Jail Won’t Solve White Supremacist Violence. Here’s How to Truly Confront It.

White supremacist violence in the U.S. elicits the most outspoken public condemnation when it erupts overtly, amid a flurry of Confederate flags and the swaggering display of racist/white nationalist/neo-Nazi symbols and assault rifles. Demands for intensified policing, prosecution, harsher punishments, and more anti-terrorism measures proliferate. Who doesn’t want to retaliate, hit back hard at power-hungry, violent racists?

The desire to “not let them get away with it” is an honest emotion, but one that is routinely manipulated by politicians and law enforcement/national security players who don’t want us to develop responses outside of the frameworks they already control. The implied pledge, periodically dusted off and offered to communities that historically have been targeted by law enforcement violence, goes something like this: “This time, this time, at long last, justice will be on our side.” The subtext: “Imagine cops finally doing to them what they’ve been doing to you, for centuries.”

Fury continues to grow over the uneven willingness of federal prosecutors to charge participants in the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol with serious felonies and seek the harshest possible penalties. Yet, even convictions and harsh sentencing of some individuals would not produce systemic transformation. Impacts of white supremacy are baked into countless federal, state, and local policies and practices affecting health care, education, housing, voting rights, immigration, environment, land use, civic infrastructure, and more. Relatedly, more information has recently come to light about the complicity of some police forces in the U.S. supporting the paramilitary right. Moreover, law enforcement, at local as well as national levels, often bolsters anti-immigrant sentiments and organizing. Such hypocrisy indicts the system as a whole. As the Critical Resistance policing timeline shows, it is impossible to police or jail away white supremacist violence and its supporters and enablers because this violence is normative.

Meanwhile, calls for souped-up hate crime laws and new “anti-domestic terrorism” legislation should be opposed. These laws protect no one, even as they expand systems of policing, surveillance and carceral control in ways that uphold structural white supremacist violence, past and present. Not only do hate crime laws fail to protect anyone or deter racist violence (while data collection is woefully inconsistent and inadequate, the laws have little apparent utility and indicators point to increases in violence against vulnerable communities), people from marginalized communities who attempt to report vigilante or interpersonal violence or defend themselves from attacks may well find themselves the targets of police misconduct and abuse, and even be charged with violent crimes. Dozens of civil and human rights and advocacy organizations publicly oppose new “domestic terrorism” legislation because those laws often are used against communities of color, Muslim and Arab communities, and political dissenters, including antifascists, on the progressive/left end of the political spectrum.

These carceral “solutions” are a siren call, a grifter’s promise. The carceral weapons of white supremacy in the U.S., fueled by anti-Blackness, are incapable of dismantling structural racism and inequality; they strengthen and expand it. Just flipping control of who gets to administer carceral violence doesn’t produce justice. The question isn’t whether to fight back, but how.

What Is an Abolitionist Approach?

Fighting back effectively against white supremacy must include abolishing the systems that perpetuate it — including the prison-industrial complex (PIC). Abolition is a vision, a movement, and a practice that invites us not only to dismantle structural violence and inequality and advocate for a better world, but to create it as we go. The work of developing and implementing better responses is a collective task that is constantly deepening and expanding. While there is no definitive blueprint, core principles guide the work.

Abolitionist approaches focus on saving lives and reducing premature death through structural and systemic interventions that steadily reduce the power, size and reach of policing, surveillance, and other carceral systems of control until society no longer relies on them. Abolitionists do not endorse reforms that place more resources into “new and improved” prisons, jails, surveillance, and methods of policing and prosecution — the sleight of hand anti-prison activist James Kilgore refers to as “carceral humanism.” At the same time, abolitionists emphasize organizing efforts and campaigns that build the size, strength, interdependence and strategic clarity of social movements in order to advance transformative approaches to reducing violence and creating community safety. Abolitionist frameworks matter profoundly because defaulting to the usual carceral responses keeps us mired in, dependent on, and reactive to that system.

Here are just three areas of focus in which work developed through an abolitionist lens can help us respond to white supremacist violence.

Community Education: Policing, the Far Right and White Supremacist Violence

Anti-racist community education that documents the historical and contemporary fusion of law enforcement and white supremacist violence in the U.S. under a system of racial capitalism is crucial.

For decades, abolitionist organizers and scholars have documented ways in which police not only function as primary guardians and enforcers of white supremacy but inflict white supremacist violence on a massive scale. Policing and prisons are not otherwise moral systems marred by the aberrant actions of rogue individuals and infiltration by extremists; their participation in white supremacy is core to their existence. It makes no sense to legitimate them by relying on them to dismantle the very violence that is the source of their power. Critical Resistance, INCITE!, Project NIA and the Chicago PIC Teaching Collective, and #8toAbolition have produced useful resources for understanding and addressing law enforcement violence within abolitionist frameworks.

Historically, police violence is mirrored and reproduced by right-wing white supremacist vigilante and paramilitary groups. But relationships are more complex than they sometimes seem. At times there is little distance at all between them. Sometimes, as with the Oath Keepers, a right-wing militia group comprised of present and former police officers and members of U.S. military forces, there is no distance at all. In other instances, police and right-wing paramilitary elements may clash over questions of tactical alignment, without openly engaging questions of white supremacy or “democracy.” This meshes with a powerful resurgence of a profoundly anti-democratic white nationalism, antisemitic and increasingly fascist, which regards white people as a race that is threatened (and must be protected by force) and considers whiteness the bedrock criterion for citizenship. (Useful analysis and resources about the histories, similarities, and differences among these far right groups can be found here, here, and here.)

