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Fighting Far-Right Violence and Hate Crimes

Summary: Justice Department policies regarding far-right violence undermine our nation’s security by discounting the safety concerns of American communities victimized by this reactionary violence.

Published: July 1, 2019
On April 27, 2019, a white suprem­acist armed with a high-powered rifle walked into a San Diego synagogue and shot four people, one fatally, before flee­ing and finally surren­der­ing to police. A letter the gunman allegedly posted online shortly before the shoot­ing claimed credit for a previ­ous arson attack on an Escon­dido mosque, spewed racist “white geno­cide” conspir­acy theor­ies, cited earlier white suprem­acist attacks against a synagogue in Pitt­s­burgh and mosques in New Zeal­and, and urged like-minded white Chris­ti­ans to commit further acts of viol­ence.
Was this crime an act of terror­ism, a hate crime, or just another homicide? Under current Justice Depart­ment policies, how far-right viol­ence target­ing people based on race, reli­gion, national origin, gender, sexual orient­a­tion, gender iden­tity, or disab­il­ity gets categor­ized is often arbit­rary. But it has signi­fic­ant consequences for how federal offi­cials label these crimes in public state­ments, how they prior­it­ize and track them, and whether they will invest­ig­ate and prosec­ute them. As a result, the Justice Depart­ment does­n’t know how many people far-right milit­ants attack each year in the United States, which leaves intel­li­gence analysts and policy makers in the dark about the impact this viol­ence inflicts on our soci­ety and how to best address it. More import­antly, the fail­ure to prop­erly label and respond to far-right viol­ence deprives victim­ized communit­ies of basic human dignity and equal protec­tion of the law.
Devel­op­ing more effect­ive federal policies to address far-right viol­ence requires a new approach that better protects vulner­able communit­ies from all forms of viol­ence and util­izes restor­at­ive justice prac­tices to remedi­ate the communal injur­ies that these crimes inflict.
Attacks like the San Diego synagogue shoot­ing often fit the federal defin­i­tions of both domestic terror­ism and hate crimes, as well as state viol­a­tions like murder. Laws govern­ing these crimes all carry substan­tial penal­ties, but how the Justice Depart­ment initially labels them becomes import­ant chiefly because its policies de-prior­it­ize hate crimes invest­ig­a­tions. Terror­ism invest­ig­a­tions are the FBI’s number one prior­ity and are well-resourced. These invest­ig­a­tions tend to look broadly to determ­ine if an ongo­ing crim­inal organ­iz­a­tion may have suppor­ted the attack or be plan­ning new ones. In contrast, civil rights viol­a­tions like hate crimes rank fifth out of eight prior­it­ies, and invest­ig­a­tions tend to focus narrowly on a partic­u­lar attack or attacker. To make matters worse, the Justice Depart­ment defers the vast major­ity of hate crimes invest­ig­a­tions to state and local law enforce­ment without any federal eval­u­ation to determ­ine if the perpet­rat­ors are part of a larger viol­ent far-right group. State and local law enforce­ment are often ill-equipped or unwill­ing to prop­erly respond to these crimes.
The Justice Depart­ment also regu­larly treats white suprem­acist viol­ence not as domestic terror­ism or hate crimes, but as gang crimes, which rank sixth on the FBI’s prior­ity list. The Justice Depart­ment has made no effort to compre­hens­ively account for all incid­ents of far-right viol­ence across these differ­ent program categor­ies to reveal the full scope of their impact on Amer­ican soci­ety.
Though far-right attacks repres­ent just a tiny propor­tion of the viol­ence that takes place in the U.S. each year, they require specific atten­tion because they pose a persist­ent threat to vulner­able communit­ies, partic­u­larly communit­ies of color, immig­rants, LGBTQ people, women, the disabled, and reli­gious minor­it­ies. These communit­ies are already dispro­por­tion­ately victim­ized by other viol­ent crimes, includ­ing police viol­ence, much of which is never prosec­uted. Moreover, the organ­ized nature of far-right groups that often commit this viol­ence allows them to quickly replace any member who is incar­cer­ated and to carry out further acts of viol­ence after any indi­vidual crime is success­fully prosec­uted. Finally, since far-right attacks are inten­ded to inflict injur­ies beyond the direct victims by threat­en­ing and intim­id­at­ing entire communit­ies of people who share similar attrib­utes, they demand a more compre­hens­ive and stra­tegic govern­ment response. Simply increas­ing crim­inal penal­ties for these perpet­rat­ors does little to redress the broader social injur­ies that result.
