Charlottesville, far-right rallies, racism and relating to power

This was originally published in openDemocracy on 17 Aug. 2017.


‘This song’s just a reminder to remind your fellow man that this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan’,

Bob Dylan, The Death Of Emmett Till (1963)

As someone who has spent my academic career working on the American far-right, I was shocked, but not surprised by the Unite the Right rally and scenes of (tiki) torch wielding, swastika bearing and sieg heiling ‘alt-right’ ‘activists’, white nationalists and fascists marching through Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August 2017. The rally, ‘protest’ or ‘riot’ as it has been described, was organized by alt-right white nationalist figurehead Jason Kessler in defense of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee located in Emancipation Park. This followed a Klan rally about the statue in the same city on 8 July.

The battle over confederate monuments was reignited following Dylann Roof’s attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on 17 June 2015. Images of Roof with the flag sparked calls for the removal of such symbols, which led to opposition from the far-right. Unite the Right was also, as the name indicates, an attempt to unite diverse and disparate far-right groups and movements to build upon their already established unity around President Trump and present a show of force. Those attending ranged from neo-confederates, neo-Nazis and Identitarians to militias, and included Ku Klux Klan groups and former Grand Dragon David Duke, the neo-Confederate League of the South, Daily Stormer clubs, the National Socialist Movement, alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer, the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, Traditionalist Youth Network and Traditionalist Worker Party with leader Matthew Heimbach, Vanguard America, American Guard and leader Augustus Invictus, the Nationalist Front, Identity Evropa, Anti-Communist Action, the 3 Percenters, and Oath Keepers, as well as various state militias.

Unite the Right was branded an alt-right rally, but three things were made clear by those present: 1. It was not limited to young men in suits attempting to look respectable or social media savvy activists and trolls; 2. The term alt-right is problematic for how it conceals the white nationalism and fascism of those within it and fellow travellers; and 3. The term is, despite this concealment and the fact that it is the language of the far-right, to a certain degree appropriate for a (loose) movement that was able to mainstream white nationalism and fascism and make them part of popular culture, the media landscape and the national dialogue.

Taking our country back

There were a number of violent incidents at the rally, including attacks on anti-racist and anti-fascist counter protestors. In one horrific incident, a car, driven by a rally participant, ploughed into counter-protestors, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. The accused attacker, who has been arrested and charged, is known white supremacist affiliated with Vanguard America, James A. Fields. Heyer has since been attacked and her funeral threatened by far-right activists on social media and in The Daily Stormer. In another case, Deandre Harris was also chased by a group of white men and beaten up. The Governor of Virginia Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency and the FBI ordered a civil rights investigation. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security had previously warned of the threat of white supremacist extremism and violence, something President Trump ignored. Trump did make a statement almost immediately following Heyer’s death, but not only failed to denounce the far-right, but distracted from them and spread the blame with a false equivalence: ‘We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides … It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump. Not Barack Obama. It’s been going on for a long, long time’. In addition to repeating ‘many sides’ twice, the reference to Obama and history was an implicit response to criticisms that not only was Trump a factor in this rally, but responsible for the wider resurgence of the far-right and mainstreaming and normalization of racism. Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer said:

‘Look at the campaign he ran. Look at the intentional courting, both on the one hand all of these white supremacist, white nationalist groups like that, anti-Semitic groups, and then look on the other hand the repeated failure to step up and condemn, denounce, silence, put to bed, all of those different efforts just like we saw yesterday, and this is not hard’.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) had also said that ‘Trump’s run for office electrified the radical right, which saw in him a champion of the idea that America is fundamentally a white man’s country’. Former Grand Dragon of the KKK David Duke asserted this at the rally itself: ‘We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfil the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump. Because he said he’s going to take our country back’.

The link between Trump and such movements, and his responsibility for the rally and its violence, can be seen in his campaign rhetoric about immigrants and refugees, Mexicans, Muslims and Black Lives Matter, his appeal to white socio-economic and cultural alienation and victimization, as well as courting of racists and organized far-right white nationalists. It is worth mentioning that this wave of reaction started earlier, building on Trump’s promotion of anti-Obama ‘Birtherism’ and capitalizing on the rise in racism and far-right activism and violence that occurred in response to Obama’s election, as Homeland Securityand the SPLC both reported in 2009.

In terms of courting the far-right that united in Charlottesville, during the campaign Trump received endorsements from Rocky Suhayda of the American Nazi Party, Don Black of Stormfront, the Klan and former Grand Dragon David Duke, as well as alt-right’ figurehead Richard Spencer and ‘alt-right’ gateway figures from Breitbart such as Steve Bannon (who now works in the White House) and Milo Yiannopoulos. When challenged on the Duke endorsement, Trump failed to reject it and denounce the man and wider far-right: ‘I don’t know – did he endorse me, or what’s going on? Because I know nothing about David Duke; I know nothing about white supremacists’.

Following the election, the SPLC reported a rise in hate groups, which they attribute to Trump’s campaign and victory. They also reported a spike in hate-based harassment and attacks against various groups post-election. Between 9 November, the day after the election, and 14 November, they collected 437 reports of hate incidents. This rose to 1,094 by mid-December. The SPLC linked the rise in such incidents to Trump’s campaign and victory, and noted graffiti on targets reading ‘Make America White Again’ (a play on his slogan ‘Make America Great Again’) and ‘Vote Trump’.

While many criticized Trump’s response to Charlottesville, the far-right was generally happy. According to Andrew Anglin of the neo-Nazi The Daily Stormer:

‘Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate… on both sides! So he implied the antifa are haters. There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all. He said he loves us all. Also refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him’.

David Duke had issues with the wide distribution of blame, saying: ‘I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror and remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists’. After a great deal of pressure and two days, Trump finally condemned the rally participants and wider far-right: ‘Racism is evil, … And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans’.

Telling the truth like it is

Trump, however, soon reverted to his original position and doubled down, criticizing so-called ‘alt-left’ groups who he claimed were ‘very, very violent’, arguing that there is ‘blame on both sides’. He also claimed that there are, ‘some very fine people on both sides’, denying many on the right were Nazis and white nationalists: ‘Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee … This week, it is Robert E. Lee and this week, Stonewall Jackson. Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop?’. This made Duke happier, ‘Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth’.

Trump’s second statement, declaring that racism and the far-right have been around long before him and Obama was true though (although not in a way that removes responsibility from him). Racism has been around since the founding and building of the country through white settler colonialism, manifest destiny and slavery, and continues in its structures, institutions and policies despite claims about a post-racial America that accompanied Obama’s election.

The far-right arrived in the form of the post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan in the 1860s, and has returned, been revived or resurgent at many times throughout American history, so neither racism nor white nationalists, supremacists and wider far-right are as un-American as Trump, who used racism to ‘Make America Great Again’, claimed.

His third statement reference to George Washington as a slaveowner acknowledges the place of racism at the very core of American history, although he only did it to defend the far-right. Although the far-right have risen, declined and risen again throughout American history, it has changed in form and discourse, as well as relation to power, but rarely has it been in or represented by those in the White House, whether it be Trump, Bannon or Sebastian Gorka. It is for this reason, that it is worthwhile looking back at the history of the far-right and organized white supremacy and nationalism to see where both the militant violent fascists and legitimized, electoral and policy-oriented racist far-right that converge with Trump, come from and what they relate to.

Five eras of far right

The ‘Unite the Right’ rally reminds me of developments in the 1980s, when former Klansman and Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler opened his compound in Hayden Lake, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho to the wider far-right for his Annual Aryan National Congress (ANC). After a history where the Ku Klux Klan dominated the racist far-right, Aryan Nations not only attempted to steal the crown, but unite and lead the racist right. Although not every group wanted to join, the ANCs played host to a diverse group of white supremacists, white separatists, neo-Nazis, Klan paramilitaries, posses, Christian Patriots, survivalists, neo-confederates and more.[1] It was at one of these meetings in 1983 that Bob Mathews and Bruce Pierce formed The Order, which went on a murder and crime spree that took the life of Denver talk radio DJ Alan Berg in 1984,[2] a case made famous by Oliver Stone in Talk Radio and Costa-Gavras in Betrayed.

The latter also included a scene at one of the congresses. A real ANC can be seen in the documentary Blood in the Face, by James Ridgeway, assisted amongst others by Michael Moore. Louis Theroux also visited on one of his Weird Weekends. Where this differs is that none of the participants felt emboldened by the president and it took place within the confines of a secure compound with only racists, right-wing extremists and fellow travellers attending.Where this differs is that none of the participants felt emboldened by the president and it took place within the confines of a secure compound with only racists, right-wing extremists and fellow travellers attending.

I was also reminded of the Greensboro massacre, which did impact a community and involved targets and victims. This occurred on 3 November 1979, when members of the Communist Workers’ Party (CWP) and Workers Viewpoint Organization (WVO) participated in a textile workers’ march defending Black workers in Greensboro, North Carolina. The CWP had opposed the Ku Klux Klan, American Nazis Party and other groups, who confronted them and killed five CWP and civil rights activists, as well as wounding others.[3] According to James Ridgeway, this was one of the first incidents of what has been termed the ‘fifth era’ or post-civil rights era.[4]

It was this era that provides the template for the current diversity and attempted unification of the far-right (from white supremacist to neo-confederate to neo-Nazi), the organization around perceived white victimization and loss of America and militant violence. What is significantly different about these two periods is their relation to state power. The history of the far-right was, until the 1970s, dominated by the Ku Klux Klan, its traditional white supremacy, system-supportive ideology and close connections to governmental and institutional power (local, state and sometimes federal), defending racist laws and practices such as segregation. This was probably the last time as indicated by Trump and his racist and far-right followers that America was deemed ‘great’ by them.

According to Henry Louis Gates Jr., Trump’s support and success  ‘clearly represented a backlash against the progress black people have made since 1965’. The success of civil rights and voting rights have been a source of material for post-racial claims and narratives since Obama’s election (how far ‘we’ve’ come),[5] as well as resentment on the part of the far-right and a wider racist backlash which occurred in and challenged the ‘post-racial’ claim. This also represented a crisis point, fuelling anger and resentment for the Klan at the time, known as the third or civil rights era Klan, which in turn fuelled the fifth era.

Un-American activities

After a decade defending segregation, enforcing legal white supremacy and opposing civil and voting rights in league with the local and state government, law enforcement and white society, the tide turned for the Klan following the June 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner by Klansmen and including Neshoba Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price in Mississippi. President Lyndon Johnson and Attorney General Robert Kennedy pressured FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to launch the FBI’s Internal Security Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) ‘White Hate Groups’ program.[6] Following the 1965 murder of voting rights activist Viola Liuzzo, the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) held hearings on the Activities Of Ku Klux Klan Organizations In The United States, which produced the report The Present-day Ku Klux Klan Movement in 1967 and condemned the Klan as un-American.

While these were responses to violence and political pressure, it also allowed the federal government to remove an obstacle to the enforcement of legislation and disentangle the Klan from legitimate, mainstream southern society such that this could be redeemed and reconstructed. The same occurred in the first era when the Klan first emerged in response to emancipation and reconstruction in 1867-8, preoccupied with the threat to whites particularly white women, from free former slaves, and were defeated by anti-Klan legislation and Ulysses S Grant in 1871.[7] While the third era shows what a far-right with political power and influence can look like, unlike the current manifestation of the far-right, it had no power and influence on a federal or national level.While the third era shows what a far-right with political power and influence can look like, unlike the current manifestation of the far-right, it had no power and influence on a federal or national level.

