To Deter Violence, Let’s Treat Alt-Right Groups as Street Gangs

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White nationalist protesters at last year's Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. Photo by Anthony Crider via Flickr

Often, it has seemed that every public demonstration organized by Alt-Right groups is simply a ruse for violence and intimidation. Fortunately, violence by Alt-Right groups was averted at the Unite the Right 2 rallies in Washington, DC and Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend.

But earlier this month, violence erupted in Portland, Or., when Alt-Right groups clashed with counter-protesters. It was the second such clash in a little over a month.

Explanations given for the lack of violence in the rallies last weekend have largely focused on low attendance by the Alt-Right groups, and the massive police presence.

But if we want to prevent further outbreaks of violence, there are some important steps that can be implemented before the protesters take to the streets.

In both Charlottesville and Portland, traditional crowd control techniques by law enforcement proved insufficient to combat these Alt-Right groups. While this past weekend’s mobilization and deployment of hundreds of law enforcement officers in Washington and Charlottesville may have helped inhibit violence, this approach is not practical or sustainable for every public gathering of the Alt-Right.

Law enforcement should consider alternative approaches to curb the violence that accompanies them. As criminologists who study street and prison gangs, we argue that Alt-Right groups are no different than conventional street gangs, and should be treated as such.

Shannon Reid

Shannon Reid

Approaching these groups as gangs would expand law enforcement’s toolbox to more effective tactics. Decades of gang research have highlighted strategies to combat violence. For instance, gang databases already employed by law enforcement agencies, should be used to identify, collect and share intelligence about Alt-Right members who are routinely engaging in violence.

It would then be feasible to use civil gang injunctions to limit the association and congregation of these individuals. Another successful approach has been focused deterrence/group violence intervention, which concentrates on communicating to chronic offenders, most at risk to sanctions, that violence will not be tolerated while providing these individuals opportunities and resources for desistance.

Such a strategy could easily be deployed for Alt-Right groups.

What is a Gang?

Defining what constitutes a “gang” remains a highly debated topic amongst and between academics, policymakers and law enforcement. Even though there is not a single definition between all parties, many elements remain present.

For instance, according to the Washington, DC criminal code, a “criminal street gang” is as “an association or group of six or more persons” that participates in either a felony (e.g., aggravated assault, murder) or a violent misdemeanor (e.g., simple assault, property destruction, threats of bodily harm).

The code also deems it “unlawful for a person to solicit, invite, recruit, encourage, or otherwise cause, or attempt to cause, another individual to become a member of, remain in, or actively participate in” a gang.

Based upon Washington, DC’s criminal code, a very narrow definition of a gang, any of the individuals participating with Alt-Right groups in felony or violent misdemeanor activity, as observed in Portland or Charlottesville, should be treated as a member of an “Alt-Right Gang”.

Are Alt-Right Groups Comparable to Street Gangs?

In broader terms, gangs are groups of individuals sharing a collective identity, differentiating members that are part of the group from excluded outsiders. A common set of descriptors include particular signs/ symbols, that are either materially displayed or tattooed, colors and clothing styles, although these are not necessary elements for a group.

The typical example is a Blood or Crip gang member wearing a particular color, sports team insignia, or clothing brand. The Proud Boys, an Alt-Right group present at both Charlottesville and Portland, routinely wear their own unique uniform identifying group members— a black Fred Perry polo shirt with yellow piping. Given the historic connections of the clothes being adopted as part of racist skinheads’ uniform, it is probably no coincidence that Fred Perry shirts were selected. (The brand does not endorse these groups.)

In addition to the Proud Boys initiation process, their propensity for and support of violence against non-members clearly indicates the use of criminal acts as a tool to further solidify the groups’ Alt-Right identity.

Another characteristic that street gangs and Alt-Right groups hold in common is durability. As witnessed over the last couple years, the activity of Alt-Right groups is not short-lived. Many of these groups have been able to maintain their presence and grow through social media and online imageboards (e.g., 4chan).

A principal characteristic of a street gang is its orientation towards gathering in public space. While much of the Alt-Right developed online, their actions have spewed forth into the physical world. Furthermore, the public presence of Alt-Right groups is not diminishing and remains highly active at public demonstrations and on college campuses.

Does Ideology Matter?

People may argue that Alt-Right groups differ from gangs because their ideological underpinnings are what actually bind these groups together. The vast majority of members of Alt-Right groups remain tied together more by what they oppose: multiculturalism, feminism, political correctness, globalism, establishment politics (i.e., the Federal Government), and immigration, rather than a rigorous and complex ideology.

In fact, the ideologies referenced by members are often varied, and sometimes contradictory. In essence, ideology should be used as a descriptor instead of an identifier. Most criminal codes do not reference ideology in ascertaining if members are part of gang.

Matt Valasik

Matt Valasik

Street gangs are not a minority-based problem, yet clear bias exists towards considering people of color as gang members compared to their white counterparts. An example of this lack of local police attention towards Alt-Right gangs is clearly observed in Portland.

The Portland Police Bureau’s Gang Database lists 359 gang members, yet, only 32 individuals were listed as being a member of one of seven White Power groups. That is, less than 9 percent of all known gang members. Yet, Portland is not lacking in violent white supremacy groups. If police agencies categorize crimes involving Alt-Right groups as being part of a racist or hateful subculture treating each incident of violence as an isolated event, rather than a gang-related incident, then law enforcement will never know if these Alt-Righters are habitual offenders and will be limited in their intervention capabilities.

Adapting an old adage, if an Alt-Right group looks like a gang, acts like a gang, and sounds like a gang then it should be considered an Alt-Right Gang.

Matthew Valasik, Ph.D., is a criminologist at the Department of Sociology at Louisiana State University. Shannon Reid, Ph.D., is a criminologist at the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. They study street and prison gangs, and their research has recently focused on White Power and Alt-Right groups. They welcome comments from readers.

13 thoughts on “To Deter Violence, Let’s Treat Alt-Right Groups as Street Gangs

  1. So when peaceful rallies are attacked by the left-wing ANTIFA it is the “Alt-Right” that is to blame? Your bias is oozing. The 1st Amendment is for everyone and no one has a right to violently suppress speech. The fact is, at least in Portland, this “Alt-Right” group had a lawful permit to stage their event. The violence was brought about by counter protesters. So, who is the gang? Who are the thugs? Who are the criminals?

    • No the violence was started by the Alt Right. They are the ones who challenged the Alt right and called them out to fight in almost all of their rallies. Counter Protest had the right and permit to protest. The Alt Right preaching their hate in America is no different than ISIS doing it.

  2. Yes they should. And groups like ANTIFA should be classified as gangs or domestic terrorist organizations instead of being called “counter-protesters”.

    • Nothing in here shows him saying he is a progressive. All of his belief are very anti-progressive. That’s why he supports Trump. He is oppose to multiculturalism, feminism, political correctness, globalism, establishment politics (i.e., the Federal Government), and immigration, rather than a rigorous and complex ideology. That’s not progressive in the slightest.

  3. And Alt-Left groups? To be clear, when violence has broken out at Alt-Right gatherings, virtually every time it was caused by Alt-Left protesters.

  4. The violence is not the fault of the protesters who march unarmed and unmasked. It is the fault of the anti-American fascists who march dressed all in black, wear masks, carry shields, and are armed and who use them to assault people. They are who need to be treated as street gangs. They are the ones who are assaulting people in the streets.

  5. It’s quite telling that your criteria for classifying a group as similar to a street gang doesn’t include the one that is the most important; initiating violence! Because if you included that, you’d have to include “antifa”, Black Bloc, etc. – all leftists, not “alt-right”.

  6. Truly disheartening that these Academics are in a position to indoctrinate our rising generation with this nonsense. The term Alt-right has been propped up and evangelized by 2 of the 3 pillars of the Socialist/neo-Marxist platform – Academia & Media.

    In their eyes, anyone who believes in the tenants upon which our republic is built, the Constitution & Rule of Law, is to be considered “Alt-Right”, while these degenerate radical leftists run rampant as they mimic the very behavior they claim to hate – Fascism.

    I won’t waste any more time, but these 2 are just another example of how broken higher-ed is, and how they contribute to the undermining of a civil society.

  7. Daily reminder that virtually all violence and calls for censorship in America today are coming from the political left.

    This speaks to the inherent intellectual unsoundness of the modern left.

    The leftist authors are unconcerned with actual violence, ignoring the reality that the presence of antifa is the key variable in whether an event will be violent or not. They ignore the spare of left wing violence targeting trump supporters sounds he announced, something no other candidates supporters faced. Instead, they use the media hyped up fear of right wing violence in order to justify censoring groups they politically disagree with with all outrageous and profoundly dishonest skewing of gang laws.

    The modern left is an Orwellian mess. There are no wiser people in our society than these; they are obsessed with the alt right because they think, falsely, that this is one group more morally and intellectually bankrupt than they themselves are.

  8. This is literally biased and insane.
    Let’s start with the so called “fluid definition” of the so called “Alt-right”
    This is term “Alt-right” was coined by ethno-nationalist Richard Spencer, it’s well documented that he coined the term; it was an attempt to differentiate and rebrand far right ethno-nationalist and true neo-facist movements from the traditional conservative movements of neocons, Christian conservatives and small government types, and libertarians etc…
    “Alt-right” has now been transformed by the leftist professors, leftist media and NGOs like the SPLC and Lawyer’s Guild into a slur to discredit political opponents who don’t hold far left opinions. You can see examples of this when you see Christian Conservative Steven Crowder and gonzo media icon Gavin McInnes labeled as “Alt-right” by the media and NGOs who constantly reject the label and are simultaneously criticized by the Alt-right and come under attack by them.
    Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer are multi-ethnic patriotic groups that are considered to be Alt-lite by the Alt-right, a derogatory term used to discredit and distance themselves from them.

    Clearly these authors haven’t done their homework or have some other agenda to shut down political rivals through use of the monopoly of force by the state. How they can’t see or wish to obfuscate that this isn’t an authoritarian position to silence rival political movements of conservatives is beyond me.

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