Fighting White Supremacy on Day One
President Joe Biden: Together we shall write an American story of hope not fear, of unity not division, of light not darkness. A story of decency and dignity, love and healing, greatness and goodness. May this be the story that guides us.
Trymaine Lee: On Wednesday, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. I'm here in D.C. this week, and let me first say that things feel different from the last time I covered one of these. That was for President Obama's second Inauguration back in 2013.
D.C. was humming with energy and excitement, and of course lots of pride from folks celebrating the election of America's first Black president to a second term. People from all across the country poured into the city and filled the National Mall standing shoulder to shoulder.
There were parties and toasts, a feeling of deep tradition but also something fresh and new. Now, of course, this year things are different because of the violent insurrection at the Capitol Building two weeks ago that attempted to stop this peaceful transition of power from ever happening.
There are military personnel at every corner, and because of the pandemic, there's an eerie silence. No more rubbing shoulders or big crowds. Instead, there's the stress of who's wearing a mask near you and who's not. There's also a sense of weariness that's accumulated over the past four years of Trump's presidency. But there's something else. Instead of getting a fresh new start, it feels like we're confronting very old demons.
Biden: On this January day, my whole soul is in this, bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation.
Lee: Here's Biden again in his first speech to the nation as president.
Biden: And I ask every American to join me in this cause. (APPLAUSE) Uniting to fight the foes we face, anger, resentment and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness. With unity, we can do great things, important things.
Lee: There was an acknowledgement of the root of our problems of why we aren't united.
Biden: A rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat. (APPLAUSE)
Lee: I can't recall a time when a president ever called out white supremacy by name in an inaugural address. The reality is, the attack on the Capitol brought an ugly truth to the surface, the truth that white supremacist extremism is widespread, deep-rooted, and the deadliest domestic terror threat our nation faces.
That's how the Department of Homeland Security described it before Congress in October. So we know this to be true, but law enforcement and government agencies have routinely failed to acknowledge the full scope of the problem and actually do something about it, especially when it appears in their own ranks.
Erroll Southers: You know, we can't have any trust or integrity in the organizations or system if the human element's been compromised.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. On the first full day of the Biden administration, we're examining the threat of white supremacist extremism. It's an issue that should be at the very top of the president's agenda. We'll look at how it's been allowed to spread, and what the government can actually do about it.
Southers: The inauguration today does not mean we've crossed the finish line.
Lee: Erroll Southers is an expert in homegrown violent extremism. He had a long career in law enforcement, including at the FBI, which is the nation's lead federal law enforcement agency for investigating and preventing acts of domestic terrorism.
And from 2004 to 2006, Erroll was California's deputy director of homeland security under former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. These days, he's the director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies at the University of Southern California. We spoke shortly after Biden took the oath of office. President Joe Biden, that's the first time I've said that, President Joe Biden during his speech at the inauguration actually talked about confronting white extremism and white supremacy. Did you get a chance to hear some of the speech?
Southers: I absolutely did, every second of it. (LAUGH)
Lee: And what did you make of it? That's a big deal from that dais right there to actually talk about confronting this issue, it's a big deal.
Southers: That was my most important moment of his speech today was the fact that he talked about it, talked about what he was gonna do to address it. He made it a priority. This was not something he's going to talk about tomorrow and then shoot out an executive order.
He made these remarks in his inaugural address. I think that sends a powerful message. After over a decade of denial of this threat by previous administrations, that the president would say this at the inauguration two weeks after insurrection at the Capitol I think was a powerful moment.
Lee: And I want to get into a little bit of your background. You spent many, many years in law enforcement, both as a police officer but also as an agent with the FBI. And I wonder, how did you actually get into law enforcement to begin with?
Southers: It's funny you should say that. You know, I grew up in the '60s, I'm gonna show my age here, in New Jersey and went through riots in '67 and '68. And I was like any other Black kid that was walking down the street, walking while Black and getting jacked up by the police.
