Law enforcement experts worry that the Trump administration’s rhetoric and decisions to continue deemphasizing the threat of white supremacist attacks — like the one in Charlottesville on Saturday — will further embolden far-right groups and increase the risk of more violence.
While law enforcement agencies across the country continue to investigate reports of far-right extremism, the Trump administration has prioritized other types of extremism — mainly ISIS-inspired — a trend that existed for much of the Obama administration. Only after Dylann Roof, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 did the Obama administration take small steps toward combating far-right violence, experts say.
President Trump’s defense of the white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville at a press conference Tuesday drew widespread condemnation and seemed to draw a moral equivalence between protesters and white supremacists.
“When you are a white supremacist and you hear the language coming out of the current administration, you sit back and you say, ‘Those people believe in what we believe in; they have my back’,” said John Cohen, a former analyst at the Department of Homeland Security. “That’s what concerns law enforcement the most right now.”
Preventing an attack like Charlottesville requires close coordination between local law enforcement and the FBI to identify people involved in the far-right movement who are prone to violence, Cohen said. These strategies, which often involve direction from top federal authorities, include responding to calls from concerned family members with mental health assessments, training local community leaders to spot signs of radicalization, and monitoring extremist social media sites for threats.
“As it relates to preventing mass-casualty attacks, we know what we need to do,” Cohen said. “This guy in Charlottesville [James Alex Fields Jr.] fits the behavior profile. His family had called the police before.” Fields allegedly ran his car into a group of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.
But even though the prevention tactics are clear, the Trump administration’s approach to white supremacist extremism may be fueling the flames of far-right violence, leaving local authorities with more ground to cover and fewer resources. Just days before the attack in Charlottesville, Sebastian Gorka, an adviser to the president, said white supremacists are “not the problem” in an interview with a Breitbart radio show. On Tuesday Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides,” referring to white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville.
“The inherent reality of all of this is that the federal government has a very hard time recognizing that Americans can be terrorists”
An internal DHS and FBI memo obtained by Foreign Policy makes clear that the threat from the far-right is something law enforcement analysts are concerned about. The memo from May, titled “White Supremacist Extremism Poses Persistent Threat of Lethal Violence,” shows that white supremacists killed 49 people in 26 separate attacks from 2000 to 2016, more than any other extremist group in the U.S. The authors of the memo predicted that attacks from white supremacist groups in the coming year would be mostly “spontaneous and involve targets of opportunity.”
“I am hugely concerned by the rhetoric,” said Jennifer Daskal, a former attorney with the National Security division of the Justice Department. “I’m hopeful that the rank and file are continuing to do their jobs and are tracking the threats regardless of their source and regardless of the rhetoric.”
As Charlottesville workers cleaned up the city Monday morning, Attorney General Jeff Sessions used the term “domestic terrorism” to describe the fatal car attack. The Justice Department civil rights division and the FBI are investigating the attack as a hate crime and looking into whether others may have been involved in planning the attack along with Fields, according to a DOJ spokesperson. This fits with Sessions’ earlier vow to aggressively prosecute hate crime offenders. Fields has long exhibited signs of radical racism, according to former classmates and teachers interviewed by VICE News.
Since January 2014, eight people with white supremacist ties have been charged with federal hate crimes under the Matthew Shepard Act, including Dylann Roof, according to court records. The last case was just over a year ago when two white men in Ohio beat up a black man, and one later posted on Facebook that the attack was “in the name of the White Race.”.
On Saturday, the same day as the lethal Charlottesville attack, federal agents in Oklahoma arrested a man who was allegedly attempting to replicate the Oklahoma City bombing with an explosive planted near a bank. On Monday, the Justice Department announced convictions for 89 people in what the department called “the largest prosecution in the nation’s history of individuals connected to a violent white supremacist gang.”
“This guy in Charlottesville fits the behavior profile. His family had called the police before.”
While these front-line efforts to combat white supremacist extremism are encouraging, without a change in tone and financial support from the Trump administration, we may be only “putting a Band-aid on the wound,” Cohen said. “Extremist thought and racist ideas are not the responsibility of law enforcement until those thoughts and ideals serve as a catalyst for violent behaviors.”
Ryan Lenz, a spokesperson for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said more investment in deradicalization is needed to prevent future attacks. Earlier this year, DHS canceled a $400,000 grant for Life After Hate, the only group in the country that does interventions with far-right extremists.
“What the DOJ does, we approve of those convictions, justice is being served, but the larger problem is on a policy level,” Lenz said. “What really should be done is greater resources to find these threats before they surface.”
To confront the threat of far-right extremism, the Trump administration will have to name it and address it, which will go against the narrative of only “radical Islamic terrorism” it’s been pushing since the campaign.
“The inherent reality of all of this is that the federal government has a very hard time recognizing that Americans can be terrorists,” Lenz said. “Is it because they look like our neighbors? Maybe. Is it because we have the First and Second Amendment freedoms? Maybe. But in the aftermath of Charlottesville, it is no longer an environment in which politics can take precedent over the lives and rights of everyone.”