Episode 132: The House Always Wins — How Every Crisis Narrative Enriches the Security and Carceral State
Citations Needed | March 10, 2021 | Transcript
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: This episode will be our last before our spring break. We’re taking our break a little early this year because Adam Johnson, my co-host, is a daddy.
Adam: Yeah, we’re recording this before I go on my paternity leave.
Nima: So as not to be a negligent father.
Adam: So as to not be a deadbeat dad who puts podcasting before the welfare of his wife and child, which supposedly you’re supposed to do. I’ve been told by many people.
Nima: I think I told you that.
Adam: You told me that? Okay, because otherwise I wouldn’t have known. So spring break is going to come a little bit early and it’s gonna last a tinge longer because I need to, you know, do the thing where you raise a child.
Adam: You know, when you first met me I was sleeping on a futon, now I have a child, things have changed.
Adam: Thanks largely to your support. Thank you, I can live a somewhat normal life. I appreciate that.
Nima: My life incidentally has not changed all that much.
Adam: Well, no, I’ve had a little bit of a character arc there. But we are very happy for that support and we’re very excited to come back. We’ll be back in April, with all new white hot, center-of-a-neutron-star, blistering takes that you’ve come to expect and love.
Nima: That’s right. With all the passion of a new parent, which, you know, my passion is just dulled. Two kids, uh.
Nima: That’s why I’m boring. You’re gonna bring the fire when we come back. So thank you as always for your ongoing support but this will be our last episode before break and then we will see you next month.
“It’s Time for a Domestic Terrorism Law,” blares a Washington Monthly headline. “Tucson Police Helping Homeless with New Outreach Program,’’ reports Tucson, Arizona’s ABC affiliate KGUN9. “Programs that monitor students’ social media are seen as a means of heading off the next tragic shooting,“ says an article in GovTech. “How the Department of Defense could help win the war on climate change,” explains Politico.
Adam: In the United States, it seems no matter what crisis emerges — the planet warming due to fossil extraction, QAnon white nationalists storm Capitol, mass shooting, substance abuse crisis, a surge in homelessness — the response from our pundit, think tank, and political classes is always, almost without exception, to frame the response in terms that empower, embolden and — most importantly — funding preexisting carceral and militaristic responses.
Nima: To fight the scourge of white nationalism under Trump and show we are serious about our anti-racism, the solution is apparently to give more money and surveillance powers to the FBI, an organization itself drenched in white supremacy and anti-Muslim violence. To show one is serious about climate change, you got to give the reins of crisis management over to the Pentagon. To show one cares deeply about ending homelessness and poverty or addressing mental health crises and drug abuse, we must always ensure the police remain equipped, resourced and well-funded so that they can monitor and target the most vulnerable populations.
Adam: This “House always wins” ecosystem is no coincidence; it is fueled by a patchwork of perverse incentives: security state and weapons contractor-funded bipartisan think tanks and media outlets ready with turn-key quote-unquote “solutions” to every social problem that further pad the budgets of those already in power: the FBI, Pentagon, ICE, NSA, police forces, large corporations all with their own power-serving quote-unquote “security,” quote-unquote “experts” ready to jump on every crisis to explain why those in power deserve even more of it.
Nima: If the most basic environmental protections are to pass, they must relate to US military preparedness. If Mars is to be explored, it’s really only to ensure the United States maintains supremacy over China and Russia. If there’s an outcry for mental health services for unhoused people, police budgets surge to cover training and community outreach.
Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll explore how, under our regime of austerity, the house always wins — that is, the security state is, by design, enriched at the expense of much needed programs and infrastructure like education, housing, and healthcare — with media all too eager to convince us the solution is to instead simply further bloat the budgets of police departments, border patrol, federal surveillance and law enforcement.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by Nicole Nguyen, Associate Professor of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Nicole’s research focuses on the intersections of national security and public schooling. She is the author of the book Suspect Communities: Anti-Muslim Racism and the Domestic War on Terror. She recently co-authored, with Yazan Zahzah, a report entitled Why Treating White Supremacy as Domestic Terrorism Won ’t Work and How to Not Fall for It: A Toolkit for Social Justice Advocates.
Nicole Nguyen: We assume that political violence resides in individual pathologies, that the problem is with individual people, and we don’t have to think about structural racism, we don’t have to think about US empire, we don’t have to think about military interventions, because the problem of terrorism, of white supremacy resides in individual bodies. So we just have to intervene and modify individual bodies and minds and psyches rather than actually think about the deeper sort of structural issues that are actually organizing and driving the violence to begin with.
Adam: So these are related episodes, though I don’t think it’s fair to say spiritual sequel —
Adam: Related episodes are Episode 31: Fake ISIS Plots and the Selling of Forever War and Episode 122: Climate Chaos (Part II) — The Militarization of Liberals’ Climate Change. The latter of which is a similar theme, which we’re gonna broaden out here, especially in the wake of the January 6th, white nationalist, QAnon siege of the Capitol that left at least five dead and could have been much worse had certain things transpired. This kind of traumatizing event, invariably, as we’ll detail here, led to new calls for a domestic terror law, something the FBI has been trying to have since the time of COINTELPRO in the ‘60s, that has been aggressively lobbied for by quote-unquote “former FBI agents” and the federal law enforcement unions. And that is a huge red flag and one of the things we noticed, especially in the context of Episode 122 about the Pentagon increasingly taking over the climate discussion, is that this was part of a much bigger trend, and this of course is riffing off Naomi Klein’s idea of Shock Doctrine, right? This is not an original, a terribly original point, but we wanted to sort of detail the way in which the media helps assist this, which is that no matter what happens, there is a well-funded network, patchwork of apparatus of those with either financial, personal or ideological ties to the national security state, whether it be police, law enforcement, Pentagon, domestic, foreign, and that gravy train, who emerged out of nowhere with pre existing policies, laws, and quote-unquote “solutions” that involve giving more money, funding and surveillance powers to the US government and state and local police officials and we thought it was useful to sort of show how these systems work to exploit the trauma because I think it’s, you know, January 6th, for a lot of people was traumatic, the visual images alone, cut people pretty deep, and anytime you have a situation where there’s mass trauma, again, as Klein lays out in her book about the Shock Doctrine, there is a rush to have solutions that do nothing to really change the status quo, but help feed and fund and further empower those who are already in charge.
Nima: Which gets to our kind of thesis statement about the house always winning, that all of these alleged solutions, the way that we as a society should react to these traumatizing events, to these violent events, to these acts of violence and trauma and, you know, public turmoil, that they always wind up just funding the very institutions that oftentimes have enabled that violence to begin with. So effectively, the security state will always win, they will always get more funding.
Adam: And so what we did first and foremost by putting it in a war on terror framing or anti-extremist or counter extremist framing, is we stripped it of its ideological content, which is the problem with the Stop the Steal storming of the Capitol on January 6th was not the idea of storming the Capitol, which can be a perfectly legitimate tactic, indeed, pro-labor, anti-Scott Walker activists in 2011 occupied the Wisconsin Capitol. Now, of course, they didn’t go with the intent of stealing —
Nima: Right. They didn’t destroy windows and break in and —
Adam: Well, but if they had I wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with it, right? I don’t have a per se problem with that as a political tactic stripped of ideological content, right? The ideological content is what’s important, which is that they were a fascist mob trying to undermine the democratic process such that it is, while threatening the lives of liberal and progressive legislators like Ocasio-Cortez and people they perceive as being turncoats like Mitt Romney and Mike Pence.
Nima: Right, exactly, disloyal fascists.
Adam: Right. So from the get go by framing it in an anti-war framing, you’ve removed the ideological content and you’ve kind of jammed it into a pre-existing law enforcement framing, which of course, as we will lay out hopefully in some detail, is almost certainly going to disproportionately affect leftists, environmentalists, African Americans, Muslims and other communities that the FBI and law enforcement historically target.
Nima: In response to the January 6th siege, we saw policymakers really rush to introduce a flurry of anti-terror bills, right? So legislative proposals that elevated this kind of rhetoric of domestic terrorism. Now, allegedly, these bills were introduced to protect their constituents from white supremacist or white nationalist violence, you know, coming on the heels of the insurrection. Now, according to the International Center for Non-Profit Law, there have been upwards of 60 anti-protest laws introduced across 33 states just since January 6, 2021 alone. But many of these bills have actually just been reintroduced, in that they are not new because of the storming of the Capitol. They were already on the legislative books of many of these states since last summer. Most of these bills do not specifically aim to reduce right-wing, white nationalist violence, but actually exist for a totally contradictory purpose: they are designed to target Black Lives Matter protests. So this ongoing push to criminalize protests, to suppress dissent and to exonerate and to allow people to react to protesters actually in very violent ways, like not being able to be charged for a crime if you hit a protester with a car if the protester doesn’t have a permit. Embedded in these laws are ways to assign impunity to those suppressing speech and certainly suppressing protests and these bills were introduced because of Black Lives Matter and things like the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
Adam: In several of these state bills, they expanded the definition of “riot” to increase criminal consequences for protesters. In Indiana for example, an anti-protest law introduced on January 14th would bar, quote:
24-hour protests on the grounds outside the state capitol, by making it a class A misdemeanor to ‘camp’ in a number of places around the capitol building after being informed that camping is not allowed, either by signage or in person.