However, I lived in a very different time when we didn't have cell phones. So when, you know, Mom would call the station to say, "Hey, your officer just jacked up my son," they would basically tell her, "It never happened." And I'll share this with you. I think my mom has cursed maybe twice in her entire life while she was alive, and both times it was talking to a desk sergeant to tell them what happened to me.
So finally my dad said to me one day, he says, you know, "You can't change the castle from outside the moat." And so I decided after college to get into law enforcement, and Santa Monica Police Department after being there as a training officer and then on the academy staff, I went to the FBI where I was fortunate enough to work foreign counterintelligence and terrorism, and I was on SWAT.
I spent the majority of my FBI career undercover, came back to Santa Monica PD where I worked gangs. And I finished my uniform career at the L.A. Airport Police as assistant chief of homeland security and intelligence. So I just decided the only way to deal with this challenge was to be part of the policymaking body and the selection body for people who are in that profession so I could make those changes from inside.
Lee: So when you're a young Black officer, who do you look up to? Who are your idols?
Southers: We only had a few officers at Santa Monica who were Black. And what was really interesting and ironic was that all the Black officers there seemed to have degrees. It didn't make our promotability any faster or better, but we did. So I had a lieutenant there who was a friend of mine.
I had an officer who brought me on the department. They were sorta my mentors. I got introduced to an FBI agent, and he was just a classic FBI agent. He was this brother who had graduated from Berkeley Law School. I mean, if you looked up FBI agent in the dictionary, you woulda seen his picture. He was outstanding and so impressive.
And every Black agent I ever met in the bureau was just like him. And to your point, Trymaine, I mean, when I was at Santa Monica, there were only a few Black officers there. I went to the FBI. I was the only Black agent in the entire division in San Diego.
Southers: So I have to say this, that, you know, working in local law enforcement, I worked with guys that with all due respect were probably card-carrying Klan members when they were off duty. And when we were on duty, we did what we had to do. But when I was off duty, they just were people that I didn't associate with.
Lee: I want to get into that a little bit. That sense that some of your white colleagues, people that you are on the front lines with and, you know, puttin' in this work with might actually not even joking, right, be members of the Klan. Did you ever actually get the sense that there were white extremist, racism, white supremacists among your ranks?
Southers: I was part of a unit called the crime impact team. We were a robbery suppression team. We went where the problems were. There were eight of us. I was the only African American on the team, couple of Hispanics, and no Asians. And there were a couple guys on that unit who I knew off duty, they are of the type that I've described.
And so after I left the crime impact team, I was work processing through the FBI, and it became known I was gonna go to the FBI. And they had a big send-off for me, so we had a team photo of the crime impact team. And this officer I'm talking about, he signed that photo where he said, "Best of luck, I'll see you at the next KKK investigation."
Lee: Wow. How did that feel?
Southers: It confirmed the things that I knew. I hate to say this to you, but I had one on each side of my locker in the locker room. And you just dealt with it. We all dealt with it. And it was challenging. You're an officer, so you're dealing with that.
And you go out and deal with the public who doesn't necessarily like you because you're an officer, and you can't tell them that these partners you've got are probably worse than any suspects you're gonna have to deal with. And so it was an interesting challenge and a balance that officers even today have to deal with.
And unfortunately, many departments across the country think they can deal with their social injustice issues by hiring Black chiefs. Over the summer, we had five Black chiefs resign, because that is not the answer. And unfortunately, it doesn't change the culture. There's a culture in law enforcement. It has nothing to do with policy or anything like that. You know, the joke in law enforcement is that "Police departments eat policy for breakfast." And I sincerely believe that.
Lee: So in this moment where we're taking a closer look at white extremism and white supremacy, it's on the front page January 6th, I first want to just make something clear for myself. The difference between white extremists and anti-government folks and white supremacists, they're not necessarily the same, right? But do they often overlap?
Southers: That is correct. They are not the same, and to be honest with you, when you meet with them, nothing's more offensive to them to call one of them a Klan member if he's not. So they do not play well together, but I always try to tell people, typically they are not as monolithic as we like to think.
They are hybridized, and it's almost like having a menu for what extremist views they have. They go through it, they check off the boxes, and that's their belief. You'll have anti-government folks, for example, you'll find Three Percenters that'll say they support the government, and you'll have Three Percenters who say they don't.
