Diversity, equity, inclusion and…Nazis? Oh, my!

In my last post, I wrote about a recent neo-Nazi rally in Portland, Maine. For non-locals and those not following the story, the city and police department’s response has been less than satisfying. No arrests were made, despite clear footage and individual accounts of violence.

Why? According to the police, they were unable to assess how the “fight” started that led to physical injuries to those protesting against the Nazis, and no one involved provided statements to the police. As a result, the police department says they had no choice but to let the Nazis go about their merry reign of terror. 

However, the local district attorney’s office has weighed in and said that the police could have charged the Nazis with disorderly conduct, even in the absence of individual statements. District Attorney Jackie Sartoris was quoted as saying, “Charging an available crime would have held these neo-Nazis accountable for violating the law and sent the vital message that these acts are unwelcome in our community.” 

I should add that, while far from perfect, at least the District Attorney’s office has offered some recommendations moving forward that show some understanding that Neo Nazis and white supremacist violence are a real problem that is not going away anytime soon.

As the DA’s office noted (if this is a ;TLDR situation for you, just skip past the 5 points below, but I recommend the read),

“…in light of this experience:

1. We should anticipate violence and plan accordingly. Although frankly unsurprising in retrospect given this hateful group and their frighteningly violent rhetoric, Neo-Nazis are known to engage in substantial violence with seemingly little provocation, as occurred on April 1. We must plan accordingly.

2. We should respond to any potential violations by speedily identifying perpetrators and develop a protocol to do so. Neo-Nazis use their masked anonymity to perpetrate hate while avoiding being held accountable before the community or the law. Carefully adhering to the law, we must identify these people whenever appropriate, and hold them to account whenever possible.

3. We should ensure accountability through investigations and charges – even when absent cooperative victims. While Neo-Nazis use their anonymity to perpetrate violence, counter-protesters are also often unwilling to be identified, even when victimized, because they legitimately fear repercussions from groups organized by hate and known for their violent extremism. Law enforcement must be prepared to collect evidence for any and all other applicable charges and to be nimble in how that occurs. We will work with our law enforcement partners to clarify possible charges, the needed evidence to support them, and strategies for successful investigations.

4. We should consider forming a hate crimes unit with a hate crimes rapid response capacity, modeled on successful collaborations in other communities. The work in other communities that have grappled with the rise in crimes involving hate such as we are experiencing in Maine can ensure we are better able to collaborate and respond when such events occur in Cumberland County. My office would be willing to participate in or lead this initiative.

5. We should ensure that outreach to vulnerable populations who are likely targets of hate crime is adequate, coordinated, and includes those specially trained as victim witness advocates. It is often hard to develop trust in communities that feel targeted by hate. While Portland PD is doing incredible work with their community policing officers and victim advocates, additional coordinated efforts could help increase the ties to vulnerable communities and facilitate greater cooperation.

6. We should follow other best practices to fight the rise of hate. My office will identify one lead prosecutor to be the point of contact for all criminal conduct informed by hate, to ensure we are noticing possible connections across the County, and that we consistently share strategies and trainings with our law enforcement partners. We will make sure we are coordinating with our federal and Attorney General partners. This is a best practice and one I intended to implement later in 2023, my first year in office. However, given this incident, I will identify an appropriate ADA after internal consultation and coordinate with our law enforcement partners to share this point of contact as soon as possible.”

Given how tepid the response has been overall in the community over the last few months as racism, racist vitriol and now violence have become normalized and almost accepted, these recommendations show that someone is paying attention, other than those at risk of being targeted. Though I find myself wondering, how will the front-line officers and others be trained to ensure their own lens of whiteness and potential bias don’t become a hindrance to these recommendations becoming concrete actions? 

No doubt, being charged with something absolutely sends a message, though at the same time, this is a reminder of how white supremacy culture is embedded in our larger society, even down to whether something is viewed as a crime or not. After all, many police departments in 2019 and 2020, including our local police department, had no issue charging Black and brown protestors at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The response to neo-Nazis in many communities in recent months has been more tempered compared to what we saw nationwide in many communities just a few years ago when it was largely Black and brown people in the streets, protesting the lack of humanity for Black lives. 

Despite knowing that these Nazi and other white supremacy groups represent a very clear danger—and that is according to the Department of Homeland Security—predominantly white police departments rarely, if ever, feel the need to roll out the heavy artillery when white violence-prone individuals exercise their First Amendment rights. 

On Monday, April 10, Portland’s city council and mayor finally addressed the issue of the neo-Nazis and, frankly, the response was lackluster. It shows a clear lack of understanding of how real the threats are by these groups and how despite co-opting the language of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)—they are about anything but those three principles. No doubt, the intentions of the city council were good but at the same time, there is a real impact on people and a clear and present danger that is being minimized and will only grow more dangerous as a result. 

