Law enforcement efforts to avert the kind of violence seen in Charlottesville last year and Portland, Or., this year would be boosted by anti-street gang strategies, say two researchers.
Often, it has seemed that every public demonstration organized by Alt-Right groups is simply a ruse for violence and intimidation. Fortunately, violence by Alt-Right groups was averted at the Unite the Right 2 rallies in Washington, DC and Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend.
But earlier this month, violence erupted in Portland, Or., when Alt-Right groups clashed with counter-protesters. It was the second such clash in a little over a month.
Explanations given for the lack of violence in the rallies last weekend have largely focused on low attendance by the Alt-Right groups, and the massive police presence.
But if we want to prevent further outbreaks of violence, there are some important steps that can be implemented before the protesters take to the streets.
In both Charlottesville and Portland, traditional crowd control techniques by law enforcement proved insufficient to combat these Alt-Right groups. While this past weekend’s mobilization and deployment of hundreds of law enforcement officers in Washington and Charlottesville may have helped inhibit violence, this approach is not practical or sustainable for every public gathering of the Alt-Right.
Law enforcement should consider alternative approaches to curb the violence that accompanies them. As criminologists who study street and prison gangs, we argue that Alt-Right groups are no different than conventional street gangs, and should be treated as such.
Approaching these groups as gangs would expand law enforcement’s toolbox to more effective tactics. Decades of gang research have highlighted strategies to combat violence. For instance, gang databases already employed by law enforcement agencies, should be used to identify, collect and share intelligence about Alt-Right members who are routinely engaging in violence.
It would then be feasible to use civil gang injunctions to limit the association and congregation of these individuals. Another successful approach has been focused deterrence/group violence intervention, which concentrates on communicating to chronic offenders, most at risk to sanctions, that violence will not be tolerated while providing these individuals opportunities and resources for desistance.
Such a strategy could easily be deployed for Alt-Right groups.
What is a Gang?
Defining what constitutes a “gang” remains a highly debated topic amongst and between academics, policymakers and law enforcement. Even though there is not a single definition between all parties, many elements remain present.
For instance, according to the Washington, DC criminal code, a “criminal street gang” is as “an association or group of six or more persons” that participates in either a felony (e.g., aggravated assault, murder) or a violent misdemeanor (e.g., simple assault, property destruction, threats of bodily harm).
The code also deems it “unlawful for a person to solicit, invite, recruit, encourage, or otherwise cause, or attempt to cause, another individual to become a member of, remain in, or actively participate in” a gang.
Based upon Washington, DC’s criminal code, a very narrow definition of a gang, any of the individuals participating with Alt-Right groups in felony or violent misdemeanor activity, as observed in Portland or Charlottesville, should be treated as a member of an “Alt-Right Gang”.
Are Alt-Right Groups Comparable to Street Gangs?
In broader terms, gangs are groups of individuals sharing a collective identity, differentiating members that are part of the group from excluded outsiders. A common set of descriptors include particular signs/ symbols, that are either materially displayed or tattooed, colors and clothing styles, although these are not necessary elements for a group.
The typical example is a Blood or Crip gang member wearing a particular color, sports team insignia, or clothing brand. The Proud Boys, an Alt-Right group present at both Charlottesville and Portland, routinely wear their own unique uniform identifying group members— a black Fred Perry polo shirt with yellow piping. Given the historic connections of the clothes being adopted as part of racist skinheads’ uniform, it is probably no coincidence that Fred Perry shirts were selected. (The brand does not endorse these groups.)
In addition to the Proud Boys initiation process, their propensity for and support of violence against non-members clearly indicates the use of criminal acts as a tool to further solidify the groups’ Alt-Right identity.
Another characteristic that street gangs and Alt-Right groups hold in common is durability. As witnessed over the last couple years, the activity of Alt-Right groups is not short-lived. Many of these groups have been able to maintain their presence and grow through social media and online imageboards (e.g., 4chan).
A principal characteristic of a street gang is its orientation towards gathering in public space. While much of the Alt-Right developed online, their actions have spewed forth into the physical world. Furthermore, the public presence of Alt-Right groups is not diminishing and remains highly active at public demonstrations and on college campuses.
Does Ideology Matter?
People may argue that Alt-Right groups differ from gangs because their ideological underpinnings are what actually bind these groups together. The vast majority of members of Alt-Right groups remain tied together more by what they oppose: multiculturalism, feminism, political correctness, globalism, establishment politics (i.e., the Federal Government), and immigration, rather than a rigorous and complex ideology.
In fact, the ideologies referenced by members are often varied, and sometimes contradictory. In essence, ideology should be used as a descriptor instead of an identifier. Most criminal codes do not reference ideology in ascertaining if members are part of gang.
Street gangs are not a minority-based problem, yet clear bias exists towards considering people of color as gang members compared to their white counterparts. An example of this lack of local police attention towards Alt-Right gangs is clearly observed in Portland.
The Portland Police Bureau’s Gang Database lists 359 gang members, yet, only 32 individuals were listed as being a member of one of seven White Power groups. That is, less than 9 percent of all known gang members. Yet, Portland is not lacking in violent white supremacy groups. If police agencies categorize crimes involving Alt-Right groups as being part of a racist or hateful subculture treating each incident of violence as an isolated event, rather than a gang-related incident, then law enforcement will never know if these Alt-Righters are habitual offenders and will be limited in their intervention capabilities.
Adapting an old adage, if an Alt-Right group looks like a gang, acts like a gang, and sounds like a gang then it should be considered an Alt-Right Gang.
Matthew Valasik, Ph.D., is a criminologist at the Department of Sociology at Louisiana State University. Shannon Reid, Ph.D., is a criminologist at the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. They study street and prison gangs, and their research has recently focused on White Power and Alt-Right groups. They welcome comments from readers.