Michigan cop's KKK ties a reminder how close white supremacists and police have grown
There’s a chant heard at antifascist rallies—“Cops and Klan go hand in hand!”—that, like any number of such protestations, often feels like an unfair broad-brush exaggeration.
But then, sometimes it turns out to be precisely accurate.
Last week, a police officer in Muskegon, Mich., named Charles Anderson was placed on suspension when he was revealed to be literally a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan after a visitor to his home—touring it as a potential buyer—observed and photographed a framed application for membership into the KKK decorating a wall there, along with several Confederate flags.
It then shortly emerged that this same officer had been involved in the questionable shooting of a black male suspect almost exactly 10 years before. Anderson, a veteran of more than two decades with the Muskegon police, had killed a 23-year-old man named Julius Johnson in 2009 during a traffic stop, but was cleared of wrongdoing by an internal investigation.
Anderson’s case came to light because a black Army veteran named Ray Mathis toured his home when it went up for sale, and he spotted the Dixie flags and the Klan document along with a police uniform and a photo of Anderson in it. He took photos and then posted them on Facebook, without Anderson’s name attached.
“I just felt so gross after being in that house, like I needed to be dipped in hand sanitizer,” Mathis said. “I thought, I need to say something because this is a public servant. He can't be impartial and fair to minorities if that's how he thinks. I was just mortified.”
A reporter for MLive.com confirmed that the house in the Facebook photos was Anderson’s, and he was placed on suspension shortly afterward. Mathis told the reporter that he believed Anderson had left the items out intentionally as a message to him and his wife.
County officials promise there will be another internal investigation into Anderson’s activities, with the possibility of reopening the investigation into the 2009 incident.
Moments like these remind us that the anti-cop chant is not without a basis in factual reality. Indeed, a number of studies have found that it is not at all uncommon for white supremacists to surreptitiously serve on local police forces, as well as in positions such as prison guards and community security.
This is hardly the first such incident. Two cops, including the deputy police chief in Fruitland Park, Fl., were fired in 2014 after being exposed by an FBI informant as leading Klan members. A Louisiana policeman who posed with a Nazi salute at a North Carolina KKK rally was fired in September 2015 when the photo turned up on Facebook. In August 2016, attendees of a Black Lives Matter rally outside the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia spotted an officer in charge of crowd control wearing a tattoo of the Nazi Party emblem on his forearm.
However, an internal investigation of that matter cleared the officer, in spite of his apparent history of associations with far-right groups.
Having police officers with these kinds of backgrounds is considered toxic for law enforcement, particularly when the officers are expected to engage with and protect the rights of nonwhites, as law professor Samuel Jones of the John Marshall School of Law in Chicago explained to PBS.
“Many people in these communities of color feel they have been the subject of police violence for decades,” Jones said. “And when an officer engages in conduct that adds or enhances that divide, they are ultimately jeopardizing the integrity of their agencies and putting their fellow officers in danger.”
The real problem, as a 2016 Washington Post piece explored in depth, is the extent to which white policing as an institution has been shaped and constructed around white supremacy and its defense. It investigated the police department in Little Rock, Ark., in the wake of the shooting of a young 15-year-old black teen by a white officer, and discovered an entire culture built around sympathy for the Ku Klux Klan.
The issue is certainly one that the FBI itself has recognized for some time. A 2006 intelligence report, White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement, explored both the problems created by such infiltration as well as its likelihood.
It noted that “the primary threat from infiltration or recruitment arises from the areas of intelligence collection and exploitation, which can lead to investigative breaches and can jeopardize the safety of law enforcement sources and personnel,” and that the presence of such officers on any force is a cause for alarm “due to the access they may possess to restricted areas vulnerable to sabotage and to elected officials or protected persons” who could become their targets.
However, the right-wing-media hysteria that erupted in 2009 over the Department of Homeland Security’s memo warning law-enforcement officers of the likelihood of increased activity by far-right terrorists, and the active recruitment of returning veterans by hate groups and movements, proved to have powerfully silenced any efforts within law enforcement circles to tackle such terrorism.
A 2018 New York Times Magazine piece explored the long-term effects of this pushback campaign. The Obama administration, it reported, had discovered that “there were real political costs to talking about white supremacy,” and that moreover it “found out that there were certain things an African-American president couldn’t talk about.”
The situation under the Trump administration, in fact, has become even more dire: Not only has the DHS completely eliminated its section devoted to domestic terrorism, the administration slashed its budget for dealing with the problem. That was the culmination of a long battle by department officials to focus more on the problem, which the president has pointedly refused to do.
For longtime observers of the problem, it feels as though the penetration of extremist ideas into law-enforcement agencies has intensified in recent years—along with the willingness of officers who have been radicalized to act on their beliefs in their official law-enforcement roles and capacities.
Heidi Beirich, executive director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, points to the Justice Department report on pervasive law-enforcement behavior at Ferguson, Mo., as well as ProPublica’s recent exposures of racist online behavior by Customs and Border Patrol officers as indicators of much deeper and more systemic problem than many people are willing to recognize.
“I know this isn’t specific to the involvement of cops in hate groups, but it sure seems the level of racism is growing and perhaps worse than anyone wanted to believe,” Beirich told Daily Kos.
The problem isn’t simply a lack of enforcement of the laws by federal officials: It’s also a complete lack of training, as well as budgetary emphasis, on white-supremacist violence and its sources and manifestations, including hate crimes. The result is a culture within local police departments that actively overlooks such violence while heightening sensitivities to potential crime committed by nonwhites and left-wing dissenters.
Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper acknowledges that a bias favoring white supremacy is structurally woven into many police departments, particularly those where the Klan was a major presence in the earlier part of the 20th century. “There are police agencies throughout the South and beyond that come from that tradition,” he told The Intercept. “To think that that kind of thinking has dissolved somehow is myopic at best.”
Police officers who express racist views can be fired, Stamper explains, but notes: “It’s not likely to happen in most police departments, because many of those departments come from a tradition of saying the officer is entitled to his or her opinions.”
The way that has manifested itself in recent years has been profoundly disturbing, including recent revelations that Portland Police Bureau officers had an inappropriately cozy relationship with a number of members of the far-right Patriot Prayer activists who have been organizing violent riots in the city the past two years.
At confrontations between these far-right extremists and left-wing antifascists have played out, sympathetic treatment of white supremacists by police has been the general rule at riots ranging from Charlottesville, Va., to Berkeley, Calif. Far-right planners have advised each other to curry police sympathies, because they consider them natural allies: “Random Reminder: Cops of all races are our natural allies; we should keep it that way,” wrote one neo-Nazi on a message board organizing before the Aug. 12, 2017, “Unite the Right” event in Charlottesville.
An eye-opening investigative series by Will Carless and Michael Corey at Reveal News recently exposed how police officers around the United States have been participating in a range of bigoted behaviors on social media: participating in online hate groups, joining and then recruiting officers into the far-right “Patriot” militia movement, and indulging open expressions of Islamophobia on their personal accounts.
Obviously, not every police officer is a Klansman or even sympathetic to the white-supremacist cause. But that broad-brush antifascist chant gains real heft the more that these connections are exposed. If police departments don’t want to be tarred with the reputation, some serious reform—the cultural kind, which not only scrubs their ranks of these kinds of characters, but most of all rejects white supremacy as deeply anti-American and toxic to any healthy community—is long overdue.