Why Law Enforcement Needs to Classify Far-right Groups as Gangs

Photo of members of the Proud Boys group in DC by Geoff Livingston (Source: Flickr, CC).

On January 6, 2021, following former President Trump’s public ranting at the “Save America March” a collection of Trump supporters, intertwined with alt-right gangs (e.g., Proud Boys), anti-government “militias” (e.g., Oath Keepers), accelerationists (e.g., Boogaloo Bois), and Internet trolls (e.g., Groypers) stormed the U.S. Capitol Building in an attempt to prevent the 2020 election’s certification. The images reported were eerily reminiscent of the “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. While both events are now watershed moments in history, they also underscore the unevenness of law enforcement responses to far-right groups across jurisdictional levels: unequal at best and lacking at worst.

With President Biden taking office and the Democratic Party’s majority control of Congress, many far-right groups have begun to distance their prior affinity towards law enforcement and are even actively calling for and engaging in violence against police. As researchers who have been studying just how similar white power groups are to street gangs, the lack of a systematic, let alone a consistent response by police across jurisdictional levels to the public protests, rallies, and marches has finally come to a head. This disparity in law enforcement interventions for demonstrations that involve majority white protesters is readily apparent with the events on January 6th as police officers were seen as both victims and possible accomplices to the insurrection. 

the inequal treatment of far-right groups under the law

Policy makers, law enforcement, and the broader criminal justice system need to begin considering alternative, more proactive approaches to thwart these violent far-right groups. That is, far-right groups should be approached and treated as street gangs. Law enforcement’s use of intimidating interventions to disrupt BIPOC groups or protests should match how far-right groups engaging in more threatening behavior are addressed. The traditional crowd control techniques used to restrain far-right groups are inadequate to suppress their violent and destructive behavior. Had the DC National Guard been deployed at the US Capitol Building on January 6th, like the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, that may have been enough to inhibit the destruction and rioting that ensued. The inconsistent dealings with far-right groups also makes it challenging for coordinated efforts among law enforcement agencies. The result ends up being an overall under policing of far-right groups.

Compared to other BIPOC groups, far-right groups have not been treated equally under the law. The former gets treated as a severe threat to society while the latter gets political protection. In 2009, the Department of Homeland (DHS) issued a report that warned about the growth of far-right groups, and their active recruitment of military veterans. Instead of critically evaluating the report with the seriousness it deserved and treating white supremacist groups as an acute threat, the GOP spurred intense political backlash and got the report retracted. This action essentially led to the suspension of any intelligence gathering on far-right groups operating within the United States. Far-right groups prospered further under the Trump Administration, which failed to pay out federal grants, disregarded coordinating with local law enforcement agencies, and routinely downplayed the violence perpetrated by these white power groups. In fact, during the Trump Administration’s first three years, 2017-2019, the majority of terror attacks (60 percent) that occurred in the United States were committed by far-right groups. Law enforcement’s negligence has resulted in white supremacists being the most “persistent and lethal threat” in the United States through 2021, and the foreseeable future.

use existing gang laws to combat far-right groups

Recently, there have been calls for the creation of explicit “domestic terrorism” statutes to target these groups and prosecute them in federal court. Additionally, the ever-shifting definition of far-right extremism from Racially Motivated Violent Extremists (White or Black) to Racially Motivated Extremism to Domestic Violent Extremism makes it challenging to consistently track patterns over time let alone where to focus resources. The reliance on federal hate crime laws is also problematic, being narrowly restrictive, by focusing on “crimes motivated by prejudice based on race, gender and gender identity, religion, disability, sexual orientations, or ethnicity.” This is not to discourage the strengthening of existing federal hate crime laws, such as the establishment of a database tracking groups and members involved in hate crimes, or the creation of clear-cut “domestic terrorism” statutes. In the long term, both strategies could prove to be beneficial in dealing with far-right groups, however, until this happens the most appropriate and straightforward approach to disrupt far-right groups is to utilize existing gang laws.

The federal definition of a gang requires an association of three or more individuals, who collectively adopt a group identity (e.g., name, sign, symbol, colors, etc.), and engage in criminal activity. What is not in this definition is racial or ethnic categories, urban or rural designations, age requirements, or gender designations. Proud Boys and other far-right groups clearly meet the criteria of being designated a gang. Yet, applying existing gang laws towards such far-right groups remains a limited endeavor with a clear bias existing towards BIPOC groups. The characteristics, cultural aesthetics, and penchant for violence routinely observed by far-right groups is exactly the same behavior that has been observed among conventional street gangs for the past century.

Just as law enforcement does with street gangs, far-right groups should be treated and dealt with at a local or state level. Members of these groups are likely to be well-known in the communities they live in and have most likely come under some law enforcement or local scrutiny. This also means that law enforcement agencies should shift the focus on hate or biased-related offenses by far-right groups and prioritize the varied criminal offending, violence, and antisocial behaviors that members engage in. For example, Proud Boys’ members who sell drugs are not drug-selling youth in some racist subculture; rather, they are Proud Boys’ members participating in the drug market, and law enforcement should be monitoring them for that reason.

The relentless focus on far-right groups being united in ideology, intent, and coordination, has sent law enforcement down a rabbit hole. Chasing an amorphous white power movement has diverted attention away from identifying localized groups and applying recognized intervention and suppression strategies. Despite far-right groups’ recurrence of intimidating local residents and their violent street presence, the response by local law enforcement, time and again, lacks any meaningful intelligence gathering, arrests, or prosecutions. The absence of guidance by federal law enforcement has also permitted state and local police agencies to be complacent at best and protectionist of far-right groups at worst.

While definitionally the media, academia, policy makers, and the public can argue indefinitely about what is the “correct” term to use for these groups, if the end goal is to be able to intervene early to prevent violence, then presently gang statutes are the most straightforward and ubiquitous tool. They have been used aggressively on BIPOC gangs for decades and can equally be applied to far-right groups. As we have seen with RICO cases targeting large numbers of gang members and associates, it is possible to target far-right groups with similar large scale arrests.

Matthew Valasik is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Louisiana State University. He is also co-author of Alt-Right Gangs: A Hazy Shade of White, published by University of California Press in September 2020, examining the rise of Alt-Right groups through the lens of street gang research.

Shannon Reid is an Associate Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte. Her research interests include Criminological Theory, Gangs, GIS Spatial Analysis, Juvenile Delinquency, Policing, Quantitative Methods, Social Network Analysis, and Structural Equation Modeling.