DOJ vows ramped up effort against hate crime after Buffalo shooting

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is vowing to ramp up efforts to confront hate crime, a pledge that comes amid growing concerns that the white nationalist ideology behind the deadly Buffalo shooting has increasingly moved from the political fringes into the mainstream.

Attorney General Merrick Garland on Friday addressed the racially motivated rampage, saying the department would use “every legal tool at our disposal” to investigate the attack and combat what he described as the “evolving” threat of hate crime.  

“Unfortunately, we are gathered today in the shadow, in the wake of another horrific attack,” Garland told an audience in Washington. “We commit to using every resource of the Department of Justice to prevent these kinds of acts of hate, to hold accountable those who commit them and to support the communities that are damaged and terrorized by them.”

The shooting spree at a Buffalo supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood on May 14 killed 10 and injured three others; all but two of the victims were Black. The alleged assailant, 18-year-old Payton Gendron, has pleaded not guilty to multiple charges of first-degree murder.

The DOJ said it was investigating the attack as a hate crime and an act of racially motivated violent extremism. The federal government last year reported 8,305 hate crimes in 2020, the highest recorded figure in roughly two decades. 

Garland was scheduled to meet Friday with NAACP leaders to discuss the threat of white supremacy and its presence on social media. Ahead of their meeting, the group’s president Derrick Johnson issued a moral call to corporate America and said businesses that profit from white supremacy should be held accountable for “the serious role they play in the spike of hate crimes.” 

The DOJ’s determination to probe the Buffalo shooting as a hate crime was based in part on a 180-page manifesto the suspect allegedly posted on the internet two days before the attack in which he described being motivated by white nationalism. 

The online screed expresses existential fear that a group of elites has set up U.S. policy to overrun the white population through an influx of minorities with higher fertility rates, done with the aim of “replacing” white Americans.

This so-called “great replacement theory,” which has long had a history at the fringes of U.S. politics, gained a recent mainstream foothold under President Trump. Many of his political allies have followed suit by regularly invoking themes of white grievance and racial resentment.

In the wake of the Buffalo shooting, Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) was among the fiercest critics of those in her own party who have engaged with white nationalist ideology or refused to condemn it.

“The House GOP leadership has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy, and anti-semitism. History has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse,” Cheney wrote on Twitter. “@GOP leaders must renounce and reject these views and those who hold them.”

Conservative commentators have also come under intense scrutiny since the Buffalo shooting. A New York Times investigation of Tucker Carlson’s primetime Fox News show found that more than 400 episodes promoted core tenets of the replacement theory, making him one of the most prominent mouthpieces for the theory.  

Prior to meeting with Garland on Friday, Johnson, of the NAACP, singled out Carlson and his show’s parent company.

“Fox News represents the worst of American broadcasting,” Johnson said. “The media outlet, through shows like Tucker Carlson Tonight, has used its ‘news’ division to sow bigotry and racism, create dissension, spread misinformation, and promote conspiracy theories that continually encourage violence.”

Experts in political violence say America had reached a turning point in recognizing just how mainstream white nationalism had become.

“It’s a really big thing that we’ve come to that realization because otherwise it’s too easy for the administration, politicians, other media figures to just continually duck the issue,” said Robert Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats.

Appearing alongside Garland on Friday to announce a new anti-hate crime initiative was Vanita Gupta, who holds the No. 3 position at DOJ. She emphasized that part of the department’s focus will be on prevention and deterrence, aided in part by a new program to help local law enforcement and communities report suspected hate crimes to the federal government.

“We use our criminal enforcement authority to prosecute those who commit hate crimes. But we also know it is not enough to wait until a hate crime occurs,” she said. “We have to address hate well before it escalates into violence.” 

Pape, of the University of Chicago, said the mainstreaming of the white nationalist ideology — which he called “extremely dangerous” — has made the environment more primed for violence.

“What happens when these ideas get in the mainstream is that it can trigger volatile people. It sort of lowers the threshold of where volatile will see what they’re doing as legitimate,” he said. “And if you read the manifesto, he fully thinks what he’s doing is legitimate and that what he’s going to do is make this even more legitimate.”

Tags Buffalo shootings Department of Justice Liz Cheney Merrick Garland Merrick Garland replacement theory

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