By Kay Whitlock
After being sworn in, [Jeff] Sessions… said: “There are a lot of things that we need to do. We have a crime problem. I wish the rise that we’re seeing in crime in America today was some sort of aberration or blip,” but he said he judged it as a “dangerous permanent trend”.
—from “Trump Vows Law and Order Crackdown to Combat ‘Menace’ of Crime,” The Guardian
The forty-fifth President of the United States and his administration require danger and enemies to exist. They could not have come to power and cannot remain in power without continuing to mobilize against them.
Especially racialized enemies: Muslims here and abroad, immigrants and refugees, “hardened criminals,” impoverished residents and gang members in “crime-infested” cities, cop-killers, fraudulent voters, Black Lives Matter, “failing public schools,” terrorist demonstrators and protestors, and cherry-picked “other countries” said to foster terrorism, breach national security, or steal American jobs and prosperity. All made to bear the weight of some illusory white nationalist “greatness,” tragically crumbling under the lethal onslaught of an increasingly multiracial, multicultural society.
The heartfelt rallying cry “Stop the Hate!” conveys, at least in part, the pain and fury so many feel in the face of a political moment in which casual, racialized cruelty is openly embraced and elevated to the status of a civic virtue. But “hate” isn’t an accurate diagnosis of what’s tearing the country apart.
Fortunately, a growing spirit of resistance to that culture also infuses the moment. In a chilling time, where many of us struggle with alternating and tangled currents of anxiety, fear, and rage, that spirit creates possible new openings for bold steps forward. Not only through our immediate dilemma, which often seems overwhelming, but through old, longstanding impasses at the intersection of multiple forms of violence. A new justice imagination is possible.
It is, in fact, essential. Without it, we cannot sustain resistance and will remain trapped in Fortress America: white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal, crisis-ridden, unstable, and violently destructive.
Enemies, Enemies, Everywhere
We’re in a daunting and tricky moment—in many respects, a state of siege. Through Republican and Democratic administrations, the US government has often profited politically and economically from the rhetorical, entrepreneurial, and violent purveyance of fear, danger, peril. Indigenous menace! Slave rebellions! Eugenics and racial purity! Sedition trials! Japanese American internment! The Red Scare and McCarthyism! Sex panics! Terrorism! “Welfare Queens” and Juvenile Super-predators! Budget Crisis!
The promotion of siege mentality/state of emergency is not unique to Trump’s crew, although the speed, chaos, and wrecking crew zealotry that accompany the enactment of its multiple agendas—right-wing, corporatist, warring, white nationalist—are shocking and disorienting. (Most of us are more accustomed to better-managed injustice and repression crafted with a veneer of decorum.)
In whatever guise it appears, siege mentality distorts and amplifies fears and anxieties that have at least a grain of truth for many people across the political spectrum—especially the belief shared by many people across political divides that they being fleeced, lied to, manipulated, made vulnerable to further threat, and abandoned by wealthier people. But it safely displaces that resentment, dread, and anger onto the (usually racialized) “enemies” the government deems most useful to the enactment of its own agenda.
“Defending our Nation against its enemies is the first and fundamental commitment of the Federal Government,” George W. Bush declared in his post-9/11 national security statement. What followed included a never-ending war, contracts for torture consultants, an explosion of Islamophobia, a Muslim registry, and a Department of Homeland Security with vast new surveillance powers. Oh—and large tax cuts for the already-affluent. Democrats went along. The bipartisan, neoliberal political consensus permits, without serious debate, the almost limitless expansion of “security forces,” within and without the country, at the expense of social safety nets, services, and programs that contribute to public, not only individual, well-being.
In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Donald J. Trump and his mainstream Republican surrogates relied heavily on demonizing rhetoric to energize and mobilize white voters. It’s called “scripted violence,” the intentional use of inflammatory rhetoric to enrage audiences without directly exhorting them to threaten or harm mutual “enemies.” Trump left no doubt as to who those enemies are and what we should do to further criminalize, control, exclude, and eliminate them. Surrogate Newt Gingrich, in recent years repurposed from an incendiary right-wing racist into a champion of “bipartisan criminal justice reform,” chose Islamophobia as his focus.
What happened is what always happens when influential leaders and political campaigns organize on the basis of demagogic and demonizing themes. Various groups documented and charted incidents of harassment and violence against vulnerable groups, especially Black people, Muslims, Mexican immigrants, refugees of color, Jews, and more.
While many organized to defend, and provide sanctuary and assistance to those who come under attack, many responses also centered hate crimes. New efforts are underway to “document hate” and fund projects to combat hate caused by incendiary rhetoric. But even when obvious surges of vigilante threat abate, the violence persists. In 2015, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects (NCAVP), which tracks harassment and violence against LGBTQ and HIV-affected communities, noted “a significant decrease in the percentage of…survivors reporting their experience of hate violence to police…Of those who did report violence to police, 80% of survivors said that the police were indifferent or hostile.”
The Nexus of Vigilante and Structural/State Violence
More vividly than any other administration in recent history, the Trump presidency brings into sharp focus the ongoing, intimate, mutually reinforcing relationship between what most people characterize as hate violence and structural/state violence.
