathies for the armed, right-wing insurrectionists led by Ammon Bundy who, in 2016, occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon.
Another CSPOA sheriff of the year, Dar Leaf of Barry County, Michigan, made headlines in October, after reporters exposed that he had shared a stage at an anti-coronavirus-lockdown rally with one of the men charged with attempting to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer last year. Speaking to West Michigan’s Fox affiliate, Leaf defended the men. He said he knew two of the accused plotters, but said he thought they were good people who might have been, in his opinion, trying to perform a citizens’ arrest on the governor.
“It’s just a charge, and they say a ‘plot to kidnap’ and you got to remember that,” Leaf astoundingly said. “Are they trying to kidnap? Because a lot of people are angry with the governor, and they want her arrested. So are they trying to arrest or was it a kidnap attempt? Because you can still in Michigan if it’s a felony, make a felony arrest.” In December, Leaf filed a lawsuit alleging voter fraud in 2020’s presidential election.
That police officers—who count massive numbers of Trump supporters in their ranks—treated a pro-Trump mob with kid gloves should surprise no one. Deeper than a question of policing, the event displayed American law enforcement’s centuries-long links to white supremacy.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the protesters were unarmed. Many of them were.