Joe Biden said that he decided to run for President yet again when he heard Donald Trump say, in August, 2017, after a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the clash there that ended with the killing of an anti-racist protester, Heather Heyer, by a white supremacist who drove his car into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators. Now President Biden finds himself settling into the job with furious, resurgent self-styled militias and white nationalists arrayed against him—a countrywide Charlottesville, and the problem is his to fix.
It’s actually more difficult than that. A poll released on Sunday, conducted by Suffolk University and USA Today, found that seventy-three per cent of Trump supporters believe that Biden was not legitimately elected. Extrapolating roughly from the number of votes cast in November for Trump, that is fifty-five million Americans who believe the profoundly destructive lie that the election was stolen. These poll results, though frightening, were not surprising. How does a government begin to address an epistemic disconnect of this magnitude? Not by argument from evidence. Conspiracist thinking rejects conventional sources, even if they are Trump-appointed federal judges.
Legitimacy, the slow restoration of faith in democratic institutions, can only be clawed back case by case, and the Americans who need convincing that the government works for them are not only aggrieved whites on the right. Traditionally marginalized communities in the United States have their own stark reasons to distrust authority. Law enforcement is an obvious place to start, and the slow rollout of federal charges against individuals alleged to have committed crimes during the invasion of the Capitol on January 6th is an important test case of the criminal-justice system’s ability, under the new Administration, to draw bright lines between speech and political protest that is protected by the Constitution and political violence, which is, of course, illegal. The fact that dozens of off-duty police officers have already been identified as attending Trump’s Stop the Steal rally, earlier in the day, and that at least a dozen were among the Capitol rioters, only amplifies the need for clarity and severity in these investigations, and also for deep reform in American law enforcement.
But consider the Capitol Police. They were hopelessly outnumbered by the rioters on January 6th, poorly led, and unprepared. Some had no riot gear. Some were locked in hand-to-hand combat, getting battered and bear-sprayed, for hours. One officer was killed, more than a hundred injured. Washington Metropolitan Police eventually came to their aid, but even their combined forces were insufficient to stop hundreds of rioters from entering the building. One Capitol Police officer shot and killed an intruder at point-blank range. Senators and representatives, and their staffs and families, not to mention the Vice-President, were escorted to hiding places, and many later thanked the officers for saving their lives. The Capitol officer Eugene Goodman won a Congressional Gold Medal for his actions on the day. Goodman was caught on video, a lone Black cop confronting a mostly white mob surging up flights of stairs toward the Senate chamber. He coolly led the rioters away from their targets, using himself as bait, and later escorted Senator Mitt Romney to safety.
Meanwhile, other Capitol police officers seemed to go passive. One posed for selfies with the rioters, and others handed out water. Capitol Police made only fourteen arrests related to the breach. Rioters were allowed to leave the Capitol in droves, like tourists after a visit. The Capitol Police force is twenty-nine-per-cent Black, in a city that is forty-six-per-cent Black. Indeed, more than two hundred and fifty Black officers have filed lawsuits against the force since 2001 alleging racial discrimination. Suspicions that white officers had colluded with the rioters have led to the suspensions of six officers and investigations targeting thirty-five more. The police-union chief has protested that the agency’s leadership is merely trying to shift attention from its own manifest failings. The top leadership of the force did resign. The collusion suspicions remain uncorroborated, but this week the former leaders of the Capitol Police, appearing before congressional committees investigating the insurrection, were all pointing fingers at one another, at the Pentagon, at the F.B.I. It was a historic security failure that could have had much worse consequences.
The Capitol Police is a unique agency, hidebound, typical of nothing, except, perhaps, in its opacity. Its officers serve and protect no residential community. More than eighteen thousand separate police agencies serve and protect the rest of the country. This hyper-localized system makes comprehensive reform difficult. And yet the moment demands it. The interrelated problems of police brutality, police impunity, and systemic racism have become steadily less acceptable to a majority of Americans—a fact that never seemed to move the Trump Administration but is a major part of Biden’s mandate. Political extremism, and the political violence it drives, can present as separate issues from police reform, and confronting extremist networks has traditionally been handled by federal law enforcement. But white supremacism, in particular, has never been a stranger to the police station or the sheriff’s office in America.
Vida B. Johnson, an associate professor at Georgetown Law, wrote a paper in 2019 that included a list of more than a hundred police departments in forty-nine states that have faced scandals over racist texts, e-mails, or public social-media posts by officers just since 2009. Johnson proposes that, if police officers have a history of racist speech or behavior, or are known to belong to hate groups, this information should, in cases that involve the testimony of those officers, be disclosed to the defense, under the Brady doctrine, which requires prosecutors to share information that might be exculpatory or show witness bias. The credibility of a known racist cop can, in some cases, be attacked on those grounds, as O. J. Simpson’s defense team memorably showed.
The F.B.I.’s counterterrorism division warned, back in 2006, that white-supremacist groups were increasingly infiltrating local law enforcement, and federal agents working undercover against violent racist and far-right groups have long been instructed to keep local law enforcement in the dark, because of possible links or sympathies. Some anti-government militias, notably the Oath Keepers, who claim a membership of thirty thousand, and who are now among the groups being investigated for planning the Capitol attack, make a special point of recruiting members from law enforcement and the military, both former and active. The number of hate groups in America spiked after Barack Obama’s election, and hate crimes have also gone up, but the appetite for prosecuting them, at any level—federal, state, local—has been feeble in recent years. In 2017, the F.B.I. and Department of Homeland Security identified white-supremacist violence as a persistent lethal threat to Americans—in fact, the single most lethal domestic terrorism threat—and yet there is no national strategy to combat it.
That was just one of the reasons that it was important to hear Merrick Garland, at his confirmation hearings for Attorney General this week, say that the pursuit of white supremacists would be central to his work. He pointed out that the Department of Justice got its start doing exactly that, during Reconstruction, and that he had led the prosecution of Timothy McVeigh, the white supremacist who, in 1995, blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing a hundred and sixty-eight people, including nineteen children, and injuring hundreds of others. Garland did not mention that the federal government’s hard focus on fighting far-right domestic terrorism after Oklahoma City coincided with a sharp reduction in the activity of right-wing extremist groups for at least a decade. His first priority, Garland said, would be the investigation of the Capitol attack. That, too, is as it should be. Follow every lead, and prosecute every suspect to the full extent of the law. Everybody but, apparently, Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, who insists, with no evidence, that the rioters were actually leftists in disguise, wants to see that happen. Some of the charges brought so far by the U.S. Attorney in Washington have been strangely light—misdemeanors where felony rioting would seem to be in order. Prosecutors in Washington have been quick to bring felony riot charges for far less violent protests in the past.
What about police officers who attended the “Stop the Steal” rally and perhaps marched to the Capitol, but did not commit a crime? Obviously, they will not be prosecuted, but their employers might want to consider the implications of having a cop on the force who disregards all evidence, and sixty-odd judicial rulings, and participates in an effort to overturn the result of a free and fair election. As Vida Johnson told the Los Angeles Times, “People who can’t separate fact from fiction probably shouldn’t be the ones enforcing laws with guns.” Police chiefs have tended to dismiss the political activities of their officers, however dubious, as their First Amendment right to express themselves.