Klansmen, neo-Nazis and other assorted white nationalists described their descent on Charlottesville as a gathering to “Unite the Right.” Its bloody end, when one of them drove his car into a cluster of counter-demonstrators, killing one and injuring 19, was no aberration. Rather, murderous violence has been the through-line connecting four decades of efforts at uniting America’s far right. And such efforts have had a shocking amount of support from sectors of the U.S. government committed to “law and order.” Whether from law enforcement officials or the president, such support legitimizes the otherwise fringe politics of white nationalism and facilitates more racist attacks.
Law enforcement has been at the heart of the government’s uneasy relationship with white supremacist groups since the 1960s. Alabama Sheriff Eugene “Bull” Connor is but the most infamous in a long line of blustery law enforcement officials who aided violent attacks on black communities and left-wing activists. While Connor incited segregationist mobs to act, other police officers merely turned away when they did.
It was not just Southern sheriffs, either. For years, J. Edgar Hoover refused to act to prevent attacks on civil rights activists when his informants warned him such assaults were imminent. Worse still: FBI informants participated in such attacks. Gary Thomas Rowe was a paid informant for the FBI when he rode along with the carload of people who shot and killed activist Viola Liuzzo, a white mother of five from Detroit who had traveled to Selma in support of the civil rights demonstrations there. After her death, the FBI director tried to discredit her by tellingPresident Lyndon Johnson and Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach that Liuzzo had “indications of needle marks in her arms” and “was sitting very, very close to the Negro in the car” she was traveling in when the Klan attacked her.