By Kay Guinane

The ongoing protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis are a wake up call for the U.S. to address systemic racism and for organizations like the Charity & Security Network to proactively take steps to combat racism in our field. One place to start is to address the widespread use of extreme security measures against massive peaceful protests over the murders of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin and many others. We need to challenge the national security paradigm that led to attacks on protesters by local police, the National Guard troops and even prison guards. The twin issues of the murders and violence against protesters are interwoven: white supremacy is inherently violent and can only exist through repression.

While administration statements and the use of repression of protest demonstrations are abhorrent, our primary concern is the events that prompted these words and action. After George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police on May 25, the world came to a tipping point. Decades of police  and vigilante violence on America’s streets are now clearly visible in scandalous cell phone videos of these 21st century lynchings.

It’s not news that racism is deeply entrenched in the fabric of U.S. society – in our laws, law enforcement, the economy and culture.  The good news is that recent events show that the vast majority of Americans support the protestors and oppose racism and white supremacist ideology.  Now the question is how to translate this spontaneous movement and energy into lasting, positive change. We are at a crossroads: change or more racism and state-sponsored violence.

Change is never easy or painless.  Those who benefit from the status quo and white supremacy have shown they will not give up their privileges easily. Equality is a threat that has traditionally been met with violence and, as we have seen over the past weeks, that continues to be the case.  Tactics from the traditional playbook include surveillance, threats of legal action, arrests and detention, assault and spreading disinformation. And murder.

The tactics being used against protestors now are familiar tools of counterterrorism, based on broad powers in the Patriot Act, which was passed in a rush and with little review after the 9/11 attacks. It rolled back civic freedoms and civil liberties and authorized action that violates human rights and humanitarian law.

The police response to the protests brought the Global War on Terror home. Counterterrorism tactics used against legitimate domestic protests against police brutality include:

  • Militarization of police, use of the National Guard and the President’s threats to use the Insurrection Act to activate the military domestically.
  • Criminalizing speech (bogus incitement to riot charges) and restricting association and assembly rights, including curfews.
  • Surveillance – by the military, local police and Joint Terrorism Task Forces and the FBI. The FBI has a history of treating domestic dissent as terrorism and the current movement is no exception.  According to the Department of Justice, the Joint Terrorism Task Forces are “multi-agency effort led by the Justice Department and FBI designed to combine the resources of federal, state, and local law enforcement.”  The ACLU has documented instances of JTTFs investigating peaceful protest groups in the U.S.
  • Threats from the President to declare Antifa a terrorist organization.

As noted in the June 1 2020 edition of the Daily Beast, Attorney General Barr’s statement that he will “Sic Terror-Hunters on Protesters” is “an early glimpse of how the Justice Department plans to make a reality of President Trump’s legally dubious threat to treat protesters as terrorists. According to a JTTF veteran, it’s a flagrant misuse of the task forces. And it’s a sign that the ever-expanding war on terror is jumping yet another guardrail.”

Dangers of a Securitized Approach to Combatting White Supremacy

As an organization dedicated to promoting human security by pushing back against excessive counterterrorism powers, the Charity & Security Network must increase it vigilance in addressing these issues.

This includes defeating proposals to expand counterterrorism powers used against foreign organizations to the U.S., the so-called “domestic terrorism designations.” President Trump threated to declare Antifa a domestic terrorist organization but has no legal basis to do so. However, there have been proposals to extend current powers to designate/list foreign organizations as “terrorist” and prohibit “material support” to them to the domestic context.  This raises clear constitutional questions. A whole book could be written on the defects in the terrorist listing process and the extremely broad definition of what constitutes prohibited “material support.” Suffice it to say that the legal bar for terrorist listing is very low – only reasonable suspicion is required – and there is not a meaningful opportunity to appeal.  Terrorist listings can be based on classified information and the target may never know why it was listed. Once a group is listed, no U.S. person or organization can provide material support to it.  Material support is defined by vague and extremely broad terms.  Penalties for violations of these laws are severe.

