On the anniversary of the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, PRA is taking a moment to examine the history of law enforcement’s relationship with the Far Right. In 2021, academic activists Jarrod Shanahan and Tyler Wall published a scholarly article, “‘Fight the reds, support the blue’: Blue Lives Matter and the US counter-subversive tradition.” Shanahan, a criminal justice professor at Governors State University, and Wall, a sociologist at the University of Tennessee, explore an important historical parallel to contemporary forms of backlash against racial justice organizing. Half-a-century before many members of today’s Blue Lives Matter and MAGA movements found themselves facing Capitol police on January 6, the John Birch Society (JBS) built a grassroots network of far-right citizens and rank-and-file cops around the country to mobilize around the slogan, “Support Your Local Police, and Keep Them Independent!”—independent, that is, from federal oversight. The slogan was meant as a rejoinder to what JBS conspiratorially saw as a dual, and interconnected, threat: Black Liberation and Communist movements from below, and a federal government supposedly infiltrated by Communists from above. Support Your Local Police, in its fights against things like civilian review of the police, invoked the symbolism of the color blue as a contrast to “red” Communists, who, they claimed, were behind movements for Civil Rights.
Drawing extensively on archival material from the Hall-Hoag Collection at Brown University, Shanahan and Wall argue that understanding this history can help us untangle law enforcement’s relationship to today’s conspiratorial politics—from QAnon and anti-lockdown protests, to “Blue Lives Matter” and “Stop the Steal” rallies—and a Far Right that “has announced itself as a political subject unafraid of illegality and political violence.”
This past December, Shanahan and Wall spoke with PRA about how the Birchers’ pro-police organizing can shed light on the dynamics that led to the January 6, 2021 insurrection, and what we can expect going forward.
PRA: Historically speaking, how has the Far Right courted law enforcement? And how has the autonomy of local law enforcement been used to defend White power structures against federal encroachment?
Shanahan: In trying to make sense of the present moment, and the Blue Lives Matter movement in particular, we looked back to a previous period that was very similar, when the ultra-right John Birch Society turned its eye towards recruiting law enforcement through its campaign Support Your Local Police (SYLP).
Organizations and movements like John Birch, Blue Lives Matter, and the Trump movement have a lot of their work done for them in advance by the structure of American society. Something that we talk a lot about in the piece is the natural affinity between police pushing for autonomy on the county level, and groups like Posse Comitatus, whose ideal for society is having Sheriff Rick from The Walking Dead as the leader of your social unit. There’s a natural affinity between local hard-right organizations, individual groupings of cops, and the local petty bourgeoisie who are unified in their desire to promote and continue White power and [fight] against things like the Civil Rights Movement, the New Deal, and the Warren Court. So organizations like John Birch sought to unify, on a national level, all these little pockets where reactionary police, politicians, and business leaders were fighting on their own.
Wall: The second part of their slogan was also important: “…and Keep Them Independent!” In the article, we quote James Baldwin’s classic 1966 essay in The Nation, “A Report from Occupied Territory,” where he references the “arrogant autonomy” of police. Policing desires political autonomy from regulation and oversight. So the other side of the Far Right courting law enforcement is police courting various components of the Far Right. It’s back-and-forth. There’s constant co-mingling among far-right groups and establishment police powers, including a long and well-documented relationship between the [Ku Klux] Klan, policing, and other militia groups in the 1980s post-Vietnam era.
Shanahan: In researching my new book, Captives, a history of the Rikers Island jail complex, I discovered that police and guards in New York didn’t always have as much social power as they do today. They gained it through sustained militancy within their unions and workplaces. And in the early 1960s, the Birchers played a very interesting role in pushing this rank-and-file strategy among New York’s police, under the SYLP campaign. All these internal documents Tyler found in the archives made it into the perfect example to illustrate this co-mingling between far-right groups and law enforcement.
Wall: Support Your Local Police were constantly trying to find information to show how influential they were, culturally. In the archives, there are cartoons in local newspapers that would make reference to SYLP. There’s a cartoon of someone getting pulled over by a cop and not getting a ticket because they have a SYLP bumper sticker. SYLP chapters would archive these examples as evidence of winning the culture war.
PRA: In the article, you talk about the relationship between anti-Blackness and anti-Communism in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and how that parallels today’s law enforcement backlash against racial justice movements. Can you elaborate?
Shanahan: I started thinking about this connection while reading the comments on right-wing blogs and Twitter, where Black Lives Matter and “Antifa” had become one word. That’s profound. There’s a recognition of this joint threat: the racialized Other, but also the White people who aren’t playing by the script demanded by Whiteness.
Wall: Joel Kovel wrote about the “black hole” of anti-Communism [wherein] anything that challenges the dominant order becomes “Communism.” I follow a lot of police groups on social media, and today, in the context of Black Lives Matter, the phrase “liberals” has increasingly become identified as the enemy. And of course, that phrase can mean anything: anarchists, Leftists, your mother at Thanksgiving who’s wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. I wouldn’t say it’s a total product of the Birchers, but it fits in line with their broader project.
Shanahan: The Bircher ideologues took the rise of Black Power, the national Civil Rights Movement, the intervention of the Supreme Court in enforcing desegregation, the rise of counterculture and Leftism among White, college-educated youth, and they tied it all into a neat little package that was supposedly being directed from Moscow. Dwight Eisenhower was seen as a Communist agent, and all these Left groups—that we know from experience hated each other—were secretly in league with each other, according to this worldview. It’s a very simplistic type of thinking that you also see with QAnon. But we didn’t want to make the mistake of simply writing off the adherents of this movement as dupes.
I think it’s more interesting to think that the average rank-and-file cop who got involved with SYLP probably didn’t care whether or not Dwight Eisenhower was an agent of Moscow. They might have believed that all of this stuff was connected in some conspiratorial way, but more importantly, they experienced all of these social changes as intimately bound up with one another in a world that was changing very quickly in a way that they did not like. I think that’s true with a lot of these nutty conspiracy theories: they provide a roadmap for navigating a very complex and changing world. And as to whether every component of [JBS founder] Robert Welch’s very creative worldview is factually accurate, I don’t think the people supporting SYLP chapters gave it very much thought.
Wall: In thinking through the link between anti-Blackness and anti-Communism, we relied on Michael Rogin’s conception that U.S. political power is animated by what he calls the “countersubversive tradition,” or a “political demonology” that he defines as “the creation of monsters as a…feature of American politics [by the] inflation, stigmatization and dehumanization of political foes.”
The Birchers themselves constantly conflated the threat: they pointed to a Black liberation movement that they understood as Communist. For example, influential Bircher Gary Allen collected all kinds of left-wing “propaganda,” as he saw it, and compiled them to demonstrate what he saw as a Communist threat. But you can see visually, the threat is portrayed as a racial threat to capital.
Shanahan: What’s particularly interesting in the ‘60s was the affinity that developed between police in the South, who were fighting against the federal mandate of desegregation; the White Citizens Councils that also proliferated in the South, to protect the White power structure against federal encroachment; and the institutions in the North that were fighting against civilian oversight of police.
We’re looking back on this history from today, where you see the Blue Lives Matter movement, and the backlash to the Trayvon Martin organizing, the Ferguson Rebellion, and Black Lives Matter (which by the way, if you look at the biographies of a lot of the men who became prominent Alt Right figures, these were the issues that politicized them). These cultural and political watershed moments helped congeal not just the organized Left, but also the revanchist Right. And you see how these movements, which culminated on January 6, are the same kind of coalition between individual political actors, who recognize that their local struggles for autonomy and the protection of White patriarchal power align with this national revanchist movement to such an extent that you had the very bizarre phenomenon of rural White Americans finding their savior in the figure of Trump, a New York real estate magnate.
Wall: It’s worth looking at the differences between that historical moment and today. There’s a fringe element to the Birchers. And yet in the contemporary moment, it feels like the common sense of the Birchers has become the common sense of the larger Right. What was considered fringe with the Birchers has now become mainstream.
PRA: Your article discusses Blue Lives Matter as an important part of Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, and how it led to the Capitol insurrection, which pitted Blue Lives Matter supporters, including many off-duty cops, against uniformed police tasked with protecting the building. Can you talk about some of those complexities?
