America has forgotten the crackdown on civil liberties around Trump's inauguration -- and forgetting is what we do best
Everyone should take advantage of a quiet moment to imagine what might have occurred if the Jan. 6 insurrectionist mob had succeeded in its objectives. Then-Vice President Mike Pence could well have died in an act of political assassination. Not far from his corpse, several members of Congress might have also been murdered. It is likely that the right-wing traitors would have also taken other elected officials as hostages, demanding that the Senate resort to extralegal measures to install Donald Trump as dictator, and effectively destroy American democracy.
This article first appeared in Salon.
As bombs exploded around the Capitol, authority would have then fallen on Trump himself to summon the U.S. military to rescue the hostages, capture or kill the terrorists, and ensure that Joe Biden become president. Given the improbability of Trump sabotaging his own path to power, the country would have collapsed into such chaos and violence that it would have resembled a second civil war.
No aspect of this dystopian nightmare is unfathomable. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., has offered a riveting and deeply moving account of hearing members of the insurrectionist mob searching for her on the other side of the door to the bathroom where she was hiding. According to multiple reports, the same maniacs who were chanting, "Hang Mike Pence" entered a corridor merely one minute after Secret Service agents and Capitol police escorted him out of the area. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., has said as she lay on the floor, her cheek pressed against the cold tile of the rotunda, she was "thrown back in time" to the 1978 Jonestown massacre in Guyana that she survived while on an official visit with her then-employer, Rep. Leo Ryan, whom the Jonestown cultists murdered.
It is equally easy to imagine how law enforcement agencies might have responded to the siege of the Capitol — if they treated it with the urgency that the threat demands.
An attempted coup-d'état seems slightly worse than acts of petty vandalism, but no one would know it by the example of the Department of Justice.
Various activists organized a protest against the inauguration of Donald Trump in 2017, calling their organization and the demonstration itself, "Disrupt J20." Although that surreal day might feel like it took place decades ago, some observers might remember that a few J20 participants resorted to property destruction, damaging some businesses and offices near the Washington Mall. There was reportedly about $100,000 worth of damage.
Treating vandalism as the worst crime since the assassination of Lincoln, the Justice Department not only pressed charges against the individual vandals, but in what now appears as the richest of ironies, sought to charge the demonstration organizers with inciting others to riot and conspiracy to riot. During the "investigation," D.C. Metropolitan police raided the house of a Disrupt J20 activist. Prosecutors even issued a warrant to obtain information from DreamHost, a web host provider, in an attempt to identify every visitor of the Disrupt J20 website. They also requested the Facebook account details for every American who had "liked" the organization's social media account, whether or not they had actually attended the rally. Fortunately, the warrants did not survive legal challenges, and at least temporarily, civil liberties survived the attempted assault.
The hypocrisy of the Republican Party is barely worth even mentioning at this point, but it is worth nothing that Republicans in Florida, Missouri and North Dakota have introduced bills that would give immunity to motorists who strike protesters with their vehicles, at least if those protesters are "blocking traffic" and the driver can claim it was an "accident." Curiously, vehicular homicide is never cited as an example of the insidious "cancel culture" responsible for the destruction of free speech. The same goes for a Republican proposal in the state of Washington to reclassify as a felony civil disobedience that prosecutors deem "economic terrorism." Perhaps a teenager who throws a rock through the window of a Starbucks can make friends at Gitmo.
It certainly wouldn't be ethical or wise for the left to advocate that the federal government resort to the same unconstitutional measures against the Jan. 6 coup planners and participants, but there is a vexing absence of creativity and aggression in what agencies are apparently prepared to do to prevent future acts of political violence. Journalists have identified various Republican groups responsible for funding the rally that led to the siege, yet there has been no evident consideration of financially crippling them. The Canadian government has officially declared the Proud Boys a terrorist group. Why hasn't the U.S.?
The problem is that Americans expect the FBI, the ATF and other law enforcement agencies to prevent and punishment attacks on democracy when those same agencies have a history of attacking throughout their entire existence. This is one reason, among many, why the liberal faith in current and retired officials of the FBI and CIA as heroes of the anti-Trump "resistance" was, to be as charitable as possible, stunningly naïve.
As extreme as the Republican agenda to suppress free speech and punish dissent might seem, it is only one link in a bipartisan chain wrapped around the activist or radical left for centuries.
Those looking for examples could almost pick a year at random to find brutal repression of the abolition movement, the labor movement or the civil rights movement, but one particularly powerful illustration of the U.S. government's anti-democracy aggression is the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program, better known as COINTELPRO.
Beginning in 1956, COINTELPRO was an FBI project to undermine any form of activism that challenged the prevailing power system — at least from the left. COINTELPRO operated with the full knowledge of longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and multiple presidents – surveilling, harassing, bankrupting, discrediting and even killing leaders of Marxist and socialist groups, the Black Power movement, the nascent environmental movement, the American Indian Movement and Puerto Rican independence groups. Even Martin Luther King, who famously advocated nonviolence as paramount to political protest, was on the receiving end of a government-sanctioned campaign of unconstitutional monitoring and abuse (as documented in the new film "MLK/FBI").
