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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Editor’s note: When Aaron Cantú arrived at his new job at the Santa Fe Reporter—an alternative newspaper like the Independent—last year, he came with the baggage of a recent arrest. Two months earlier, he spent a night in jail with hundreds of others detained during protests on Inauguration Day in Washington, D.C. His actions consisted of walking, wearing black and being a witness to history as a freelance journalist. Yet a few months later, federal prosecutors slammed him with eight felony charges, including conspiracy to riot and property damage—despite no clear evidence of such crimes.

After nearly 18 months, the feds dropped the charges. Cantú (right; photo by Anson Stevens-Bollen) is finally able to publicly reflect on the ordeal. Read the full timeline of events at the bottom of this story.

For more than a year, federal prosecutors and agents have perused my digital communications, tried to hack my cell phone, and possibly collected my social media records. The chill of seeing the state in possession of your private political discussions is difficult to convey.

I’m not being paranoid; this really happened. The feds invaded my life in pursuit of their own conspiracy theory about a raucous protest in Washington, D.C., that resulted in eight felony charges against hundreds, myself included.

The overwhelming sense of being watched has abated some since the charges were dropped, but I’m sure people within the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia—the local arm of the Trump Administration’s Justice Department—will read every word of this essay, with an eye for anything they can use to re-file criminal charges against me or the 186 people still living under a five-year statute of limitations.

A few weeks after my arrest in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2017 (aka J20), I accepted some painful advice: Don’t criticize the Trump administration publicly. At that point, I was hoping for my charges to get dropped before my eventual indictment in May. The inability to speak freely on social media and in the publications for which I wrote drained my confidence; I still reflexively self-censor, often deleting tweets for no real reason. Even though my charges have gone away, writing this is hard. This pounding in my chest, this trembling hand, this sour stomach and sweaty tunnel vision are what it feels like to have your freedom of speech curtailed by the state.

I went to D.C. with several other journalists to report on Trump’s ascent, following a year of bubbling anti-fascism protests against his campaign. I currently enjoy the haven of a newspaper willing to hire lawyers who bite back, but last January, I was a freelancer using vacation days from my full-time job to go witness history. This was a completely uncharted assignment: How violent could this get? Would American jackboots try to stomp me in the streets? In the end, it didn’t matter whether I presented myself as a journalist on J20, or that I only carried a sandwich and a notebook; white supremacists wound up messing with me anyway for more than a year afterward by working with authorities to prosecute and harass me. I pitched a dispatch soon after getting released from jail, but pulled it for legal concerns.

After 18 months, the actual memories of the half-hour march leading up to my arrest have mixed with dreams and nightmares of the day, as well as descriptions in multiple indictments, trial transcripts and media reports. My mind’s eye remembers a dark funhouse of corporate buildings and unusually waifish, Jack Skellington-esque riot cops hemming me into a larger group. Everything looks gray and morose; it may have rained a bit. Police relentlessly deployed sting-ball grenades and pepper spray; the final tally was at least 70 grenades thrown at people blocks away from where Donald John Trump was sworn in as the 45th U.S. president.

Creaks and shatters created by objects smashing glass, including the insured windows of a Bank of America branch and a Starbucks, are more memorable than any destruction my eyes may have seen. Very, very loud police sirens, punctuated by grenade explosions and screaming, overwhelm everything else. “The inappropriate and extensive use of less lethal munitions suggests the need for increased supervision of officers during mass demonstrations,” said a recent report from the staid Police Foundation, a nonprofit which evaluated the Metropolitan Police Department’s conduct at Inauguration Day protests.

Impossible to forget are the feelings throughout the march: The whole-body nerve rush when I first saw a huge mass of marching people extending at least a whole city block; the panic run as the sting-ball grenades burst near my feet; the euphoria of an ungovernable moment, however frightening and unpredictable, that disrupted the lawful monotony binding our violently unequal social system together; and the shock when I checked my phone from inside the mass arrest and saw that protests in D.C. had overtaken Trump’s inaugural speech as the top headline on CNN.com. If protesters weren’t able to stop the actual inauguration, they still marred it in history.

