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Ties That Bind: Far White Extremism and Law Enforcement
Michigan verdict exposes FBI’s struggle to make cases against people who look like them, says domestic extremism expert Janet Reitman
Janet Reitman, who has spent years writing about domestic extremism and law enforcement, says a Michigan jury’s acquittal of two white men who plotted to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer came as no surprise to her. Rural juries are reluctant to accept the feds’ portrayal of white supremacists and anti-government militants as serious threats—the defendants are usually people who look and sound too much like them.
“This is sort of in keeping with the pattern,” Reitman told me in the latest episode of the SpyTalk podcast. Going back decades, prosecutors have struggled to win sedition or terrorist conspiracy convictions against white supremacists, said Reitman, a much honored investigative reporter at Rolling Stone before coming to the Times magazine.
In 1988, for example, an Arkansas jury acquitted Ku Klux Klan leader Louis Beam, an early pioneer of extremist organizing on the Internet, and others on well documented charges they had plotted to kill officials and overthrow the federal government. Judge Morris Arnold said he was surprised. “I would have convicted them,” he said.
“But the jury could not see past the question of plausibility,” journalist Laura Smith wrote in a New York Times retrospective on the radical right and social media. “The idea that a bunch of blue-collar workers and religious zealots from Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas could topple the most powerful government on earth had seemed absurd.”
“After the trial,” Kathleen Belew, an expert on right wing extremism at the University of Chicago, told Smith, “many in the movement felt emboldened by the government’s failure to convict.”
In the Michigan Wolverines Watchmen case four decades later, said Reitman, “I think that the FBI made some big mistakes, but I also did not expect a jury in the state of Michigan to throw the book at these guys.”
“Perhaps most damaging to the government’s case was the defense’s argument that the accused were entrapped by an undercover FBI informant who devised the kidnapping plot, led outings in which the four trained with rifles, and suggested the use of explosives in the execution of the kidnapping,” SpyTalk Contributing Editor Jonathan Broder wrote last week. “Without the informant, the defense argued, there would have been no talk of kidnapping Whitmer.”
While two of the accused were acquitted, the judge declared a mistrial in the cases of two others. Prosecutors are considering a new effort to try them.
Past and Prologue
From the 1960s through the 1980s, the FBI concentrated on disrupting and neutralizing antiwar and civil rights groups and activists, most notoriously, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr and the Black Panthers. In the 1990s, it also brought down some skinhead and Aryan Nation militants, who Reitman called, “sort of the rusty nail of the movement…kind of doofuses.”
“That doesn't mean they're not dangerous,” she quickly added. “This is one thing I've learned in my career: You can be a very dangerous doofus. You can be a complete idiot and you can also be dangerous.” Reitman is currently at work on a book, The Unraveling of Everything: America’s Violent and Extremist Drift, for Random House.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, however, the bureau swiveled to the threat of Islamist extremism and, as Reitman wrote last year, seems to have regularly violated the human and civil rights of Muslim immigrants. The focus of her piece was Terry Albury, a Black former FBI agent who was tried, convicted and imprisoned for leaking documents on the violations.
“I was very idealistic when I joined the F.B.I.,” Albury told Reitman. “I really wanted to make the world a better place, and I stayed as long as I did because I continued to believe that I could help make things better, as naïve as that sounds.
“But the war on terror is like this game, right? We’ve built this entire apparatus and convinced the world that there is a terrorist in every mosque, and that every newly arrived Muslim immigrant is secretly anti-American, and because we have promoted that false notion, we have to validate it. So we catch some kid who doesn’t know his ear from his [expletive] for building a bomb fed to them by the F.B.I., or we take people from foreign countries where they have secret police and recruit them as informants and capitalize on their fear to ensure there is compliance. It’s a very dangerous and toxic environment, and we have not come to terms with the fact that maybe we really screwed up here,” he says. “Maybe what we’re doing is wrong.”
In the meantime, white extremist violence was metastasizing under the noses of the FBI and state and local police. Especially during the Trump administration, Albury told me, white FBI agents felt emboldened about openly expressing their own prejudices. Racist slurs against Muslims, Blacks, gays and others were a commonplace, he said. It’s been no wonder that the bureau found it easier to run up the numbers against Muslim immigrants than “conservative” whites with First and Second Amendment rights.
Last November, the DHS issued an advisory saying, "anti-government/anti-authority violent extremists…will continue to pose a significant threat to our homeland.”
“With the world still reeling from the global COVID-19 pandemic…certain trends from previous years seem likely to continue and may grow more severe,” Colin P. Clarke wrote in December for the Foreign Policy Research Group, singling out “the threat posed by far-right extremists and jihadists joined by a growing roster of political and socio-cultural motivations, including ‘technophobia’ or neo-Luddite terrorism, violent anarchists, and extreme misogynists, especially those following the so-called ‘Incel’ ideology...”
"White supremacist terror has not gotten the attention that Islamist terror has," Daniel Benjamin, a former State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, told the BBC following a string of white terror attacks in 2019. "The FBI and later DHS [the US department of homeland security] turned their attention to the jihadist threat and left the white-supremacist threat behind."
The Justice Department’s recent focus on white extremist violence, especially since the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, is a belated and fraught effort, many experts say. “There was a kind of a fire put under the FBI to start getting serious about these domestic cases” in the wake of mass shootings in El Paso and at the Poway synagogue in Southern California, Reitman said.
Successful grappling with the threat of white nationalist violence is going to require a virtual body transplant in American political institutions, from Congress and the courts down through federal law enforcement agencies to local cops, “who tend to look at the enemy as those people who are most unlike them and might oppose them,” Reitman suggests.
“The anti-terrorism training that they've received has reinforced this idea that Black Lives Matter could be a dangerous terrorist group,” she told me, “that Antifa is a domestic terrorist group, that all these left wing groups are anti-government or domestic terrorists.”
For that reason alone, she says, she’s “not a fan of passing new laws to crack down on ’domestic terrorists,’ because I don't think they're going to be used against the far right. Historically they've been used against the left.”
The threat of another plot to prevent the peaceful transfer of presidential power in 2025 is real, she says.
“I think that we need to understand and take seriously the connection between far right politics and the racist far right’s rhetoric and violence.” Congressional oversight committees are “only focusing on the end product, and from a sort of legal standpoint.”
“I mean, we do want to focus on those people who commit violence or are criminals, but I think that they're missing the steps that lead these people to violence.”