You'll have Three Percenters who will say they're racist, and you'll have Three Percenters who say they don't. You know, what's really annoying is when I hear about the Proud Boys and people who want to argue with me about the Proud Boys not being white supremacists because they got their one not white guy in Enrique Tarrio.
Well, Enrique Tarrio, there's a whole different conversation we can have about Hispanics and Latinos who have moved into the white supremacy movement because that's what they believe. But with all due respect, they cross over, but the battle lines now have been drawn mostly largely on race, even when it comes to anti-government. Charlottesville changed the game. That's one of the first times where those groups all coalesced and agreed they had a common enemy.
Lee: You know, we could talk about way back and go to Reconstruction and Redemption era. We can go back there, but let's talk about the '80s and '90s more recently. How did the more recent decades kinda pave the way for this moment? How did we get here?
Southers: You know, I was in the bureau during the time we had what we call compound battles, Waco, Ruby Ridge, Whidbey Island. And you had a lot of anti-government organizations decided they were just gonna wall themselves off, produce their own food, their own power, shut themselves down from the government.
And they had some challenges, and we had some battles with them. What's really interesting about that is those groups proliferated across the country. Some of them died out. You know, Aryan Nations died out and National Alliance, but they just splintered off into different groups. So it really set the stage for today.
The difference between then and now is that the FBI lost focus obviously, because when 9/11 came around our only focus on the threat was external. We were only lookin' for jihadists. That was the only thing we were focused on, despite the fact that we had a growing presence of white supremacy in this country.
But it wasn't something that got a lot of focus, because they weren't killing anybody. So it went off the radar screen. At the same time, it was continuing to grow. And it morphed along with the internet age. Stormfront was the first white supremacist website with Don Black, and he understood how to harness the internet. And what Don Black did, he took it international. So now what you're seeing, those groups you saw at the Capitol, they have international connectivity. And that's what's even more frightening.
Lee: So even after the Oklahoma City bombing, people were still, like, "Ah, I don't know?" They were still confused about white extremism and white violence?
Southers: Oh absolutely. Timothy McVeigh was the aberration. And many people don't know, Timothy McVeigh was not prosecuted for terrorism. In fact, although he's labeled a terrorist by most people, he was prosecuted for 168 counts of murder and detonating an explosive device at a federal building.
Southers: So we need to use the T word when we're talking about people here, born here, white males that do these things. The only reason they were reluctant to do it is because he was a white male veteran. And we don't ever want to believe that a white male vet would attack his own citizenry, especially children.
And so they stayed away from it. And they still do, despite the fact that we've got over 50 different statutes in the United States Title 18 Code that could be used to prosecute domestic terrorism. So we have the tools, and they've always shied away from doing it.
Lee: So after decades and decades of ignoring this issue, President Barack Obama and his DHS, Department of Homeland Security issued a report on right-wing extremism and recruitment. And what was in this report?
Southers: I remember when that report came out, 'cause I was President Obama's nominee to head the TSA at the time when that came out. And Janet Napolitano was the secretary of homeland security. The most telling information in that report was the fact that right-wing white supremacists were going to recruit from returning veterans.
The report got panned. She got attacked by the right. She apologized to the military. She made a speech on the floor house to Speaker Boehner. She withdrew the report, disbanded the unit, and everybody thought it was gonna go away. However, that unit and that report was so on target.
In the following year we have a group that's often called Sovereign Citizens, and they're largely anti-government. They killed two police officers in West Memphis, Arkansas, and they started attacking police officers. This was another right-wing threat that was described in the report. What's interesting, Trymaine, is that in a study that was done between 2009 and 2016 during that same time frame, 80% of the shooting incidents between extremists and police officers were perpetuated by right-wing extremists.
Lee: I'm always trying to figure out whether it's again that white supremacy is in the DNA, so it's impossible for them to see it, or they know it's there and they tend to ignore it, or same old thing over and over again.
