The storming of the U.S. Capitol by rightwing insurgents on January 6 highlighted the imminent threat of an emboldened and coordinated far right. This has led many people and institutions to call for a doubling down on more policing and federal funding to address domestic terrorism.

During the nearly 100 years of Jim Crow segregation, police officers were known to disrobe their blue uniforms in the evening and replace them with their Klan robes, which led to the lynchings of thousands of Black people with impunity.

But the insurrection also laid bare the complicity of elected officials and law enforcement within this far-right movement. Underestimating the alignment between law enforcement and the far right reinforces a color blindness that led us here. It can also endorse state violence against people of color and poor people. 

So far, we’ve ignored the key lesson from the summer 2020 racial justice reckoning. Law enforcement continues to act in defense of white supremacy, and most often with impunity. What if we stop turning to a carceral system so ill-equipped to solve the rise of racist violence, and instead, fight for racial justice by investing in communities and social services? 

While calls for justice following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, transformed city police departments, schools, and catalyzed a massive culture shift, some of those lessons have since been pushed aside. As pundits and officials describe the militants who stormed the Capitol as the nation’s most significant terrorism threat, they are using the events of January 6 to justify increased policing and surveillance across the country.

The problem with this is that law enforcement disproportionately arrest and kill people of color and poor people. Perhaps not surprisingly, the mechanisms of repression and policing aimed at suppressing the far right inevitably get turned on communities of color and the left. 

Counterterrorism practices are far too often blatantly misused to target and criminalize the very marginalized communities that white supremacists target.

In January, The Guardian reported that law enforcement officers are about three times more likely to use force against leftwing versus rightwing protests, with Black Lives Matter demonstrations making up the majority of leftwing protests analyzed. Anti-terrorism legislation passed under President Bill Clinton in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing has been disproportionately used against Black communities and immigrants. Since the January 6 insurrection, nearly a fifth of state legislators across the country have advanced bills that criminalize dissent.

Perhaps more importantly, calls for increased policing and surveillance as a solution to far-right insurgencies fail to understand how law enforcement continues to advance systemic white supremacy (through jails, immigration enforcement, and the over-policing and neglect of poor Black neighborhoods). 

The truth is, law enforcement agencies have racism and far-right problems of their own. At least thirty-nine off-duty police officers from seventeen states participated in the Capitol insurrection, along with just under a dozen former law enforcement officers, according to news accounts. 

Those numbers are negligible relative to the nearly 700,000 full-time law enforcement officers in the United States as of 2019. But the long history of under-reporting acts of racism and vigilante violence by law enforcement should serve as a warning. 

During the nearly 100 years of Jim Crow segregation, police officers were known to disrobe their blue uniforms in the evening and replace them with their Klan robes, which led to the lynchings of thousands of Black people with impunity.

Following the end of the Jim Crow era, the United States experienced a white nationalist backlash, with numerous white people—both within and outside of institutions—bemoaning the newly gained rights of communities of color. Law enforcement departments became particular hot spots of racial resentment. 

One insidious example of this was the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, the nation’s largest sheriff’s department. Starting in the 1970s, the department developed racist clubs, some of which were criteria for acceptance in the department. The Lynwood Vikings, a neo-Nazi white supremacist gang that swelled in ranks throughout the 1980s and 1990s, eventually cost the department $9 million in fines and training costs to settle lawsuits over racially motivated hostility. 

Law enforcement departments continue to directly participate in white supremacist and far-right projects. Political Research Associates has documented a network of widespread alignment between sheriffs and far-right paramilitary across the country that launched during the tenure of the nation’s first elected Black President. 

The paramilitary aligned network, Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, claimed support from more than 400 sheriffs and law enforcement nationwide at its peak. The leader of the Oath Keepers, a racist militia group, helped found this sheriff’s association and maintained a close working relationship. Several of the group’s members have been charged by the FBI for their alleged involvement in planning and coordinating the Capitol breach, as well as providing tactical support and security for the riot.

Recent investigations also demonstrate law enforcement’s participation in explicitly racist and far-right groups on social media. In 2019, Will Carless at the Center for Investigative reporting found more than 150 law enforcement officers were actively engaging in explicitly white supremacist, anti-Muslim, and paramilitary Facebook groups. Law enforcement were regularly trading racist memes, advancing anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, and demonstrating their support for far right militia.

Law enforcement sympathy with far-right militias was on display during racial justice protests over the summer of 2020. Political Research Associates documented eleven counts of law enforcement cooperating with far-right organizations demonstrating against the Black Lives Matter movement. The number of incidents is likely far greater than those reported.

Following the summer of racial justice protests, the Brennan Center for Justice published a report, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Racism, White Supremacy and Far Right Militancy in Law Enforcement.” It argues that police reforms aimed at addressing racial bias often miss the point—that law enforcement has membership and affiliation with far-right groups, as well as a culture of racism. Even the FBI warned in a now widely cited 2009 report that law enforcement officials often have “active links” to white supremacist and paramilitary formations.

On January 19, 135 civil and human rights organizations across the country called on Congress to oppose the creation of a new domestic terrorism charge to allegedly go after far-right insurgents. Signed by organizations such as the Arab American Institute, Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, Muslim Advocates, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the letter specifically asked Congress to identify ways to address the white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement.

“The January 6 coup attempt led by white supremacist groups attempting to overturn the will of the American people to choose its leader is a clear example of how pervasive white supremacy is in our society and within the ranks of law enforcement itself,” Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. said in a press release.

Counterterrorism practices are far too often blatantly misused to target and criminalize the very marginalized communities that white supremacists target, noted Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute. “In an inherently biased criminal legal system, we know how additional legal authorities will be used. They will be used, just as they have previously, to target directly impacted communities, including Black and brown people and religious minorities.”

The letter also called on federal agencies to be transparent about their mechanisms and resources for fighting white supremacist violence.

Rather than invest in law enforcement and new surveillance mechanisms to address the rise of white supremacist violence, federal, state, and local governments should invest in structures, movements and institutions that build racial justice. Communities under attack from multiple angles don’t need to worry about being more heavily targeted because of the Capitol riot. We need structures of security and care that truly protect all.