Unquote, as summarized by the International Center for Non-Profit Law.
The day before that bill was introduced, The Indianapolis Star ran a piece titled, quote, “How police are working to protect the Indiana Statehouse after Capitol riots.” So these laws, which again pre-existed the capital rights, and were explicitly used against Black Lives Matter, suddenly have been repackaged as somehow woke products to fight white supremacist violence. Alleen Brown and Akela Lacy at The Intercept reported on January 21st, quote:
The rate of new bills being offered sped up dramatically this month as lawmakers kicked off their legislative sessions at the very moment that Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. Bills quickly arose in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island.
And so at the time of their reporting at The Intercept, there were 14 such new bills; there are now 37. By the time you’re listening to this, it’ll probably be much greater than that.
Nima: The Intercept piece also quotes Daniel Squadron, a former Democratic state senator from New York and president of Future Now, which is a group focused on winning state legislatures from Republicans, as saying this, quote:
It’s telling that so many radical right-wing state lawmakers are responding to an attack on our democracy with an attack on our democracy.” Adding this, quote, “Make no mistake, these bills were teed up long ago to criminalize peaceful protest, stifle speech, and obscure the clear distinction between First Amendment rights and a violent insurrection.
Adam: These laws stem from and fortify a broader right-wing effort over several years to criminalize protests following the Standing Rock protests, specifically right-wing lawmakers at the state level began advancing quote “critical infrastructure” bills criminalizing pipeline protests, based on model legislation from groups like ALEC. Following Trump’s election, law enforcement quietly backed anti-protest bills and at least eight states, many of them targeting Black Lives Matter. According to an article by Simon Davis-Cohen and friend of the show Sarah Lazare, there’s been an uptick of anti-protest laws since the George Floyd protests that effectively have the same goal. So we’re gonna bracket that for now, which is to say, one of the biggest pushers of these anti-protest laws is the oil and gas industry. You can venture a guess as to why that is. Standing Rock, I think it’s fair to say, portends our future as climate crisis becomes more of an issue that the oil and gas industry has a huge incentive, who funds a lot of ALEC and this model legislation, and themselves have directly lobbied in at least eight states, by now it’s probably much more, this is an article about two years ago, they have lobbied for these anti-protest laws because Standing Rock was such an ominous act for them. They don’t want to see that happen again, and as climate chaos gets worse, they see I think one of the primary threat vectors as being anti climate change protests in anti oil and gas protests. This will be relevant later.
Nima: Well, right. So you just kind of slap the, ‘Well this is critical infrastructure and therefore protesting on this land is disallowed, is illegal, is a violation, and therefore, you are in violation if you are protesting there and can be arrested.’ So, it’s all pretty clear why all this happens. Now, we already know of at least one case where post-January 6th, this anti-terror framework has been used to go after a self-proclaimed leftist rather than white nationalists. So as friend of the show, Branko Marcetic, has reported for Jacobin, quote:
On January 15, in Tallahassee, the FBI arrested thirty-three-year-old Daniel Alan Baker, a veteran and self-described ‘hardcore leftist’ who had traveled the country last year participating in protests against police brutality. Described by various news outlets as involved in a ‘Florida Capitol plot’ or plotting an attack on Trump supporters, Baker has been slapped with federal charges and denied bail on the grounds that he’s a flight risk. ‘Extremists intent on violence from either end of the political and social spectrums must be stopped, and they will be stopped,’ said US attorney Larry Keefe. ‘This arrest serves as a message to anyone who intends to incite or commit violence in the Northern District of Florida: if you represent a threat to public safety, we will come for you, we will find you, and we will prosecute you.’
Adam: The bipartisan lawmakers are actively considering and have introduced a law for a domestic terrorist statute in response to the January 6th storming of the Capitol. They did this despite the fact that 150 civil rights organizations including the NAACP, Amnesty International and dozens of totally normie, mainline liberal groups oppose a new terror law, mostly because these groups know that they’ll just attack black people and Muslims.
Adam: But nevertheless, Biden has embraced the cause fueled in part by a spook soup of NatSec quote-unquote “experts” with direct financial interest in expanding the security state, which is what we’ll get into now.
Nima: Well, that’s the thing, right? So it’s like all the experts, the so-called experts that you see quoted in these articles, or with the byline of these op-eds, so many of them work for consultancy groups that are part of the security state, that will benefit from these new terrorism designations and laws.
Adam: Yeah, it’s not only an ideological and professional commitment to expanding the security state, although that’s a large part of it, it’s that I think what people don’t quite realize because it’s never disclosed, which we’ll get into, is that these people have a direct financial interest in expanding the powers and budgets of the security state and these are the people that populate, they’re presented as neutral or sober experts in our media or kind of dispassionate, former government officials, former agents who sort of are just really concerned with public safety, and, you know, look, if there was a new policy being presented in the federal government to give $100 million a year to middling podcasters or Patreon podcasters and then you came to Adam Johnson, and you were like, ‘What do you think about this policy?’ What am I going to do? Say no? I’m gonna say, ‘Yeah, you know, this is really important to the national security’ —
Nima: And it’s pretty solid policy.
Adam: Yeah and so this is basically what most national security reporting is. It’s turning your quote to someone, by the way, they never disclose their financial interests, they just talk about their bullshit academic position they have or their think tank or they’re consulting for some group.
Nima: Or their vaguely named consultant group.
Adam: But, you know, this is a direct conflict of interest and we want to go over some of those examples.
Nima: So for instance, from the Washington Post on February 2, 2021, Richard Zabel penned an article with this headline, “Domestic terrorism is a national problem. It should also be a federal crime.” You can imagine what it is arguing. Now, Richard Zabel’s bio, as it’s listed in the Washington Post, with his article reads like this, quote: “Richard B. Zabel oversaw terrorism prosecutions as deputy U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York from 2011 to 2015 and teaches national security law at Columbia Law School.” Now, unmentioned in this bio is that Zabel is also General Counsel and Chief Legal Officer, as well as Head of Research of Elliott Investment Management, the hedge fund founded by multi-billionaire Paul Singer known for many egregious things including the destruction of Argentina. So there’s another Washington Post article from four years earlier, this is in 2017, with the headline, “How one hedge fund made $2 billion from Argentina’s economic collapse.” So again, the same paper knows who this person is and who he works for because they’ve reported on this before, but then the byline is just like he’s an expert in national security law.
Adam: He was a key architect of this scheme to extract the $2.4 billion from a country that couldn’t afford to pay them. He joined Elliott Capital Management in 2015 directly out of the Federal prosecutor’s office. Elliott Management just three days prior to him writing this op-ed bought Cubic Corporation, a major defense contractor for $2.2 billion. The firm billed the Pentagon north of $300 million in 2019 alone. Cubic made surveillance drones and specializes in C2ISR, which is short for, quote, “a wide range of Command and Control, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance.” This is in addition to Elliott Management’s other defense contractors, which we don’t really know because it’s kind of a black box, as a lot of hedge funds are.
Nima: Obviously he wants there to be more anti-terrorism laws.
Adam: Right. He has direct financial investment in bloating defense contractors as the next half dozen people we will go into do as well and yet this is not mentioned in his op-ed. He’s presented as this neutral, sober, former official who is sort of concerned and he is an academic, he teaches. No, of course he’s gonna want to bloat the security state. We’ll read you another example. There was, I think, a very badly done ProPublica, sort of a nominally liberal activist publication, had a headline, “Domestic Terrorism: A More Urgent Threat, but Weaker Laws.” That played into the idea that they just don’t have enough laws, which Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to her credit, was very quick to dismiss this idea that they need more laws because they have the laws, they just don’t really care. As well as these 157 civil rights groups, including many legal groups, including the ACLU, are very quick to note that, no no, no, they have plenty of laws, they just don’t give a shit. So there’s a quote in this article, this largely sympathetic article, they let someone by the name of Tom O’Connor, he is simply referred to as a retired FBI agent, they quote at length about how we really need a domestic terror law. Tom O’Connor is a contractor at FEDSquaredConsulting, he is a national security consultant who bills governments in the private industry to provide security. Again, conflict of interest goes undisclosed. Our old friend David Rothkopf himself gets paid $850,000 a year as a lobbyist for the United Arab Emirates, he has a podcast on Deep State Radio, he brought on Frank Figliuzzi about his new book, The FBI Way, where both of them argued why we need a domestic terror law. Figliuzzi used to work for ETS Risk Management, a security consulting firm, it’s not clear if he still does, but he used to, but he’s definitely part of the spook show soup.
