U.S. national security conversations have traditionally focused on perceived foreign threats, such as a nuclear-ready Iran or North Korea. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have resulted in discrimination against brown people of Middle Eastern descent with law enforcement subjecting them to intense—and often illegal—surveillance.
But recent mass shootings carried out by white supremacists against ethnic minorities and increases in hate crimes connected to President Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric have pushed presidential candidates to reframe the narrative on what terrorism is. It also tasks them with explaining how they plan on keeping the country safe from domestic white supremacists who have wide-ranging access to assault weapons. Indeed, the uptick of hate crimes during the Trump administration has compelled the Department of Homeland Security to add white supremacy to its list of national security threats.
The Root reviewed Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s plans on how to combat white domestic terrorism with three national security experts to gauge how the 2020 candidates are tackling the issue.
Harris’ plan includes instructing the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) to devote more resources to preventing white nationalist terrorism globally and seeking authority from Congress to expand NCTC’s mission to include domestic terrorism. Moreover, she would target loopholes in online gun sales in an effort to restrict easy access to weapons that can carry out mass shootings.
O’Rourke is also aggressively targeting gun sale loopholes, which includes calling for a nationwide gun licensing system in which a person must be 21 years old or older to receive a license, undergo firearms training and receive law enforcement assessment. In addition to declaring gun violence a federal emergency, O’Rourke wants internet hosting companies to block terrorist content and ban white nationalist sites on social media platforms.
Booker’s plan calls for targeting online hate as well, but he also wants to create an office inside the White House that would improve coordination with other federal agencies to better respond to hate crimes and support the impacted communities. Additionally, Booker would empower the Department of Justice and other law enforcement agencies to assess the threats of white supremacist entities and provide an annual report to Congress and the public.
Asha Castleberry, an army combat veteran and military adviser, believes Booker’s plan to incorporate a wing of the White House that is devoted to combating white nationalism is essential—especially after the FBI and DOJ have deprioritized investigating white supremacist violence when data shows it’s on the rise.
The office, Castleberry said, would also affirm that terrorist threats from the Middle East are not as urgent as those from racists here in the United States.
“That is now low on the totem pole compared to white terrorist attacks,” she said. “That’s why [white nationalist terror threats] definitely need to have an office on the White House level.”
While the experts interviewed say that the presented plans are a good start, there are several major problems none of the proposals consider. For one, there is no legal definition of what domestic terrorism motivated by hate is and there is no national security framework to deal with it, said Pam Campos-Palma, who served as an operations and anti-terrorism intelligence analyst in the U.S. Air Force.
“White nationalists have infiltrated the military,” Campos-Palma says. “There are currently no real guidelines around local police forces protecting [themselves] from white nationalists infiltrating the ranks. And we know that this has been a problem and, frankly, none of their plans deal with that.”
A recent Military Times survey found that 22 percent of servicemen reported seeing signs of white nationalism and racist ideology within the armed forces. And Reveal, among many other news sites, have reported that white supremacists are thriving in local law enforcement. So, we have candidates who are depending on law enforcement to fight against white nationalists when officers in those agencies may very well be using their badges to protect them.
“Cops have always been in the KKK,” said Kyle Bibby, co-founder of the Black Veterans Project and a former Marine Corps infantry captain. “This is not new at all. There’s already a deep white supremacist network that exists within the military and the police. So you have to address that. Any sort of countering of white supremacy that does not address their infiltration within our law enforcement and our courts is not going to be comprehensive enough.”
Another problem, Bibby added, is that the FBI is a very white-centric organization that doesn’t have the cultural competency to recognize white nationalism as a national security threat. “It’s still led by white men who usually view white supremacists as dangerous yokels,” he said. “It takes a while for them to get on board with how actually this is an issue.”
The downside to having such a powerful arm of the government making decisions on what is and is not a threat is that they have been targeting black activists who pose no threats at all. A few years ago, the FBI coined the term “black identity extremists,” which targeted activists in the Black Lives Matter Movement for seemingly nothing more than disagreeing with the government. The Congressional Black Caucus pushed back against the designation before the FBI abandoned the term altogether.
“I still don’t know what the fuck that is,” said Bibby, reflecting on the ridiculousness of the black identity extremism designation. “Like, who are these people? Are they talking about the black Israelites who dress like Sub Zero out on 125th Street? Who cares? They weren’t ranked higher than a lot of actual domestic white supremacists and anti-government groups that are heavily armed and very much waiting for some sort of sign that they should begin a level of sedition and insurrection in the U.S. that could be very deadly.”
And while shutting down white supremacists’ online operations could help blunt their reach, social media platforms have long struggled to distinguish the difference between a Black Lives Matter activist calling out racism and a white racist preaching hate against Muslims, for example.
“If you want to propose [targeting online hate groups], there needs to be a better plan on how to figure out which sites are what,” Castleberry said. “But that’s going to be very controversial because it’s gray. Especially if white supremacy is part of the system, so they’re not going to do a good job navigating which sites are considered racist. Sometimes they do. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. But sometimes they don’t. A lot of conscious black people have been shut down from Facebook.”
Then there is the issue of heavily armed militias groups with openly racist leanings. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, their numbers increased after former President Barack Obama’s election in 2008 and have become emboldened since Trump’s 2016 victory. Many of these groups, which are constitutionally protected, patrolled the U.S. border long before Trump’s open racism against immigrants and are certainly emboldened by it.
One militia group, the Oath Keepers, has nearly 150 current and retired police officers who are connected to a larger contingent of cops identified as members of Confederate, anti-Islamic, misogynistic or other extremist groups on Facebook, according to a Reveal investigation. Many of these militias are openly anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim, complementing the racist rhetoric of President Trump.
And while it cannot be said that all militias are racist, all of them are protected by the Second Amendment. Bibby said that the key point that everyone keeps missing is that we have little to no way of stopping domestic terrorists from training in the U.S. via militias, law enforcement, and the military.
“We’re essentially letting them build an army right in our nation,” he said. “We have lax gun laws and improper screening in the military and police to blame for that. Simply put, in other countries we bomb terrorist training camps. In the U.S., we allow domestic terrorists to be trained right alongside our military and police forces. Until we change that, we’re not really serious about the growing problem.”