Current and former Justice Depart­ment offi­cials have been call­ing for a new domestic terror­ism stat­ute to combat far-right viol­ence, but there are already dozens of federal stat­utes carry­ing severe penal­ties that are avail­able to invest­ig­at­ors and prosec­utors pursu­ing these crimes, as detailed in our earlier white paper, Wrong Prior­it­ies for Fight­ing Terror­ism. Which of these stat­utes prosec­utors ulti­mately charge in a partic­u­lar case is far less import­ant than how Justice Depart­ment offi­cials label these attacks in public state­ments when they occur, and how they prior­it­ize, resource, and track the invest­ig­a­tion and prosec­u­tion of these crimes. Under current policies, when Justice Depart­ment offi­cials call far-right attacks hate crimes or gang crimes and place them far down their prior­ity list, they are send­ing victim­ized communit­ies the unmis­tak­able message that the govern­ment values their lives less. The Justice Depart­ment does­n’t need new laws, it needs new policies. Moreover, the Justice Depart­ment has repeatedly abused its domestic terror­ism author­it­ies to target envir­on­mental activ­ists, peace advoc­ates, and civil rights protest­ers, rais­ing appro­pri­ate concerns about how it would use any new powers Congress might provide.
The purpose of this white paper is to exam­ine how Justice Depart­ment policies regard­ing far-right viol­ence under­mine our nation’s secur­ity by discount­ing the safety concerns of Amer­ican communit­ies victim­ized by this reac­tion­ary viol­ence and offi­cial indif­fer­ence. The federal govern­ment’s fail­ure to ensure equal protec­tion of the law erodes community resi­li­ence and social cohe­sion. While a full assess­ment of the true nature, scope, and impact of far-right viol­ence is neces­sary to develop sound strategies to address it, as our first white paper argued, this does not mean policy makers must wait pass­ively until this data is fully collec­ted. This paper argues for explor­ing new approaches to the prob­lem of far-right viol­ence, not only to address the present policy fail­ures but to determ­ine whether our tradi­tional legis­lat­ive approach to hate crimes — increas­ing crim­inal penal­ties is effect­ive in redu­cing the harms from far-right viol­ence.
Part 1 of this paper summar­izes the legal frame­work Congress has estab­lished to address far-right viol­ence.
Part 2 explains the nature of the threat from far-right viol­ence and the many tools federal prosec­utors have to address it.
Part 3 shows how Justice Depart­ment policies de-prior­it­ize far-right terror­ism as a national secur­ity threat, rank­ing it behind cases it labels “inter­na­tional” terror­ism and those direc­ted at domestic protest groups. These policies label a signi­fic­ant portion of the viol­ence commit­ted by far-right milit­ants as “hate crimes” rather than terror­ism before any federal eval­u­ation of the incid­ent takes place, and defer the invest­ig­a­tion, prosec­u­tion, and track­ing of these crimes to state and local law enforce­ment. While state prosec­u­tions may ulti­mately be determ­ined to be appro­pri­ate in many cases, by abandon­ing the respons­ib­il­ity to exam­ine and account for these crimes the Justice Depart­ment blinds itself to the true scope of the threat. This prac­tice also deprives the federal govern­ment of an intel­li­gence base neces­sary to develop an effect­ive strategy to target far-right viol­ence.
Part 4 describes the obstacles that prevent state and local law enforce­ment from effect­ively respond­ing to hate crimes and the fail­ure of the Uniform Crime Report­ing system to accur­ately account for this viol­ence nation­ally.
Part 5 focuses on the lack of trust between law enforce­ment and minor­ity communit­ies who suffer dispro­por­tion­ately from police viol­ence and abuse as well as a lack of atten­tion when they are victims of viol­ent crimes, which may inhibit hate crime report­ing to the police.
Part 6 exam­ines the effic­acy of the current punit­ive approach to hate crimes legis­la­tion, show­ing its fail­ure to effect­ively deter future crimes or assuage the concerns of the victim­ized communit­ies.
Finally, Part 7 provides recom­mend­a­tions for a new approach to hate crimes focused on under­stand­ing the threat of organ­ized far-right viol­ence, reform­ing police prac­tices in minor­ity and disen­fran­chised communit­ies, and devel­op­ing restor­at­ive justice approaches to address the communal injur­ies caused by these attacks and build a more toler­ant, secure, and resi­li­ent soci­ety.