For the Klan, civil rights, voting rights, COINTELPRO and HUAC represented not only their failure to ‘maintain white supremacy’, their stated objective, but also their persecution by the federal government. It is here that the contemporary far-right’s discourse of white victimization has its modern origins, although it can also be seen in the post-civil war first era, which is now being played out in the defense of confederate monuments.

In response, a split has occurred in the Klan about how to respond to a country that has allegedly abandoned whites, and reversed the racial order of things. David Duke pursued a mainstreaming strategy, leaving the Klan but largely following his predecessors’ non-violent, legitimate path, establishing the National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP) and running unsuccessfully for President in 1988 and successfully for Louisiana State Legislature in 1989.[8]

This is sometimes referred to as the fourth era. Yet, most followed the more radical path expressed by Texas Klansman Louis Beam Jr. in his call-to-arms ‘where ballots fail, bullets will prevail’.[9]  This was a rejection of the Klan’s mainstream tactics in favour of more violent and insurgent ones, which defined the fifth era in the late 1970s to the 1990s.

This era saw the paramilitarization of the Klan in the form of Beam’s Texas Emergency Reserve and Frazier Glenn Miller’s White Patriot Party. Like Duke, Miller spans the eras. It was his followers who were involved in the Greensboro Massacre and he was convicted for the April 2015 shootings at a Jewish Community Centre and retirement home in Kansas. The traditional Klan was also replaced in significance by Aryan Nations and other groups such as National Alliance, White Aryan Resistance, Posse Comitatus and The Order. In addition to which, traditional white supremacy was pushed to the side by the growth of anti-government patriotism, Nazism and white separatism. It is here that the extreme politics of post-civil rights white victimization, fascism and violence we see today manifested themselves and mobilized, but against the federal government as opposed to in league with and emboldened by it.What we are seeing today is the extremism of the fifth era and national institutional legitimacy of the second era.

This era saw violent attacks not only on left-wing activists, by IRS officers and local law enforcement, particularly during the farm crisis of the 1980s. The mobilization of the far-right during the farm crisis and deindustrialization of the 1980s played on the theme of white alienation and victimization that we see perpetuated by Trump. The 1990s saw increasing anti-government radicalization with the 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge, emergence of the Militia movement and bombing of the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on 19 April 1995. All of these were mentioned as precedents and threats in the Homeland Security and SPLC reports following Obama’s election.

It was rare for fifth era activists to run for elected office. One exception was Posse Comitatus member James Wickstrom, who ran unsuccessfully for Wisconsin State Senate in 1980 while also (ironically) serving as the Posse’s National Director of Counter Insurgency and founder of the sovereign township of Tigerton Dell.[10] The fifth era did not have a Trump or anyone in office to look to or legitimise them.

If we want to see what it looks like for the far-right to have national power and influence, we have to go back further to the second era in 1915, when the Klan re-formed after being whitewashed and rehabilitated by DW Griffith in Birth of a Nation.

Although re-formed in Georgia, the second era Klan capitalized on the 100 per cent American white nationalist nativism of the day, something Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ and anti-immigrant politics reference and share common traits with. The Klan of the era saw themselves defending the nation from within against immigrant ‘aliens,’ Jews, Catholics and communists, as well as black people, and it was mainstream, popular and influential on a state and federal level.

At the peak of the era in 1925, the Klan had up to five million members.[11] On 8 August 1925, more than 50,000 members of the Klan marched on Washington, D.C. and Texas Klansman Earl Mayfield was elected to the U.S. Senate. Most significantly, Congress passed the Klan-supported 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which was intended to end the ‘indiscriminate acceptance of all races’, limiting immigration and introduced permanent restrictions designed to keep out Southern and Eastern Europeans, particularly Italians and Jews, Africans and those from the Middle East, as well as barring Asian immigration.[12]

It was this act that Jeff Sessions, who has previously expressed admiration for the Klan, referenced when he expressed support and admiration regarding the contemporary concern about immigration in a 2015 interview with Stephen Bannon. It was also in this era that Trump’s father Fred was a member and arrested at a riot in 1927.

Dangerous convergence

America is a haunted house of hate. What we are seeing today is the extremism of the fifth era and national institutional legitimacy of the second era. It is this convergence which is so dangerous and we must not let one distract from the other, but address them both, as well as the racism that runs through American society even when there is not a revival or resurgence of the far-right in whatever form it may take.

[1] Kevin Flynn and Gary Gerhardt, The Silent Brotherhood: The Chilling Inside Story of America’s Violent, Anti-Government Militia Movement, New York: Signet, 1990.

[2] Ibid.

[3] J. Ridgeway, Blood in the Face: The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi Skinheads, and the Rise of a New White Culture, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1990, p. 79.

[4] Ibid.

[5] C. Dickey, ‘Journey Through a Troubled South’, Newsweek, 11 Aug. 2008, pp. 22-32; Chicago Herald Tribune, ‘Election 2008’, 5 Nov. 2008, pp. 6-7; USA Today, ‘Reflections on Living History’, 21 Jan. 2009, pp. 14a-15a; Newsweek, ‘Commemorative Inaugural Issue’, 20 Jan. 2009; A. Fetini, et al., ‘One Dream Realized’, Time: Special Inauguration Preview, 26 Jan. 2009, pp. 28-31.

[6] C. Hewitt, Understanding Terrorism in America: From the Klan to Al Qaeda(London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 97-98; D. Cunningham, Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights Era Ku Klux Klan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, p. 197.

[7] J. Ridgeway, Blood in the Face, p. 34.

[8] S. Diamond, Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States, New York: Guilford Press, 1995, pp. 264-265.

[9] J. Ridgeway, Blood in the Face, p. 87.

[10] Ibid. p.117.

[11] D. Chalmers, Hooded Americanism: The First Century of the Ku Klux Klan 1865-1965, Garden City: Doubleday, 1965, p. 31; D. Chalmers, Hooded Americanism: The First Century of the Ku Klux Klan, Durham: Duke University Press, 2007, p. 33.

[12] M. Cox and M. Durham, ‘The Politics of Anger: The Extreme Right in the United States’, The Politics of the Extreme Right: From the Margins to the Mainstream, London: Pinter, 2000, pp. 290-291.



Brexit and Trump: On Racism, the Far Right and Violence

This was originally published on the IPR (Bath Institute for Policy Research) Blog: Racism and Far Right Series on 4 March 2017:

When Labour MP for Batley and Spen Jo Cox was murdered by Thomas Mair in Birstall, West Yorkshire on 16 June 2016, I thought it could be seen as a symbolic culmination of all the hateful, polarised, scapegoating rhetoric of the EU referendum, and a watershed moment when a nation and electorate divided, and particularly the Leave or ‘Brexit’ campaigns, reflected on themselves. The context of the killing, and the fact that Mair allegedly shouted ‘Britain first, this is for Britain, Britain will always come first’[1] as he confronted, stabbed and shot Cox – a Remain campaigner and champion of refugees – seemed to confirm the link to the Referendum, and particularly Brexit rhetoric. The use of ‘Britain First’ led the far-right group of the same name to deny links,[2] yet an image of Mair campaigning for the organisation soon emerged.[3] He was also found to have a range of white supremacist and neo-Nazi materials in his home,[4] and is alleged to have purchased material from the US-based white nationalist group National Alliance.[5] This is an organisation that was led by the late William Pierce, who wrote TheTurner Diaries, a novel which influenced the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. The book has returned to the spotlight in the wake of the Trump campaign and revival of the far right in the US. This revival has been linked to wider right-wing populism, racialised nationalism, mobilisation of white (allegedly working-class) anger, normalisation of racism and xenophobia, and convergence of the mainstream and far right in the country, which were also features of Brexit in the UK. Trump would link the two, calling Brexit ‘great’ and attributing it to the British people’s desire for their own identity and opposition to refugees.[6] Farage would also make the link from an inauguration party in Washington DC, stating ‘Trump becoming President of the USA is Brexit plus plus plus’.[7] They also both thought Farage would make a good ambassador to the US.[8]

Yet little or nothing was reflected on or changed following the murder of Jo Cox. As is often the case, the link to the far right was used to confirm political, ideological and discursive preconceptions and fulfil corresponding functions. When far-right violence occurs, many are quick to paint a picture of an individual (or fringe movement) that has stepped outside the boundaries of reasonable, rational democratic discourse and practice to espouse extremist views and use violence, and who is thus definitely not linked to any particular campaign, political party or popular sentiment. Often the perpetrator is described as a mentally unstable loner, as Mair was by UKIP and Leave.EU leader Nigel Farage (‘one man with serious mental health issues’[9]); Spiked!’s Brendan O’Neill (‘warped killer’[10]); The Daily Mail (‘loner’ seeking counselling[11]); and others. This depoliticises the actor and act, distancing them from the far right and mainstream, as well as from wider social-political forces and structures. Yet, Mair had far-right beliefs and identified as a ‘political activist’.[12] He was deemed mentally competent for the trial, where he articulated his political views, and was convicted and sentenced on 23 November 2016 to a whole-life term. Even though the political superseded the psychological, however, the focus was on Mair’s individual beliefs, as opposed to his links to a movement, organisation or social group. This individualisation and exceptionalism, whether through mental illness or its political parallel the ‘lone wolf’, also deracialises the actor and act, allowing those like him to not have to identify, nor provide a collective alibi and even apologise – as Muslims are asked to do after a terrorist attack. As Mair’s act was committed in the name of Britain – in the context of a campaign where Muslims have been targeted as refugees for an alleged failure to integrate and, ironically, as extremists and terrorists – and he had an association with Britain First, the racist double standard is obvious. In an unironic and confused example of the double standard, when Britain First distanced themselves from the Mair shooting (as if they think collective guilt by association with terrorism is a bad thing) leader Paul Golding actually linked his statement, but not the group, to the wider Brexit campaign and context: ‘Was he referring to an organisation? Was he referring to a slogan? Was he just shouting out in the middle of an EU debate: ‘Putting Britain first’? You know, I’ve heard this almost every day’.[13] Unlike in Britain, neither Trump nor his supporters thought it important to strongly deny links or distance his campaign when he received endorsements from Rocky Suhayda of the American Nazi Party, Don Black of Stormfront, ‘alt right’ figurehead Richard Spencer and former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke,[14] as well as gateway figures from Breitbart such as Steve Bannon (now Trump’s chief strategist) and Milo Yiannopoulos. Trump’s response to the Duke endorsement was: ‘I don’t know – did he endorse me, or what’s going on? Because I know nothing about David Duke; I know nothing about white supremacists’.[15]

In Britain, the response from some Brexiter commentators was not only to disavow Mair, but also those making links. One example of this was Polly Toynbee, who argued that ‘this campaign has stirred up anti-migrant sentiment that used to be confined to outbursts from the far fringes of British politics’.[16] Daniel Trilling similarly contended that ‘Far-right politics cannot be as easily cordoned off from the mainstream as people would like to believe. Fascists attach themselves to popular causes and drag the debate in their direction. Populists and parties of the centre take note and then try to appeal to voters susceptible to the far right’s messages by taking xenophobic positions of their own’.[17] In response to such arguments, Brendan O’Neill argued that ‘The spirit of democracy was dealt two blows yesterday.’ The first, he said, ‘came from a warped killer, Thomas Mair’ – and the second was ‘from ghouls in the media and political classes’, who ‘swiftly blamed the murder on the Brexit lobby’ and ‘marshalled Cox’s death to the cause of sanitising political speech and insisting that certain views no longer be openly expressed’.[18]

This argument seems to at once displace hate, and justify its expression. In fact, the argument that free speech and thus democracy are being repressed echoes those arguments that say that it was political correctness and the repression of free speech about immigration that led to Brexit. Moreover, in some circles it seems free speech is defined by hate speech. Five days prior to the vote, Spiked! claimed that ‘Hate Speech is Free Speech’,[19] and post-referendum O’Neill asserted that ‘hate speech must be free speech’.[20] I would argue that the tone of the campaign, far-right violence, and links between them can also be seen in the context of the wider normalisation of racism, anti-immigrant xenophobia, and racialised nationalism in ‘mainstream’ politics, media and public discourse that fed into the referendum and has been intensified by it. What we have seen is the mainstreaming of the extreme, informing an emboldening and radicalisation of the mainstream, and further emboldening and radicalisation of the far right. Britain has produced an American-style paramilitary far right – and someone, even if only inspired by it, has taken a life. Just prior to the murder, Britain First ran a paramilitary survival training camp in Wales,[21] and a day after the murder, they issued a threat against London Mayor Sadiq Khan (whom Jobling lost to) and ‘all Muslim elected officials’.[22] So they were not overly concerned with the stigma of violence.