When the first six of more than 200 defendants went to trial last November, prosecutors used expressions of apparent excitement, wonder or awe during the march as evidence of a conspiracy to riot. “I’m fucking blissed out,” photojournalist and acquitted defendant Alexei Wood announced in a stream from the march that day. The feds later tried to use it against him in court. In an identical indictment filed against all defendants, prosecutors also used randomly shouted phrases like, “Fuck it up,” “Fuck capitalism,” and “Whose streets? Our streets!” to transform an adrenal impulse into a criminal agreement among riotous co-conspirators.

The thought that I might be seriously screwed first occurred to me inside the police wagon transporting us to be processed. I sat cramped and bound, along with nine other people, in one of a half-mile’s worth of law enforcement vehicles flashing various hues of light, as if carrying high-priority enemies of the state. I knew then we weren’t going to get off with a simple citation, and that I was probably going to have to tell my mom. I didn’t expect, however, that I would be charged with eight felonies for the act of attending and reporting on a confrontational protest, or that I would be facing a combined 80 years in prison for these charges.


Months later, I not only considered my own future, but the far-reaching political implications of these cases: Why did the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia find it appropriate to hang virtual life sentences over the heads of 214 people after an indiscriminate mass arrest? How could they have so shamelessly gleaned evidence from far-right groups like Project Veritas, a discredited organization known for making deceptive gotcha videos, as well as the paramilitary group the Oath Keepers, and still feel like they had a legitimate case? Where was the motivation—the conspiracy—to pursue these cases coming from?

Mass arrests at protests have happened plenty of times in cities across the country, including D.C. in 2002, when hundreds at a World Bank protest were arrested and later lavished with civil settlement money. What appeared new in the J20 case was the attempt to color protesters’ actions as part of a pre-planned conspiracy between strangers to cause mayhem.

By wrapping up distinct actions like allegedly breaking windows, chanting and lighting fireworks at a protest into a single conspiracy, it all became one threatening, anti-social act against society, apparently menacing enough to warrant decades in prison. The motive to bust a conspiracy also explains the Justice Department’s initial demand last summer to review 1.3 million IP addresses of people who visited DisruptJ20.org, a website used to organize loosely affiliated masses of protests that took place at the inauguration. Despite an outcry from the media and civil rights groups, the court eventually granted much of the prosecutors’ request—yet they could find no actual conspiracy.

This data-vacuuming extended to the cellphones that all arrestees were carrying that day. The Metropolitan Police Department used technology from an Israeli security firm called Cellebrite to extract information from all confiscated phones that weren’t sufficiently encrypted. After one anonymous defendant’s phone was raided, the defendant received an 8,000-page dossier containing years of personal data, including “intimate emails to and from my friends and lovers through more than a decade, (late) night political debates over chat apps that helped shape my values and convictions,” and more. The horror of a hostile state downloading a record of your developing identity reaching back into your early teen years is a possibility unique to millennials and later generations that grew up on the internet.

To my knowledge, the feds were never able to crack into my phone, thanks to strong encryption—though they made clear that they were specifically interested in me, declaring in one motion last October that they were undertaking “additional efforts” to get my data. But I was sufficiently terrified by other fishing expeditions, including subpoenas issued to Apple, Facebook and possibly Twitter for communications between and among co-defendants. I never received a notice from any of these companies that my accounts had been subpoenaed—though apparently, they do not have to notify you or can be gagged from doing so—but others did, and I still treat my online presence as if it’s bugged.

All this reaching by the prosecutor’s office turned out to be for naught. Although Assistant U.S. Attorney Rizwan Qureshi mumbled to an unbelieving D.C. jury at the second trial of defendants that there had been a conspiracy to “destroy your city,” this was never proven. That trial in May ended in acquittals and mistrials, after the first resulted in total acquittals last December. The pair of failures set the stage for the eventual collapse of the case in its entirety, letting the few dozen remaining defendants go free.

The second trial took place at the D.C. Superior Court, where, in another room, a chief judge determined that Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff had intentionally misled the court about the existence of nearly 70 videos recorded by Project Veritas operatives at protest-planning meetings ahead of the inauguration. The operatives handed over the surreptitiously recorded videos to a DC police detective, Greggory Pemberton, who would spend an entire year investigating the J20 case. Defense counsel later discovered personal tweets sent out by Pemberton indicating his sympathies with the racist pro-Trump digital underbelly, and used them to undermine his testimony at trial.

