During a congressional hearing on the rise of domestic terror in the US, Democratic lawmakers condemned false equivalencies and attempts among Republicans to compare an insurrection at the US Capitol to protests against police killings of Black Americans.
“Equating a movement for justice with white nationalism is ignorant and dangerous on your part,” said US Rep Cori Bush. “If not for the white supremacy from which you benefit, we would not be in the streets … There are not ‘fine people on both sides’. There is simply no comparison.”
The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday heard calls from civil rights and criminal justice experts to pressure post-Donald Trump federal law enforcement agencies to tackle white supremacist violence after ignoring or undermining far-right extremism for decades, they said.
But Republicans on the committee – some of whom were connected to the “stop the steal” campaign that encouraged rioters on 6 January and supported overturning Electoral College results – insisted “antifa” remained a threat as they condemned political violence without connecting it to their own rhetoric. Their sole witness, Andy Ngo, has promoted deceptively edited videos from protests, criticised as dishonest reporting to deflect attention from far-right violence.
Democratic Rep Sheila Jackson Lee said any attempt to link the rise in domestic terrorism threats to antifa was “irresponsible and belittles the seriousness of right-wing violence and misidentifies who the perpetrators are.”
Republican Jim Jordan compared the insurrection at the Capitol – mounted by Trump supporters motivated by a lie that the election was stolen from them, in an attempt to overturn votes as lawmakers convened to certify results – to the weeks of unrest in Portland, Oregon against police violence and a militarised federal law enforcement presence.
“What we lived through in one day … you and your neighbours in Portland lived through 120 days straight,” he said. “And yet I don’t recall, don’t remember the Democrats condemning what was going on in Portland.”
Ms Bush, an organiser from St Louis, Missouri who emerged from Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, said that “it’s easy for us to talk about protests from the lofty halls of Congress.”
“You have actually no clue what was actually happening on the ground,” she said. “I’m one of those Black Lives Matter protesters you’re talking about.”
Following Mr Trump’s election loss, Republican Louis Gohmert filed a lawsuit in an attempt to give former vice president Mike Pence authority to toss out the results. “Basically, in effect, the ruling would be that you got to go to the streets and be as violent as antifa and [Black Lives Matter],” he told Newsmax just days before a joint session of Congress to certify Joe Biden’s election.
At Wednesday’s hearing, he said: “We know most of the people there that day were Trump supporters, and we know most of the people who went into the Capitol were Trump supporters, but we don’t need to completely ignore others that were in the Capitol.”
He pointed to the case of one rioter who had previously rallied with Black Lives Matter demonstrators. That man, John Sullivan, has been rejected by left-wing organisers and labelled an opportunist and provocateur, whose persona and business interests have adapted to meet his viral moments.
At one point, Republican Tom Tiffany asked terror expert Malcolm Nance, who is Black, “Why did more minorities vote for President Trump in this election?”
“I’m sorry, is that a legitimate question?” he answered.
Democratic Rep Ted Lieu challenged his GOP colleagues to admit that the 2020 election was not stolen, the “big lie that fuelled the rage” on 6 January.
He condemned Republicans airing a “deeply offensive” video clip showing the former president’s “very fine people on both sides” remarks following the far-right violence in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.
“It is wrong from my Republican colleagues to somehow whitewash that,” he said. “It’s that same false equivalence we see today.”
Federal law enforcement has sounded alarms about the rise of white nationalist violence in recent years, meeting a Trump-era Justice Department that remained focused elsewhere.
FBI director Christopher Wray told the House Homeland Security Committee in 2020 that “people subscribing to some kind of white supremacist-type ideology is certainly the biggest chunk” of racially motivated violent extremist cases.
In February, he told the House Judiciary Committee that domestic violent extremism has risen to a “national threat priority” and poses a “steady threat of violence and economic harm” as long as its underlying drivers persist, including “perceptions of government or law enforcement overreach, socio-political conditions, racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and reactions to legislative actions.”
After Mr Wray said that antifa represents “more of an ideology or a movement that an organisation”, Mr Trump lashed out, saying the FBI was allowing “anarchists and thugs” to “get way with murder”, as he pressured his Justice Department to pursue left-wing groups.
The Department of Homeland Security has issued a terror bulletin following the Capitol riots warning that “ideologically motivated violent extremists” could “continue to mobilise to incite or commit violence”.
Members of the Brennan Centre for Justice and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights Better told the committee on Wednesday that the Justice Department must gather accurate data on white supremacist violence to inform a comprehensive national strategy to address it.
“The problem is that the Justice Department and the FBI choose not to prioritise the investigation and prosecution of white supremacism or white violence as a matter of policy and practice,” said the Brennan Centre’s Michael German.
They also warned against expanding powers that would lead to greater racial profiling and abuse of political opponents, following the targeting of Black Americans in the FBI’s Cointelpro operations, post-9/11 measures that developed unprecedented domestic surveillance, and a Trump-era Justice Department that sought felony convictions for protesters.
Wade Henderson, interim president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said Congress should also “demand a full accounting of what is being done to address white supremacy in law enforcement.”
The Capitol riots revealed a growing number of law enforcement officers and military personnel and veterans who participated in the rally that preceded the insurrection, resulting in more than a dozen suspensions and internal and FBI investigations, as well as federal charges against at least two officers.
“Aren’t we tired? Aren’t we as a nation exhausted?” said Democratic Rep Val Demings. “Doesn’t this issue deserve more than a political debate, a lacklustre and half-hearted response? … If my colleagues on the other side want to keep score, they will lose. This country is young but its history is ugly and long.”