While Farage tweeted his condolences for Cox, there was no hint of the apology, condemnation or disassociation that is expected of Muslims following a terror attack. Farage probably cannot see the racial or national identities he and his targeted constituency share with Mair in negative terms, does not consider the consequences of his own fear and hate mongering, and appears to consider far-right groups either a potential support base or representative of one. He definitely appealed to fascism and fascists; his Leave.EU campaign targeted the far right on social media,[23] and he posed with English Defence League members under a pro-Brexit banner and tweeted the image.[24] For a campaign poster, Leave.EU used a Nazi-esque image of refugees crossing from Croatia to Slovenia in 2015 with a banner reading ‘Breaking Point: the EU has failed us all’.[25] In a May 2016 BBC interview, Farage said: ‘It’s legitimate to say that if people feel they’ve lost control completely, and we have lost control of our borders completely as members of the EU, and if people feel voting doesn’t change anything, then violence is the next step’.[26] Returning to the opposition painted earlier between the individual extremist who commits violence and reasonable, rational democratic discourse and practice, what is clear here is that not only is the line blurred, but a democratic election or referendum is presented as a way of preventing or just delaying violence – which will occur should democracy not find in favour of one side. Farage would later claim that Brexit victory was achieved ‘without a single bullet being fired’.[27] There was no mention of Jo Cox. Yet violence is not the only harm; the campaign harmed the targets and social relations. This scapegoating and dehumanisation of refugees and others has also already costs lives, as supporting refugees fleeing danger has become seen as an electoral liability and opposition to refugees a necessity or currency. Labour even sold control immigration mugs to raise money in the 2015 election,[28] and now has a leader who supports Brexit.[29]

Despite some openness to immigration and multiculturalism in the early years of New Labour, since 7/7 the Labour Party has attempted to appeal to increasing anti-immigrant sentiment and voters being targeted by the BNP and later UKIP. The country has become less welcoming, inclusive, egalitarian and progressive, and it isn’t only immigrants and refugees – Tory austerity policies have demonstrated that the poor and vulnerable in general are unworthy and disposable. Yet we were told during the campaign that even that is the fault of the EU, immigrants and refugees. Racism, xenophobia and scapegoating, as well as a ‘divide and rule’ approach (as if austerity only affected working-class whites), have become acceptable and normalised. Toynbee highlights ‘how recklessly the decades of careful work and anti-racist laws to make those sentiments unacceptable have been overturned’.[30] It is a retreat back to the small-island nationalism, racism and post-colonial melancholia of Powellism for some, and nostalgia for the age of Empire itself for others – as evidenced by appeals to commonwealth relations, trade and immigration and Liam Fox’s call for ‘Empire 2.0’.[31] For Toynbee, writing prior to Cox’s murder, ‘this is the sound of Britain breaking. Here ends our “moderate, tolerant” self-image’.[32] But it is not all about the ‘self’ (the liberal-left version of ‘the people’ that excludes foreigners). The referendum debate has focused largely on the ‘self’. It is something that many of us, our friends, colleagues and family members who are not from here, who are racialised, or who are otherwise excluded, are forced to listen to and endure from politicians, media and public as they speak to each other (including about us, in terms of borders, ‘Britishness’ and tolerance). The message throughout, from Brexiters specifically, has been that democracy does not include us, except as a barrier to self-realisation, and we are no longer welcome here; our fate is theirs to decide, and it matters no more than a power struggle on the right (and left).

On the eve of the vote I worried that, if we stayed, the immigrants, refugees and Muslims scapegoated already would find themselves in the firing line – and if we left, those thinking that these groups are to blame for all the problems (including Tory-led austerity, cuts to public services and unemployment – or neoliberalism in general) would be disappointed, and blame the scapegoats that had already been established. We didn’t have to wait that long; people were emboldened, their hate legitimised. In the wake of the Leave vote of 52% to 48% (with 72% turnout) on 23 June 2016,[33] we have seen a rise in hate crimes against not only Europeans, but Muslims and other racial and ethnic minorities. According to Met Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, in the 38 days following the referendum there were more than 2,300 recorded race-hate offences in London, compared with 1,400 in the 38 days before. He connected this increase to the referendum campaign and vote.[34] According to the National Police Chiefs’ Council, hate crime increased 49% in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the month after the referendum compared with same month the previous year.[35] These figures were used in the Institute of Race Relations report Racial Violence and the Brexit State by Jon Burnett, which examined the role of the campaign and media in whipping up hate and even showed that racist language used during attacks echoed or repeated government rhetoric and policies.[36] In the US, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reported a spike in hate-based harassment and attacks against various groups post-election. Between 9 November, the day after the presidential election, and 14 November, they collected 437 reports of hate incidents[37] – and this rose to 1,094 by mid-December.[38] The SPLC linked the rise in such incidents to Trump’s campaign and victory, and noted graffiti on targets reading ‘Make America White Again’ and ‘Vote Trump’.[39]

There seems to be growing evidence of a link between the racism the campaigns legitimised and normalised, the emboldening of racists, and violence. This cannot be dismissed, as Mair was, with the assertion that it comes from an individual or far-right extremist, but was dismissed nonetheless; the response from some Brexiters has been threefold.

Firstly, deny and denigrate: The Daily Mail reported the same statistics, but rejected them because they claim that Britain is tolerant (citing Sadiq Khan’s election), and hate crime is a ‘cynical industry’ where ‘dishonesty and hysteria reign’[40] – while Brenden O’Neill referred to it as ‘hate crime hysteria’, arguing that it is based on ‘officialdom’s active trawling for such crimes … To the explicitly political end of demonising the choice made by voters in the referendum’.[41]

Secondly, sophistry and selective time travel: if you claim these attacks are post-Brexit, it means you deny hate existed previously – as  Spiked!’s Luke Gittos argued in ‘Britain has not become racist overnight’.[42] In The SpectatorJoanna Williams claimed – as if exposing a lie – that ‘the EU referendum hadn’t even happened before it was linked to an increase in hate crime’.[43] Yet, scapegoating and hate were factors in pressure for the referendum in the first place, and racists have become emboldened to express it more freely and intimately. You would think Gittos was highlighting pre-existing and ongoing structural and institutional racism. For years Spiked! has been arguing that anti-racism is not needed like it was in the 1980s, ignoring all forms of racism unless it wears a swastika. As O’Neill argued in The Spectator: ‘there is a great disparity between the handwringing over hate crime and what Britain is actually like. The open racism even I can remember in the 1980s has all but vanished … The likes of the BNP and EDL have withered due to lack of interest’.[44] Farage denied any responsibility for hate crime and argued without a hint of irony: ‘I destroyed the British National Party – we had a far-right party in this country who genuinely were anti-Jew, anti-Black, all of those things, and I came along, and said to their voters, if you’re holding your nose and voting for this party as a protest, don’t. Come and vote for me – I’m not against anybody, I just want us to start putting British people first, and I, almost single-handedly, destroyed the far right in British politics’.[45] In 2014, BNP leader Nick Griffin stated ‘I will hold nose & vote UKIP because it will help break up the Westminster system & hold Cameron’s feet to referendum fire’.[46] Neither Farage nor O’Neill seem to recognise that Brexit was aided by the far right – including UKIP, and the normalisation and mainstreaming of their ideas – as well as playing a role in the resurgence of such groups. In addition to an increase in hate incidents and attacks, the UK also saw far-right terror threats and arrests double in 2016.[47] In the US, the SPLC has reported a rise in hate groups, which they attribute to Trump’s campaign and victory.[48]

Thirdly, racialise the working class and reverse the racism: Gittos claimed that ‘the onset of panic has revealed how the very publications and commentators who once claimed to stand up for the working class in fact view working-class people as a violent, racist horde’.[49] It seems that every time someone claims racism or the far right is on the rise (and/or evokes them when criticising Brexit), commentators assume that it is the working class being accused, that the working class is white, that a racist and xenophobic campaign speaks to them (because they have been ‘left behind’ by capitalism, repressed by anti-racism and political correctness and/or abandoned by establishment parties and democracy), attribute the success of such campaigns to them, and then attack others for allegedly making the links they constructed. This argument or narrative follows from, accepts the terms of, or even draws upon the racialised and populist construction of the working class as white and the rightful inhabitants of the nation (if not embodiment of the nation) and, like it, under siege by foreigners and the forces of political correctness, perpetuated and mobilised by Leave.EU and UKIP (as the BNP had before them) and tied to the wider racialised nationalism that underpinned much Brexit racism. We see this narrative in criminologist Steve Hall’s analysis of how UKIP and the wider far right have made inroads into the working class, where Labour and the left used to be. He argues that UKIP ‘publically dismissed the political correctness that the liberal middle class uses to censor the working class’ and ‘echoes the working class fear that immigrants are taking their jobs and undercutting their wages’. He goes on to say ‘the “anti-fascist” left hurls abuse at them in the street, and the liberal press hasn’t stopped calling them racists, misogynists, homophobes and knuckle-dragging Neanderthals for three decades. Some of the commentary after Brexit was positively eugenicist—calling for the white working class to be bred out’.[50] In terms of Brexit specifically, O’Neill claims that the bigotry is from the elites against the demos[51] and argues that ‘Brexit Voters are not thick, not racist: just poor’, and that ‘Britain’s poor and workless have risen up’.[52] He fails, like others, to consider the racial and political heterogeneity of the working class, poor and workless, or the class heterogeneity of Brexiters. According to research by Danny Dorling, 52% of people who voted Leave lived in the southern half of England, and 59% were middle class, while the proportion of Leave voters in the lowest two social classes was 24%.[53] The argument about a populist working class insurgency represented not only Brexit but UKIP is also challenged by the latter’s electoral loss to Labour in the solidly 70% ‘Leave’ Stoke-on-Trent in the February 2017 byelection[54] (followed by losing their only MP, when Douglas Carswell left the party the next month, but kept the Clacton seat he had held previously as a Tory before defecting to UKIP)[55]. In the US, it has been shown that Clinton actually lost more ‘white working class’ votes on Obama than Trump gained on Romney in 2012.[56] Milo Yiannopoulos claimed that ‘Liberals have lots of theories for why working class whites abandoned them. The most obvious of which is their old standby, “they are racist”’.[57] Yet, Trump got the majority of white professional males with a college education and over 40% of white professional females with a college education,[58] which points to race over class as a factor. Moreover, while Trump won the electoral college, he lost the popular vote 46.4% to 48.5%,[59] and the voter turnout was only 55.4% with Trump at 26.3%.[60]

In addition to hate-crimes, in post-referendum Britain the government has been embracing or rewarding such politics with measures that resemble or signal fascism – including the proposal that employers hand over lists of foreigners[61] and child refugees be subjected to medical tests.[62] In the US, it is a border wall,[63] deportations,[64] and an attempted Muslim travel ban.[65] There is also the ever-increasing list of those not considered ‘people’ based on a Brexit and Trump-only democracy test. The Daily Mailran the headline: ‘Whingeing. Contemptuous. Unpatriotic. Damn the Bremoaners and their plot to subvert the will of the British people’.[66] Following the ruling that brought the triggering of Article 50 to that sovereign and democratic body Parliament, The Daily Mail’s headline was ‘Enemies of the People’ and The Sun’s ‘Loaded foreign elite defy will of British people’. The ruling followed a court case pursued by Gina Miller who was, as Rod Liddle noted in The Sunday Times, ‘not born in Britain’ but ‘British Guyana’, adding ‘although I suppose as “leavers” this is something we should gloss over in case we get called racist’.[67] In the US, Trump labelled the media the ‘enemy of the people’ for criticising his administration.[68] In post-referendum Britain and Trump-era America, the category of ‘people’ is being narrowed further: not foreigners, Muslims, those deemed not British or American enough, those who did not vote for Brexit or Trump, critics, the media nor the judiciary.