Nima: And a somewhat critical roundup of these efforts to create new terror laws, Alex Emmons wrote in The Intercept an article that actually cited Jason Blazakis as a neutral commentator, in this piece, described only as, quote, “a former State Department Official and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies,” what the article didn’t mention is that Blazakis is also president of Riptide Threat Mitigation Group, Inc., which describes itself as a geopolitical risk consultancy that works for governments and corporations to — what else? — mitigate security risks.
Adam: So on their website, one of their major clients is Talos Energy, which is one of the major extractors of oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a Houston-based oil and gas company. On Blazakis’ website for Riptide Threat Mitigation Group, he’s got a fawning quote from this oil and gas company saying, quote —
Nima: A testimonial!
Adam: A testimonial saying, quote:
RTMG is an industry leader in security and geo-political risk services. Their expert advice and ability to open doors in key government offices is helping keep our people safe when they operate overseas. RTMG is worth every penny.
So Blazakis also wrote, he’s also written three pieces in Slate arguing in each of them for a domestic terrorist law. Nowhere in his biography or anywhere in the articles do they disclose the fact that he, again, is part of an industry that profits off of expanding state security powers. We can debate whether or not that should be disclosed, I think it probably should but this is the way it works. All these people have these security consultant side hustles where they really actually make their money and then they have their academic credentials that lend them the air of neutrality and that air of neutrality is precisely why journalists seek them out without noting their conflicts of interest. Former Director of the CIA and Secretary of State Leon Panetta, under Obama, he wrote an article on January 28th, entitled, “The risks of ignoring domestic terrorists are huge,” where he advocated for a domestic terror law, saying that they didn’t have the tools, they always have to say we don’t have the tools, right? And of course, he is on the board of directors of a major billion dollar defense contractor, Oracle, and a senior advisor to Global Beacon Strategies, which is a who’s who of defense contractors. It’s a glorified lobbying firm. The Intercept calls it a lobbying firm. It’s a lobbying firm for a black box of clients, including we know from other reporting in 2015, many of whom are defense contractors. So he has, of course, a lot to gain by a new battlefield in the war on terror. A Politico article on the same subject debating the efficacy of a new terror law, wrote, quote, “Some former national security officials argue that the Biden NSC needs to emphasize the issue further, with a distinct office focused solely on domestic terrorism. ‘The new administration should strongly consider elevating the [domestic terrorism] issue, as it rightly has with cybersecurity,’ said Brian Harrell, a former senior DHS official who worked on domestic terrorism issues.’” Left undisclosed is that Brian Harrell is vice president and chief security officer for a natural gas conglomerate heavily involved in fracking called AVANGRID, and is on the board of directors of LookingGlass Cyber Solutions, a government security contractor. So clearly elevating cyber security is in his financial interest, and again, you see this time and again that the same industries like oil, gas and fracking that have every incentive to push more severe domestic terror laws, have a lot of connections to this, again, all their hearts are suddenly bleeding to fight white supremacy, right? These groups clearly care as much as our next example does.
Nima: Yeah, this is perhaps my favorite. So CNBC covered an appearance that former police commissioner of New York William Bratton did with Shepard Smith. So the the article on CNBC is headlined, “Domestic terrorism has superseded the threat of international terrorism, warns ex-NYC police commissioner.” And so in it and to Shep Smith, Bill Bratton insists that the US — what else? — does not have the quote, “tools to battle domestic terrorism” end quote, and that a new law is, of course, needed. Bill Bratton is, incidentally, the police commissioner who popularized and still to this day, wholeheartedly defends both the brutal stop-and-frisk program and Broken Windows policing systems in New York City and beyond. That Bratton, now suddenly, is very, very concerned, of course, with the threat of domestic terrorism, I guess as long as his cops aren’t the ones doing it. Clearly, he really cares about white supremacist violence. And when it comes to Bratton, there’s pretty much no like NatSec gravy train that he’s not profiting off. So yes, he was the NYPD Commissioner, but what is never disclosed is that Bratton is also on the board of directors of defense contractor Mission Ready Solutions, and the policing hardware company ShotSpotter. Now, the article in CNBC also cites Nate Snyder, describing him as quote, “Former Homeland Security Department counterterrorism official,” and it says this, that he echoed Bratton’s statements on The News with Shepard Smith saying this, quote, “If you’re talking about the lethality of the threat, domestic terrorism — meaning violent white supremacists, neo-Nazis, sovereign citizens, militia movements — have been the most lethal threat in these past ten years compared to Al Qaeda and ISIS- inspired threats,” end quote. So that’s from Snyder. Now, again, nowhere isn’t mentioned that this guy, Nate Snyder, is Executive Vice President at Cambridge Global Advisors, a quote unquote “strategic advisory services” group that, quote, “assist our clients in the management, development, and implementation of their national security programs, practices, and policies, with a special interest in homeland security,” end quote. Now, Cambridge Global Advisors has what they call a “private investment firm” that focuses on early stage venture capital opportunities in — what fields? What else? — national security, cybersecurity, sustainable energy opportunities, and leverage buyout opportunities in smaller companies in the defense sector.
Adam: Right, so we keep going to Ben and Jerry’s and asking them if the federal government should fund research into ice cream. It’s like, what do you think they’re going to say, of course, they’re going to say we need more laws, more power, more funding, that is who they are and so this is the problem with the exportation industry, we’ve talked about on the show to death, is that they are ripe with conflicts, undisclosed conflicts of interest. There’s a reason why their bios never say, the president of this consulting firm, or that they work as a board of directors for this military contractor. They’re very aware of what they’re doing, right? And this is to say nothing of the dozens of think tanks that exist to launder corporate influence — we’re even setting that aside — these are people with direct ties to the policing and defense industries and they’re the ones who are eagerly waiting in the wings with the papers, and the research and the gravitas, and the mercenary PhDs, ready to jump in and say, ‘Actually, the way we solve this problem, this is going to shock you to learn, but the way we solve it is to give me and my buddies more money and power.’ Well, of course they’re gonna say that, what the fuck else are they going to say? ‘No, we’re good actually. We have enough laws, actually.’ The issue of white supremacy is violence grows much deeper, and in fact, is inextricably entwined with law enforcement. Of course, they’re not going to say that, right?
Nima: Right. So inherently, there’s this idea, and deliberately maintained, I should say, there’s this idea that there’s law enforcement on one side, and then white nationalist domestic terrorism on the other side, as if there is not a near circular Venn diagram there. So to backtrack a bit and talk about where this kind of rhetoric came from, this idea of the house always winning, of always pumping more money into the security state, let’s look at what happened following the tragic Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Now, on June 21, 1995, just two months after the Oklahoma City bombing, then President Bill Clinton issued a presidential directive that for the first time ever labeled terrorism as a quote-unquote “national security” issue. Now, this directive, called the “US Policy on Counterterrorism,” said this, quote:
It is the policy of the United States to deter, defeat and respond vigorously to all terrorist attacks on our territory and against our citizens, or facilities, whether they occur domestically, in international waters or airspace or on foreign territory. The United States regards all such terrorism as a potential threat to national security as well as a criminal act and will apply all appropriate means to combat it.
A later provision of the directive entitled “Enhancing Counterterrorism Capabilities” declares this, quote:
“The Secretaries of State, Defense, Treasury, Energy and Transportation, the Attorney General, the Director of Central Intelligence and the Director, FBI shall ensure that their organizations’ counterterrorism capabilities within their present areas of responsibility are well managed, funded and exercised.”
Now in the decades since this directive, terrorism would become effectively the main primary priority of the FBI itself. In a piece in WIRED from April of 2020, Garrett Graff basically had this love letter to the FBI with the headline, “25 Years After Oklahoma City, Domestic Terrorism Is on the Rise” and it has this subheadline, “In an exclusive interview with WIRED, FBI director Christopher Wray discusses a scourge that ‘moves at the speed of social media.’” And the article itself, quotes Wray as saying this, quote:
If you look at back in like 1995, I think the entire FBI had about 14 or 15 terrorism arrests — both international and domestic terrorism arrests — in a year. For the last two or three years, we’ve been humming along at about a little over 100 of each — that’s over 200 arrests on international and domestic terror cases combined in a year.
This article goes on to say that we must place more faith and more funding in the FBI as domestic terrorism rises, and effectively makes the scourge of international terrorism fade out of the mainstream thought.
Adam: Yeah, so there’s a sort of general idea that the basic outline, there was all this talk after the Abolish ICE movement about ICE being some hastily put together, the Department of Homeland Security being a thing that was hastily put together after 9/11. But that’s not really true and I think it’s sort of worth highlighting how that happened and why that happened. So from 1998 to 2001, there was a bipartisan congressional national security task force called the “US Commission on National Security/21st Century,” which released a three part report, the final version of which came out in January of 2001, and lobbied, among other things, for the creation of a streamlined domestic security agency they called the quote “The Homeland Security Agency.” They wrote that they, quote:
…recommend a new National Homeland Security Agency to consolidate and refine the missions of the nearly two dozen disparate departments and agencies that have a role in U.S. homeland security today.” They’d “recommend the creation of a new independent National Homeland Security Agency (NHSA) with responsibility for planning, coordinating, and integrating various U.S. government activities involved in homeland security. NHSA would be built upon the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with the three organizations currently on the front line of border security — the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, and the Border Patrol — transferred to it.