The same police department that stood by and did nothing as Nazis caused physical harm was, you see, quite able to fill the council chambers in support of their police chief as he spoke in support of his officers’ actions on that fateful Saturday. Interim Portland police chief F. Heath Gorham said,“These are tricky situations,” Gorham said. “We try to be the person in the middle not taking sides. Whether or not our views are completely apart from them, we cannot express our views. Our job is to facilitate their First Amendment rights.”

The thing is, looking at this situation from the lens of whiteness, he is absolutely right. The problem is that it is a direct conflict to the safety and humanity of marginalized people, many of whom also spoke out at the meeting saying they felt unsafe in the city. (Remember that old adage that free speech doesn’t protect you from yelling “Fire!” falsely in a crowded theater and getting people hurt or killed as a result.)

Even Interim City Manager Danielle West’s words that she plans to work with the city’s new director of justice, diversity, equity and inclusion, Umaru Balde, feels less than satisfying. Especially after hearing her say “He is going to help me try and figure this out and navigate this, and find ways we can move forward.”

No pressure there. Just help these white folks figure out how to solve a 500-year-old foundational problem within a container of whiteness and make it palatable to them in the process.

Sorry, I am getting a little snarky but I fear this man is being set up to fail as many BIPOC folks across the nation have been in recent years in their newly created DEI positions. 

Neo-Nazis and affiliated groups are a growing national problem, but the new Black guy in the new DEI position is going to be tasked with how to help fix that problem locally? I wish him well. I hope he has a solid support system. But if Balde is still in this position in two to three years, it will be nothing short of a miracle. That’s a post for another day though—the limitations of DEI work and the unrealistic expectations that exist within these positions, which too often are created as a response to issues that predate the DEI person arriving. 

In theory, there is nothing technically wrong with doing DEI work. The problem is that because much of the DEI framework is not about addressing root systemic causes, it falls short. When we talk about creating hate crime units as the DA’s office has suggested, and focus on rooting out hate—rather than naming the core issue of white supremacy—we are setting ourselves up for failure. We are fighting racism, homophobia, transphobia, and antisemitism to start—this isn’t just about fighting blanket hate or general misanthropes.

How do we properly train cops and others to fight against what we hesitate to accurately name? Look, if you have brain cancer, I am pretty sure that you want brain cancer specialists on your treatment team, not a breast cancer specialist. In fact, if that were even suggested, you would recoil at how ludicrous that sounds. Yet when it comes to racism, and other ‘isms, we lump it all together and figure if we do the bare minimum in addressing the issue, we are doing the work. But are we? 

Let me be clear: I am not saying that the police and local elected officials should idly sit by and do nothing; however, to quote Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” 

Too often our approach to solving problems is still deeply rooted in the systems that helped to create the problems to begin with. In this case, neo-Nazis are fighting to uphold white supremacy and their place in that system. Whether we like it or not, policing itself is also rooted in that system and too often our DEI efforts fall short because we are not actively dismantling systems and creating new ways of being.

We simply tweak things to be more palatable and inclusive within a system that is inherently unfair and biased. Which, in the end, rarely if ever creates anything more than a bandage solution that benefits a few more token marginalized people rather than the masses of the marginalized. 

Fighting growing white supremacist movements that are intent on increasing their visibility is going to require more than demanding accountability from people and groups who have historically benefitted under a white supremacist system. It is going to be an intergenerational effort—and a public and private coalition of individuals—working relationally so that true trust and accountability can occur. 

Otherwise, these scenes will become so common that it will start to feel like we are trapped in a racist, fear-filled version of the movie Groundhog Day, where we protest, we meet and hear statements but change is incremental and not satisfying—and then we repeat it all over again almost exactly the same way. As Americans, we want to look to our leaders to solve the problems, but this requires a collective effort that starts with all of us. Every single one of us has a role we can play; stop leaving it to the “professionals.” 

As I mentioned in my last post, my organization, Community Change Inc, is offering a one-day virtual symposium, Confronting White Supremacy. I, along with my team and many others, have worked tirelessly to create a program that we feel will help people living in communities dealing with a visible uptick in white supremacists and how to move beyond the protests. It is one tool in the toolkit along with working with others in your area to take action. It is time for us to activate, as we cannot ensure that our elected officials and police alone are going to keep us safe. For some of us, they have never been our safety. 

PS: Before you leave, can I ask for your support? This blog runs on reader support, and spring is unfortunately a time when we see our support drop. Some years, I can fill in those gaps personally, this year, I cannot. As a result, I am launching a spring support campaign, to ensure that the bills and our team get paid during this historically slow period. If this work has been meaningful, I am asking for your support. Consider a one-time gift or better yet, consider becoming a patron if you aren’t already. If you don’t have the ability to provide financial support, consider sharing the spring campaign within your networks.

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