According to a recent filing from former defendants, the withheld videos “cut against the theory that the … meeting was an exclusive, secretive meeting to plan unlawful conduct.” The ’60s-era stereotype of violent leftists whispering clandestine plans was part of the narrative prosecutors tried to create, and they went as far as lying in open court to preserve it.

This isn’t the first time authorities in D.C. have hunted for clues of a conspiracy post-riot. After the city’s black residents rose up following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, resulting in $27 million ($193.4 million today) in damages, the feds wanted to know who, if anybody, had orchestrated the chaos, and whether similar uprisings in more than 100 cities had been part of a revolutionary conspiracy to overthrow the white American system.

Stokely Carmichael, then the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, emerged as a primary suspect. Shortly after King’s murder, Carmichael told a radio host from Havana, Cuba, that it was “crystal clear the United States of America must fall in order for humanity to live, and we are going to give our lives for that cause.” But no conspiracy indictment was ever filed against Carmichael, or anybody else.

The fact that conspiracy charges were filed for so many in the J20 case after a mere $100,000 in damage illustrates how much prosecutorial aggression has advanced in the last half-century.


Some in radical circles have called attention to the white privilege of the J20 defendants, arguing that by virtue of their whiteness (or, for the minority of nonwhite defendants, their proximity to that pool of privilege), defendants had access to platforms, sympathy, support networks and resources that most low-income and non-white defendants lack, and that these advantages were hugely responsible for our success. I mostly agree with this analysis.

It is also true that the entire legal premise underpinning the multiple felony charges filed against each of us was steeped in the United States’ centuries-long defense of white supremacy. The anti-rioting statute under which we were charged—which calls for a maximum sentence of 10 years if convicted for rioting where serious injury or at least $5,000 in property damage occurs—was passed in 1967 by Congress in the wake of black urban uprisings in that decade. Prosecutors used the new statute against black D.C. residents the following year.

But the connection goes deeper.

The unifying legal theory of our prosecution was that we engaged in a conspiracy, and were therefore each equally liable for all property destruction or injury that occurred that day. This theory of liability stems from a mid-20th-century Supreme Court decision in a moonshining and tax-evasion case, but conspiracy law’s modern origins extend to the founding of this country and beyond as a legal weapon of colonialism and counterinsurgency, primarily against black revolt in the founding of the American state.

At the end of the 1600s, as the population of enslaved Africans in America grew, “the more encompassing category of ‘whiteness’ ascended,” writes Gerald Horne in Counter-Revolution of 1776, where Horne argues that the Anglo-Saxon settlers’ war for independence entrenched slavery. By 1680, one colonial legislature had drafted a bill “to prevent Negroes’ insurrection,” and this was followed by a torrent of similar anti-conspiracy legislation in the colonies over the next several decades in response to planned and executed rebellions by African people and their sometimes-allies: European servants and Native Americans resisting invasion.

One of the most famous pre-1776 conspiracies was the New York Conspiracy of 1741, in which prosecutors accused black enslaved people and poor whites of conspiring to burn the city and overthrow the colonial governor. The colony’s narrative, as established by a fire-breathing judge named Daniel Horsmanden, was that a multiracial group held secret meetings at a white-owned tavern for months before setting fire to the governor’s home, a church and horse stables in wealthy white neighborhoods. Four white and 30 black people were sentenced to death for their alleged role in the plot, and an additional 70 enslaved Africans were exiled from the colony.

At the New York Conspiracy trial, which took on the sort of puritanical zeal legible in the J20 case, the prosecution coerced witnesses into affirming the judge’s racist belief that the “conspiracy was of deeper design” and “more dangerous (a) Contrivance than the Salves (sic) themselves were capable of.” The most serious transgression, in the law’s eyes, was the conspiracy of comradeship between whites and blacks against colonial rule. After all, it had only been a few decades since “whites had achieved a sense of race solidarity at the expense of blacks” in some of the colonies around 1700, according to contemporary historian T.H. Breen.

Elite settlers threatened by the growing population of Africans saw the creation of pan-European solidarity (i.e., “whiteness”) in the colonies as necessary to gird against constant rebellions. Key to the eventual supremacy of the concept of whiteness, Horne writes, was that it not be interrogated too hard, lest “the loose threads of class hierarchy that this racial category otherwise obscured” unravel and ruin the entire colonial project.