This blog post is part of an IPR series focused on the rise of racism and the far right. This collection of commissioned blog posts will be published as an IPR Policy Brief in summer 2017. Sign up to the IPR blog to get the latest blog posts, or join our mailing list to receive invitations to our events and copies of our Policy Briefs. This piece is based on an earlier article by Dr Aaron Winter, published June 2016 on Open Democracy.


[1] Cobain, Ian. 2016, 14 Nov. ‘Jo Cox killed in ‘brutal, cowardly’ and politically motivated murder, trial hears’. The Guardian.
[2] Bartlett, Evan. 2016, 17 June. ‘Britain First is angry the entire group is being tarnished by one man, fail to see the irony’. Indy100.–bylAyAGqI4Z
[3] Pride, Tom. 2016, June. 18. ‘Photograph of Jo Cox murder suspect campaigning with far-right group Britain First’. Pride’s Purge.
[4] Gardner, Tony. 2016, 21 Nov. ‘Images of inside home of man accused of killing Jo Cox shown to jury’. Yorkshire Evening Post.
[5] Stone, Ian 2016, 17 June. ‘Jo Cox death: Alleged killer Tommy Mair ‘bought gun-making manual from far-right neo-Nazi group’’. The Independent.
[6] Stewart, Heather, Yuhas, Alan and Walker, Peter. 2017, 16 Jan. ‘Donald Trump’s first UK post-election interview: Brexit a ‘great thing’’. The Guardian.
[7] Oppenheim, Maya. 2017, 20 Jan. ‘Nigel Farage praises Donald Trump at his inauguration party: ‘President Trump is Brexit plus plus plus’’. The Independent.
[8] Woolf, Nicky and Elgot, Jessica. 2016, 22 Nov. ‘Nigel Farage would be great UK ambassador to US, says Donald Trump’. The Guardian.
[9] Wright, Oliver. 2016, 19 June. ‘Nigel Farage says he is a victim of political hatred in response to Jo Cox question’. The Independent.
[10] O’Neill, Brendan. 2016, 19 June. ‘Jo Cox: don’t use this tragedy to tame democracy’. Spiked!.
[11] Greenwood, Chris and Brooke, Chris. 2016, 17 June. ‘Police probe MP killer’s mental care: Loner suspected of murdering Jo Cox was ‘in crisis’ and sought help from health counsellor just 24 hours before attack’. Daily Mail.
[12] Slawson, Nicola. 2016, 18 June. ‘Jo Cox murder accused gives name as ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain’’. The Guardian.
[13] Barlett, Evan. 2016, 17 June.
[14] Neiwert, David and Posner, Sarah. 2016, 21 Sept. ‘Meet the Horde of Neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and Other Extremist Leaders Endorsing Donald Trump’. Mother Jones.
[15] Bradner, Eric. 2016, 29 Feb. ‘Donald Trump stumbles on David Duke, KKK’. CNN.
[16] Toynbee, Polly. 2016, 17 June. ‘The mood is ugly, and an MP is dead’. The Guardian.
[17] Trilling, Daniel. 2016, 17 June. ‘Jo Cox, Brexit and the Politics of Hate’. The New York Times.
[18] O’Neill, Brendan. 2017, 17 June.
[19] Spiked!. 2016, 12 June. ‘Hate speech is free speech’. Spiked!
[20] O’Neill, Brendan. 2016, 20 Aug. ‘Hate speech must be free speech’. Spiked!
[21] Dewey, Philip. 2016, 15 June. ‘Britain First have been holding an ‘activist training camp’ in the Welsh mountains’. Wales Online.
[22] Blair, Oliver. 2016, 25 May. ‘Britain First threatens to target London Mayor Sadiq Khan with ‘direct action’’ The Independent.
[23] Lyons, James. 2016, 22 may. ‘Farage campaign courted far right’. The Sunday Times.
[24] Archibald, Sarah. 2016, 14 June. ‘Farage’s day out with the EDL’. Hope Not Hate.
[25] Stewart, Heather and Mason, Rowena. 2016, 16 June. ‘Nigel Farage’s anti-migrant poster reported to police’. The Guardian.
[26] Simons, Ned. 2016, 17 June. ‘Nigel Farage Predicts ‘Violence The Next Step’ If Immigration Is Not Controlled’.
Huffington Post.
[27] Saul, Heather. 2016, 24 June. ‘Brexit: Nigel Farage branded ‘shameful’ for claiming victory ‘without a single bullet being fired’. The Independent.
[28] Channel 4. 2015, 31 Mar. ‘Labour’s immigration mug: changing Britain for the better?’. Channel 4.
[29] Asthana, Anushka. 2017, 10 Jan. ‘Corbyn on Brexit: UK can be better off out of the EU’. The Guardian.
[30] Toynbee, Polly. 2016, 16 June.
[31] Bayliss, Charlie. 2017, 6 Mar. ‘Empire 2.0: UK to ‘improve trade links with African Commonwealth nations’ after Brexit’. Sunday Express.
[32] Toynbee, Polly. 2016, 13 June. ‘Brexit supporters have unleashed furies even they can’t control’. The Guardian.
[33] BBC. 2016, June. ‘EU Referendum Results’. BBC.
[34] Weaver, Matthew. 2016, 28 Sept. ‘‘Horrible spike’ in hate crime linked to Brexit vote, Met police say. The Guardian.
[35] Travis, Alan. 2016, 7 Sept. ‘Lasting rise in hate crime after EU referendum, figures show’ The Guardian.
[36] Burnett, Jon. 2016. 1 Dec. Racial Violence and the Brexit State. Institute of Race Relations.
[37] Hatewatch Staff. 2016, 15 Nov. ‘Update: More Than 400 Incidents of Hateful Harassment and Intimidation Since the Election’. Southern Poverty Law Center.
[38] Hatewatch Staff. 2016, 16 Dec. ‘Update: 1094 Bias Related Incidents in the Month Following the Election’. Southern Poverty Law Center.
[39] Miller, Cassie and Werner, Alexandra. 2016, 29 Nov. ‘Ten Days After: Harassment and Intimidation in the Aftermath of the Election’. Southern Poverty Law Center.
[40] Adams, Guy. 2016, 24 Sept. ‘The great Brexit hate crime myth: How claims of an epidemic of race crimes since the referendum are simply false’. The Daily Mail.
[41] O’Neill, Brendan. 2016, 14 Oct. ‘It’s time to shoot down the post-Brexit hate-crime hysteria’. Spiked!.
[42] Gittos, Luke. 2016, 28 June. ‘Britain has not become racist overnight’. Spiked!.
[43] Williams, Joanna. 2016, 14 Oct. ‘What the increase in hate crime really tells us about post-Brexit Britain’. The Spectator.
[44] O’Neill, Brendan. 2016, 6 August. ‘Britain’s real hate crime scandal’. The Spectator.
[45] Wells, David. 2016, 12 Aug. ‘Nigel Farage: I am not responsible for post-Brexit race hate’. Plymouth Herald.
[46] Stone, Jon. 2014, 30 Nov. ‘Nick Griffin voting UKIP: Former BNP leader backs Nigel Farage’. The Independent.
[47] Farmer. Ben. 2017, 9 Mar. ‘Far-Right and neo-Nazi terror arrests double’. The Telegraph.
[48] Hatewatch Staff. 2017, 15 Feb. ‘Hate groups increase for second consecutive year as Trump electrifies radical right’. Southern Poverty Law Center.
[49] Gittos, Luke, 2016, 28 June.
[50] Beck, Chris. 2017, Mar. ‘How the U.K. Left Lost the Working Class: An interview with British professor Steve Hall. Splice Today.
[51] O’Neill, Brendan. 2016, 29 June. ‘Brexit: this was a vote against bigotry, not for it’. Spiked!.
[52] O’Neill, Brendan. 2016, 2 July. ‘Brexit Voters are not thing, not racist: just poor’. The Spectator.
[53] Dorling, Danny. 2016. ‘Brexit: The decision of a divided country’.
[54] Maquire, Patrick. 2017, 12 Feb. ‘Ukip ‘too disorganised’ to cash in on Brexit anger in Stoke election’. The Guardian.
[55] Helm, Toby. 2017, 26 Mar. ‘Douglas Carswell quits Ukip to sit as an independent: ‘the work is done and we won’’. The Guardian.
[56] Kilibarda, Konstantin and Roithmayr, Daria. 2016, 1 Dec. ‘The Myth of the Rust Belt Revolt’. Slate.
[58] Henley, Jon. 2016, 9 Nov. ‘White and wealthy voters gave victory to Donald Trump, exit polls show’. The Guardian.
[59] CNN. 2016, Nov. ‘Election Results: President’. CNN.
[60] Wallace, Gregory. 2016, 11 and 30 Nov. ‘Voter turnout at 20-year low in 2016’. CNN.
[61] Ford, Richard Ford, Elliott, Francis and Wright, Oliver. 2016, 5 Oct. ‘Firms must list foreign workers’. The Sunday Times.
[62] Weaver, Matthew. 2016, 19 Oct. ‘Give child refugees dental tests to verify age, says David Davies’. The Guardian.
[63] Smith, David. 2017, 25 Jan. ‘Trump signs order to begin Mexico border wall in immigration crackdown’. The Guardian.
[64] Democracy Now. 2017, 13 Feb. ‘ICE Arrests 600 in Nationwide Raids After Trump Order Expands Criminalization of Immigrants’. Democracy Now.
[65] Shear, Michael D. and Cooperjan, Helene. 2017, 27 Jan. The New York Times.
[66] Daily Mail Comment. 2016, 12 Oct. ‘DAILY MAIL COMMENT: Whingeing. Contemptuous. Unpatriotic. Damn the Bremoaners and their plot to subvert the will of the British people’. The Daily Mail.
[67] Liddle, Rod. 2016, 6 Nov. The Sunday Times.
[68] Daniel, Zoe. 2017. 27 Feb. ‘Donald Trump escalates conflict with media: ‘They are the enemy of the people’’. ABC.