So the common narrative is that in the trauma and haste of 9/11, the American public sort of organically and somewhat haphazardly created these new and extraordinary powers, but I think what’s important to know for the purposes of this episode is that the tools were already in place, the policy papers written, the government reorganizing pre-existed 9/11 and the basic framework of Homeland Security was not a hasty post-9/11 reaction, it was a pre-existing power grab by elements in the national security state, who, you know, if they were here, they would say, ‘Well, we were right, or we called it or we saw the threats, and we sort of portended it,’ but I think it’s better to view it as a way of kind of exploiting the trauma of 9/11 to sort of jam through powers that would probably otherwise, not really happen.
Nima: Yeah, it’s effectively the same thing as what we’ve seen since January 6th, right? There are all these plans in place, and then they need that moment, they need that moment of shock to then implement these things that they had been planning on doing all along.
Adam: Right. And so this history gets hidden and I think for ideological purposes. So there’s a New York Times article in April of 2020, when there was an increase in wanting to abolish Homeland Security or ICE, the article headline, “Does a Dept. of Pandemics Sound Odd? Homeland Security Once Did, Too.” It argues that, quote, “Past crises have prompted major federal overhauls. Failings in the government handling of the coronavirus outbreak are likely to spur calls for another one.” The article starts out by saying:
Exactly one month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, two senior senators proposed the creation of an entirely new government department that would pull together the diverse, often competitive federal agencies whose lack of communication and coordination left the nation exposed to deadly terrorism on American soil. It became the Department of Homeland Security.
That’s sort of true enough, but again, it ignores the fact that there was a bipartisan task force —
Nima: For three years.
Adam: And so there’s this article from February 1, 2001 from the Associated Press that reads quote, “Panel: U.S. soil to be site of ‘catastrophic attack.’ Commission urges creation of agency to coordinate activities.” It would go on to say, the panel, quote, “recommended creating an independent ‘National Homeland Security Agency’ to plan, coordinate and integrate domestic security activities.” Unquote. And so, you know, I think it’s —
Nima: That’s seven months before 9/11.
Adam: Those who’ve seen the havoc that ICE has wrecked and so many immigrant lives can tell you that this kind of militarized border, which predated 9/11 to some extent, but really ramped up and was justified and funded by 9/11, that for the most part, whether it be going after black Muslims or whether it be going after immigrants, that the vast majority of law enforcement these organizations do is not really about Al-Qaeda. It is about people who are viewed as being surplus populations in the United States and so much of this is predicated on this kind of double game that you see specifically with the FBI, that the FBI is somehow a force of progress in civil rights, which is what they’re arguing now, right? They’re going that the FBI is going to fight white supremacists. One thing that I think can’t be emphasized enough or remembered enough is that this was the basic premise of the FBI during the COINTELPRO years from the mid ‘60s to early ‘70s when they assassinated Black leaders, blackmailed, extorted, created honeypot traps, you name it.
Nima: Perhaps most infamously, there’s the episode in late November 1964, when the FBI sent an anonymous letter to Martin Luther King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, urging King to commit suicide, to kill himself. Now, 10 days later, after this infamous letter, King himself met with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and praised Hoover for fighting the KKK in a meeting that was well publicized, right? It was widely publicized. So you have this article, an AP piece from December 2, 1964, and the article in the AP describes it as this, “FBI Infiltrates KKK, Hoover Tells King,” and it starts like this, quote, “J. Edgar Hoover told Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Tuesday that the FBI had infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups much as it did the Communist Party, it was learned after the two had chatted in the FBI director’s office.” So you know, they met for like over an hour, the news reports are, you know, excitedly talking about how the FBI is, you know, infiltrating the KKK and the article goes on to say this, quote, “Hoover’s disclosure of FBI infiltration into racist organizations is the first to this effect.” So yeah, amazing timing there, you threaten Martin Luther King and his family, effectively, and then you’re able to say, ‘Oh, no, don’t worry. We’re the ones protecting good citizens against the KKK.’
Adam: Yeah and they did a whole PR rollout about how they’re fighting white supremacists because that was again during the time in which the black civil rights movement and this was, the letter was in time for Martin Luther King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in December of 1964 and so the FBI needs to kind of co-op and undermine him by saying, ‘Oh, no, we’re not just going after black leaders and leftist and communists. We’re actually also going after the KKK.’
Nima: Oh, yeah.
Adam: And of course, we later learned that was mostly bullshit, according to Emma North-Best of MuckRock, an article she wrote in 2017, quote:
In testimony before the Church Committee, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Deputy Director acknowledged that the Bureau at one point made up as much as one-fifth of the Klu Klux Klan’s total membership — but were still powerless to curtail the KKK’s violence. His testimony also acknowledged police participation in said violence, and that the Bureau had three times as many ‘ghetto informants’ as they did those targeting white supremacist domestic terrorists.
So during the 1960s when they supposedly, when Hoover was, you know, his heart bled for white supremacy, much like William Bratton’s does and and the FBI Director does today, that they, by their own admission, had three times as many, quote unquote “ghetto informants” which means the number is probably six or seven times more.
Nima: Yeah, exactly.
Adam: And then it occurs to one that this is mostly just a public relations cover, that if you’re going to be an organization tasked with going after leftist, communist, black radicals, black moderates, for that matter.
Nima: You need the whole both sides thing, right? You need like the other —
Adam: Yeah, you need to do the whole both side things to maintain the illusion.
Nima: One fifth of the KKK’s total membership were FBI agents. So it’s like, ‘Hey, Joe, like, what are you doing here?’ ‘Oh, I’m, I’m undercover.’ ‘Oh, yeah, me too.’ (Laughs.) It’s completely absurd. Now, this phenomenon is not necessarily new. A parallel event, for instance, to this kind of KKK infiltration during the COINTELPRO years, also occurred in the 19th century. So in 1870, North Carolina Governor William Woods Holden was impeached and removed from office. Now, sociologist Jon Ben-Menachem recently noted on Twitter that Holden had formed a state militia to repress a KKK insurrection amid a climate of accelerating white supremacist violence in the state. Now according to the book Black Reconstruction in America, Holden was charged with, as W.E.B. Dubois has written, quote, “using and paying troops to put down insurrection in the state.” End quote. So regarding the formation of the militia, Holden is recorded as explaining, as Dubois has written, quote, “That as regarded the white militia, we all agreed, at least those of us who took part in this discussion, that the Governor would be employing a militia composed of Ku Klux to put down Ku Klux.” End quote.
Adam: Right. This has been around since the beginning, this double game of this institution that is quote-unquote “infiltrated” by white supremacists, it has white supremacy built into his DNA, actual literal white supremacists in its ranks, its charge is predominantly the protection of white people and white capital, that they’re going to be in charge with fighting the white radical extremists or white supremacists. This is at best a turf war among white supremacists of who gets to control white supremacy.
Adam: It is at worst a public relations ruse and we know this because at the same time that these, many of the blah people were lobbying the FBI to have more surveillance powers, more domestic terror laws, the FBI itself had created a quote-unquote “black identity extremist” designation, much like the gang associate, black identity extremist is an intentionally vague designation that can be applied to basically anyone. This was in the wake of many of the Black Lives Matter protests. The term was used by the FBI in the aftermath of Ferguson, supposedly from 2017 to 2019, when it was allegedly abandoned under public pressure once the designation of black identity extremists was revealed, although I’m sure other such designations almost certainly exist and there is, again, this is why you have very moderate democratic groups like the NAACP opposing the creation of a terror law because they know very well who that terror law will be targeting, it will not be targeting, it will be targeting, you know, white nationalist supremacists as part of some Potemkin plot maybe every six months for the cameras, for PR, but for the most part, that is very unlikely going to be what it’s used for because you cannot, again, use white supremacist institutions to attack white supremacy.
Nima: So we see this obviously not just with the issues of, you know, combating white nationalism or white supremacy, the idea that law enforcement, police, FBI, et cetera, et cetera are the most important responders, are the forces that must be empowered and funded to combat all of our societal ills. So I mean, you see it with mental health. There’s an article in Governing magazine that says this, quote, “In the country as a whole, mental health situations are responsible for about 1 in 10 police calls. Many stem from undiagnosed conditions unknown to police and first responders.” So Furthermore, in the wake of calls to defund the police this past summer, you had Kathleen Peters, a Congresswoman from Florida, writing in the Tampa Bay Times that what’s needed is surely not to defund the police, but to give them more funding, writing this, quote: “Don’t defund the police. Do this instead.” And what she advocated for is this, with this kind of amazing intro:
People with untreated mental health illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter, but there are solutions… In Pinellas County, we must swiftly fund a better system of care — a comprehensive system with easy access to services.