This gets to the heart of the matter: In order for the colonies to overcome endless conspiracies to revolt by people they kidnapped, enslaved, exploited and colonized, its ruling elite had to create their own conspiracy—the institutionalization of “whiteness”—in defense of its power.

The Bill of Rights would later implicitly enshrine the three points of power in the new nation, including whiteness, property ownership (wealth) and cis-hetero maleness, consolidating ruling class power through the law. Writing for the Harvard Law Review nearly a century ago, Francis B. Sayre wrote that American courts often use conspiracy law as a cudgel, “especially during times of reaction, to punish, as criminal, associations for which the time being are unpopular or stir up prejudices of the social class in which the judges have for the most part been bred.”

It’s more than just prejudice: Today, the U.S. elite reaffirms its power through law, war, trade and politics daily, in a coordinated effort to preserve the status quo in all its structural inequality. This extreme and concentrated power is its own kind of conspiracy, one which allows the state to persecute others it considers illegal. There isn’t enough room here to chronicle the ways in which conspiracy law has been used since the 17th century to criminalize associations of nonwhite people, laborers, immigrants, protesters, revolutionaries and others, nor consider nuanced exceptions, such as mafia prosecutions that rope police and politicians into criminal rackets.

But fundamentally, the difference between a legitimate and illegitimate conspiracy comes down to power.

It’s ironic that some top Trump cronies involved in the J20 conspiracy prosecution are themselves caught up in their own high-profile conspiracy cases, though not necessarily as defendants.

For example, Roger Stone, the long-ago Nixon ratfucker and more recently a top campaign adviser to his friend Trump, sent far-right spies to inauguration protesters’ planning meetings as far back as December 2016. Stone was referenced in a July federal indictment against a dozen Russian intelligence military officials as a “senior member of (Trump’s) campaign” in direct contact with Russian hackers targeting the 2016 presidential election.

Another is Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, the top official overseeing the J20 conspiracy prosecution. In March 2016, Sessions was beckoned in an email sent to Trump campaign advisor Rick Dearborn from Republican activist Paul Erickson, who wanted to arrange a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin. A criminal complaint unsealed in July claims Erickson was manipulated by a Russian state operative named Maria Butina to gain access to top Republicans. In another twist, the J20 defendants may have been saved by prosecutors out of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. turning their attention to Butina’s conspiracy prosecution.

To this day, neither Sessions nor any prosecutor from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. have spoken publicly about J20. While prosecutors don’t often comment publicly on their cases, especially when they lose, this could have been the perfect chance for this Justice Department to trumpet its law-and-order bona fides, which makes its silence striking. Instead, prosecutors showed their asses in court, just as the authoritarian-leaning Trump presidency—which includes the Russia meddling cases, the overt embrace of white supremacy, the attacks on the press, the ultranationalism and everything else—is showing the country’s ass to the world right now.

The power structures animating U.S. life are themselves the result of long-running conspiracies, and to update Horne’s analysis, the American project is being intensely interrogated in this moment. History shows that when a state’s ability to present itself as a stable force for social order wanes, illegal conspiracies begin to sprout. That’s not what happened at the J20 protests, but it would be ahistorical to think it wouldn’t happen somewhere else—or that a journalist wouldn’t be there to cover it.

Thank you to my legal team, the tireless J20 defendant support network, my family, my partner and the Santa Fe Reporter for their support.


Timeline

Nov. 8, 2016: Donald John Trump is elected president.

Nov. 11: The Oath Keepers, a far-right paramilitary organization, begins to infiltrate anti-Trump protest meetings in Philadelphia, Baltimore and possibly elsewhere.

Dec. 12: Alt-right media personality Jack Posobiec emails Trump presidential adviser Roger Stone a report after spying on inauguration-protest-planning meetings.

Dec. 21: Roger Stone appears on Alex Jones’ conspiracy show InfoWars to discuss protest meetings.

Jan. 8, 2017: Operatives from the far-right organization Project Veritas make secret recordings at a D.C. inauguration-protest-planning meeting. D.C. police are also present.

Jan. 11: Oath Keepers turn over some of their recordings from inauguration protest planning meetings to D.C. police.

Jan. 14: A meeting about logistics at inauguration protests takes place in New York City. Project Veritas operative Allison Maass is present and records part of the meeting.

