Democracy in Crisis: ‘Law and Order: SVU’ echoes Trump’s problematic ‘both sides are bad’ narrative

Illustration by Blair Gauntt

A recent episode of the seemingly-eternal crime drama Law & Order: SVU featured an Ann Coulter-like figure — she had a name in the show but let’s call her Ann Fauxlter — who was raped with a protest sign in a “riot” on a college campus in New York (the fictional Hudson University). The “ripped-from-the-headlines” show engaged in a bit of both-sides-ism worthy of Schrödinger’s cat. At first Fauxlter claims that an antifascist activist wearing all black and a mask raped her. Tracking down leads, the “liberal” cops and prosecutors come to suspect a small-handed alt-right troll whose advances she spurned the night before.

SPOILER ALERT: In the end, it never says who raped Fauxlter, but it pushed hard the general establishment consensus that “both sides” — antifa and the alt-right — are equally bad.

Recent events show, again, that this is bullshit — especially in the show’s depiction of police officers and prosecutors who are more sympathetic to antifa than the alt-right. Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions praised the role of sheriffs in the “Anglo-American” tradition of law enforcement. As so often with Sessions, the phrase was a dog-whistle. He could defend his position and note that the position of sheriff originated in England — think Sheriff of Nottingham — but the racists would hear that he supported them.

In contrast to Sessions, James Comey — the FBI director that Sessions fired over the Russia investigation — gave a speech in 2015 noting that “All of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty.”

The Anglo-American tradition of law enforcement has been one of white supremacy for much of that history — and police departments and sheriff’s offices around the country are still trying to grapple with that.

When the CBS news show 60 Minutes interviewed recovering racist Christian Picciolini a few months back, he talked about how skinheads made a conscious decision to clean up and join law enforcement.

“You know 30 years ago, we were skinheads,” he said. “We wore swastikas and shaved heads, and you could identify us pretty easily. So we decided at that time to grow our hair out, to trade in our boots for suits, and we encouraged people to get jobs in law enforcement, to go to the military and get training and to recruit there.”

A 2006 FBI report worried about white supremacists “infiltrating law enforcement communities or recruiting law enforcement personnel” and leading to “to investigative breaches.”

But one of the first things the Trump administration floated upon coming into office was to change the name of the Countering Violent Extremism program to “Countering Islamic Extremism” and eliminating a focus on white supremacist terror groups. At the same time, they were ramping up a prosecution of 200 people arrested in an anti-capitalist anti-fascist protest of Trump’s inauguration. More than a year later, 59 people, including a journalist, are still facing decades in prison for wearing black clothes near a “black bloc” action where a few windows were broken.

At the same time, right-wing terror is on the rise. The same week that SVU aired its “Info Wars” episode, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a new report showing that individuals who were associated with or influenced by the alt-right killed 17 people in 2017. That doubled the number from the previous year.

William Edward Atchison, who frequently posted on sites like Daily Stormer, killed two students at Aztec High School in New Mexico. When the FBI visited him in 2015 after he had posted about trying to find a weapon for a school shooting, they concluded that he wasn’t a threat.

It is clear that the racist, misogynist ideology of the alt-right is a serious threat, and that threat is enhanced when it is equated with anti-capitalist property destruction. The white supremacist violence in Charlottesville was able to reach the level it did because law enforcement stood around the mall across from Emancipation Park, protecting the windows of restaurants and stores from antifa protesters, instead of protecting people from the Nazis who, leaked communications show, were clearly set on violence.

But we know that the FBI and Homeland Security are actively monitoring people who are inspired by a “kind of an antifa ideology,” according to FBI director Christopher Wray, and is actively investigating “black identity extremists.” So when our popular culture starts to mimic Trump and right-wing memes, declaring “both sides” are bad and adding the layer that law enforcement somehow sympathizes with antifascists, it adds yet another dangerous layer to our already deeply toxic political discourse about violence, race and law.

Baynard Woods is a reporter at the Real News Network. Email baynard@therealnews. Twitter @baynardwoods. Download the Democracy in Crisis podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 236.

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