Islamophobia(s) in the aftermath of the Nice attack

This was originally published at E-International Relations on 28 July, 2016:

To understand the changing nature of Islamophobia, it is necessary to understand it in the plural and to differentiate between its illiberal and liberal forms.

On the 14th of July 2016, the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice ended in a carnage. Eighty-four people were killed when Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel drove his truck through a crowd of bystanders, men, women and children, who had gather on the Promenades des Anglais to watch the fireworks. Within hours, the French media and politicians denounced yet another ‘Islamist terrorist’ attack, despite the lack of evidence present at this early stage. Even though it appears increasingly that Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s links to terrorism and IS were indeed tenuous at best, Islam, once more in the spotlight in France and Muslim communities in the country (and wider Europe), remain under collective suspicion and as the target of fear and hate.


Islamophobia in France is nothing new, from its colonial heritage to the more recent focus on terrorism. In the years since 9/11, Islam and Muslims, and closely linked, the issue of Islamophobia, have become central to public, policy and research debates and agendas in France as well as in Europe and the wider West (Levey and Modood 2008; Morey and Yaqin 2011). Various surveys have shown in recent years that ‘anti-Muslim biases’ (Taras 2013, 426-31) have been prevalent across much of Europe (for a more thorough overview in France, see (Hajjat and Mohammed 2013, 37-68) and in Britain and the United States, see (Kundnani 2014)). Many have argued that this trend has increased, as have anti-Muslim hate crimes, in France and elsewhere in the immediate aftermath of terrorist attacks in the past 18 months ( July 17 2015; Mark November 18 2015; Al-Othman December 1 2015).

While some repercussions took the form or traditional far right hate and violence, what we have witnessed recently in France, and consolidated in the wake of the first attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, is a form of Islamophobia or anti-Muslim hate that far from traditional racism, appears liberal and progressive, attacking Islam in the name of secularism and free speech (as well as women’s rights in the case of banning the hijab and burka (Delphy 2006; 2015)), thus making it more acceptable in mainstream French society, as it hijacks once progressive concepts such as the Republic,laïcité and the popular motto Liberté, égalité, fraternité. This has allowed parties on the far right, such as the Front National, to normalise their neo-racist discourse as much of their criticism of Islam could now be couched in mainstream terms (Mondon 2014; 2015).

The intersection between traditional far right forms of racism and the subtler mainstream Islamophobia, which has become increasingly prevalent in our societies, has been the basis of our current research project (Mondon & Winter 2015, 2016). The aim of the present article is to illuminate the current situation in France using part of the theoretical framework we are currently developing. Our research argues that to understand the changing nature and articulations of, as well as debates about, Islamophobia in the current context, it is necessary to understand it in the plural, and in particular to differentiate between what we have called its illiberal and liberal forms.

The distinction between the two forms of Islamophobia we identify begins with what appears to be an analytical distinction and disagreement, albeit a functional one. The main debate amongst academics, the media and within civil society (for different reasons from understanding to hate), has been whether Islamophobia is about religion or race, based on whether Islam relates to a race/people or religion/belief system. This is less about definitions than whether anti-Muslim discourses and rhetoric are a form of racism and unacceptable or about belief and thus acceptable. As such, it is not really about what Islam is or Muslims are, but how the definition allows people to say certain things about it and avoid less palatable ones. While many scholars and activists, as well as Muslims on the sharp end of Islamophobia, see it as a form of racism directed at a people and often based on physical or cultural markers and signifiers (to use the traditional understanding), the religious argument does provide a convenient cover for those wishing to argue that they are attacking a belief and not people or ‘race’. In a mainstream context where racism is allegedly unacceptable and associated with the far right, this focus allows Islamophobes to wriggle out of or deflect such charges, as well as permitting the far right to recast themselves as legitimate and mainstream through simple rephrasing. In this context, it is thus not surprising to hear prominent mainstream commentator Elisabeth Badinter declare: ‘we should not be afraid to be called Islamophobes’.  Obviously, defining and seeing Islamophobia only through the prism of religion ignores many of these and others issues, processes and effects, most notably racialisation (Meer and Modood 2009; Garner and Selod 2015). It is in fact particularly functional and politically expedient in so-called liberal secular societies such as France, Britain and to a lesser extent in the US, where criticism of religion is considered a healthy and necessary practice to allow for freedom of thought and expression, and central to the conception of the nation and national identity, as the case of France highlights particularly well. Muslims are not French, not because of who they are, but because of what their beliefs are believed to be and the values this imagined and caricatural belief system prevents them from accepting. This is where the distinction and intersections of the liberal and illiberal qualities of Islamophobia become particularly relevant.

The illiberal type of Islamophobia or ‘anti-Muslim’ hate, is closest to traditional racism based around exclusivist, essentialised notions and concepts of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and religion, as well as identity itself, and is commonly associated with the far right and authoritarian treatment of minority groups and rights. It presents Islam as monolithic and innately threatening and inferior (in terms of ‘race’ if not also culture). Like traditional forms of racism, it views Muslimness as an immutable characteristic (akin to biology), Muslims, and not just Islam as a religion, as a problem, and can be seen for example in calls for repatriation, genocide or violence against Muslims and mosques. As such, it falls outside the remits of what is considered acceptable in the hegemonic discourse and apart from the most ideologically-focused groups on the right, most have tried to distance themselves from such labels. Yet this type of Islamophobia is essential to allow for the very existence of the liberal form as it acts as a unifier within mainstream society: it binds the norm within boundaries by drawing a clear line of demarcation between the extreme and the norm. It is the construction and containment of a clearly delineated type of Islamophobia at the margins of the political spectrum, one which falls outside of the liberal ideal because of its essentialism, unmediated call for violence, total rejection and open discrimination, which make it possible for subtler forms of Islamophobia to enter the mainstream discourse due their apparent allegiance to liberal democratic rules.

Liberal Islamophobia is based on the construction of a pseudo-progressive binary and narrative. It creates a loosely defined Muslim culture and community inherently opposed to some of the core values espoused in a mythical essentialised culturally homogenous, superior and enlightened West, or specific western nation, based on specific examples where the West embodies progress, such as democracy, human rights, free speech, gender and sexual equality and rights, and ironically tolerance. As David Theo Goldberg (2006, 345) argues, ‘Islam is taken in the dominant European imaginary to represent a collection of lacks: of freedom; of a disposition of scientific inquiry; of civility and manners; of love of life; of human worth; of equal respect for women and gay people’. Criticism of Islam and Muslims is praised as an example and defence of liberal free speech. Nowhere is this clearer than with the example of Charlie Hebdo with its satirical cartoons of the Prophet, designed to express free speech and provoke to prove the point about a fantasised version of Islam and Muslims’ backwardness.

Of course, the construction of a liberal West standing unified behind equality and freedom willfully ignores the tensions within liberalism itself in terms of the legacy(ies) of the Enlightenment, universalism, racism, colonialism, imperialism and patriarchy, as well as increasing inequalities and curtailment of freedoms within the ‘West’. Liberal Islamophobia thus acts as a decoy to provide ‘Us’ with a righteous sense of self as the defenders of a more progressive vision of the world, and displace tensions, failures and inadequacies inherent to our societies onto Islam. This is particularly important and even ironic considering that much of the Muslim population in France and other European countries originally come from former colonies, such as the Nice attacker who was from Tunisia, and have been subjected to racisms that both represent a reaction to the loss of empire and reassert the racist colonial schema of the civilised vs the primitive.

The two forms of Islamophobia though are not mutually exclusive as they both target and scapegoat Islam and Muslims, and the liberal form fails to adequately conceal or erase the racism and other contractions in liberalism and the enlightenment project. More explicitly, the Charlie Hebdo attack did not just create an opportunity for liberal opposition to Islam, but led to a rise in illiberal hate crimes and violence. In addition to that, the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ sentiment expressed by world leaders in the aftermath, many of whom would lead a march through Paris in solidarity, despite leading states with repressive laws, including France which would enact a state of emergency, and engaged in aggressive and imperialist militarism, exposed the hypocrisy if not lie of such liberal framing and rhetoric. Subsequent attacks in France in November 2015 and July 2016, would see an assertion of the more aggressive illiberalism form from hate crimes within civil society to securitization and authoritarian repressive state measures.

Islamophobia(s) in the Context of the Nice attack

Despite the liberal framing and rhetoric, it has been common for Islamist terrorist attacks to be couched by the mainstream western media and some opportunistic politicians and commentators as being part of a broader clash of civilisations between fantasised visions of Islam and the West. This was very much the prevalent narrative after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015: the ‘West’ represented freedom of speech and progress in line with liberal Islamophobia. ‘Islam’ (and anyone loosely defined as Muslim) was caricatured as censorious and retrograde. No space was left for nuance or the shortcomings of the ‘West’ with regard to freedom of speech in increasingly unequal societies. After the November attacks in which 130 were killed, most politicians reiterated that France was ‘at war’. Prime Minister Manuel Valls went as far as discussing the ‘enemy within’ – a phrase with clear connotations with the Second World War. Still reminiscent of France’s darkest hours, prominent politicians on the right called for any suspect to be imprisoned without trial in ‘interment camps’. The attacks on the Bataclan and wider sites of Parisian nightlife in November 2015 were taken by some to represent an attack on the liberal culture and lifestyle of the young in France by Muslims opposed to drinking, mixed gender socialising, dancing and social pleasure itself. Yet, these events lacked the specificity and iconic symbol of Charlie Hebdo. Instead, repeated attacks and a growing fear, comfort with hate and security measures have hardened politicians, the press and public opinion.

On the 14th of July, within hours of event, terrorism and not the defence of so-called liberal values became the focus as François Hollande declared that this was ‘an attack whose terrorist quality cannot be denied… it is the whole of France that is under the terrorist threat’. As demonstrated by Le Monde, the ‘Islamist terrorist’ line remained the preferred explanation for French politicians (and much of the media in France and beyond) for days despite conflicting evidence which should have suggested a much more cautious approach. While, as these lines are written, the links between Lahouaiej Bouhlel and so-called Islamic State remain ‘unproven’ and in fact increasingly tenuous, the French Minister of the Interior continued to defend on the 18th of July what, at that stage, was mere speculation: the modus operandiwas reminiscent of IS and, while the attacker seemed to suffer from various mental health issues, he had been ‘quickly radicalised’ despite no evidence being presented to the public. Of course, this is not to say that this official explanation is not the correct one, but that in the absence of publicly available evidence, one should expect more caution on the part of public servants, particularly in such a delicate context. This simplistic coverage has led opportunistic and demagogic politicians to demand ever more stringent measures to fight terrorism, but also to the further stigmatisation of the Muslim communities in France. This also has acted as a diversion away from real issues. The state of emergency and the call for more policing have been criticised as ineffective as they not only curtail the civil liberties of all but also ignore the root causes affecting millions in France and potentially driving a handful to committing terrorist attacks. In February 2016, Amnesty International denounced the state of emergency, highlighting that only one person had been arrested on terrorism charges out of 3210 often violent interventions. Such policies and the associated rhetoric are likely to feed into IS’s propaganda machine as they will no doubt highlight the unfair treatment Muslims are subjected to in France. While most Muslims will ignore such simplistic calls, it will only take one person to answer them to send us further down this infernal spiral of an eye for an eye.