I have started using the imperfect term “vigilante” rather than “hate” to describe threats and attacks against Black people, Latinx, Indigenous peoples, Muslims, Jews, LGBT and gender non-conforming people, and people with disabilities. This violence doesn’t arise merely from psychological prejudice, aberrant “bad attitudes,” and ignorance. This is the violence of supremacy and erasure in service to the dominant white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal, plutocratic order—in short, racial capitalism.
Individuals and small groups may act alone, but they do so within a larger societal context, serving (consciously or not) as extralegal enforcers of that order.
The relationship of vigilante action to structural and state violence—demonstrable, recurring, harms done to marginalized and vulnerable communities through the routine operation of mainstream public and private institutions—takes many forms. Four of them are:
- criminalizing and harshly policing and punishing entire segments of the population at the complex and varied intersections of race, poverty, gender and gender nonconformity, disability status, and citizenship status
- preventing tens of millions of people from having ready, affordable access to resources necessary for meeting basic needs (health care, clean water, healthy and plentiful food, housing, public education, and the like)
- disproportionately inflicting environmental harm on already-vulnerable communities and destroying ecologies essential to their general well-being
- producing widening income inequality and racialized wealth gaps while largely refusing the downward distribution of social and economic rights and resources, including the ability to exercise civil rights freely and without obstruction.
Yet the predominant center-liberal-left policy response foregrounds vigilante violence and centers largely on intensified policing and punishment. Whatever the justice-serving intentions of their supporters, hate crime laws inevitably begin to work against vulnerable communities, including against poor, working class, immigrant, LGBTQ and gender non-conforming people of color. That is because the structural violence of the criminal legal system remains intact.
Ironically, this approach affirms the primacy of intensified policing and punishment over creation of more just (and radically transformed) social and economic relationships. It’s an unacknowledged way of offloading management of violence and responsibility for the absence of just community relationships onto the criminal legal system and police departments, themselves major perpetrators of violence. Moreover, nothing prevents the neutral, ahistorical language of hate crime laws from being used against communities protesting structural/state violence.
This is wearyingly predictable. Faced with growing challenges and resistance to various deployments of oppressive power, dominant political, religious, and law enforcement institutions fashion themselves as victims of the very communities they oppress. And they invoke the popular rubrics of danger, safety, and “law and order” to defend, consolidate, and expand their power.
Black and Blue in a White Supremacist Society
In 2012, Black Lives Matter (BLM) emerged in response to the anti-Black racism that permeated the criminal legal system’s response to the murder of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin. Moving from social media into direct action, BLM helped to galvanize growing national resistance to police violence against people of color and systemic anti-Black racism – in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere. In 2015, the #SayHerName campaign was created to foreground the experiences of Black cis- and transgender women in discussions of police violence.
Seeking to blunt the groundswell of activism and discredit and criminalize Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter was created as a pro-police slogan and media/web presence. In 2015, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) called for inclusion of law enforcement officers as a protected status category in federal hate crime laws. In 2016, although state laws already treat violence against law enforcement officials more seriously than violence against civilians, Louisiana became the first state to add police to its hate crime law.
Danger, Public Safety, and “National Security”
Weeks before the 2016 presidential election, the Fraternal Order of Police endorsed Trump, as did the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Council, the union representing ICE agents, and the National Border Patrol Council. Some of their members and affiliates were opposed to the endorsement, but the power brokers prevailed.
The list envisions more seamless integration of federal and local law enforcement authorities into One Big National Security State, with new mandatory minimums for various offenses and more expansive anti-immigrant initiatives. It looks forward to reversal or amendment of the federal Bush-era ban on racial profiling.” It envisions new material and criminal legal support for police as agents of social control and the presumptive guarantors of public safety.
It envisions exactly what’s happening now. The Muslim travel ban, now in the process of being redrafted after the first one met resistance from protestors and the federal courts. Aggressive immigrant raids and deportations, some in sanctuary areas.
Three new crime-and-policing executive orders that will be implemented to expand law enforcement powers at the expense of civil rights and liberties. Intensified and racialized federal and state laws framing peaceful dissent, protest, and resistance, including the nonviolent Standing Rock water protectors as “terrorist” and “criminal,” with explicit authority for civilians and authorities to respond with violence.
Go to the Taproot of Harm
It is not possible to uproot vigilante violence until we also organize to confront and transform the systemic models—including the foundational violence and racism of the criminal legal system, immigration and border policing, and the national security apparatus—that begat it. Understanding this strengthens our ability to amount effective resistance, defend vulnerable communities and people, develop and sustain powerful solidarity relationships, provide mutual aid, and begin the work of organizing for a different, better future.
Defeating Trump, however essential, won’t produce justice. In the process, we must also be creating the just racial, gender, economic, and environmental relationships we need. Nobody else will do it for us.
About the Author
Kay Whitlock is a writer and activist who has been involved with racial, gender, queer, and economic justice movements since 1968. She is coauthor of Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics with Michael Bronski, the award-winning Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States with Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie, and cofounder and contributing editor for the weekly Criminal Injustice series at CriticalMassProgress.com. She lives in Missoula, Montana. Follow her on Twitter at @KayJWhitlock.