It’s important to help build strategic capacity for the long term, not only to respond to crises. That’s why equipping community members with the knowledge, skills and determination to build the cross-community solidarity and relationships required to combat white supremacist violence requires educating about the everyday ways in which this violence permeates mainstream civic, social, political and economic institutions.

This is a new and unsettling realization for many people who nonetheless would like to do more. That’s why it’s important to utilize a variety of different settings, facilitators, teachers/presenters, modes and materials that are familiar, trusted and appropriate to particular participant clusters.

For example, Minnesota’s St. Catherine University hosts an Integrated Learning Series that seeks to partner academics with activism and campus with community. In 2020, following the uprisings against police and vigilante murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and prior to the presidential election, the series offered faculty, staff, students and alumni an online program called “Beyond the Hate Frame: Recognizing and Responding to the White Supremacist Right.” I was a presenter, together with my colleague, sociologist Nancy A. Heitzeg who teaches at St. Kate’s. The program was well received and, importantly, is leading to additional efforts to address the interrelationships of vigilante, police and mainstream white supremacist violence. Faith communities, interfaith and ecumenical alliances, educational and cultural institutions, and community organizations all have roles to play in this work. To support it, we must create readily accessible collections of relevant and sharable resources.

Non-Carceral Consequences for White Supremacist Violence

Abolitionist approaches reject carceral responses to violence but not the notion of consequences for one’s choices. Should police and other public officials, along with individuals acting on their own or in groups be fired or forced to resign for documented evidence that they have participated in, enabled, or encouraged white supremacist violence? I think so. But the concept of “consequences” must have teeth and be tied directly to organizing efforts to build broad-based community support for standing up to all forms of white supremacist violence.

Such efforts can also involve targeted local and national campaigns and mobilizations to expose enablers of white supremacist violence. Efforts to drain the internet, financial and other supports that inflame white supremacist violence may not solve structural components. But as components of larger strategies, they sometimes can serve as tactical stepping stones to broader efforts by helping to educate and involve people newer to these struggles.

A Southern Poverty Law Center lawsuit successfully bankrupted the Aryan Nations. It didn’t stop right-wing paramilitary organizing, but it put a dent in a once prominent group’s ability to do so. Under pressure, the far right social media site Parler was removed from its hosting site and dropped by its social media business partners. While it has reincarnated with support from a company known to have ties to the Russian government, Parler is no longer seen as just an alternative social media site for “conservatives.” A more difficult but important arena for struggle is taking on those channels of Big Philanthropy and donor-advised funds that channel millions of dollars into far right, white supremacist outreach and organizing while keeping the names of donors hidden from public view. Organizing to #DefundThePolice and shift public monies to meeting community needs is essential.

Strategically focused electoral work is often important and helpful to efforts to confront white supremacy, build broader alliances and shift power. We aren’t required to vanish into the maw of a neoliberal political party to undertake this work. We can pick and choose certain fights and candidates in order to reduce harm and increase possibilities for deeper, more radical forms of organizing. In 2020, a number of abolitionist and allied organizers joined efforts to mobilize anti-Trump voters and fight voter suppression efforts in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and other locales. While electoral work cannot be our sole or even primary focus, we ignore at our peril the fact that at local and state levels, members of QAnon, Oath Keepers, and other virulently anti-democratic white supremacists are being elected and appointed to public office.

Supports and Resources for Survivors and Those Targeted for Violence

Transformative work to build powerful responses to the violence of law enforcement and the violence of right-wing paramilitary must be located outside of the criminal legal system. Abolitionists aim to address harms and violence, not “crime,” and believe survivors of all forms of violence — including violence done to individuals and whole communities — deserve supports and resources in order to heal from harms and losses they have suffered at the hands of others. As also, their families and household members. These survivors include those who are, once were, or never have been imprisoned. They include those who suffer violence at the hands of law enforcement and those targeted by militia and vigilante action. And they include vulnerable communities, especially BIPOC people who live at the intersections of structural, vigilante and interpersonal violence.

Violence often works to isolate those who experience or are targeted for it. That’s one reason why work that supports individuals and families as part of a broader effort to transform the social and economic conditions and factors that feed it is so important. Supports can take many forms: provision of health and healing resources; provision of food, housing and transportation; building safety outside the criminal legal system, and much more. The work is made especially difficult by decades of neoliberal shredded safety nets, and evolving forms of racialized fearmongering. Accordingly, campaigns to defund police and close jails typically are coupled with demands to shift those public funds to life-giving human and community needs. Abolitionists have developed resources for building transformative community responses to harm and violence, including websites and books, and for developing mutual aid responses that emphasize support within frameworks of solidarity and structural transformation, not charity.

Repair of harms, to the extent possible, is also important. Where the violence is simultaneously individual and collective, as with racist law enforcement violence or right-wing vigilante/militia violence, the issue of reparations should take precedence over calls to unity and reconciliation. There is a model we can build on. In 2015, Chicago organizers, attorneys and activists won significant material reparations for more than 100 African American men and women, who, from 1972 through 1991, were subjected to racially-motivated torture by (now deceased) Police Commander Jon Burge and his subordinates.

While it is beyond the scope of this discussion, it is also essential to talk about strengthening the capacity of people and communities under assault by white supremacists to defend themselves.

Abolition as World-Making

At the heart of each of these approaches is a commitment to building community safety and well-being by strengthening capacity for solidarity and standing up to/dismantling white supremacist violence in its many social, cultural, political and economic guises. The transformative power of abolition doesn’t pass the buck to someone else to “take care of things.” It asks us to create the world in which we want to live without relying on white supremacist, patriarchal, heterosexist and ableist structures of violence, exploitation and greed to triage the worthiness of anyone.