So obviously, this better system of care is not to take money away from police and give it to say healthcare professionals or social workers or people who can actually treat those in need in a different, less violent way then police often do, again, 16 times more likely to be killed. No, no, no, she advocates for funding the police to just do this better. So it’s this new line that we see all the time now, which is for all of these crises, whether it’s the opioid crisis or mental health or homelessness, we hear the same thing: we can’t arrest and jail our way out of this but the only solution is still to give more money to the people whose job it is to do those two things specifically and are not trained, nor should they be, in doing the other less violent, less carceral things.
Adam: And we saw this with all the body cam bullshit after Ferguson. So thankfully, the demands after the George Floyd killing were far more clear or radical in many ways, but after Ferguson, there was a whole movement to fund body cams, which of course gave more money to the police and this trend they tried to dust it off after George Floyd as well. So there’s this article in The Boston Globe that is pretty dystopian from December of 2020, the article read, “From body cameras to training, grants help police forces equip for the future.” Quote:
Natick is expanding training to help its police officers avoid racial bias in their work. Lakeville is equipping its officers with body-worn cameras. Burlington is buying a data radar recorder to evaluate resident complaints about speeding drivers. At a time when many municipalities are strapped for funds, area police departments are getting fresh resources to prevent crime and bolster enforcement and training through federal dollars recently awarded by the state.” They would go on to say, “The grants will meet an assortment of needs — from mountain bikes to tasers, breathalyzers, and electronic speed signs ― but many of the initiatives are geared to address the national calls for police accountability and reforms sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement.
What? That’s not at all what the demands were. People weren’t in the streets calling for mountain bikes and equipment and weapons and surveillance tools. But that is just very much on brand and, you know, this is just one article but there’s dozens of these articles out there saying that, ‘Oh, in response to Black Lives Matter there, they’re doing more bias training, and they’re gonna get more federal funding,’ and again, we’ve talked about this before in Episode 122, but that is not what reformers are asking. They’re not asking for more money and power. But again, the house always wins. It doesn’t matter what the fucking problem is mysteriously the solution is to bloat the police and security and military state. And so we see this with the scourge of school shootings because getting rid of, outlawing guns or creating gun control is just completely out of the fucking question in our country. You have an emerging bipartisan, although it’s largely driven by Republicans, effort to fund more security theater and PTSD sowing, security drills in public schools. So there’s this article from FEE, quote, “Funding for the entire US school system is $700 billion — and $ 2.7 billion of that is for security features alone — that’s automatic locking doors, metal detectors, and facial recognition software.” The education sector of the U.S. market for security equipment and services is expected to stay around $2.8 billion through 2021, according to a report by financial data company IHS Markit. So in the wake of the school shooting at Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Congress earmarked $1 billion towards public school safety, much of which comes from surveillance equipment and more police to be used over the next decade. So again, the house always wins. School shooting? While we’re not going to deal with, you know, social alienation, white supremacy, misogynist violence, we’re not going to deal with — I don’t know — the fact that there’s fucking 1,000 guns for each person in this country.
Nima: We’re not going to remove guns from society.
Adam: No, no, no, we’re just going to give more money to — you guessed it — surveillance, to the police and the private security apparatus.
Nima: Now, as we’ve discussed previously, this kind of rhetoric and funding, not just rhetoric, but actual policy, is rampant when it comes to climate change. That, you know, Joe Biden is going to make climate change a national security priority. What does all of this mean? It means that you are pumping more and more money into the Pentagon, using martial language to rally support and say, ‘Well, this is an existential threat, who better to mobilize than our troops and give them the resources and tools and funding that they need,’ without actually addressing the fact that the US military is one of the most egregious carbon emitters, is responsible for a massive amount of climate killing action itself. It’s never to rein that in. It’s never to, you know, close bases around the world, it’s never to stop the use of tanks or submarines or aircraft carriers or bringing people home from occupying foreign lands. No, no, no, it is always to pump even more money into the Pentagon, because that is the fucking solution to everything.
Adam: We won’t go into great detail, listen to the episode, it’s all covered in Episode 122. Another subject we see this quite a bit is homelessness, the subject itself, which always involves police and martial responses, or at least did up until this summer when people finally started talking about having non police responses to homelessness, but there was a moral panic around homelessness in Austin, which we touched on in our a two part episode on how the media demonizes homeless people that was fueled to a large extent by local CBS affiliate in Austin and there was a city ordinance that was passed that changed it so police couldn’t ticket homeless people for camping outdoors and this led to a lot of anger from local NIMBY Republicans, right-wing liberal types and CBS2 had a bunch of different stories around that summer and fall that tried to make this really convoluted argument, which is something you see a lot — NYPD does a lot, New York does this a lot — that police harassing or arresting homeless people or they use the term citation but really citation just means arrest because they can’t pay their fines and that almost always leads to arrest, is actually good for homeless people. This is an argument that city council members have been making for years, that the police are somehow social workers with guns and I want to listen to this local CBS segment. It’s pretty shocking stuff, it’s pretty amazing stuff, where they argue that ever since the police can’t ticket and jail homeless people, that that in fact is hurting homeless people from getting in touch with social services.
Anchor: Now it’s a packed house downtown where a public safety forum about homelessness is wrapping up. It’s an issue rocking the city right now as police adapt to new rules about camping in public.
Hema Muller: Tonight frustrated business owners are bringing their complaints to the city. We’re hearing from several people who think these laws are unfair. CBS Austin’s Melanie Torre is live downtown tonight. Melanie, homelessness is an issue some people want police to fix.
Melanie Torre: They do Hema, but if there’s nothing illegal happening then there’s really nothing that police can do. Before the rules changed, police could ask someone who was homeless to move if their presence was bothering a home or business owner and if they didn’t move then they could get a ticket. There’s been a lot of support for no longer ticketing but Police tell us sometimes those tickets helped people get the resources they need. Under I35, just steps from the Austin Police Department.
Man: It is not illegal nor should it be to be homeless.
Melanie Torre: Several people camping because they have nowhere else to go. Assistant Chief Justin Newsom sees the same people every day and knows many by name.
Justin Newsom: Hey Wanda, how are you?
Melanie Torre: Wanda has been homeless for six years. She’s tried to get housing multiple times and has been in and out of shelters. One of her neighbors, Jenise, is close to getting off the street.
Justin Newsom: She’s extremely hopeful because she has a case manager through the Downtown Auckland Community Court who’s working with her to get her to get these things and to get her housed.
Melanie Torre: Newsom says several people, like Jenise, found help after run ins with police.
Justin Newsom: She has that caseworker because she was issued tickets for camping.
Melanie Torre: This month, APD stopped ticketing people for sleeping or camping in public space.
Justin Newsom: It’s going to be interesting to see how many people are still served in that same manner when the tickets and the citations drop.
Melanie Torre: He explains people who got tickets for illegally camping went to Downtown Community Court. Newsom describes it as a social justice court, not a criminal court aAnd he’s sure several people’s lives are better because of it.
Justin Newsom: And a person can make the argument well, then we need to find a better way than that by giving them criminal sanctions and I don’t disagree with that if it’s possible, you know, and so it’s just something that’s going to have to still be worked out, you know, going forward.
Adam: So this is great. This is classic.
Nima: Oh, my gosh, a social justice court, Adam.
Adam: It’s a social justice court.
Nima: It’s a social justice court. animal justice or justice calm.
Adam: This is great. This is the ultimate security state packing normal security state measures into liberalese. That in fact, it’s woke to have armed police officers harassing and ticketing and jailing homeless people, because that’s how they connect them with services. Now, the obvious question would be, if you know where they are, isn’t there a better way to get them in touch with services? No, no, no, the police, apparently the only way we can do this —
Nima: Oh, no.
Adam: This is just a classic example.
Nima: Write those up, they need the paper trail in order for you to help them Adam. Didn’t you know that?
Adam: Local Austin media ran several of these stories, and this has been done in other cities as well, the idea that social workers with guns, that you should keep funding the police because actually, they’re an outreach program. Tucson, Arizona has an outreach program of homeless people with the police. Now, of course, the police are not in the business of helping homeless people. The police are in the business of protecting property and arresting people and prosecuting people, which is what they do in Austin very often. So this is the, you know, the headline reads, “Austin Police Dept: Citations helped connect homeless with services.” I want you to think really hard about a third option.
Nima: Think about that.
Adam: Maybe there’s a third option there, I don’t know what it would be but this is, the house always wins. The police don’t want to be defunded so they try to pivot themselves into mental health care professionals.
Nima: Into social justice courts.
Adam: Yeah and there’s this narrative that because we got the social safety net that these social crises fall on police, they sort of reluctantly take them on but that’s not really true. The social services are cut in concert with the police taking them on because it expands their power and authority. This is not a reluctant thing, this gives them more money, it gives them more bullshit trainings, it gives them more authority, gives them more control over what they do. There’s no indication that these police are turning down this extra money. It’s not like they don’t want to take on those responsibilities and that is part of how the house always wins, that no matter what the problem is we have to have a martial or military or police solution to it because that is how you show you take things seriously in our culture and that perverse incentive scheme is how we get these bloated police budgets that are $1 billion, $2 billion and cities that are cutting social services. That’s how we get a $90 million Police Training Academy in West Chicago while Rahm Emanuel was shutting schools and shutting mental healthcare facilities because it is the language in which, it’s like the guest we had on calling from Joliet State Prison in Illinois, the only language they understand is violence. That is how we understand social problems that it has to involve some sort of carceral or militaristic solution or that somehow means you don’t take it seriously when really what it means is that you just want to keep doing the same power serving bullshit we’ve been doing since the beginning of this country.