Before Jan. 20: Project Veritas meets with D.C. Metropolitan Police, the FBI and Secret Service before Inauguration Day to discuss protests.

January 20 (J20): About 240 people are mass-arrested during protests at Trump’s Inauguration Day in Washington D.C., and jailed for nearly 36 hours. (Right: Aaron Cantú was the 223rd person arrested in during the Inauguration Day protesters; photo by Anson Stevens-Bollen.)

Feb. 4: White nationalist Richard Spencer threatens on Twitter to dox all Inauguration Day arrestees after receiving their personal information from D.C. police.

Feb. 21: The U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. indicts 214 people for felony rioting at the inauguration. The charge carries a 10-year maximum sentence.

March: Aaron Cantú is hired by the Santa Fe Reporter.

April 27: The U.S. Attorney’s Office returns a superseding indictment, which includes felony rioting, conspiracy and destruction charges, for all defendants except Cantú.

May 30: Cantú is indicted for the same felonies as the rest of the J20 defendants.

July 27: Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff tells a judge all defendants are equally liable for damage that occurred at the protests.

Summer 2017: Clashes between fascists and anti-fascists grow more intense, culminating in a deadly confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12.

Aug. 22: The U.S. Department of Justice backs off its request for 1.3 million IP addresses of those who visited an anti-Trump protest website.

Nov. 15: The first six J20 defendants go to trial, including photo journalist Alexei Wood.

November-December: U.S. prosecutors use video obtained from Project Veritas and Oath Keepers as evidence at the first J20 trial.

Dec. 21: Six J20 defendants acquitted on all charges at trial.

Jan. 19, 2018: Prosecutors drop charges for 129 defendants. Charges remain against Cantú and 58 others, alleged to be part of a “core group.”

May 16: The second group of J20 defendants goes to trial, with prosecutors using near-identical arguments as the first trial.

May 31: A D.C. court sanctions prosecutors for misrepresenting the existence of more than 60 additional Project Veritas videos.

June 11: The trial for the second group of defendants ends in acquittals and mistrials.

July 6: Prosecutors drop all charges for all remaining defendants.

July 10: Alt-right media personality Mike Cernovich encourages his Twitter followers to support the Unmasking Antifa Act, which punishes wearing masks at raucous protests by up to 15 years in prison.

Published in National/International

After the automotive attack in New York City on Oct. 31, Donald Trump called for the death penalty for the perpetrator.

“Would love to send the NYC terrorist to Guantanamo but statistically that process takes much longer than going through the federal system …” he tweeted about the suspect, Sayfullo Saipov. “There is also something appropriate about keeping him in the home of the horrible crime he committed. Should move fast. DEATH PENALTY!”

It’s hard not to compare this response to his “both sides” response to the automotive terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Va. Trump has built his political career on demonizing Islam, but neither he nor his staff have condemned white nationalist terrorist organizations—whose ideology they continue to openly espouse.

When Trump was asked whether or not James Alex Fields—who on Aug. 12 drove his car into a crowd of counter protesters, killing Heather Heyer and seriously injuring 12 others—was a terrorist, he dissembled. “And there is a question. Is it murder? Is it terrorism? Then you get into legal semantics. The driver of the car is a murderer, and what he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing."

By calling Fields a murderer, rather than a terrorist, Trump is able to maintain the myth that white-supremacist terrorists are bad actors in a field of otherwise “fine people.”

Trump regularly mentions “our heritage” when he talks about the Confederate monuments that the Nazis descended on Charlottesville to defend. And his chief of staff, John Kelly, once laughably called “the adult in the room,” recently said that Robert E. Lee was an “honorable man who gave up his country to fight for his state,” and that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.”

Our racist nation finds it easy to condemn all Muslims as terrorists. And, since the “anarchist bombings” of the 19th century, we’ve also easily associated the left with terrorism. At press time, a “We the People” petition to “formally recognize Antifa as a terrorist organization” had 362,010 signatures. The entire right-wing mediasphere has been flipping out over an imagined “November 4” conspiracy where Antifa was supposed to go door to door killing white people and Christians. 

And yet, despite mounting evidence of conspiracy and murderous intent, there have been virtually no calls to declare Vanguard America, or related groups, terrorist organizations.

