WPES: David Cunningham, Sociology

“Policing White Supremacy”

Discussant: Trevor Gardner

Abstract: In the wake of an ongoing sharp increase in deadly violence perpetrated by avowed white supremacists, police responses to mobilization on the racist right has received increased scrutiny. Much of that attention has focused on a decrease in police agencies' capacity to address domestic terrorism since 9/11, and emphasizes the importance of enhancing the resources devoted to policing far-right violence. Less emphasis, however, has been placed on the manner in which police attend to organized white supremacy. Studies of protest policing conventionally elide the importance of the political orientation of policing targets, instead concentrating on the ways in which the actions of authorities are conditioned by the degree of threat associated with, e.g., challengers' size or capacity for violence. While cognate literatures focus on threat perception and thus recognize the constructed nature of protest threats, few studies are able to demonstrate how such factors operate within protests to shape police orientations to different protest constituencies. Through a comparative-historical analysis of two cases notable for their association with violence – the policing of the civil rights-era Ku Klux Klan and the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia – this paper examines how a social movement’s political orientation shapes how it is policed. Findings emphasize how the degree of ideological alignment between police and protesters shapes policing agents’ preparations for, and operational considerations within, protest events, providing a basis for asymmetric communication with – and distinct treatment of – different protest targets.