FBI tactics to demolish dissent included convincing the IRS to audit activists, ruining careers and marriages through reputational destruction, and the planting of evidence to file false charges against dissidents.
Fred Hampton, the charismatic leader of the Black Panthers in Chicago, was one of the worst victims. According to the testimony of former officers and leaked government documents, the FBI enlisted the Chicago Police to murder Hampton in a raid, and make it look like a shootout. (Hampton is the subject of another new film, "Judas and the Black Messiah.")
COINTELPRO is a stark illustration of how the U.S. government has used the FBI, and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies, not to punish attacks on democracy, but to paralyze actual democracy.
To disabuse anyone of the comforting delusion that such suppression of democratic activity was only an artifact of the Cold War, we can revisit the ancient history of 2011. The Partnership for Civil Justice obtained documents from FBI field offices around the country in that year showing a coordinated effort to conduct surveillance against the Occupy Wall Street movement. Because of this surveillance, authorities were able to block off one location where OWS activists intended to establish a camp in New York.
The Partnership for Civil Justice concluded: "These documents show that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are treating protests against the corporate and banking structure of America as potential criminal and terrorist activity."
A pattern begins to emerge with phrases like "protests against the corporate and banking structure" and "economic terrorism," but how does law enforcement and intelligence gathering react to genuine threats against the lives of Americans and the political stability of the country?
In 2009, Daryl Johnson, a leading analyst with the Department of Homeland Security, issued an assiduously researched report warning that the domestic terror threat from white supremacists, self-styled militia revolutionaries and other anti-government extremists had become severe. He specifically cautioned that although right-wing radicals are a small proportion of military veterans, many have had extensive military training and ca potentially succeed at planning attacks and building bombs.
Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who prior to 9/11 was responsible for the worst terrorist atrocity on American soil, was a military veteran acting according to his racist and anti-government ideology.
When Johnson's report leaked to the press, there was widespread outrage — not at the thought of widespread right-wing violence , but at the "thinly veiled innuendo against Republicans," to quote Sen. Rand Paul at the time.
The Department of Homeland Security, under Barack Obama's authority, dissolved Johnson's team and buried the report. Since then, FBI statistics reveal that right wing extremists have committed the overwhelming majority of terrorist attacks in the United States, while the Anti-Defamation League has tracked a steady rise in hate crimes at the hands of white supremacists.
Among the most horrific crimes were the mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012, the massacre of Black worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, the "Unite the Right" demonstration in Charlottesville in 2017, the shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, and the massacre of Latino shoppers in an El Paso Walmart store in 2019
None of this seemed to give the Trump administration pause when it ended funding for Life After Hate, one of the only programs in the country that works to de-radicalize members of neo-Nazi organizations.
In recent years, far-right Trump supporters in recent years have also planned the assassination of Democratic officials, including, to use one journalistic assessment, the "frighteningly sophisticated" plot to abduct and kill Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The American public blasé reaction makes one wonder how the response might differ if these murderous plots had been the work of Muslim immigrants.
The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security kept the parks of New York safe from the Occupy Wall Street threat, but somehow missed the publicly accessible chatter of violence and coup-plotting leading up to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Far-right extremists posted messages to Parler in the days leading up to the inciter-in-chief's "Stop the Steal" rally, writing, "On January 6th, we will start systematically assassinating liberal leaders" and "It starts on the 6th, civil war 2."
Despite these brazen pronouncements, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security were missing in action as Trump's army of zealots stormed the Capitol, beating a police officer to death and severely injuring several others. The National Guard was absent, thanks to suspicious denials or delays in response to requests from the mayor of Washington and the governor of Maryland. Even the city and Capitol police presence was dangerously thin — the latter at least partially the result of police leadership and the federal government ignoring warnings from Black officers about the lethal prevalence of racism within the department.
Sharon Blackmon-Malloy, a retired Capitol Police lieutenant and current vice president of the U.S. Capitol Black Police Association, went so far as to say, "We got Jan. 6 because no one took us seriously."
Efforts to destroy right-wing terrorism and white supremacy will certainly improve now that Donald Trump, their most powerful enabler, is out of the White House. President Biden has indicated that he takes the domestic terrorist threat seriously, and Democratic leaders of Congress are unlikely to forget that their lives were in danger on Jan. 6.
The most overtly deranged Republican member of Congress, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, has been stripped of her committee assignments, but there has been little discussion of expelling or punishing Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, or other elected officials who encouraged the homicidal mob. If Senate Republicans fail to convict Donald Trump in his upcoming impeachment trial, it will confirm, for the thousandth time, that they are more devoted to virtue-signaling for their demented base than they are to the health and welfare of American democracy.
As far as the internal dynamics at law enforcement and national security agencies are concerned, history shows there is little reason for optimism. The increasing right-wing tilt of police culture, and the unwritten charter to treat "protests against the banking and corporate structure" as apocalyptic — while shrugging off actual right-wing terrorism — combine to leave the United States uniquely ill-equipped to handle the escalating dangers of far-right fanatics.
This is an old story, dating clear back to the end of Reconstruction when the Ku Klux Klan was able to run wild, terrorizing and lynching Black people, along with anyone else who they felt threatened white supremacy. If the obvious question is how many warnings the American people will ignore, the more relevant and frightening one may be how many more warnings we will get.