Why we should rethink calling white supremacist violence “terrorism”

As we pursue justice for the Capitol attack, we must not reinforce policing that criminalizes Muslims and Black and Brown people. The real threat is white supremacy.

By Mary Zerkel

 Anne Meador (cool_revolution) via Flickr Creative Commons

In shock and outrage over seeing white supremacists storm the Capitol on Jan. 6, many policymakers, members of the media, and others have called for rioters to be labeled as “terrorists.”  

Many have also questioned the double standard that has been applied by the media and the disproportionate amount of federal dollars spent on stopping “foreign terrorists” – while white supremacist violence in the U.S. has largely been encouraged by the rhetoric and actions of the Trump administration. 

Indeed, Black communities have used the word “terror” to describe and name the violence of white supremacy and state violence that they have faced for generations. So, why should we reconsider these terms?   

To begin with, current usage of “terrorism” and “domestic terrorism” and resulting policies are part of the “war on terror” framework launched after 9/11. That framework has had damaging consequences for Muslims and Arabs. It has become an excuse to police, surveil, and entrap people within the United States—and, outside the U.S., justifies detention without trial, torture, denial of due process, disappearances, and assassination. The “war on terror” framework has also been increasingly used to police Black Lives Matter and anti-fascist protesters. 

As an ally who works with Muslim and Arab communities, I’ve learned that people targeted by the government and often seen by the public as “terrorists” have different views of this discussion.

If you think white supremacist violence should be regarded as “domestic terrorism,” here are a few things to consider:

1.You may be adding fuel to the calls for expanded policing that will ultimately target communities of color, not white supremacists.

The siege of the Capitol was a blatant reminder of the enormous racial inequities in how policing is applied. While law enforcement units used rubber bullets, tear gas, and mass arrests at Black Lives Matter protests in Washington, D.C.—and across the U.S.—over the summer, the white supremacists were allowed to roam the Capitol building for hours before being dispersed. And two Capitol police officers have been suspended and more than a dozen are under investigation for their activities during the coup attempt.

So imagine how expanded policing, FBI, and Department of Homeland Security powers will be applied. After 9/11, laws passed by legislators eager to be seen as “tough on terror” ended up being used to target communities of color, not white supremacists. This was the case under the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations. 

Last spring, Congressman Brad Schneider (D-IL-10) introduced the Domestic Terrorism Act of 2020 (H.R. 602), arguing that “the rising tide of domestic terror across our country, particularly from violent far-right extremists and white supremacist organizations, demands a response from Congress.”

Unfortunately, this legislation would likely harm communities of color by creating dedicated domestic terrorism offices within the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and Department of Justice, strengthening institutions that already target and criminalize communities of color with pre-emptive policing measures, like surveillance and entrapment.

Some people argue that because there is no domestic terrorism statute, the FBI is somehow unable to stop these acts of violence. However, an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice has found that the FBI has all the powers they need to fight white supremacy—the  agency just chooses to focus elsewhere.

The brutal policing of BLM and other racial and social justice protesters—often to the exclusion of white supremacist groups—has emboldened individuals to act with impunity. Which is what we saw the Capitol on Jan. 6. “That has conditioned them to believe they are authorized to act that way,” says Mike German from the Brennan Center. “So, it’s not surprising at all that you would see people who aren’t covering their faces, aren’t trying to hide their identity.”

Another proposal calls for a designated “Domestic Terror Organization” list, which would expose any donors to those groups to charges of material support for terrorism. While that may sound reasonable to some, Trump allies have called for Black Lives Matter and antifa to be designated as such. And many of us aren’t aware that an existing “Foreign Terror Organization” list has had devastating consequences for Muslim individuals and organizations, violating their First Amendment right to free speech and resulting in wrongful convictions and ruined lives. 

It is important to remember that under both Democratic and Republican administrations, the FBI has a long history of infiltrating and targeting those working for social justice such as civil rights leaders, CISPES, Black Lives Matter, and even AFSC.

2. You may be helping to legitimize surveillance of Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ individuals, people of color, and activists.

Last fall, the Trump administration gave $10 million to organizations across the U.S. as part of its controversial Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program. CVE has been found to target and criminalize Muslim and other communities, using faulty social science and recruiting trusted community members—including teachers and mental health professionals—as informants to identify those “vulnerable to radicalization.”

Expanding a bad program to include white supremacists will only give cover to continued targeting of marginalized communities. Says Hatem Abudayyeh from Chicago’s Arab American Action Network, “If more funding goes to the feds, that expansion of the state is going to go after us. It's going to come down on our communities—Arab, Muslim, Latinx, Black, Native—all the social justice organizers around the country who come under attack by law enforcement because we're resisting Trump's policies and trying to build a better world.”

White supremacism is real and violent, and it is understandable to want to find solutions that protect our communities right now. But ultimately, calls for more law enforcement in this moment only normalize the racist and militarist culture, policies, and practices that have led us to this moment.

Law enforcement solutions often put the communities that are targeted by white supremacy at more risk, and the information unfolding after the coup attempt is a good reminder that white supremacism is sometimes tied to law enforcement and the military

3. You may be unintentionally reinforcing the dominant, harmful narrative on terrorism.

Lastly, although your intention may be to help shift how people think about white supremacist violence, you are ultimately tying these acts to negative stereotypes that target Muslim communities.

As Maha Hilal, co-director of Justice for Muslims Collective, points out, “When politicians and the media call on us to take white violence as seriously as violence perpetrated by Muslims, they actually reinforce the trope of Muslims as terrorists, injecting Muslims into a discussion that should have nothing to do with them.” 

There is no quick fix to suggest as an alternative, but as allies we can:

  • Remember white supremacy is the focus—challenge the co-optation of our outrage over white supremacist violence to legitimize frameworks and policies that negatively impact Muslims, communities of color;
  • challenge social norms that accept and promote violence;
  • hold the president and his allies accountable for their dehumanizing and racist rhetoric and calls to action for violence
  • learn from communities of color that are developing practical alternatives for community accountability, and for keeping each other safe through abolitionist safety practices;
  • and listen to those who have been targeted by the “war on terror” and join local efforts to resist those policies.