In this context, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far right Front National, kept mostly quiet in the aftermath of the attacks. As mainstream politicians outbid each other in a race towards securitisation and suspicion, at the expense of civil liberties and fostering further discrimination of Muslim communities, Le Pen has steered away from polemical grounds and simply claimed that mainstream politicians had failed in their duty to protect their citizens. Instead of taking the necessary step back which should be expected by politicians in a democracy, the government and opposition jumped to radical conclusions early on and called for an escalation of the war against terrorism, playing right in the hand of both so-called Islamic State and the far right and its demand for ever more stringent laws on civil liberties and against immigrants and minorities. Such reactions have further legitimised Islamophobia in France and freed the actions of those espousing its most illiberal forms.


This short article is part of a larger project studying the rise and interaction of liberal and illiberal Islamophobias in France, the United States and the United Kingdom.


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Hajjat, Abdellali, and Marwan Mohammed. 2013. Islamophobie. Comment les élites françaises construisent le “problème musulman”. Paris: La Découverte.

Khiabany, Gholam, and Milly Williamson. 2011. “Muslim Women and Veiled Threats: From ‘Civilising Mission’ to ‘Clash of Civilisations’.” Pointing the Finger: Islam and Muslims in the British Media, edited by Julian Petley and Robin Richardson. Oxford: One World.

Kundnani, Arun. 2014. The Muslims are coming: Islamophobia, Extremism and the domestic war on terror. London: Verso.  July 17 2015. “Les actes islamophobes et antisémites en nette progression au premier semestre en France.” Le Monde. Paris.

Levey, Geoffrey Brahm and Tariq Modood (eds.). 2008. Secularism, Religion and Multicultural Citizenship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mark, Michelle. November 18 2015. “Anti-muslim hate crimes have spiked after every major

terrorist attack: after paris, muslims speak out against islamophobia.”  International Business Times.

Meer, Nasar, and Tariq Modood. 2009. “Refutations of racism in the “Muslim Question”.”  Patterns of Prejudice 43 (3/4):332–51.

Mondon, Aurelien. 2014. “The Front National in the Twenty-First Century: From Pariah to Republican Democratic Contender?”  Modern & Contemporary France: 1-20. doi: 10.1080/09639489.2013.872093.

———. 2015. “The French secular hypocrisy: the extreme right, the Republic and the battle for hegemony.”  Patterns of Prejudice 49 (4): 1-22. doi: 10.1080/0031322X.2015.1069063.

Mondon, Aurelien & Winter, Aaron (2015), Breaking taboos or strengthening the status quo – Islamophobia in the name of liberalism in France and America, BSA conference – manuscript currently under review

Morey, Peter, and Amina Yaqin. 2011. Framing Muslims: Stereotyping and Representation after 9/11. Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Taras, Raymond. 2013. “‘Islamophobia never stands still’: race, religion, and culture.”  Ethnic and Racial Studies 36 (3): 417-33.

Originally published 28 July 2016 on E-International Relations: Islamophobia(s) in the aftermath of the Nice attack

Authors: Aurelien Mondon (Bath) and Aaron Winter (UEL)

Island Retreat: On Hate, Violence and the Murder of Jo Cox

It is too early to know all the details, but a picture is emerging in the horrible murder of Labour MP for Batley and Spen Jo Cox in Birstall West Yorkshire on 16 June 2016, of a killer with sympathies for, if not ties to, the far-right. While it was originally alleged that 52 year old Thomas Mair shouted ‘Britain First’ or ‘put Britain First’ as he shot and stabbed Cox, a prominent Remain campaigner and champion of refugees, he later confirmed that he said ‘this is for Britain’ and ‘keep Britain independent’. The original witness statements led the group Britain First to deny responsibility or links, claiming that it was likely used as a slogan, but an image of Mair campaigning for the group soon emerged on the internet. Britain First is the far-right party founded in 2011 by Jim Dowson and led by former British National Party member Paul Golding. They are virulently anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, white nationalist, and engage in street patrols, militant direct action and have representatives who run for elected office, including Golding who recently lost the 2016 London mayoral race to Sadiq Khan, who was subjected to an Islamophobic campaign by Tory opponent Zac Goldsmith. In addition to links to Britain First, Mair is also alleged to have purchased material including instructions on how to make a pistol from the US based neo-Nazi group National Alliance, infamous it is for being led by the late William Pierce who wrote the Turner Diaries which influenced the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. He is also alleged to have ties to the anti-EU Springbok Club, which had supported Apartheid. When asked to state his name in court on 18 June, Mair answered ‘My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain’.

Too often when a case of far-right violence occurs, politicians, the media and public are quick to paint a picture of an individual who has stepped outside the boundaries of reasonable, rational democratic discourse and practice to espouse extremist views and use violence. Often the individual in question is described, as Mair has been by the media, as a mentally unstable loner. Some will claim that this depoliticises the actor and act, particularly if this is the dominant or only framing, but Mair may demonstrate that a psychological and political reading and reality can co-exist. At this stage, he has clear far-right political beliefs and links (even identifying as a ‘political activist’), and both the far-right links and mental illness are lines of police enquiry.

Some will claim that this individualisation (based on mental illness or ‘lone wolf’ designation), deracialises the actor and act, allowing white British people to not have to identify with him or it, distance themselves, provide a collective alibi and even apologise as Muslims are frequently asked and pressured to do after a terrorist attack. This is a fair and important point to make after attacks by Anders Breivik, Dylan Roof and other ‘white’ perpetrators. As Mair’s act was committed in the name of Britain and against foreigners, and he had an association with Britain First, the racist double standard and irony are obvious. So too is the irony when Britain First defensively distanced themselves from Mair and the shooting as if they think collective guilt by association with terrorism is a bad thing, but it might just be when it applied to them. Yet, it is becoming clear that the mental illness aspect does not preclude far-right links, and that this case is being investigated by anti-terrorism officers. But that does not necessarily make all white Britons suspect (beyond those such as Britain First who think they are representatives), as the label of ‘terrorist’ which many, such as The Independent’s Yasmin Ahmed, are calling for is rarely enough to break apart racist discourses and structures. Some will claim that even the focus on far-right extremism and terrorism distracts from the mainstream hate, as well as structural and institutional forms of racism and xenophobia that may not only provides the context for and underlies the attack, but also plays a role in the double standards where Muslims are held to account and white Britons are not.

What is interesting and important about the response to the Mair case is that many commentators are putting the murder in the context of the increasing polarisation, inflammatory tone and racist fearmongering in the EU Referendum debate – from the Brexit Leave campaign – and holding wider social and political forces, beyond the far-right, to account. According to Polly Toynbee, ‘Brexit supporters have unleashed furies even they can’t control’. Adding that ‘This campaign has stirred up anti-migrant sentiment that used to be confined to outbursts from the far fringes of British politics’. Daniel Trilling argues that ‘Far-right politics cannot be as easily cordoned off from the mainstream as people would like to believe. Fascists attach themselves to popular causes and drag the debate in their direction. Populists and parties of the center take note and then try to appeal to voters susceptible to the far right’s messages by taking xenophobic positions of their own’. The tone of the campaign and far-right, and links between them, can also be seen in the context of the wider normalisation of racism, anti-immigrant xenophobia, Islamophobia and exclusive racialised nationalism, as well as racialised populist anger, in ‘mainstream’ politics, media and public discourse that have been developing since the financial crisis, fed into the referendum and been intensified by it. What we have seen is the mainstreaming of the extreme, informing an emboldening and radicalisation of the mainstream, and further emboldening and radicalisation of the far-right. Britain has now produced a paramilitary American-style far-right and someone, even if only inspired by it, has already taken a life. There are other, more concrete worrying signs. Just prior to the murder, Britain First ran a training camp in Wales, learning about self-defence, martial arts, knife defence, survival techniques and more, and on 17 June, a day after the murder, Britain First issued a threat against Sadiq Khan ‘all Muslim elected officials’.

While in the extreme, it occurs in a context of a debate that has moved so far to the right (in fact, both Leave and Remain are led by the right), that previously unacceptable, dehumanising discourses are the currency. Warnings about the economy if we remain is considered ‘fearmongering’ (with the Remain side designated ‘Project Fear’), and warnings from the Leave side about the threats posed by refugees, immigrants and Muslims, including of attacks in the future, that are dressed up in age old racist language and imagery are seen as honest, true and urgent. UKIP leader and representative of the Vote Leave and Leave.EU campaign (the former were not sure he was mainstream enough at first, but eventually let him loose as the debate and electorate moved in his direction), claimed that a Cologne style sexual assault by refugees is likely if Turkey joined the EU and Britain stayed in. The Leave campaign also released an ad in the immediate wake of the 12 June 2016 attack on the Pulse in Orlando, just days prior to the murder of Cox, claimed that an ‘Orlando style atrocity’ could happen in Britain if it stayed in the EU. For a campaign poster, they used an image of thousands of refugees, none of whom are white, crossing from Croatia to Slovenia (not Britain) in 2015 with a banner reading ‘Breaking Point: the EU has failed us all’. This led to accusations of racism, a complaint to the police for incitement to racial hatred and comparisons to Nazi propaganda images.  The campaign also targeted the far-right on social media and Farage met with English Defence League (EDL) members.

One could ask if Farage, UKIP, Leave.EU and Vote Leave, as well as other Brexit campaigns, could imagine the embarrassment and charges of hypocrisy a British nationalist, such as Mair or others, committed an act of violence or terrorism in the name of Britain, Britishness and Leave? What would they say? While Farage tweeted his condolences like most other politicians, there was no hint of the apology that Muslims are expected to issue for merely belonging to the same religion. While Farage in some way cannot see white Britishness in such negative terms, and appears to consider such groups either a potential support base or representative. He sees people with such politics as victims of injustice, with righteous anger. Farage did not just instigate and fuel hate and anger, but justified and even threatened violence. In a May 2016 BBC interview, he said ‘It’s legitimate to say that if people feel they’ve lost control completely, and we have lost control of our borders completely as members of the EU, and if people feel voting doesn’t change anything, then violence is the next step’. He is describing the populist anger that informed the call for a referendum and which he and others fuelled in their campaign to Leave, but then makes a threat of violence, on behalf of others, should the result not go his way. Returning to the opposition painted earlier between the individual who espouses extremist views and commits acts of violence and the reasonable, rational democratic discourse and practice, what is clear in this context and quotation is that not only is the line blurred, but a democratic election or referendum is positioned as a way of preventing or just delaying violence, which will occur should democracy not find in favour of one side. But the plug may be leaking. You cannot stoke the fire and hope to control it. According to Jonathan Freedland, ‘if you inject enough poison into the political bloodstream, eventually somebody will get sick.

It not only harms the targets and damages the social discourse and society relations, it also leaves little space for reconciliation. If we stay, those immigrants, refugees and Muslims scapegoated initially will find themselves on the firing line, as will Remain supporters in the political class and public. If we leave, those thinking that immigrants, refugees, Muslims and the EU are to blame for all the problems, including Tory-led austerity, cuts to public services and unemployment with be sadly disappointed and be looking for a scapegoat they have ready made. According to Chimene Suleyman, ‘Britain has confused social sociopathy for economic debate’.