Southers: I think it's the same old thing over and over again. Plus they believe by doing what she was doing with that unit, they were losing the focus on Al Qaeda and ISIS and Al Shabab and all the Islamist organizations that they wanted to target. They're easy to target.
And that's why this administration that just ended was such an easy thing for these folks to swallow, because the first thing they did was decided we're not gonna allow immigrants from Muslim majority countries to come here. So again, it was that notion of, we're pushing national security, and here's another way we're gonna do it.
When the truth is that the fact is most people know we're gonna be a minority-majority country by 2045. And so if you go to many of these right-wing and white supremacist websites, you'll see some of them even have elapsed clocks ticking down to 2045 with regards to how much time they have left before they might lose their country.
Lee: Wow. And so what did the Trump administration do once they got in office? So we know what they did on the front of immigrants. We saw that. But in terms of focusing on white extremism, did they do anything at all?
Southers: They didn't do anything at all. In fact, it's really interesting. The first thing they did is they dismantled the unit at DHS that focused on this. In the last several months, they dismantled again the DHS Intelligence and Analysis Unit. So that unit that normally collects and analyzes and disseminates intel to the local and state partners was not in place when they had the electoral college certification two weeks ago.
Southers: So when people say, "Why didn't they get the intel," the unit that would normally disseminate the intel wasn't even in place, because this administration took it out. They shut off all kinds of opportunities for agencies across the country, state and local to get information like that. Everything was focused on the foreign threat. And what's really interesting is that the FBI two years ago decided to invent something called BIE, Black Identity Extremism.
Lee: I remember hearing about that.
Southers: And I testified along with another former FBI agent at a Congressional Black Caucus hearing to say, "There was no foundation for that." What's really interesting, Trymaine, is after a series of hearings on BIE, Christopher Wray decided to remove the term.
But unfortunately, after disseminating that information to 11,000 police departments across the country that Black identity extremists were targeting cops, they removed the term. And last month, we find that they're not using BIE, but the same language to describe that activity is in another FBI document that just got disseminated again.
Lee: Wow. We have to take a quick break. When we come back, Erroll Southers lays out what President Biden can do moving forward to address the threat of white extremism and homegrown terrorism.
Lee: President Biden has said he wanted to focus on this. What's the first thing he should do? He's in office now. What's the first thing he should do?
Southers: Well, the first thing he should do on my list, and he's already done it today, state the obvious. The greatest threat is homegrown violent extremism, and that extremism is right-wing white supremacy. And I was so happy he did that today. The second thing he needs to do is let's get back to intelligence and information.
Share the assessments that the previous administration put together to talk about what these threats are. And they should have regular reporting to Congress and the public. This should be transparent. The other thing I'm gonna say, and I'm gonna be real aggressive here, Trymaine.
There's something called an SF-86. It's a government form that we all fill out to get top secret clearances. They need to vet everybody. I think we have to go back to square one. You know, we can't have any trust or integrity in the organizations or system if the human element's been compromised.
So I say we re-vet everybody at the federal level, at the state level, at the local level. And I think again, we've got to go ahead and make sure we've got the right people in place and then have regular reporting and then have updates. Because this is a very dynamic threat. The inauguration today does not mean we've crossed the finish line.
Lee: Even with the vetting, how can agencies like the FBI truly investigate homegrown extremism when there might be extremists among their ranks?
Southers: I will say this. Let's face it. The FBI didn't start investigating the Klan in the '60s because they wanted to. They did it because they had to. And so I have confidence that with the appropriate vetting process and regular reports to oversight in Congress that this can be done.
It won't be done overnight, because it didn't get this way overnight, but I'm confident that we can restore the integrity of these organizations to go forward. I mean, let's face it, the FBI was no friend of the outgoing president, and there's a reason for that.
And it's often because they were not drinkin' the Kool-Aid. And when they tried to come forth and say the right things based on data and evidence, they got pushback, and then he eventually fired the director. So I think we can get back to square one and get going.
Lee: So the FBI as you know is overwhelmingly white, and the latest data that we have from 2014 show that just 4.5% of the bureau is Black. Do you think this impacts the way the agency can actually approach the issue of white extremism?
