The January 6 storming of the United States’ Capitol reveals just how dangerous the organized white supremacist right has become. It is imperative that we face the threat that white supremacists pose to what are already weak-functioning Western democracies.
And, perhaps just as importantly, we must face the inanity of centrism that has allowed this organizing to occur, uninhibited, over the past decade.
I am writing this two days after the mob of angry white supremacists breached the United States’ Capitol building, encouraged by sitting President Donald Trump. As I write this, Twitter—one of the tools Trump most frequently used to stoke the rage of his base—has announced that it has finally decided to permanently ban Trump from its platform due to the continued threat of violence.
Far-right ideologues, including punditry on Fox News and Canada’s Rebel News, responded by ushering their Twitter followers to other social media platforms that permit white supremacist organizing to occur unfettered.
While there remain questions about how the events took place, a few things are abundantly clear. It is undeniable that white supremacists were the beating heart of the insurrection. Footage of the mob showed a crowd of mostly white men running through the halls of the Capitol wearing Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” hats, carrying the Confederate flag, wearing anti-Semitic clothing, shouting anti-Black epithets at Black police officers, and chanting “fuck BLM!”
It is also undeniable that the police handled this mob differently than they have handled peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations. There are reports of police officers assisting insurrectionists in locating the offices of specific lawmakers, of police officers taking selfies with individuals in the mob, and of members of the mob themselves flashing police badges at Capitol police officers—yes, members of the mob themselves were reportedly police officers.
The mob was able to access the Capitol from three different points, and accounts from police officers suggest that police were unusually lax in their response, and that the mob was well prepared, with sophisticated military-style tactics which facilitated the breach.
It is also undeniable that this crowd was violent and prepared to engage in far more violence than it ultimately did. This is significant; members of the mob did, after all, beat a police officer with a fire extinguisher, who later died. But there are also images of a man with zip-tie style handcuffs, suggesting that the mob intended to shackle people. They were armed with bear spray, flash bangs and firearms. They had Molotov cocktails and bombs that were placed at the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee. Police later found a pickup truck full bombs and other weapons near the Capitol.
Despite the overwhelmingly clear evidence that this violent mob was highly organized and prepared to inflict harrowing levels of violence in its attempt to prevent the end of Donald Trump’s Presidency, centrists are still engaging in dangerous apologism that has characterized the entirety of Trump’s term—and has ultimately enabled this type of white supremacist organizing to occur out in the open.
In the early evening of the breach, I listened to a live NBC broadcast, frustrated, as a reporter commented that it appeared the property damage was not significant; that the carpet of the House Chambers was still intact and furniture did not seem to be damaged, in an apparent attempt to suggest that the mob was not intent on destruction.
I participated in panel interviews in which political commentators repeatedly suggested that the mob was a ragtag group of disorganized losers.
I listened to radio accounts, in the following days, that opined that the failure of the Capitol security apparatus was due to lawmakers’ decision to refrain from using heavy tactics against the mob to avoid the critique they received from the heavy repressive tactics used during Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
I read several opinions that stated the overarching issue was a failure of those who disagree “on all sides” to have a civil conversation in this political climate.
This centrist drive to downplay the tactical sophistication of Trump’s white supremacist base is extremely dangerous. A ragtag group of losers does not make bombs. The centrist impulse to find symmetry between fascists, violent white supremacists and people who rightfully abhor them is indicative of the horrifying lack of logic that drives so much of centrist politics.
How can one be so irrationally committed to appearing to be in the reasonable middle that one lends credence and legitimacy to white supremacist political entities?
It is exactly this impulse to dismiss these elements of society that makes an attack like the one on the Capitol possible. It also makes possible the various recurring white supremacist attacks on Black, Indigenous and other people of colour, as well as religious institutions.
This style of organizing has been growing under our noses since former President Barack Obama’s first election. Of course, white supremacist organizing had been occurring before then, to be sure. But the timely convergence of the election of the first Black man as president of the United States, the Great Recession, and the expansion of web 2.0’s social media platforms catalyzed the possibility for a successful white supremacist movement. The anonymity of the social web made it possible to publicly connect based on affinity for the most unsavoury of ideas.
Enter the Tea Party movement, widely dismissed and ridiculed by centrists and the left upon its political genesis.
The conditions for this were created years ago.
We can look back with the clarity of hindsight to pinpoint the different moments in our political history that contributed to the strength of today’s white supremacist movement. We can look to the anti-migrant sentiment of the 2000s, the tough on crime politics of the 1990s, the neoliberal policies of the 1980s and the war on drugs of the late-1970s. All of these moments represent points in which political forces on the right flirted with the xenophobia of a majority-white base to gain political power. And throughout, centrists have refused to acknowledge these racist tactics for what they are, allowing them to become more effective. The growth was incremental. None of this should come as a surprise.
When Donald Trump burst onto the political scene, he was openly racist, and he was ridiculed and dismissed. He won an election in a stunning upset and, still, he and his base were ridiculed and dismissed. Centrists gave him a stunning amount of rope throughout his presidency, equivocating when he should have been as roundly confronted in 2016 as he is being confronted now.
White supremacists knew that they had an unprecedented period in which they could organize. And so, the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs provided their media platforms to espouse white supremacy, joined by the Lauren Southerns, Faith Goldys, Richard Spencers, Maxime Berniers and Jordan Petersons.
White supremacist organizing does not receive adequate attention from anyone in power. Politicians and police have publicly discussed plans to control Black Lives Matter activists, Indigenous land defenders, religious fundamentalism, unhoused communities, drug users—the list goes on. But there has been no plan publicly discussed to dismantle white supremacist groups.
This is absolutely unacceptable. What the events of January 6 make clear is that the threat is not just to Black, Indigenous and other people of colour. The threat is to the (flawed, to be sure) democratic institutions that make up our political systems.
And yet, Erin O’Toole, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada seems poised to encourage the same sort of Trump-style direct flirtation with a white supremacist base with his “Take Back Canada” sloganeering.
I used to wonder what it felt like for the average person in moments of history when political conditions were created for fascism to take root. I feel like I know now. And I am furious that so many continue to dismiss the profound danger of white supremacist organizing, to our collective peril.
I am scared. This week, a Black woman in Los Angeles was randomly attacked by a mob of angry Trump supporters. One of the videos of the insurrection showed two laughing men pantomiming George Floyd’s murder. Incidents of hate are on the rise in Canada.
They hate us. They hate us.
Make no mistake, Canadian white supremacists are also organizing. Their impact has already been felt by some of us. It is time for political power on the left and in the centre to look this danger directly in the eye. The stakes are far too great for this danger to be ignored.
Sandy Hudson is co-founder of Black Lives Matter-Canada, co-host of the Sandy and Nora Talk Politics podcast and co-editor of the bestselling book Until We Are Free: Reflections on Black Lives Matter in Canada.