Shanahan: On January 6, you saw the same kind of localist movement Trump had helped congeal taking on what they saw as an illegitimate form of political authority. There’s actually a long precedent for this particular kind of localist reactionary politics counter-posed to federal law enforcement.
This seeming contradiction underlines how the police as an organized grassroots political force are not the same as police in uniform carrying out their social role. While the two often overlap, we argue this overlap is not inherent. Despite Blue Lives Matter, which says obey the cops no matter what, being an important part of the hard-core of the Trump movement, the Capitol rioters did not respect the commands of the cops who told them to desist. Instead, they posed their own conception of legitimacy, rooted in local autonomy, against the “illegitimate” commands of the cops protecting the Capitol. Some of them were even flying thin blue line flags as they attacked the cops! In the trajectory from Blue Lives Matter to the Capitol siege, we look at how the pro-cop movement has functioned to give legitimacy to the mobilization of rank-and-file cops and their supporters against perceived threats from their enemies.
Wall: We’re seeing a certain kind of fragmentation within police culture itself over competing visions for their role in society. The video of cops opening up the barricades means something. But at the same time, there were all kinds of images of police hitting protesters and pushing back, as well as police being beaten and chased by far-right protestors. The Proud Boys might be sympathetic to the police, and many factions within the police might be sympathetic to the Proud Boys, but there’s a limit to that when police power itself is being challenged.
I don’t think this fragmentation is necessarily new. But the specific direction of their political views often changes based on historical context.
Shanahan: Something that I don’t think gets talked about enough on the Left is the populism among the pro-police movement and the working-class identity politics that cops deploy, often very effectively.
Where I’m from, the South Shore of Massachusetts, is very much a pro-cop, working-class, Irish Catholic bastion. There’s a long history going back to at least the 1960s, with the White student counterculture movement, of the police casting themselves as the working-class foil to a Leftism that they successfully represented as elitist. In fact, Eric Adams, the [then] Mayor-elect of New York City, himself a former cop and African-American man, recently came out and said that the protestors of the [Kyle] Rittenhouse verdict were a bunch of White male anarchists from “outside the city or just recently moved here,” making them hated gentrifiers of course. That’s very common in New York, for the politicians and the right-wingers to say that protesters are trust-fund kids. So there’s very interesting class dynamics at play in police politics that need a much closer look.
PRA: In a recent PRA webinar, criminologist Luis Fernandez argued that law enforcement’s primary role is to uphold the social order. How does that align with the Far Right courting law enforcement?
Shanahan: I agree with Luis, and also think it’s very important to situate law enforcement as one of the social institutions that upholds the social order. I think the biggest risk coming out of 2020—a year in which we had this national anti-police movement—is that in the minds of many participants, the police had been separated from all the other institutions that uphold the very same social order. So you say, “We don’t want police, we want more money for public schools.” Well, what role do you think public schools play in maintaining the racial division of labor and the school-to-prison pipeline? In differentiating people, from a very young age, between those who will work lower-tier wage labor jobs and the ones that will be allowed to escape the class they were born into? Public schools also play an essential role in the racialized capitalist order. Police are just its meanest and nastiest arm.
Wall: We can also understand those other institutions under a broader conception of police power—it’s not just the “police” as in uniformed cops. While police power hasn’t always been as dominant as it is today, it’s also not a sideshow to capitalist order. A system of private property requires policing more generally, and the state’s police power more specifically, to uphold it. So when these other institutions of social control [like schools] fail at creating “citizens” who respect a system of private property, the state needs a direct intervening force that claims a monopoly on violence. This is a classic definition of policing. Yet the liberal imagination nevertheless assumes that police power is somehow accountable to the “rule of law.” In opposition to this view, I think we have to understand policing as a prerogative power, or an executive power, that’s never actually meant to be accountable to law or other regulatory mechanisms in any substantial way. It’s meant to be autonomous.
There’s a through-line of police power that is absolutely indispensable to the way the system functions. That is why attacks on the police are often taken as attacks on civilization itself. Policing is central to our ideas of order. That’s why I think questions of abolition are interesting and exciting, simply because they try to think through the problem or question of order outside of police power.