Looking Left, Leaning Right: Excerpt from Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America

An excerpt from the new edition of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, (AK Press, 2015).

At every level of government, campaigns against dissent have tended to focus disproportionately on the activities of the left.The surveillance, harassment, infiltration, arrests, sabotage, slander, disruption, and petty bullshit endured by the left is only rarely matched by a similar level of police action against the right. Even during World War II, when the U.S. was at war with Nazi Germany and allied with the Soviet Union, the NYPD still invested more resources in infiltrating the Communist Party than in monitoring fascists.[1] Likewise, though the FBI eventually initiated COINTELPRO – WHITE HATE against the Klan—an effort that lasted seven years and included infiltration, sabotage, snitch-jacketing, electronic surveillance, black-bag jobs, and petty harassment [2]—98% of COINTELPRO files concerned leftist movements.[3] Hoover only added the Klan to his list of targets when directly ordered by President Johnson, “I want you to have the same kind of intelligence [on the Klan] that you have on the communists.”[4] Still, David Cunningham argues, the Bureau pursued “distinct overall strategies” against the right and left: “an overarching effort to control the Klan’s violent tendencies,” contrasted with “attempts to eliminate the New Left altogether.” The difference, Cunningham suggests, is that Hoover may have objected to the Klan’s methods, but he opposed the left’s aims.[5]

Broadly speaking, the state’s suspicion of and pressure on the left is persistent, aggressive, and anticipatory—while, in contrast, its action against the right is episodic, defensive, and reactive. For the latter, it is only when some faction pushes things a step too far that the state initiates a broad but temporary crackdown, followed by a renewed stasis. In the sixties, the Klan seems to have stumbled over one such political trip line when it started murdering White northerners. A similar line was crossed in the early 1980’s with The Order’s interstate spree of bank heists, bombings, and assassinations. The FBI’s response then was Operation Clean Sweep, a movement-wide multi-year campaign, leading to indictments against members of The Order, The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, Aryan Nations, Posse Comitatus, and the White Patriot Party, as well as select national leaders.[6]

Likewise, when Timothy McVeigh bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, law enforcement took a sudden interest in the right-wing militia movement. The resulting campaign saw federal prosecutions of, not only McVeigh himself, but the Montana Freemen, the Aryan Republican Army, the Aryan People’s Republic, and the Phineas Priesthood, as well as arrests related to other bomb plots in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arizona, and Georgia. At the same time, the FBI’s anti-terrorism budget doubled, rising from $256 million in 1995 to $581 million in 1998.[7] In 1996, President Clinton signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which laid the foundation for the Patriot Act, lengthened sentences for a range of crimes, imposed increasingly punitive conditions in prisons, expanded the death penalty, and (as the Freedom Archives’ Claude Marks explains) signaled “the first significant step in ending habeas corpus.”[8] In sum, the government’s response to White supremacist violence was to enact legislation that would mainly harm the interests and curtail the rights of people of color.

Sometimes the state’s bias actually draws the cops into alliances with the far right. Red squad files have commonly been shared with right-wing organizations;[9] and at times these relationships have gone further, as police made use of right-wing paramilitary and vigilante groups to carry out illegal campaigns of sabotage and violence. For example, during the late 1960’s, the Legion of Justice conducted a series of burglaries, beatings, and arson attacks on behalf of the Chicago Police red squad.[10]   A few years later, in San Diego, the Secret Army Organization—a group led by an FBI informant and armed with $10,000 worth of Bureau-supplied weaponry—was busy beating up Chicano activists, trashing the offices of radical newspapers, and attempting to assassinate anti-war organizers.[11] Here, too, the rightward bias is apparent. As Chip Berlet notes, “the U.S. government seems so ready to make use of the right to violently attack the left, but not the other way around.”[12]

Even in the period since the Civil Rights era, as the right wing has become more hostile to the state—less conservative and more revolutionary[13]—this official bias has still largely remained intact. Law enforcement attitudes toward the right tend to be characterized by complacency, tolerance, and a kind of willful ignorance.

Journalist Will Potter has noted, for example, that while the FBI was “exaggerating the threat” posed by the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front (who had damaged property, but never targeted people), the Bureau was simultaneously “either grossly miscalculating, or intentionally downplaying murders and violent attacks from right-wing extremists.” Between 2007 and 2009, the FBI counted forty injuries and seven deaths from right-wing violence. However, West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center counted 599 injuries and 108 deaths during the same period. In fact, the CTC estimated that right-wing violence had increased 400% since 1990, while the FBI reported that it was in decline.[14]

Likely the cops’ crazily uneven willingness to react to—or even recognize—subversion or extremism reflects race and class as well as ideological biases. Considering the federal response to the militia movement, Leonard Zeskind hypothesizes that had it been Black people “marching through the woods and firing armor-piercing, cop-killing ammunition, the entire movement would not have lasted five minutes, much less five years.”<[15] Potter, on the other hand, points out that the victims of right-wing violence are typically immigrants, Muslims, and people of color, while the targets of environmental and animal rights activism are among “the most powerful corporations on the planet”[16]—thus the state’s relative indifference to the one and obsession with the other.