Nima: To discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by Nicole Nguyen, Associate Professor of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Her research focuses on the intersections of national security and public schooling. She is the author of the book Suspect Communities: Anti-Muslim Racism and the Domestic War on Terror. More recently she co-authored, with Yazan Zahzah, a report entitled, Why Treating White Supremacy as Domestic Terrorism Won ’t Work and How to Not Fall for It: A Toolkit for Social Justice Advocates. Nicole will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Nicole Nguyen. Nicole, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Nicole Nguyen: Thanks so much for having me.
Adam: The report you recently co-authored with Yazan Zahzah was titled, Why Treating White Supremacy as Domestic Terrorism Won ’t Work and How to Not Fall for It, very direct, which we love, oftentimes, these studies can be very opaque, that is definitely not opaque. It turned out to be quite prophetic in the wake of the January 6th siege or storming of the Capitol by white nationalist elements, QAnon elements, in an apparent attempt to intimidate lawmakers and/or kill them. We now see a surge in attempts, as we discussed at the top of the episode, to channel this justified outrage and disgust response to the siege into long existing, pre-existing national security framework centered around so-called domestic terrorism. I want to begin, as we try to do in the show, in kind of general terms about why you think this framework, while tempting and understandable, can be quite dangerous, and why this framework itself can act to prop up white supremacist violence.
Nicole Nguyen: Sure. I guess I would say that there’s two main limitations or dangers in trying to equate white supremacy with domestic terrorism. The first is that by applying the label of domestic terrorism to white supremacy, we can justify the expansion of policing regimes that end up targeting communities of color. So the idea around domestic terrorism legislation is that we create new forms of policing, new laws, as a so-called response to white supremacy but we know that these laws inevitably end up targeting communities of color, because we’re sort of intensifying or supporting institutions, white supremacist institutions like policing, that target communities of color. So I think that’s one, right? The dangers of increasing a law enforcement response to this so-called domestic terrorism threat, white supremacy, and then I think the second is really the limitations of the concept of terrorism. The concept of terrorism came from the state. It’s a state concept, its research around terrorism is funded by the state and the intention has always been to identify something we can call terrorism and then justify military interventions, justify policing regimes, even while the concept of terrorism has never been useful to understand political violence, like Al-Qaeda, Taliban, ISIS, and if we think about how those groups have been treated, we often conflate them, that Al-Qaeda is the same as the Taliban in the same way that the Boogaloo Boys and the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers are the same when they’re actually quite sectarian, they’re organizing under different politics, they have different goals and so the concept of terrorism also makes it hard for us to understand what happened on January 6th beyond this reductive idea that it’s just, you know, a bunch of rioters who decided to storm the Capitol. Terrorism doesn’t help us understand the moment.
Nima: You do a lot of work around the federal program known as “countering violent extremism,” which as you’ve noted, is presented as like a liberal alternative to the war on terror, but in reality I think it’s really anything but an alternative, right? So with this in mind, it’s no surprise that you have worked alongside of and several groups credited with assisting your own research, are groups led by Muslims, by Palestinians, by black youth, and others historically targeted by the alphabet soup of, you know, police, FBI, NSA, CIA, and of course Homeland Security. Can you maybe talk about and, you know, it really links directly to what you were just saying about the insurrection, can you kind of talk about why these historically marginalized and surveilled and trapped communities might not be too eager to use the terrorism frame and certainly not to expand the so-called countering violent extremism program?
Nicole Nguyen: Sure. So I think a way to think about countering violent extremism or CVE is to think about how, you know, when there were, during the sort of black freedom struggle of the ’60s and ’70s there was really this crisis around policing, that police didn’t have any legitimacy, that they were seen as using brutal violence to suppress black community organizing, and so they came up with these community policing programs to essentially restore police legitimacy without ever defanging law enforcement and so CVE kind of takes its cue from community policing. The idea is police have been heavily criticized for infiltrating mosques, for criminalizing religiosity and expressions of Islam, and so the government said, ‘Okay, well, instead of doing all this law enforcement, heavy work, we’ll just call on teachers and social workers to identify young people who they think are vulnerable to becoming terrorists, and then report them to law enforcement.’ So community members and social service providers sort of become the middle person who acts sort of as the police, as deputized as the police to take on these policing functions. So this, again, it casts suspicion on the everyday behaviors of young people, young people of color, where anything can get coded as a potential sign of terrorist violence and so even though it looks like, you know, a social worker has your best interest and if they see these signs they want to intervene, the idea is that we’re looking for signs and that we assume that political violence resides in individual pathologies, that the problem is with individual people, and we don’t have to think about structural racism, we don’t have to think about US empire, we don’t have to think about military interventions because the problem of terrorism, of white supremacy resides in individual bodies, we just have to intervene and modify individual bodies and minds and psyches rather than actually think about the deeper sort of structural issues that are actually organizing and driving the violence to begin with.
Nima: And it turns everyone into a cop, and as you said, the very people that are effectively entrusted to support these communities or support these individuals then are imbued with not only this power to report, but empowered to always be suspicious of and to surveil the very populations that they’re ostensibly there to help.
Adam: Yeah, because I think one thing you touch on is this double game that we talked about earlier where, for example, we use the example of the FBI in November of 1964, sent a letter, an anonymous letter that Martin Luther King’s group of people and his wife quickly knew was from J. Edgar Hoover, the news from the FBI, later confirmed in the ‘70s, that it was under the Church Committee, they sent a letter compelling Martin Luther King to commit suicide, they did this to several Black leaders. COINTELPRO ran these harassment regimes and then less than 10 days later, J. Edgar Hoover meets with MLK, and insists to him and does a whole media rollout about how they’ve arrested all these KKK members and this is sort of a more extreme example of, I think, what we’re talking about, which is, it seems like to me that the extent to which the FBI goes after white supremacists, oftentimes with these Potemkin plots that we see with Muslim Americans, so to similar elements in kind of entrapment, buying bombs, et cetera, kind of a lot of theater — so in many ways, they’re not even really stopping real plots they’re just manufacturing them for the press — it seems like it’s a bit of a PR cover, and always has been to kind of justify going after black people, Muslims, leftists, so forth. I want to talk about this PR element of it, and again, I think it’s understandable, right? It’s understandable when people say, ‘Well, the FBI needs to take this threat from the right more seriously,’ but I think what we’re arguing here, and I think what you’re arguing, is that it’s based on a contradiction, that asking the FBI to go after white supremacists is like asking the Oath Keepers to go after the Proud Boys or the KKK to go after the Oath Keepers. It is itself a racist organization. Can we talk about this double game and to what extent you think that there’s a bit of PR here in terms of this sudden concern with white nationalism from the FBI and the National Security consultancy crowd?
Nicole Nguyen: Sure. I mean, I think you can’t call on a white supremacist organization like the FBI to stop white supremacy. I think that’s just an irreconcilable contradiction, and, you know, I think there always has been a double standard in how the police go after alleged white supremacist plots versus black political organizing, and I think here again, the idea that, that black political organizing, which has oftentimes been coded as black identity extremists, right? It’s been coded as terrorism, you know, under COINTELPRO, under the global war on terror, is somehow synonymous or equal to white supremacist violence and so this is the danger of calling both of these things terrorism, right? Broadening what counts as terrorism to include white supremacy is really just about building out white supremacist structures rather than actually addressing white supremacist institutions because if we were serious about addressing institutionalized racism, white supremacy, we wouldn’t be calling on a white supremacist organization and so I think part of this is that it diverts the calls from the summer to defund the police, to abolish the police, to say, ‘Oh, right, this is just, white supremacy is just a problem with individual extremists,’ right? That there’s just these radical people out there who’ve been duped on social media, who have been duped by our president, who then stormed the Capitol, and if we just arrest those people and lock them up, we’ve somehow solved the problem of white supremacy and that, is it a disinterested, you know, that approach is not interested in rooting out white supremacy. That’s just sort of papering over the issue, because it’s not, yeah, it’s not addressing, it misunderstands what white supremacy is and then reinvests in policing communities of color, and so for me, that’s the contradiction, but it’s an intentional contradiction.
Adam: Absolutely and I think you’re right, that the whole rollout arrest, post Capitol siege, had a very much a PR vibe, because every single arrest was accompanied by this kind of moral posturing by the FBI. Definitely, I don’t see how anyone can view that not in the context of the post George Floyd reforms. It seems like a huge PR, kind of, ‘Oh, don’t defund us because we can stop, you know, these white terrorists,’ and that seems exceptionally kind of sleazy to me.
