In the weeks since the white supremacist attack against the Capitol, many elected officials and policymakers have declared that we need more robust laws to tackle “domestic terrorism.” But history is very clear that this framework will only further harm Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities. Anti-terrorism policy has deliberately destroyed Muslim communities across the globe and criminalized activism among Black, Palestinian, and environmental justice organizers. Such a framework cannot be repurposed to fight white supremacy.
White vengeance against Black communities, from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement, has long been understood by its victims as an act of terror. But this understanding of terror has little to do with the “War On Terror” that has devasted Muslim, Arab, and South Asian (MASA) communities while making them default terrorism suspects. The shock that so many people expressed in the aftermath of the Capitol attack shows how terrorism is largely concieved of as a foreign problem — in need of a qualifier like “domestic” when it occurs by white perpetrators within the United States.
Metaphors like “Vanilla ISIS” or “Christian Taliban” obfuscate the ways white supremacist violence and ideology is rooted in U.S. history, from the foundational genocide of Indigenous people, to the Ku Klux Klan, to ongoing state violence against Black people. Violence to achieve and maintain white supremacy is the norm in this country. And while the desire to reclaim the label of terror — to use it against white supremacy rather than in service of it — is understandable, cracking down on “domestic terrorism” by funneling more resources into law enforccement will end up causing more harm than good.
There is no easy solution that can solve the longstanding issue of white supremacist ideology and violence. How do we create policies to rid ourselves of what is at the very root of the United States? The focus on quick policy fixes falls woefully short of meeting the need for an entire cultural shift, one that addresses the causes of white supremacist violence through systemic change. Take the role of the Capitol Police during the insurrection. While many have cited the police force’s lack of preparation or “muddled intelligence,” the problem wasn’t that law enforcement didn’t have enough resources or capacity — it is that law enforcement is part of the white supremacist structure of the United States.
With a problem so massive, what can organizers do to ensure that the solutions we propose do not further entrench and validate the system that we are working to dismantle? The answer is in the way that we organize. This starts with how we talk about the issues our movements are fighting for. We should not rely on public opinion polls to dictate the language we use, the parameters of our demands, or the measures of success. The systems we are confronting are adaptive, and they thrive on our division. Disrupting them requires solidarity across struggles.
Contend with power, not polls. We need all our movements to contend directly with power no matter what the polls are saying in the moment. When defunding the police is framed as a budget issue — merely shifting funds from police departments to social services — rather than an abolitionist demand, we miss the opportunity to imagine and propose more far-reaching changes that could actually dismantle white supremacy and racial capitalism. Rather than talking about funding, we should be talking about taking power away from the state and giving it back to impacted communities, who will then be able to collectively reimagine what safety is — housing, healthcare, well-funded schools — and, in doing so, build a new world.
Forge cross-movement solidarity. We need to break down silos to create more intersections across our struggles. Any issue we are organizing around — whether it is healthcare, immigration, the environment, or foreign policy — is a racial justice issue, and should be approached through that lens. Intersectional organizing will ensure campaigners are not pursuing one-off victories that come at the expense of other marginalized groups. Is it a victory, for example, for Biden to nominate Xavier Becerra to lead Health and Human Services? Becerra is a supporter of Medicare for All, but as California Attorney General, he also fought efforts to free incarcerated people from overcrowded prisons during the pandemic. Rather than celebrating partial wins, our entire movement must demand policymakers like Becerra act as better allies.
Redefine a win. We must sharpen how we mark the “wins” our movements achieve as we work to dismantle all oppressive systems. We rightly celebrated the end of the Muslim and African Bans at the beginning of Biden’s presidency. But we need to be very clear that reversing these bans does not undo the damage wrought by the Global War on Terror in the form of bombing campaigns and invasions abroad and increasing surveillance and criminalization of BIPOC communities at home. The organizing energy that went into overturning the bans should now be turned to taking on the systems and policies that made them possible. Biden’s commitment to end support for Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign against Yemen is a testament to the organizing and advocacy Yemenis have led these last few years. Their win is now creating an opening for progressives to push Biden officials to stop supporting policies that repress Palestinians and end U.S. military funding of Israel. Across the movement, we need to fight for the kinds of intermediate victories that create space for more transformative change; those victories can come from a struggle other than the one you are directly engaged in.
Look beyond the state. We cannot understand white supremacy without considering the role of actors outside the state in facilitating it — and aggressively organizing against them. At ACRE, we work at the intersection of racial justice and Wall Street accountability, taking on the financial elite who are responsible for pillaging communities of color, devastating working-class communities, and harming our environment. This means campaigning to demand corporations stop profiting from the policing and surveillance of BlPOC communities. It means organizing to end the reliance of cities and states on Wall Street banks for loans, which forces our communities to slash public services. And it means understanding how asset managers like BlackRock are bankrolling the fossil fuel industry, and fighting it as an environmental justice issue.
In this moment, we are also calling out the role of Silicon Valley in aiding white supremacist organizations — and mobilizing to make all tech companies public. Tech companies have a business model driven by clicks. As long as there is no public oversight or ownership of these companies, they have no incentive to address the violent alt-right organizing on their platforms. These companies profit off of our data, our ideas, our creativity, and our connections; we should be the ones determining how these platforms operate, not Big Tech executives.
Confront racism within the movement. Finally, white people, particularly those who organize in community with BIPOC organizers, must take on the task of confronting white supremacy and racism. Fighting for racial justice requires discomfort. It requires confronting how white supremacy shows up in the world, how it shows up in our organizing, and how it shows up in our organizations.
Public discourse suggests that “unity” is a goal that we should strive for without recognition, repair, and reconciliation. But the burden of unity within the current system requires marginalized communities to negotiate our safety and humanity for the comfort of white people. That is an unreasonable ask. The answer to our collective safety will not be found in a system that has always oppressed BIPOC communities. Abolition has no simple solutions. It is an ongoing, participatory process, one that allows us to reimagine and rebuild the world together.