The hostility to dissent should be understood not simply in terms of individual conservatism, but as an institutional feature of the entire criminal legal system—and perhaps even of the state as a whole. Alan Wolfe explains:

“It is not so much that the state acts mechanistically, always moving to support one group and repress the other, as it is that a regularized bias exists in the operations of the democratic state that tends to support the interests of the powerful against those who challenge them.… By nearly all of its actions, [the state] reproduces a society in which some have power at the expense of others, and it moves to support the ‘others’ only when their protests are so strong that the ‘some’ stand to lose all they have gained.

“It follows that repression will similarly not be a neutral phenomenon but will have a class bias. We can predict, with good accuracy, that when the state intervenes to repress an organization or an ideology, it will be a dissenting group, representing relatively powerless people, that will berepressed and the interests upheld will be those of the powerful.”[17]

The broader pattern helps to explain one partial exception to the left/right gap in official scrutiny—namely, the domestic aspects of the “War on Terror.” Al Qaeda is clearly a reactionary organization. Like much of the American far right, it is theocratic, anti-Semitic, and patriarchal. Like Timothy McVeigh, the 9/11 hijackers attacked symbols of institutional power, killing a great many innocent people to further their cause. But while the state’s bias favors the right over the left, the Islamists were the wrong kind of right-wing fanatic. These right-wing terrorists were foreigners, they were Muslim, and above all they were not white. And so, in retrospect and by comparison, the state’s response to the Oklahoma City bombing seems relatively restrained—short-lived, focused, selectively targeting unlawful behavior for prosecution. The government’s reaction to the September Eleventh attacks has been something else entirely—an open-ended war fought at home and abroad, using all variety of legal, illegal, and extra-legal military, police, and intelligence tactics, arbitrarily jailing large numbers of people and spying on entire communities of immigrants, Muslims, and Middle Eastern ethnic groups. At the same time, law enforcement was also obsessively pursuing—and sometimes fabricating—cases against environmentalists, animal rights activists, and anarchists while ignoring or obscuring racist violence against people of color. What that shows, I think, is that the left/right imbalance persists, but sometimes other biases matter more.

In addition to Our Enemies in Blue, Kristian Williams is also the author of Fire the Cops! Essays, Lectures, and Journalism (Kersplebedeb, 2014), and one of the editors of Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency (AK Press, 2013).


[1] Frank Donner, Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 49.

[2] Tim Weiner, Enemies: A History of the FBI, (New York: Random House, 2012), 247.

[3] David Cunningham, There’s Something Happening Here: The New Left, The Klan, and FBI Counterintelligence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 11.

[4] Weiner, Enemies, 199. Quote from 244. Emphasis in original.

[5] Cunningham, There’s Something Happening Here, 11.

[6] Leonard Zeskind, Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream (New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 2009), 144–7.

[7] Zeskind, Blood and Politics, 413–4.

[8] Quoted in Walidah Imarisha and Kristian Williams, “COINTELPRO to COIN: Claude Marks Interviewed (April 16, 2011),” in Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency, ed. Kristian Williams et al. (Oakland: AK Press, 2013), 36.

[9] Donner, Protectors of Privilege, 286 and 359; and, Frank Donner, “Theory and Practice of American Political Intelligence,” New York Review of Books, April 22, 1971, 29.

[10] Donner, Protectors of Privilege, 146–150.

[11] Chip Berlet, “The Hunt for Red Menace: How Government Intelligence Agencies and Private Right-Wing Groups Target Dissidents and Leftists as Subversive Terrorists and Outlaws,” (Political Research Associates: 1994), 21; and, Brian Glick, War at Home: Covert Action Against U.S. Activists and What We Can Do About It (Cambridge: South End Press, 1989), 60.

[12] Chip Berlet, “Repression, Civil Liberties, Right-Wingers, and Liberals: Resisting Counterinsurgency and Subversion Panics,” in Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency, ed. Kristian Williams et al. (Oakland: AK Press, 2013), 57.

[13] Zeskind, Blood and Politics, 244.

[14] Will Potter, “If Right-Wing Violence is Up 400%, Why Is the FBI Targeting Environmentalists?” Green is the New Red, January 18, 2013 [greenisthenewred.com, accessed October 20, 2014].

[15] Zeskind, Blood and Politics, 365.

[16] Potter, “If Right-Wing Violence is Up.”

[17] Alan Wolfe, The Seamy Side of Democracy: Repression in America (Reading, MA: Longman, 1978), 37–8 and 51.