The May 4 federal seditious conspiracy convictions of four Proud Boys, who led the violent attempt to derail certification of Joe Biden‘s presidential victory on Jan. 6, 2021, mark an important milestone in the effort to protect our democracy from internal attack, as did the earlier convictions of six Oath Keepers and the guilty plea of another Proud Boys leader on the same charge. Political leaders should quickly leverage these triumphs of justice to purge members of such violent extremist groups from the nation’s law enforcement ranks before illiberal winds slam the window of opportunity shut.
My thriller, Shadow State, is the first novel to explore the implications of the Jan. 6 insurrection and the rise of the Proud Boys as an anti-democratic force. It details the grave harm such groups can cause by recruiting members of law enforcement from local police all the way up to the Secret Service and FBI. The story is fictional, but the threat is as real as a riot shield shattering a window at the U.S. Capitol.
The Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism recently examined a leaked Oath Keepers membership list and “identified more than 370 people it believes currently work in law enforcement agencies—including as police chiefs and sheriffs—and more than 100 people who are currently members of the military,” The Associated Press reported. Meanwhile, several current and former police officers associated with the Proud Boys were charged for their participation in the Jan. 6 insurrection.
While the successful infiltration of police departments by these extremist organizations is alarming, it’s possible to disrupt their recruitment efforts by officially designating them domestic terrorist groups.
There are good reasons to set a high bar for such designations, not only First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly, but also the specter of political factions using nonviolent protests and inflamed rhetoric as excuses to silence opposition groups.
But if the government can’t apply the terrorist label to groups that try to violently overthrow it, the bar is too high. In fact, no formal mechanism exists for designating groups as domestic terror organizations, no matter how much mayhem they cause. Yet the Proud Boys are threatening enough to earn a terrorist designation in Canada and New Zealand.
In this era of loosely affiliated extremist groups and leaderless resistance movements, outlawing such organizations would be futile as well as unconstitutional. A better approach: Create a legal mechanism for formally designating extremist groups as domestic terror organizations solely based on their violent actions.
This can be accomplished via presidential executive order or action from a bipartisan congressional majority united by a desire to protect both the rule of law and their own hides. Call it the Common Sense and Common Cause Caucus, supported by voters who see these seditious conspiracy convictions as a wake-up call for democracy.
Under this scenario, no American would be prohibited from becoming a Proud Boy or Oath Keeper. But the domestic terror groups themselves could be cut off from the financial system, like those on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list. And members could legally be prohibited from serving in law enforcement and the military. The First Amendment does not require us to empower white supremacists, or any violent extremists, to intimidate communities with a badge and gun.
The lack of a formal domestic terror designation demonstrably hinders efforts to remove individuals affiliated with such groups from law enforcement. Take the case of Chicago police officer Robert Bakker, who was found by a Chicago Police Department (CPD) investigation to have ties to the Proud Boys, including expressing support for members in an online discussion forum, attending one of the group’s gatherings, and then making false and contradictory statements to investigators about those activities. He also was cited for failing to report to the department that he had been interviewed by the FBI about his Proud Boys ties.
After the CPD gave Bakker a 120-day suspension and Mayor Lori Lightfoot downplayed the seriousness of the situation, her press secretary asserted that “there is no place in our police department … for white supremacists or other extremist ideology.” Yet both the mayor and police superintendent rejected the city inspector general’s call to fire Bakker. On March 8, Bakker, who has denied being a member of the Proud Boys, was reinstated to the force.
During a Chicago City Council hearing last fall, Yolanda Talley, head of CPD’s internal affairs department, testified, “The Proud Boys is not identified as an FBI hate group. If the Proud Boys were identified as an FBI hate group, this investigation would have looked totally different.”
Creating such a domestic terrorism designation would give law enforcement agencies the guidance they need to remove officers with ties to violent extremist groups. That’s why it’s the right move for the president and Congress to make. Thanks to these seditious conspiracy convictions, now is the ideal time to make it.
Frank Sennett is a Chicago-based novelist and cultural critic.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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