On Aug. 12, James Alex Fields was photographed wearing the uniform and carrying the shield of Vanguard America. The first thing I saw when I got to Charlottesville was Vanguard America members chanting: “You can’t run; you can’t hide; you get helicopter rides!” at leftist protesters, whom they then attacked with sticks. The chant was a reference to Augusto Pinochet’s right-wing death squads. Some press outlets have been woefully gullible at allowing these organizations to call such threats jokes—even when they are accompanied by actual violence.

Thanks to a series of chats on a gaming app uncovered by the media collective Unicorn Riot, we know that people involved in planning the rallies also “joked” about running people over with their cars. Then Fields followed through, committing murder.

Others involved in Vanguard America have shown that the organization as a whole, and not just Fields, had terrorist intent. William Fears, who spent much of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville trying to stab people with a flag pole, has identified himself as a member of Vanguard America. He; his brother Colton; and another man named Tyler Tenbrink were in Gainesville, Fla., following the flop of a Nazi rally led by Richard Spencer. They allegedly pulled their Jeep up to a group of anti-fascist protesters and began yelling, “Heil Hitler.” Someone in the group hit their Jeep with a baton. The three men then jumped out of their Jeep, and the Fears brothers reportedly yelled, “I’m going to fucking kill you,” and, “Shoot them!” as Tenbrink got out of the car with a gun and fired it at the people.

“Us coming in and saying we’re taking over your town, we’re starting to push back, we’re starting to want to intimidate back,” Fears had told the Gainesville Sun earlier that day. “We want to show our teeth a little bit, because, you know, we’re not to be taken lightly. We don’t want violence; we don’t want harm. But at the end of the day, we’re not opposed to defending ourselves.”

Then he justified the Charlottesville terrorist attack carried out by James Alex Fields as self-defense.

“They threw the first blow,” he said. “I look at it as self-defense whether he just was radicalized and said, ‘You know, I’m just going to mow these people down,’ or whether he was in fear for his life—but they threw the first blow, so I’m going to take his side.”

Fears, who says he was previously radicalized in prison, was arrested along with his brother and Tenbrink and charged with attempted murder.

So here we have a situation in which a member of Vanguard America justifies a murder committed by another member of the same group hours before allegedly attempting to commit another murder—both actions seemingly based on political ideology. What else do we need to treat Vanguard America like we do window-breaking leftists wearing black?

Nearly 200 people are facing conspiracy charges based on the clothes they wore at Donald Trump’s inauguration. But because the white supremacists dress like Donald Trump playing golf—the event page for the “White Lives Matter” rally in Tennessee during the last weekend in October noted that Vanguard America and other groups “will be wearing white polo shirts and khakis”—many Americans can still imagine that some of them are “fine people.”

After I wrote the original version of this story went to press, the terrorist attack on a church in Texas took place, with 26 people killed. The perpetrator was white—and the president has not yet called him a terrorist or suggested Guantanamo.

If suspects wear all-black and look like punks, then they are all responsible for any crime committed by someone who looks like them, as the arrest of 200 people on Inauguration Day shows. If suspects have brown skin, then Trump, Kelly, Vanguard America and the rest of the alt-right see them as terrorists, even in the absence of an actual crime. This idea of collective, preemptive guilt is enshrined in extreme vetting. But polo-wearing white guys are never judged as part of a group—even when they wear its uniforms or carry its shields. That’s how white supremacy works.

Baynard Woods is a reporter at the Real News Network and the founder of Democracy in Crisis, a joint project of alternative newspapers across the country, including the Coachella Valley Independent. Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; Twitter @baynardwoods.

Published in National/International

In a tax speech in Pennsylvania on Oct. 11, President Trump gave a shout out to "the great Jeffrey Lord.”

He went on to explain that Lord “was on fake news CNN for a long time. He was one of my few sources of truth."

CNN severed ties with Lord after he tweeted “sieg heil,” a Nazi salutation.

Trump’s flirtation with racism is nothing new; it extends back through the campaign and into many facets of the presidency. He called the white supremacists in Charlottesville “very fine people” and has repeatedly refused to condemn hate groups. But the precise mechanisms by which the administration and allied media outlets like Breitbart act as bridges to normalize hate groups are becoming increasingly clear.