This regime has been consistently criticized for inherent violations of human rights and humanitarian standards, including numerous reports from UN Special Rapporteurs, two U.S. courts that found the lack of due process in listing U.S. charities as supporters of terrorism to be unconstitutional and reports from the Charity & Security Network.

Although it may be tempting to expand broad powers to use against violent white supremacist groups, advocates for racial justice should keep past abuses of these powers in mind and resist what may be sold as quick fixes that end up creating more tools for repression. As the Brennan Center for Justice has pointed out, “The federal government has all the tools it needs to combat white nationalist violence. It just has to get its priorities straight.” What is missing is not strong laws but strong political will.  This is the change we must focus on.

There is a similar danger in placing limits on First Amendment rights of association, assembly and expression, including speech by white supremacists.  Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall famously voted to support the First Amendment rights of a Ku Klux Klan leader in Brandenburg v. Ohio. In that case the court overturned Ohio’s restrictions on “”voluntarily assembl[ing] with any society, group or assemblage of persons formed to teach or advocate the doctrines of criminal syndicalism” and “advocat[ing] . . . the duty, necessity, or propriety of crime, sabotage, violence, or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform.” The court said the law cannot punish mere advocacy, “except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” It is not difficult to visualize how statutes like Ohio’s could be abused and directed at protest movements.

In other words, it’s the action the law must focus on, not the ideology.  Challenging the ideology is a job for all of us, as part of society at large and in our day to day lives.

The Alternative to a Securitized Response

Pushing back against restrictive laws and pushing for prosecution of criminal acts by law enforcement is only the first step in securing justice, equality and peace. Support for George Floyd and victims of police abuse, ending white supremacy and the movement for equality and justice requires respect for human rights and a restorative justice approach, defined by the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation as “a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that allow all willing stakeholders to meet, although other approaches are available when that is impossible. This can lead to transformation of people, relationships and communities.”

This can be done at both the individual and societal levels. The federal government can “develop a multi-sectoral conflict prevention plan based on evidence of what works, addressing grievances, investing in institutions that are worthy of trust, and repairing fragmented relationships between individuals and groups,” as proposed on June 1 by former senior-level USAID officials.

Civil society can and does play an important role in resolving conflict through community-based peacebuilding. In the state where George Floyd was murdered the Minnesota Peacebuilding Leadership Institute “instigates, trains, and supports racially, sexually, culturally, ethnically, religiously, and economically diverse individuals and organizations to become trauma-informed, resilience-oriented, and restorative justice-focused empowering communities in Minnesota, the USA, and around the world.” In Louisville, Kentucky, where Breonna Taylor was murdered, the Global Human Project sponsors The Big Table, an annual event that may be the world’s biggest potluck dinner. It promotes “dialogue and respectful spaces to come together as neighbors.”  Groups like Equal Justice USA also advance a restorative justice approach with its Trauma Informed Policing Project.

At the organizational level, a model for action steps to address systemic racism can be found in a letter signed by over 150 organizations and leaders in the global peace and security field lists specific actions we can take to make the face of international peace and security work more inclusive.

Going forward, both government and civil society must do more to bring people together and address root causes of racial injustice and intolerance. There is no other option- if we do not work to establish equality and build peace, we could end up like the north of Ireland during the “Troubles” fifty years ago. As Prof. Andrew Sanders pointed out in a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post,

Violent clashes between civil rights marchers and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), a predominantly Protestant police force, began in late 1968 and continued into the summer of 1969, leaving Catholic civilians dead and Catholic politicians hospitalized. The Northern Ireland government requested the assistance of the British Army in August 1969, and British soldiers ended up remaining in Northern Ireland until 2007. The Northern Ireland case reveals how escalation of security operations only serves to exacerbate existing tensions and grievances. Further, it shows that insufficient political reform will undermine the situation, and that police reform must be multidimensional to secure broad legitimacy in the eyes of the communities it serves.

Let’s not go there! Instead let’s leverage our expertise and the power of our network to support these protest movements.