You didn’t need the recent events in Kenosha, Wisconsin, to know that something is seriously rotten in American policing. But this week’s murder of two protesters by a gun-toting, cop-worshipping teenage vigilante is a visceral reminder of the human costs of law enforcement’s affinity for armed, right-wing militias.
From what we know so far, though the boy who was apprehended didn’t have ties to extremist movements, he was a wannabe police officer. Besides a Facebook page littered with pro-police words and images, he had been part of his local police department’s “Explorer” program, which trains teens and young adults in policing activities like traffic stops, domestic disputes, and firearm use, with the aim of eventually piping them into a law enforcement career. Much like the police, who view themselves as the “thin blue line” protecting civilization from lawless hordes of agitators, he apparently saw himself as protecting Kenosha’s people and property from protesters and rioters.
It seems at least some of the local police sympathized with the armed militia members who hovered menacingly around the city this past week. One video shows officers passing water out to armed men, including the eventual shooter, and telling the group that “we appreciate you guys.” Videos and eyewitness testimony both have the police passing over the armed teen gunman as they responded to reports of gunfire, even as protesters pointed to him as the one responsible. The police, it seems, already had an image of the killer in their heads; a white kid with a semi-automatic rifle apparently wasn’t it.
This is depressingly unsurprising. The sight of police responding nonviolently, even acting friendly with, armed right-wing militias and protesters has become a common theme over the past few months and years. In Portland, police regularly met nonviolent but disruptive Black Lives Matter protests with staggering violence for months, only to take a hands-off approach when far-right groups joined the fray.
It was part of a lengthy pattern for that city’s police. In 2018, draft reports from the city’s review of police handling of left- and right-wing demonstrations quoted one lieutenant who “felt the right-wing protesters were ‘much more mainstream’ than the left-wing protesters.” Later, hundreds of publicly released texts showed that Portland police had collaborated with the leader of a violent far-right group to crack down on left-wing protesters, and even gave him advice for how one of his colleagues with an active warrant for his arrest could avoid arrest.
Portland is far from alone. Many noted the glaring difference between the calm, nonviolent way police treated anti-lockdown protesters — some of them heavily armed and threatening violence against lawmakers — who invaded Michigan’s state house and otherwise confronted police in April and May, and the orgy of brutality police everywhere inflicted on unarmed Black Lives Matter protesters and even members of the press. All over the country, armed far-right and/or police-supporting groups have similarly been encouraged, protected, and even collaborated with by the same police who have driven cars into unarmed protesters and taken their eyes out with rubber bullets.
In California, police worked with and protected members of far-right groups in 2018 to go after anti-fascist activists, including one black protester who had been stabbed at a rally. Before that, federal prosecutors relied on right-wing hoax mongers Project Veritas and James O’Keefe for evidence to use against the hundreds of journalists and anti-Trump protesters they had charged with felony rioting after the events of Trump’s 2017 inauguration.
At the back of all this, we know that federal investigators have long-established links between law enforcement and white supremacists, who urge their members to join local and state police, which they have done. Several investigations have found that hundreds of current and former police officers are members of right-wing Facebook groups or have made racist, violent posts and comments. It’s little wonder that 84 percent of working officers backed Trump for president in 2016, and that police unions are all in on him this year, too.
There’s more going on here than just the slow but steady transformation of US law enforcement into a distinct political class with far-right sympathies. There’s the perennial problem of the easy availability and lax regulation of guns in the United States, which helped Kenosha’s teen gunman get hold of a firearm his mother didn’t own and carry it around on the streets despite the fact that he was too young to legally do so.
And there’s the increasingly violent and extreme nature of the Right in the United States, with commentators across the right-wing spectrum demonizing and playing up the threat of anti–police brutality protesters the past few months, and now defending and justifying this latest tragedy.
But more than anything, it’s a bad sign that state and local law enforcement around the country increasingly views its political interests as dovetailing with those of violent, fascistic groups, especially when there are many thousands of misguided, wide-eyed kids out there who idolize police and genuinely think a career in law enforcement will let them do some good in the world. We still only know fragments about what exactly motivated that teenager to get hold of an assault rifle and hang around with armed militias in Kenosha. The scariest thing is that he may be just the first.