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The fatal shooting of two Kenosha protesters by 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse with an AR-15-type rifle late last month has intensified conversations on the interconnectedness of white nationalist movements and local law enforcement.
In a video that surfaced following the incident, Rittenhouse who was said to be acting as a militia member of the Boogaloo Bois, a far-right extremist group, can be seen in a friendly exchange with Kenosha police. The officers ask Rittenhouse if he needs water, tossing him a water bottle after he responds that he does.
“We’ve got to save a couple, but we’ll give you a couple,” one of the officers can be heard saying on the recording before expressing to Rittenhouse, “we appreciate you guys, we really do.” He shoots three protesters, killing two, just 15 minutes later.
While the video was unnerving for many, FBI reports from 2017 and earlier have confirmed white supremacists not only posed a persistent threat of lethal violence, but that extremists maintained an “active presence in U.S. police departments and other law enforcement agencies.”
These revelations serve as a natural reminder that racism, particularly in the south, is the foundation for the creation of police forces in this country. In slave states, the motivation behind developing strong policing entities centered on the preservation of the slavery system. “Some of the primary policing institutions there were the slave patrols tasked with chasing down runaways and preventing slave revolts,” according to Gary Potter, a crime historian at Eastern Kentucky University.
“In 2006, the FBI actually released a report about white supremacist infiltration of local police departments,” Seattle activist and author Shaun Scott exclusively told REVOLT, referencing a heavily redacted Oct. 2006 FBI internal intelligence memo, which revealed the agency’s growing concerns over white supremacist groups’ historical interest in developing ties to law enforcement community through infiltration and recruiting.
“The FBI coming out and saying white supremacist groups were having friendly relationships with local police departments was even a decade before, you know, the tail end of Obama’s term, so if it was an issue then,” Scott continued, “I think you have to assume that it’s even more of an issue now.”
For decades, law enforcement officials with connections to white supremacist groups have been reported in dozens of states including Alabama, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and elsewhere.
In 2015, two officers in Anniston, Alabama were placed on leave following the exposure of their membership to the League of the South, a neo-confederate hate group that advocates for a society dominated by “European Americans.” The year prior, the Fruitland Park Police Department in Florida lost a deputy police chief and another official after the FBI reported that the men belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. Last year, The New York Times reported that a Michigan police officer had been terminated after a Ku Klux Klan application was found in his home.
“Few law enforcement agencies have policies that specifically prohibit affiliating with white supremacist groups,” according to a report by the Brennan Center detailing the government’s insufficient response to known connections of law enforcement officers to violent racist and militant groups. Instead of addressing this issue, the report goes on to say that federal courts have given law enforcement agencies “even greater latitude to restrict speech and association, citing their ‘heightened need for order, loyalty, morale and harmony.’”
Scott noted that within his own city, Black Lives Matter or anti-police brutality protests are met with blatantly adversarial attitudes and actions from the police.
“When Proud Boys or people in MAGA hats or conservatives are coming out to protest, none of the tactics that you see levied against the anti-racist organizers are levied against them,” he told us. “You don’t see tear gas used. You don’t see police clutching their batons quite as tightly — if at all. And that’s just a fact for a lot of people that have been on the ground protesting in Seattle.”
Scott’s anecdotal analysis of the disparity in treatment is supported the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project’s (ACLED) recently released in-depth report on 7,750 Black Lives Matter demonstrations this summer across all 50 states and Washington D.C. in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
The report, which concluded that more than 93% of Black Lives Matter protests have been peaceful, also noted violent responses from law enforcement, in which authorities used force more often than not, and disproportionately against protesters associated with the BLM movement.
While this has come to be expected, the image of law enforcement expressing their camaraderie and affinity for Rittenhouse, an openly armed vigilante, who was in violation of the curfew they were selectively enforcing, minutes before he kills two protesters, has shined an especially glaring light on this issue.
Conversely, 48-year-old Michael Reinoehl was wanted by Oregon police on Thursday for the fatal shooting of a member of the far-right group Patriot Prayer in Portland after a violent clash between Trump supporters anti-fascists activists. Reinoehl had been arrested prior to this incident for possession of a firearm at a protest despite Oregon being an open carry state that allows firearms at demonstrations.
Many are noting the contrasting police response to Rittenhouse, who received a congenial chat and was later apprehended in a non-confrontational manner, and Reinoehl, who was killed by four federal officers on the same day that his warrant was issued in a barrage of what witnesses have estimated to be 30-40 shots. There is no official story from the police as to why they were unable to take him into custody alive.
While the issue of racism within police departments, which results in unchecked racist and biased policing, seems an insurmountable problem within this current system, it is unconscionable that the interconnectedness between white supremacist extremists and law enforcement, which has been made clear through FBI and other investigations, has yet to be addressed properly.
Understandably, most Black Lives Matter protesters flatly reject the possibility of receiving fair treatment from law enforcement and the evidence to support this fear is mounting. The mutual protection and defense of law enforcement and white nationalist groups against anti-police brutality activists only compounds these concerns, making exercising our first amendment rights increasingly hostile and dangerous.