The people scapegoating and looking for someone to blame for problems whether we are in or out are the mainstream political class, media and voting public. This campaign has made racists emboldened and made others think racism is the analysis of and solution to their problems. The mainstream does not only instigate and fuel this in civil, or now uncivil society, but this move to the right and fear and dehumanisation of refugees and others has already costs lives, as it has become acceptable to deny shelter to those fleeing war (which Britain has often played a role in) and other dangers because the voting public has been encouraged to make humanitarianism and open welcoming arms, which Cox represented, an electoral liability. Labour even sold control immigration mugs to raise money in the 2015 election campaign.

Yes, once in a while the sea spits out a child and refugees get a moment of reprieve from the hate and rejection, but that soon ends. It isn’t only immigrants and refugees who are dehumanised and rejected though. Tory austerity policies have demonstrated that the poor and vulnerable in general are unworthy and disposable. Yet, we are told that even that is the fault of the EU, immigrants and refugees who cost too much and take from ‘our’ own. This racist divide and rule, where ‘our own’ are racialised as white and everyone else is a threatening outsider, is toxic, corrosive and has become the reality for many.

When I arrived in Britain from Canada as a student in 1997, the country and New Labour, seemed to publicly embrace multiculturalism and immigration (although that would be sacrificed near the end, and was something the right blames them for, and cites as a reason for Brexit). I felt welcomed and have watched as the country has become harsher, more exclusive, intolerant and less welcoming. Hatred and scapegoating has not only become acceptable, but serves as a form of political currency for the media and politicians. Toynbee is correct about ‘How recklessly the decades of careful work and anti-racist laws to make those sentiments unacceptable have been overturned’.  For her, ‘This is the sound of Britain breaking. Here ends our “moderate, tolerant” self-image’. But it is not all about the ‘self’. It is something that many of your friends, colleagues and possibly family members, as well as those you interact with but do not know, who are immigrants and refugees (or have been), Muslim, European, Black or Asian, are forced to listen to and endure from their elected officials, television and magazine racks in shops, posters in the streets and on public transport, conversations in the streets, around the water cooler at work and in the pub, coffee shop and restaurant. The message is that we are no longer welcome here, our fate is yours’ to decide, and it matters no more than a power struggle on the right. This island is in serious retreat. Something not seen since Powellism in the 1960s, although now we have small island nationalism with a nostalgia for empire. The danger is already being seen. It is retreating so far inwards (without the benefits of introspection) that it will implode or eat itself, consumed by hate and consuming those deemed a threat or barrier to self-realisation. That is where fascism manifests. For the political elites driving this racist, scapegoating campaign, that is just the cost of doing business.

A version of this blog post was published in Open Democracy on 20 June, 2016:


Boycotting Beyonce and the Politics of Policing in Post-Race America

On February 19th, 2016, the Miami Fraternal Order of Police (MFOP) issued a statement saying that following a vote, it will allow its members to boycott Beyoncé’s Miami concert on April 27. MFOP called on other police departments and bodies to also boycott Beyonce concerts. Tampa and Nashville boycotts soon followed. More recently, on May 8th, there was the announcement of a ‘Coalition of Police and Sheriffs [COPS] protest at Beyonce’s hometown Houston concert’. The reason behind the boycotts and protests is a particular performance at the last Super Bowl half-time show, seen by some police and supporters as being anti-police. In it, Beyonce performed her new song ‘Formation’, during which she was accused of trying “to divide Americans by promoting the Black Panthers”, based on the fact that her dancers were dressed in black with berets and raised their fists in what appeared to be an homage to the group. They were joined by Black Lives Matter activists demanding justice for Mario Woods who was shot over 15 times by police in San Francisco after assaulting another person. Former New York Mayor and supporter of Zero Tolerance policing, Rudy Giuliani also claimed that the performance was designed to “attack police officers”. There was also opposition to the video for the song, which included references to Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and includes a young black man in a hoodie dancing in front of police who raise their hands, the words ‘Stop Shooting Us’ written on a wall and Beyoncé lying on top of a police car submerged in water. Beyonce did respond, denying she was anti-police: “Anyone who perceives my message as anti-police is completely mistaken … I have so much admiration and respect for officers and the families of the officers who sacrifice themselves to keeps us safe … But let’s be clear, I am against police brutality and injustice. Those are two separate things.” This Beyonce boycott, followed calls for police and commercial boycotts of Quentin Tarantino and The Hateful Eight after he attended a Black Lives Matter protest in New York and criticised the police. In addition to this, America has seen the formation of Blue Lives Matter, a pro-police organisation that, in addition to supporting police, appears to present a counter point and counter-protest to Black Lives Matter.

Victor Kappeler of the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, said that “responses like these were part of a relatively new phenomenon by the police: being ‘politically active.’” Kappeler was primarily referring to criticism of the police, stating that “[a]nyone who tries to tarnish the devotion of the police as heroes or breaks out of that discourse is subject to a lot of police scrutiny or blowback statements”, thus using a very narrow definition of ‘politically active’ and attributing it to social media. In making these claims, Kappeler is incorrect historically. Even accepting this narrow definition of politically active, we have seen this before. In fact, one of the most high profile previous cases was in 1992, when Ice-T’s Body Count released ‘Cop Killer’, which led to CLEAT (Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas) calling for a boycott of all products by Time-Warner until the single and album were removed from sale. Police organisations across the United States also called for a boycott. Prior to this, when NWA released ‘Fuck tha Police’ in 1988, The Fraternal Order of Police voted to boycott any group that advocated violence against law enforcement officers. More recently, in 2000, Bruce Springsteen wrote ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’ in response to the killing of Amadou Diallo by 41 direct shots by the police, despite the fact that he was unarmed and in the vestibule of his own apartment building in the Bronx, in 1999.  Springsteen played the song during his 2000 Madison Square Garden concerts, leading the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association to call on its members to boycott his concerts in terms of both attendance and serving as security. In term of the historical links, Springsteen played the song again in tribute to Trayvon Martin and others who were killed and released it on his 2014 High Hopes album.  In the case of Beyonce, Tarantino, Ice-T, NWA and Springsteen, the common denominator is not mere criticism of the police, but responses to individual and institutional police racism and specifically police use of force/violence against black people that has ended in many deaths, and few convictions. At best, individuals are indicted and possibly convicted, but the wider pattern and issue of institutional racism are not acknowledged or addressed.

Beyond this narrow definition of ‘politically active’, as University of Baltimore Criminologist Jeffrey Ian Ross tweeted in response to Kappeler’s argument, ‘Since when have law enforcement in the United States NOT been politically active?’. The argument appears to only include organised self-declared forms of political activism, which pre-exist recent examples as I have illustrated, but also has a conservative interpretation of the position and role of the police, as one of objective neutrality serving a law which is neutral (or naturalised) and apolitical, in a social context that is not riddled with unequal relations of power, among social groups as well as in relation to the law and criminal justice system. The police are agents of the state, and in the United States, even serve different political jurisdictions and authorities, be they local, state or federal (which themselves have differential relations of power). But more to the point, the police have always represented and served laws which come into being through political channels and serve political aims or interests, and the violation of these laws inform political responses that the police execute. Examples include enforcing racial segregation, racial profiling, stop and frisk, enforcing restrictions on public assembly and political protest itself, be it attempting to stop civil disobedience protests against desegregation and those marching for voting rights marching from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 or cracking down on and arresting Black Lives Matter protesters in Minneapolis in 2015. In addition to policing protests opposing what are widely seen as unjust and racist laws, law enforcement also played a role in investigating and suppressing political groups and activists, including The Black Panthers, which were largely destroyed as an organisation by the FBI’s countersubversion/counterintelligence programme COINTELPRO, through which the government attempted to neutralise subversive political movements/activists, left and right, black and white (including the Klan and Weather Underground) in the 1960s and 70s. This was also the era in which the Nixon administration’s crackdown on protests led to deaths at Kent State, captured in ‘Ohio’, by earlier politically active musicians Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young).

In the case of unjust laws, while individual police officers and unions may disagree and protest (something closer to the narrow definition of ‘politically active’), the shift in position is more likely to happen when the laws or practices are changed, which occurs largely because of political activism, protest, pressure and criticism of laws and police practices, as well as court decisions. Continuing with the issue of racism, one of the best examples would be desegregation. In this case, the police find themselves on the opposite side of an issue than they were previously, but still on the side of representing and enforcing the law as a duty as if it is not political or a product of politics and political activism. Police officers and sheriffs and their deputies have also not only been enablers, associates and members of political organisations, but ones with a stake in political and legal conflicts in which the police represent one side and enforce the law and position of the state, such as the Ku Klux Klan. This occurred in the 1950s when the Klan and other white supremacist groups were defending the same legal segregation that the police were enforcing, and opposing federal desegregation, as well as serving extrajudicial punishment under the blind eye and protection of the state, to black people who crossed the colour line, threatened the racial status quo or looked at a white woman the ‘wrong’ way. In some cases, there was also clear overlap and a relationship between the Klan and law enforcement. One example was that of Bull Connor, City Commissioner and in charge of the Police Department for Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s and famous for ordering the use of fire hoses and attack dogs against civil rights protesters, also colluded with the Klan. When buses of Freedom Riders arrived in the city in 1961, the Klan were waiting, but Connor provided no police protection and were on the receiving end of an attack by the Klansmen. In another case, James Gardner Clark, Sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama, famous for his aggressive tactics against marchers at Selma, recruited Klansmen to prevent voter drives in 1964-65. Perhaps the most notorious case was the June 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi. The accused were members of the Klan, and employees of both the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Office and Police Department. Deputy Sheriff of Neshoba County Cecil Price was convicted of violating the civil rights of the three men. The reason for the civil rights charge, which fell under federal law and jurisdiction, stemmed from the fact that murder was only punishable under state law and they refused to pursue it. The ‘Mississippi Burning’ case caused much outcry, not only because of the murders, but the alleged complicity of law enforcement in the act, and the state law enforcement and criminal justice system for not pursuing it, the latter of which happened all too often where the law of the land was white supremacy and racial segregation.

This does not indict all law enforcement officers, nor preclude police from engaging in progressive politics or being critical of unjust laws, but is important to note in a context where the issue is police treatment of black people, and the fact that the criticism of Beyonce concerned her being divisive by ‘promoting’ the Black Panthers, an organisation that, in the social media and right-wing media storm that followed, was compared directly to the Ku Klux Klan. While intended to disparage the Black Panthers, Beyonce and criticism of the police by Black Lives Matter and others, there is something both odd and wrong about the comparison and equivalence with the Klan. In one sense, it is saying, we agree the Klan was bad, and the Panthers were the same, but for black people (anti-white racist), as opposed to for white people (anti-black racist), but this ignores several issues. Firstly, are those critics actually saying that the Klan represent or represented white people, or even wanting to allow that association? This happened in another attempt at comparison and equivalence during the 2008 presidential election, when GOP nominee John McCain attempted to call out Obama on his alleged links to so-called anti-American radicals and terrorists, such as former Weather Underground member William Ayers and Rashid Khalidi, by claiming “[i]f there was a tape of John McCain in a neo-Nazi outfit, I think the treatment of the issue would be slightly different”. Secondly, the Panthers being referenced were a response to state, police, institutional and socio-economic racism and are gone, largely due to state and law enforcement opposition (e.g.  COINTELPRO). This may have been the first step in creating a false equivalence between movements with radically different relationships to power. Unlike the Black Panthers, the Klan reflected and represented official state and legal white supremacy (which the Panthers opposed). The Klan also not only survived COINTELPRO and HUAC Klan hearings following civil rights, which had the effect of scapegoating them as the convenient face and hate figures for a deeply rooted structural racism that never went away (in the criminal justice system and elsewhere), but are currently undergoing a revival in response to Obama, the economic crisis and racial fault lines which emerged and have been exploited. In fact the Klan have found a cause in defending police, such as Darren Wilson who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, and have found a representative in Donald Trump, who was endorsed by former Grand Dragon David Duke, as well as other Klansmen and white supremacists.