Nicole Nguyen: And I think that was also brought to the floor of Congress that, you know, there’s this critique that liberal progressive-leaning Democrats, were calling for defunding the police, but then we’re happy the police protected them, and again, that’s it’s a distraction from what the actual issues are. The right and policing agencies are using the moment well to sort of repair that image of the police.
Nima: Yeah, I think this all really speaks to the kind of broader theme of this episode, which is that the house always wins, that no matter what the crisis is, whether it’s, you know, racist police violence, structural and systemic white supremacy, homelessness, so-called terrorism, climate change even, there are institutional incentives for the solution to always, as you were saying, Nicole, reinvest in and further empower and fund the security and carceral state. So yes, of course, there is this incentive and I think that the law enforcement agencies, security state agencies have been really promoting this well through their own PR post January 6th insurrection, but the kind of leaning into this posture, as you were just saying, by say, liberals, even even more, you know, progressive leaning liberals to use this martial, military framework only serves that same system. Can we just talk about the kind of broader sense of always reverting back to the security state as the only conceivable mechanism for maintaining our current society as opposed to any potential alternatives that movements for justice actually put forward?
Nicole Nguyen: Yeah, I think that’s why, for me, it’s so important to not buy into this domestic terrorism framing because it makes us unable to actually understand what this political moment is and because it makes us turn to these disruptive solutions around policing and security regimes that, you know, actually harm communities of color more than they protect communities of color. So for me, you know, actually how we understand the moment and what we call it is really important to then thinking about how do we respond to this political moment, and I think abolition is a world making project. And so I think that the desire to immediately respond and arrest, you know, the folks who participated in the armed takeover is a sort of short sighted, sort of knee jerk reaction as though somehow by arresting a few white supremacists we’re going to solve the problem of white supremacy and so I think if we can start undoing these sort of desires in the logics that organize them, we can sort of begin to turn away from this law enforcement, security apparatus focused response to the January 6th takeover, but without rethinking the moment we don’t have any way of sort of identifying these alternative pathways. I think you see, you know, in the pandemic, you see the rise of mutual aid and these other forms of building community and collectivizing that is showing we can build safety in other ways. So I do think there are openings in that sense, but I think this is part of the danger of immediately calling this domestic terrorism, calling Trump a terrorist president, it is that framing that then leads us down this sort of policing rabbit hole and so I don’t think this is the only solution, but I think we can only imagine policing if we have this particular understanding of what happened on January 6th, and then of what makes us safe, and if we can undo those logics, we can start to imagine a different kind of world.
Adam: Yeah, because it’s not theoretical either because I think there was a temptation to be like, ‘Well, you know, the word terror is sort of for rhetorical effect,’ is kind of, because in our society to show you’re serious about something, you have to use martial terms, right? ‘Oh, Biden’s serious about climate change, we know that because he said, the Pentagon said, it’s a national security issue.’ You’re serious about the mental health crisis, because we gave them the police money, like it’s a way of sort of showing you’re serious and liberals love nothing more than to kind of do the the national security posture.
Nima: Everything’s a “war on,” it’s a “war on.”
Nicole Nguyen: Yeah.
Adam: There’s something, that endorphin that goes off in their brain where they feel like they’re in the West Wing or something and I want to sort of talk about how that rhetoric, again, I think it’s very understandable, I get why certain communities who are frustrated with the asymmetry of law enforcement, I’m very sympathetic to and I understand that human instinct to want to kind of even the playing field there, but there’s quickly this kind of transubstantiation that happens, where it goes from kind of metaphor or rhetorical gambit to an actual policy. I mean, it was only a matter of minutes before, and one of the worst examples, I remember this, was after the the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, something that was sort of universally loathed by progressives, and even liberals for the longest time, was the terror watch list and then suddenly, overnight, we were saying, because the gun control world could not get a win ever, right? And so they thought they could get clever by outflanking them on the right by saying, don’t you not want people on the terror watch list to have guns, and they literally did a sit in on the Senate floor, you know, Bernie, Warren, all these sort of progressives advocating for an expanded use of the terror watch list and now for that two weeks, I felt like I was going, I was losing my mind because this is something five minutes ago we all agreed was bad and now suddenly, it’s woke. And I kind of want to talk about this moral hazard of the only way, and this is kind of the broader theme of the show, the only way it seems you can ever get people to care, is if you put things in security state terms, and I imagine for an abolitionist or activists such as yourself, this is kind of frustrating, because some people hearing this may think, ‘Oh, well, they’re trying to downplay white nationalism,’ and I want you to sort of address that criticism, address the idea that to have a Marshall response is per se to take something seriously and how do we break down that mindset?
Nicole Nguyen: You know, for folks who are calling for a Marshall response, have to understand that, for many people of color, the police are the source of terror, they are the source of brutality, it’s not law enforcement who makes you safe and so I think the privilege of calling on law enforcement is made plain by saying we should just deploy the police, sort of ignoring these long histories of how the police then have turned on communities of color, and in fact, were created and professionalized to police and enforce and brutalize communities of color. So is it that individual white supremacists vigilantes are what makes us unsafe? Yes. Is it law enforcement agencies that make us unsafe? Yes. So I guess I just don’t understand how we can call on law enforcement agencies that have been deputized to brutalize communities of color to stop white supremacists. And for me, this kind of speaks to the the idea that this came through in the ’60s and ’70s in the United States that if we just had more anti-racist training, if we could just get people to get along, racism wouldn’t be a problem in this country, and again, it’s saying that the problem is these individual people, and we don’t actually have to look at, we can lock people up, we can have them do anti-bias training, you know, we can monitor their social media activity and it’s also locating the problem in these individual people and it is ignoring that those individual people are symptoms of sort of this deeper structural problem of white supremacy and if you change the sort of structural racism, the structural inequality that’s built in to the United States, you don’t have those white supremacists anymore, so you don’t need to call on law enforcement. So for me, that’s the knocking off, you know, one or two vigilantes does nothing to destabilize the roots of white supremacy and if you just got rid of the roots of white supremacy, you wouldn’t have to worry about those extreme forms of vigilante violence.
Nima: Yeah, I think it’s kind of amazing how even the liberal approach to this idea of who is to blame who needs to be brought to justice has this right-wing framework of individual responsibility that is such a conservative trope, you know, small government, individual responsibility and whatever the third one is, no taxes, and so this idea that focusing on the individual rather than the structural, rather than the historic and embedded systems and to see that kind of operate even at this level of who needs to be, say, brought to justice and why and how is I just think, you know, even further embedding this idea that is at its core very, very right-wing.
Nicole Nguyen: And I think to get to an earlier point is that this is also a tactic to sort of divert our attention away from the gains around abolition organizing from the summer, right?
Nicole Nguyen: So there are these very clear calls to defund and abolish the police and there is a structural analysis that policing institutions are white supremacist institutions, there is that structural analysis, and there were clear structural demands to make change and now you have January 6th, and all of a sudden, we’re no longer making these structural arguments, we’re not demanding to defund the police, we’re calling to refund and intensify policing.
Nicole Nguyen: So for me in that way, it’s certainly a tactic to divert away from this radical organizing that has gained so much steam and I think, again, this is something you see across history of policing institutions trying to respond to these policing crises under the pressure of community organizing and community organizers making really clear gains in terms of structural racism and dismantling structural racism.
Nima: And the disconnect, I think, between liberal or democratic, even progressive lawmakers, feeling the need to and I’m sure genuinely also feeling because of what happened that day, praising the Capitol Police and thanking law enforcement for quote-unquote “keeping them safe,” while then not connecting that with the fact that we have also seen that countless members of the mob that attacked the Capitol, were off duty cops or former military or current military.
Adam: They are bad apples Nima. They’re just anomalies. They’re freaks of nature, the statistical deviations.
Nima: (Laughing) Exactly.
Nicole Nguyen: Yeah. I mean, I think the analyses that came after were, the rhetoric was policing agencies, the FBI is infected by or infiltrated by a white supremacists, right? And again, the more that idea circulates, the more it destabilizes the clear summer demands around the FBI as a white supremacist institution. So I think those narratives, it’s seizing the moment.
Nima: Water is infiltrated by H2O.
Nicole Nguyen: Exactly, exactly.
Adam: Yeah. So I want to get to sort of brass tacks here in terms of what the approach would be then, because I think some people listening to this, our proverbial fence sitting liberal listening to this says, ‘Okay, this is all sort of great in theory, it sounds sort of lofty and idealistic but white supremacists are a threat now, today, they are threatening communities of color, they’re organizing,’ you know, such and such and right now, the only mechanism, the only tool we have that can maybe disrupt that is law enforcement and that these kind of big picture, decades long plans don’t really do vulnerable communities any good right now who may be subject to their terror. Setting aside the the actual actual material, negative effects of expanding the powers of the FBI, which is why again, I think so many Muslim Palestinian organizations signed up for this because the downsides are not theoretical — every single time they hear the war on terror, correctly all their fucking red flags go off, they got more red flags than the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in China — and I want you to sort of talk about what the kind of alternative is then, like you say, okay, we need to combat white supremacy structurally, for someone who maybe sees that as being a little bit squishy let’s sort of talk about what that looks like. You mentioned mutual aid, you mentioned the abolitionist organizations, what does a kind of non CVE, non Marshall, deradicalization or way of confronting white supremacy look like?