Buzzfeed’s massive Oct. 5 story on the right-wing provocateur showed that Milo Yiannopoulos sent at least one major Breitbart story to a number of white supremacists to vet and line-edit. In a video embedded in the story, Richard Spencer and others gave a Nazi salute as Yiannopoulos sang “America the Beautiful” at karaoke. (Scroll down to see the video.) Milo even spiked a story at the suggestion of white nationalist Devin Saucier, a friend of Spencer’s.

Yiannopoulos was forced out of Breitbart after an old tape in which he appears to condone pedophilia came out, but he has remained in contact with the major funders to the site, the billionaire Mercer family, which supported funded Milo Inc.

Bannon, who had declared the Mercer-funded Breitbart to be a “platform for the alt-right,” left the site to run Trump’s campaign and work as a senior adviser to the White House. He returned to the site when he was ousted shortly after the white-nationalist terror attack in Charlottesville.

“Dude—we r in a global existentialist war where our enemy EXISTS in social media and u r jerking yourself off w/ marginalia!!!!,” he wrote to Milo. “U should be OWNING this conversation because u r everything they hate!!! Drop your toys, pick up your tools and go help save western civilization.”

“Western civilization” is often code for whiteness. It is less offensive, and less likely to scare away potential converts.

In his New York Times Magazine story on the Breitbart, Wil S. Hylton (a friend of mine) talked to Yochai Benkler, a professor who had been studying the site’s rise.

Breitbart, according to Benkler’s study, was three times more influential than its closest rival, Fox News, during the 2016 election. In this way, it has, according to Benkler, served as a sort of filter that helps legitimize racist ideas. Benkler told Hylton: “Breitbart is not talking about these issues in the same way you would find on the extreme right. … They don’t use the same language you find on sites like VDARE and The Daily Stormer'’—two sites connected to the white-nationalist alt-right movement.

But they are talking about the same issues, and the fact that they don’t use the same language is what makes Breitbart effective as a “bridge” that, in Hylton’s words, “functioned as a legitimizing tether for the most abhorrent currents of the right wing.”

Now that we know that Yiannopoulos actually sent “his” Breitbart stories (which were often not actually written by him) to Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer, who works at the Daily Stormer, the bridge phenomenon comes off a bit differently.

“What we saw in our larger-scale analysis was that Breitbart was offering a bridge, a translation platform from the white nationalists to the rest, but that the language and framing was sufficiently different to not be read directly as white nationalist,” Benkler responded in an email when I asked about the Milo story. “To the extent that the BuzzFeed news story is correct in its details, it describes in great detail the level process by which the ideas were transferred, but then still partly sanitized for consumption by people who would be receptive to the ideas, but not the messenger (e.g. Daily Stormer) or the very specific explicitly white nationalist language.”

Trump himself has often acted as a similar kind of bridge. Although he first endorsed Luther Strange to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ old Senate seat in an Alabama special election, Trump has now come around to fully supporting Roy Moore, the theocratic former Alabama judge twice removed from office for failing to recognize the rulings of a higher court, who beat Strange in the special election Republican primary for the Senate seat.

But Moore is himself acting as a bridge for even more extreme figures.

As Talking Points Memo recently reported, Moore’s top supporter is Michael Peroutka, which the site described as a “hardline Confederate sympathizer with longtime ties to a secessionist group” who has “expressed beliefs that make even Moore’s arguably theocratic anti-gay and anti-Muslim views look mainstream by comparison.”

Peroutka, a secessionist and debt-collection attorney, ran for president in 2004 for the Constitution Party. A decade later, in 2014, he ran for the county council in Anne Arundel County, Md., and was supported by Moore, whom Peroutka has honored by naming a field on his farm for the Alabamian. In 2012, Peroutka asked attendees of a League of the South conference to “stand for the national anthem” and proceeded to play “Dixie.” (Scroll down to watch the video.)

So as the president and his administration continue to throw fits about athletes “disrespecting the flag” by taking a knee during the national anthem, they are actively supporting or receiving support from racist extremists who support either the Nazis or the Confederacy. In the same way that Breitbart launders the extremist views of the Daily Stormer, making them more palatable, the administration is acting as a bridge to legitimize those elements on the right that are even more extreme than Trump.

Baynard Woods is a reporter at the Real News Network. Democracy in Crisis is a joint project of alternative newspapers across the country, including the Coachella Valley Independent. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Twitter: @baynardwoods.

Published in National/International