There is another, connected, issue, with the equivalence between Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter – or between critics, be they Black Lives Matter, Beyonce or others, and the police – in terms of black deaths. One cannot see Blue Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter in equivalent terms for a number of reasons. Black Lives Matter is a protest movement expressing their legal rights and with no legal or moral obligations to the public and police, whereas the police involved in these cases and wider law enforcement, are in a position of authority with the full force of law and the state behind them, with a duty to care and duty to serve and protect all, and not a special interest or aggrieved social group as Blue Lives Matter implies. Moreover, the loss of police officers in the line of duty and at the hands of criminals is treated with outrage, respect and honour by the public, politicians and media, in addition to being investigated, tried and punished by the criminal justice system. Blue Lives do matter. That is partly why, even if political activism amongst the police is not new, Black and Blue Lives are not equivalent in the wider society. All Lives Matter merely neutralises the politics, following the logic of colourblind equality to its ends. Such equivalences flatten out power and history.

What has changed in terms of political activism, for both the police and protesters, is not merely the use of social media, as Keppeler cites, but the ‘post-race’ context. It is a context where ‘colourblind racism’, as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls it, and a false logic of what Sociologist Miri Song refers to as ‘racial equivalence’, prevail. It is a context in which racial equality is alleged to have been achieved (beginning with civil rights and realised with the election of Obama) and ‘we’ are all colourblind. Explicit forms of racism and racist violence from the ‘bad old days’ are the standard by which to judge. More subtle, coded, institutional forms (such as the racialisation of crime and police risk/threat which inform a justification for the use of force) are rationalised, legitimised and not included. In this context, when of person of colour mentions race, they are accused of making it an issue, and when a person of colour accuses someone of racism, the accusation is deemed as bad or worse than racism itself. It is illegitimate and possibly derogatory. Grievances by those accused of racism are either accorded equal standing (but legitimate) since ‘we’ are equal, or more serious and more legitimate because the structure of racial power is perceived to have been overturned. According to right-wing pundit Rush Limbaugh, the problem in Ferguson is not the deaths or racism, but protests: “I think that there is a grievance politics in this country, that’s tearing the country apart.” On the eve of Obama’s election, Rudy Giuliani said “we’ve achieved history tonight and we’ve moved beyond … the whole idea of race and racial separation and unfairness”. While this post-race statement appears in stark contrast to those he made about racism and policing in an exchange with Michael Eric Dyson in 2014, they turn the tables and flatten power in a manner enabled by post-race: “Ninety-three percent of blacks are killed by other blacks, I would like to see the attention paid to that that you are paying to this.” “What about the poor black child that was killed by another black child?” “Why aren’t you protesting that?… Why don’t you cut it down so that so many white police officers don’t have to be in black areas?” “White police officers wouldn’t be there, if you weren’t killing each other.” In this statement, the problem of violence against black people is identified as that committed by other black people, with the police merely putting themselves in the line of fire to stop it and being subjected to criticism and protests for it. Such an argument, and the police activism which opposes Black Lives Matter and Beyonce, fundamentally misunderstands and misrepresents the relationship of power between the police and black communities, and the job profile, function and responsibility of the police vis a vis civilian communities. It also misunderstands and misrepresents the meaning of political activism which, although not new for the police, should be about challenging injustices, structures of power and inequality, not defending, preserving or pursuing power and authority (even if it is deemed to be equal or under threat by those holding it). It is anti-racist political activism that fought for black rights and against individual and institutional police racism and force/violence against black people. The result was not a post-race America where racism no longer exists, nor equality or an inversion of power between the police and black communities, but an understanding that power needs to be kept in check, racism must be challenged and political activism is important to do these. What seems to be occurring is that the police and conservative counter-protesters are assuming or claiming the former (post-race, equality or even inversion) and delegitimising checks on power and police racism, and appropriating a form and style of political activism to do so.


The Bundy Militia Occupation: Terrorism, Patriotism, Colonialism and Racism in America

In the wake of the Bundy Militia occupation of a federal building in Oregon at the start of 2016, US Uncut published the piece ‘Don’t Call Them Patriots. They’re Terrorists Occupying Sacred Native American Land’. While an important piece on double standards in labelling, white privilege and native rights and marginalisation (historically and today, including in this very case), like many other pieces and tweets (eg #whiteterrorism) that immediately follow examples of right-wing extremism and terrorism, it uses the issue of labelling as a hook and starting point that can obscure the serious issues that underpin or accompany it. In this blog post, I will critically address the issue of labelling as highlighted in this piece, but also more widely where it becomes a substitute for an analysis of racism and political violence. Although that is not the case in this piece, even if the two parts are not effectively brought together. Yes, you can call them ‘terrorists’ – if they plot or commit acts of terrorism (which militias do), otherwise it is just ideological point scoring that does nothing to address Islamophobia, anti-Muslim hate and the suspicion, profiling and securitisation of Muslims, nor native land rights or socio-economic conditions. But the opposition between ‘patriots’ and ‘terrorists’ does not make sense. ‘Patriots’ is the term used for/by right-wing anti-federal government movements since the 1980s/90s (many in the Pacific Northwest, including Oregon, along with white separatists). As is ‘Militia’, which is the historical term and form such groups take (since the Revolution and in their current form from the 1990s). These are not labels which obscure meaning or represent positive descriptions, so it was odd when Tell Mama tweeted: ‘Militia? Kind word for people insurrecting against the State?’). Do those who challenge the use of ‘patriot’ (or ‘militia’) in favour of ‘terrorist’ want to preserve some positive meaning of ‘patriotism’ (a true benevolent kind misrepresented by right-wingers?), I suspect not, as it’s not a racial or religious identity or community that is being misrepresented and most anti-racists and those on the left have a healthy suspicion of the term and those who claim it. Do they want to perpetuate the use of the term ‘terrorist’ despite its ideological and often racist usage? I suspect not. No, they are attempting to both counter discourses and representations (as well as treatment) of Muslims as terrorists and the lack of such labelling and treatment of white ‘terrorists’ as a product of racism and white privilege (and the relationship between them). In addition to this, highlighting the apparent relative lack of caution demonstrated by law enforcement when it is Black people who armed or unarmed (eg in the case of a Black Lives Matter protest or the shooting of Tamir Rice). Yes, there is whiteness inscribed in the militias’ politics, ideology, resentment and anger, and white privilege in the apparent caution in the official reaction, in not being labelled terrorist/terrorism from the get go (but that is always wrong) and in the failure to call all white people to apologise and explain, but this is more specific than white privilege, it is right-wing white privilege. This is something extended by the right-wing press who are the ones not calling the right ‘terrorists’ and’extremists’, but calling all Muslims this (although they are pretty comfortable calling white environmentalist, anti-war and anti-globalisation activists ‘terrorists’) and extended by the federal government in terms of labelling and action because: A. right-wing anti-federal sentiment lies with voting constituencies (white populist anger, anti-tax, pro-gun, anti-welfare, pro-free market, etc.) and lobbies (re taxes and gun rights) that they feel that they cannot ignore even if only because antagonising them may mean votes for the GOP if a Democrat or for more radical right-wingers if a centrist Republican (Black Lives and votes don’t seem to matter). It is worth remembering that the second amendment worshipped by gun rights activists contains that little bit about citizen militias being allowed to combat government tyranny … albeit a misinterpretation: ‘A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed’; And B. The last time the federal government (in the form of the ATF and FBI) went in hot, with Ruby Ridge in 1992 and Waco in 1993, people died, it led to the growth of the militia movement and eventually the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, on the anniversary of Waco. It allegedly bred extremism and terrorism. For those who insist on saying ‘they never call it terrorism when white people do it’, post-Oklahoma, the government held five subcommittee hearings on: Combating Domestic Terrorism, The Militia Movement in the United State, The Nature and Threat of Violent Anti-Government Groups in America and, knowing the relationship between the growth of the militia movement, the bombings and the government’s actions at Ruby Ridge and Waco, they also held hearings on: The Federal Raid on Ruby Ridge, ID. And The Activities of Federal Law Enforcement Agencies Toward the Branch Davidians. The bombing also provided Congress with the impetus to pass the 1995 Antiterrorism bill, which became the Antiterrorism and Effective Death penalty Act of 1996. It was this Act that Dwight and Steve Hammond were charged and convicted under for setting fires on federal land, and it is this case that is being protested by the Bundy Militia (in addition to their longer history of opposition to the federal government). This history and the legacy of Ruby Ridge are discussed the Southern Poverty Law Center’s article ‘Ruby Ridge Carved a Niche in History’ published August 2012, but reposted and retweeted in the context of the Bundy occupation. The Bundy occupation, it has been alleged, is also an attempt to create another Ruby Ridge or Waco type confrontation with the federal government and mobilise the wider movement.

As I said in my Open Democracy piece ‘White Terror’ (also here at Word Press) following the #Black Lives Matter and Planned Parenthood attacks in 2015, it may be more effective to challenge racism (re Islamophobia, anti-Black violence and Native rights and legacies of colonialism) AND the racialisation of terrorism and violence. Where this piece in US Uncut differs is that it offers as an analysis of native issues and, connected to this, a concluding suggestion: ‘The Bundy militia occupying the Maiheur National Wildlife Refuge should seriously reconsider their use of the word “tyranny,” and how the land they’re claiming as theirs rightfully belongs to the indigenous tribes that armed white men illegally stole centuries ago.  If they really want justice, they should dedicate their cause to helping Native Americans have their stolen land returned’. There are several problems or issues with this. One problem is that such a militia anti-federal ideology is built on a white setter frontier manifest destiny ideology that constructs antagonisms: white man vs nature and American white settler/revolutionary vs British elite/colonist, that displaces and erases the native presence (except for that which can be appropriated by the settler or his stand-in that allows him to construct himself – yes, a man – as the ideal subject:  rational but not elite European and at one with nature, but not savage and sub-human like they see – through their racist colonial eyes and discourses – native aboriginal populations. Another problem is that such an argument makes the assumption that this is a movement that really opposes tyranny and supports rights, as opposed to being right-wing, privileged, possibly racist (even if just in terms of their white privilege and negation of native history, oppression and rights) and self-interested. No, it’s not just ideological mis-recognition, not all social movements are inherently progressive, just in need of some correction and clarification on the issues. Sure, the original revolution era militias were anti-colonial, but by no means anti-racist considering the context, not to mention the legacy in the 1990s and today. The final problem or question (although there are more), is whether we should be encouraging right-wing militias to fight for native rights or focusing on native peoples activism. Calling right-wing militias ‘terrorists’ may not help those who do not have white privilege and are labelled ‘terrorists’ from the get go, and it certainly will not help getting the militias on side in this fight (if that is the misguided objective). Challenging the use of the term and its racialisation – as well as connecting it to wider, historical and structural forms of racism and injustice – may have a better chance of challenging racism and injustice in and beyond the war on terror and protecting activists who challenge racism and are labelled ‘terrorists’ for it, thereby denying them their agency, opportunity, legitimacy and freedom (eg AIM or #Black Lives Matter).