Southers: I think, I'll say it this way, it doesn't help. I'm disappointed to hear that there are fewer Black agents in the bureau now than when I was in the bureau 30 years ago. And there's talent out there. There are people who want to be agents. I think it's critical.
Let's face it. The steps that have been taken to improve relationships between law enforcement and the community across the country have largely come when those agencies reflect the populations that they're working with. If you're going to be focused on threats, you've gotta have people who are willing to or have the backgrounds to understand the threat's diverse. Your organization has to be diverse.
So I'm gonna have a very different outlook on dealing with white supremacists than perhaps my white colleague. Not to say that he or she won't do it, it's just going to be different. So I think it's necessary. I don't think it stops them from doing their jobs.
I'm gonna say that, you know, with all due respect, my times in the bureau, I never experienced any racism, even being the only Black agent in the division. I have two colleagues who went undercover in white supremacist organizations during that time.
But to your point, we've gotta get to a situation where the percentage of the diverse population in the FBI certainly at least meets the minimum percentage of African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, et cetera in the United States in order to do an effective job, in order to do a job that the country believes is going to be credible.
Lee: Do you think we're at a point where we can really take a serious look at this issue and really put some meat behind it after four years of, more than four years, after four decades of kind of allowing this thing to fester and seethe? Do you think that we can actually, you know, not just address it but maybe eradicate some of these groups?
Southers: You know, Trymaine, I hate to say this, but I'm going to. The Capitol insurrection is an incredible opportunity here for us. Because what we need to do first of all is make an example of those people who decided they were going to overthrow the government by using the laws that they say that they support and the organizations they say they support to prosecute them and hopefully convict and sentence them to the fullest extent of the law.
The reason you've seen these organizations stand down since the Capitol insurrection is because of the response that they got, not just from agencies like the FBI, but American citizenry who sent in tens of thousands of tips to the joint terrorism task forces to identify these folks. That's sending a message.
So this is gonna be a two-part effort. It's going to be a law enforcement, government effort, and it's going to be a community effort. And without that community effort, it doesn't happen. And I think over the last several weeks, we have seen that in large part the community is supportive of eradicating this kind of threat to our country. And I think that is how it happens.
Lee: So it's clear, you know, what you think should happen. But a year from now when we're, you know, listening to President Joe Biden deliver his State of the Union address, right, and he's giving us the state of our nation, do you expect him to have some good news on this issue, this topic? Do you think it's going to take longer than that? What do you really believe we'll do, not what we should do, but what do you think is gonna happen?
Southers: I'm first hopeful if for no other reason we now will have an attorney general that's not the president's private attorney. So that gives me hope on the local and state level. It gives me hope on the federal level. We have an FBI now that doesn't have to operate with the feeling that they're being deemed the Deep State. That gives me confidence.
So Trymaine, I think I'm really optimistic because we'll have a return or a restoration of the capacities, capabilities of these positions and organizations that was largely diminished over the last four years if for no other reason due to fear. That's what makes me feel really good that a year from now in his State of the Union address, I am looking forward to a list of accomplishments to address this issue after his first year in office.
Lee: Well, Mr. Southers, I want to thank you so much for your time. These are concerning times, but I'm glad you gave us some insight into what has been and hopefully where we could be going. So thank you, sir.
Southers: Thank you very much. An honor and a privilege to join you on your show, and best wishes for continued success.
Lee: Erroll Southers is the director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies at USC and co-creator of the Lewis Registry, which is working to track law enforcement officials who have been fired or resigned for misconduct. And after a really tough four years and the beginning of a new chapter, we wanted to leave you with a moment of hope from the inauguration on Wednesday, an excerpt for the poem The Hill We Climb by Normal Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman.
Amanda Gorman: "We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation. Our blunders become their burdens, but one thing is certain: If we merge mercy with might and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children's birthright.
"So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left with, every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one. We will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one. We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west, we will rise from the windswept northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.
"We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states, we will rise from the sunbaked south. We will rebuild, reconcile and recover and every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people diverse and beautiful will emerge, battered and beautiful. When day comes we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it."
Lee: Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. And I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next Thursday.