Nicole Nguyen: Well, I would say to sort of historicize that white supremacy has always been a threat in this country and there’s nothing new about this particular moment. Perhaps the visibility of the threat of vigilante white supremacists is something new in the way that the visibility around the police killing of black folks in the street is not new, but more highly visible in this historical moment. Ruth Wilson Gilmore talks about abolition as presence and not absence and the building up of life affirming institutions that crowd out the need for law enforcement to make healthcare systems not racist, to build alternatives to law enforcement and so for me that it’s that deep structural work that’s not going to happen overnight, it’s not going to happen in the next month or the next two months, but I think the demands around reinvesting in communities, reinvesting in social resources, redistributing wealth, those are the sort of long term goals of many abolitionists. I think that’s the only way we sort of get at this sort of structural problem of white supremacy. I know that it’s not going to satisfy most liberal listeners who are saying, ‘But there’s individual white people who we could put in prison for storming the Capitol,’ and for me, I don’t know what the material benefit of that is because there’s more white supremacists who are, you know, vigilantes who are being created every day through sort of the norms and logics of a white supremacist society and so for me, if you want to get at those vigilantes who are sort of at the top, if you think of this as white supremacy as an iceberg, and those white supremacists are sort of the most visible signs of a white supremacist society, sure, you can go after those most extreme and visible forms of white supremacy, but you still have all these structural conditions that are going to continue to produce vigilantes. So if you actually want to get rid of the vigilante white supremacist, the work is actually the deep, long term struggle to sort of root out white supremacist institutions out of US society. So for me, I understand that this is not going to happen overnight and I understand it’s a long term struggle but for me, that’s how you begin to sort of chip away at white supremacy, rather than try to suppress its most extreme forms, while leaving intact, the conditions.
Adam: And plus there’s, to me, there’s the issue of, and you see this with the so-called war on ISIS, especially domestically, where the thing is when they foil these plots, when you actually read the fine print, as I’m sure you know in your work, there was never really going, for the most part, for a lot of these plots, this is true even for these white supremacist plots they foil, they probably would not have existed had it not been for half a dozen informants and agents pushing it along. So even when there which, you know, we discussed at great length in our episode on the kind of so-called ISIS plots where they, you know, create inert bombs and or they meet some poor guy at the, you know, some poor schmuck at the airport, they’re not really stopping anything, it’s kind of theater. Because again, the organization of the capital was in plain sight, it was out in the open, the FBI had all the statutory and logistical capacity to stop it, it was out in the open, the president was on TV talking about it and then the police, like you said, when they were there, there were a lot of evidence they let them in, or they were sympathetic to, which anyone who’s ever been to any of these protests knows that. So it’s like, even to the extent to which if they had new laws or if they had new powers, I have no evidence that they would not just use it to do some PR fake plots every now and then. It doesn’t even seem like there’s much motivation or institutions to even do anything about white supremacist violence as such. So I don’t know, it seems like they’ll just make up a couple plots.
Nicole Nguyen: Yeah, I think part of what we show in the report is that even when there’s, you know, we use this case of this guy who vandalized a synagogue in Chicago, and he’s subjected to this deradicalization program, right? Like, we’re going to make you not a white supremacist anymore and it doesn’t work. There’s no social science behind this idea of so-called deradicalization. The idea that you can use therapy to root out white supremacy in an individual because again, it’s the idea is that the problem is rooted in the individual and you can somehow counsel out white supremacy and so I think those examples of how these individual deradicalization programs don’t work with white supremacists is also important, because it shows that we can identify all the white supremacists we want and we can, you know, have therapy and do social programming and all of that and that’s actually, that doesn’t work and so I think the law enforcement strategy, the social work, therapy kind of strategy doesn’t work and so we actually have to think about what are the deeper issues that are creating vigilantes, creating white supremacists? That’s the work that has to be done rather than sort of going after a few bad apples.
Adam: Yeah, well, we could do a whole episode on the bogus reformed Nazi movement, which I know you’ve written about quite a bit, but we won’t do that, but that whole thing is yeah, it’s very, ABC News and CBS in 60 Minutes love that shit.
Nima: Oh yeah, ‘Former skinhead speaks out on racial equity.’
Adam: Yeah, getting a $40,000 speech now suddenly, that seems weird to me.
Nima: Nicole, before we let you go, can you tell our listeners about some of the other projects you and the organizations you work with our digging into, what we can look forward to and of course, how we can potentially help out?
Nicole Nguyen: Sure. So Vigilant Love, which helped produce the report, has a campaign, the hashtag is #ServicesNotSurveillance, that’s pushing back the conscription of social service providers like mental healthcare professionals into the war on terror, targeting Muslims. So that’s something for sure to be on the lookout for. We will have a couple more reports focusing on this idea of radicalization and deradicalization and exploring more of the concept of terrorism in the coming months. But yeah, the campaign is still building steam around contesting countering violent extremism programs, digging into sort of the Biden administration’s focus on domestic terrorism and how that might play out, so there’ll be a lot of things coming out of Vigilant Love and also there’s a coalition called Stop CVE if folks are interested. There’s a website stopsve.com where you can learn more.
Nima: That is perfect. We’ve been speaking with Nicole Nguyen, Associate Professor of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Her research focuses on the intersections of national security and public schooling. Nicole is the author of the book Suspect Communities: Anti-Muslim Racism and the Domestic War on Terror and more recently the co-author with Yazan Zahzah of the report entitled, Why Treating White Supremacy as Domestic Terrorism Won ’t Work and How to Not Fall for It: A Toolkit for Social Justice Advocates. Nicole, thank you so much, again, for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Nicole Nguyen: Thanks for having me.
Adam: Yeah, and so much of this is just about institutional funding and support. It’s like you said, these organizations, Nicole’s organization are very small. If I’m at the Georgetown spook show for oriental meddling, I’m going to have a fuckload of money.
Nima: And then you’re going to get more money, because you’re going to advocate for the things that will give you more money.
Adam: Right, and so you have this perverse incentive scheme where calling for decarceration and calling for — with some exceptions there’s a few nonprofits that work in decarceration but they don’t have a ton of money — that if you call for decarceration, if you call for demilitarization of these solutions, you’re not going to have a cushy $200,000 a year gig, you’re not going to have another $500,000 whatever it is security gig on the side, security consulting where you get your nice townhome in Silver Springs, Maryland, you’re just not going to. It sucks. It fucking sucks. These people are all poor. And you know, maybe they have an academic job here and there, but they’re mostly around the margins and they’re certainly not going to get on CNN, they’re not going to get these slick reports read in The New York Times, there isn’t that institutional backing, there’s so much institutional incentive, and so much money that goes into telling people and institutions that are already in power, that are already doling out money, exactly what they want to hear, which is that, ‘Oh, wow, what a coincidence the FBI is the best tool to stop white supremacist violence,’ and they’re not going to silo off their money. I mean, the FBI, as we discussed in Episode 31, they routinely harass largely black Muslim populations domestically, you know, entrapping them, informants, they have 15,000 informants. Do people think, do liberals who support creating a domestic terror law, do you think they’re going to silo off that extra money? Are they going to have the woke FBI and the racist FBI? I mean, do they exist on separate floors? I mean, no, it’s the same goddamn institution.
Nima: It really just kind of echoes the Audre Lorde line about, you know, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” but she said, quote, “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible, and allowable,” end quote. You know, I think we would argue that even what is change in this context? When you’re pumping more money into the Pentagon, when you’re pumping more money into the FBI, and the CIA, into ICE, into NSA, into local police departments, what change is actually going to happen? Really so much of what they do is focus their attention, and certainly their violence on poor communities, on black and brown communities, on Muslim communities and that will continue to happen.
But that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. As he said at the top of the show, we’re going to take our spring break a little early this year, bear with us, we love you, our beloved listeners and supporters, but again, my co-host, Adam Johnson, is going to be on parental leave. Congrats, Adam joining the club here. So we’re going to be off for a few weeks, but we will certainly be back next month with new episodes.
Adam: Yeah, so I appreciate all the continued support while we’re away, we’ll be back in April, rejuvenated, we won’t be tanned, rested and ready because we will have been raising an infant.
Nima: Oh, no, you’ll be exhausted, it’ll be glorious.
Adam: Right. Sarah and I are very excited to welcome a new addition to our family and we are of course appreciative of all the support that even makes that possible. So we want to thank all our patrons and our listeners.
Nima: And of course in the meantime, you can continue to follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and please do, if you have not yet already, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated, we got mouths to feed. As always, a very special shout out goes to our critical level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant Trendel Lightburn. The newsletter is by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions by Morgan McAslan. Music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, March 10, 2021.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.