Senator Biden speaks at the signing of the 1994 Biden Crime Bill as Attorney General Janet Reno, President Bill Clinton, and local law enforcement officials look on. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
By Shakeer Rahman, Pete White, and Hamid Khan
Joe Biden returning to power in this moment is ominous. As Democrats retake the presidency, Trump devotees have shown they can supplement their harm toward Black and brown people with violent defiance of the political system. Across the mainstream partisan spectrum, their actions are begrudgingly referred to as “domestic terrorism.”
For communities of color that term is extremely dangerous. Our movements should not echo the state’s usage of language such as “terrorism” and “insurrection.” As the three of us know from our work helping run the LA Community Action Network and Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, white power creates many forms of terror. Among the most harmful forms is the state’s violent criminalization of poor, Black, indigenous, and migrant people. Ending that violence must be our priority, and the language we use is paramount to this goal.
As we saw last year with the aggressive prosecutions of Black Lives Matter protesters, there is no doubt that our people will someday face the “terrorist” and “insurrectionist” labels that are being tossed around now. It is naive to think that the word “terrorist” alone can ever separate itself from the image of the ‘dangerous Muslim other’ that the state created for it. That powerful image was used to build a vast stalker state, start endless wars, and crush human rights across the world. These results will continue harming the same people they always have.
Adopting the state’s language of “terrorism” and “insurrection” gives more power to the exact oppressive social forces that Trump loyalists stormed the Capitol to preserve. Within a day of the Capitol attack, the Wall Street Journal reported that Biden “said he plans to make a priority of passing a law against domestic terrorism.” This law would expand the same national security police state that stalks, monitors, and tracks Black and brown people, including through local police departments whose work the federal government supports with grant funding, data-sharing, and equipment purchases. Biden has already promised to expand the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, which is responsible for sending tens of billions of federal dollars to local police.
This isn’t the first time Joe Biden has united bipartisan support for criminalization and surveillance: this is his entire political legacy. In the 1980s, Biden criticized the Reagan and Bush administrations for being too soft on crime, which resulted in the further escalation of a violent war on drugs. During the Clinton years, Biden was the architect of the racist 1994 crime bill (which created the COPS program) as well as laws passed that punished prisoners and migrants in response to the right-wing Oklahoma City bombing. During the Bush years, he boasted that the USA PATRIOT Act was identical to the terrorism bill he wrote after the Oklahoma City bombing, but had failed to enact at the time.
To break this cycle of harm, we must confront white power in all its forms, most of all within our government institutions. Donald Trump was the latest in a long line of white supremacist presidents, and the US will remain a white supremacist state even as a new president takes office. The weapons each administration creates remain for the next one to pick up.
Joe Biden will be sworn in as President with our cities on police lockdown, supposedly to protect against insurrection. But the people who stormed the Capitol on Trump’s behalf weren’t insurrectionists: they didn’t want to topple the government. With the support of their ideological partners in the military, law enforcement, academia, and every sector of society, they wanted to preserve America’s white supremacist power structure and make life harsher for the Black, indigenous, and migrant communities that America has always stood on the necks of. Giving the state more tools to criminalize and surveil will never liberate us from the grip of white power.
Pete White is the Founder and Executive Director of Los Angeles Community Action Network.
Hamid Khan and Shakeer Rahman are organizers with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition.