Sheriffs Were Harbingers of the Insurrection
Sheriffs Were Harbingers of the January Insurrection
For the past four years, I’ve been saying that people worried about Trump and Trump-style, far-right populism should also be worried about sheriffs. And, look, did county sheriffs lead a violent mob into the Capital building? No. But have they been working to foment misinformation, distrust in the federal government, and attachment to a masculine sense of entitlement and violence? Yes.
During the violent aftermath of the Civil War, sheriffs told their followers to commit the violence they were legally unable to commit because of the constraints of elected office. The KKK became their unofficial posse, an angry mob of white people who terrorized and killed Black people, especially successful Black men who threatened white supremacy. Sheriff would often open the jail door and stand aside for lynch mobs to kidnap and kill Black men awaiting trial. In post-Civil War Mississippi, white vigilantes conducted terror campaigns that ended in murder and expulsion of Black elected sheriffs. These white insurrectionists were so unafraid of being caught that they acted in broad daylight, unmasked. In the last decade, sheriffs have banded together under the banner of “constitutional sheriffs,” arguing that the county sheriffs is the highest law enforcement leader in the land.
Some people have pointed out, rightly, that people in law enforcement and the military were involved in the riots and have been key connectors to Trump-style populism. There’s no question that is correct and an important link between populism and this style of masculine-grievance-fueled violence. I am personally less concerned with the individual acts of people than I am with the surge of violent populism overall – largely because acts by individual people can quickly be reduced to “bad apples,” while the election of populist sheriffs cannot. (And sheriffs can’t be fired.) If “bad apples” are the majority of voters, then piecemeal shaming or punishment isn’t enough to stop the problem. (Plus I just care more about the intersection of politics and law enforcement policy, rather than the individual acts of people in law enforcement. But no question they are connected.)
Why does this matter? It helps us reconcile the logical gap between Trump supporters’ demand for “law and order” and their violent, illegal behavior. “Law and order” isn’t a demand for more police or law. It’s a demand for the old order, one where there was a strict racial (and gender) hierarchy enforce by extreme violence. This is why the vigilantes who stormed the Capitol see themselves as patriots and heroes. They are more likely to empathize with the Civil Rights movement and see themselves as the rightful heirs of Rosa Parks (one of the constitutional sheriffs’ favorite historical figures) than they are to see themselves as they oppressors.
Sheriffs are the link between adherents to the “Blue Lives Matter” philosophy, which seeks vainly to maintain an imaginary pre-Civil Rights world order, and Trump-style populism. While more modern law enforcement can conceal racist policies behind bureaucracy, science, and data collection, sheriffs have never used that pretense. They have always been the link between the mob and change, the posse and government efforts to control violent popular will. What’s most alarming to me is that this is a problem elections won’t solve. We saw that in the House where some 144 members would not certify the results. It’s a window into local populism, the micro-fomentation of grievance that manifests in violence. Sheriffs are a key link to that because they are elected on the county level, giving them unlimited prestige and power over a smaller area. They needn’t temper their views to appeal to a cross-section of people. They can continue to rise on the tide of populism.
Most recently, during the events of January 6, sheriffs played an important role in encouraging and supporting the militia and fair-right groups who besieged the Capitol building. Some sheriffs gave stump speeches in other protests held at state capitols around the country on the same day. Take Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb who gave a speech at the Arizona capitol where he reiterated a jumble of Trump talking points and his own stump speech. (The video has now been deleted.) “Now I'm limited to what I can do as the sheriff, but if you live in Pinal County I assure you I can fight for your freedom,” he said before exhorting his followers to “be vigilant.”
Why does this matter, you might ask? Well, first, I think the link between elected sheriffs and far-right populism has been largely ignored by those who work in criminal legal system reform, especially those who put their stake in elections, in part (I think) because of the desire to generate “bipartisan” reform. My experience has taught me that adopting the language of libertarian reformers often leads to an unintentional echo of the same language which drives the far-right.
And, second, it puts a wrinkle in the progressive/ liberal movement for “accountability.” Remember, the Bundys went to trial – twice – and won. Criminal legal procedure was no match for the story of a dying way of life. Tracking and logging evidence didn’t stand up to the power of an idea. More laws and more rules do not adequately fight populism. It’s about the idea.
Even with Trump out of office, this is far from over. The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association issued a statement exonerating Trump and blaming antifa for the violence during the siege. And, even though Trump is no longer president, Trump supporters are planning to continue their political goals through the election of like-minded sheriffs. Just last week, one Michigan militia member posted this message in a Facebook group: “While we are speaking about local offices we also need Sherriffs [sic] Elected in each county who understand the constitution & that they have the power within the County they serve Not the Federal Government.”
Below is an incomplete catalogue of sheriffs and deputies who have thus far commented or been involved in the Capitol riot. Thanks to the many folks who helped collect these.
1) Ex-Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway was at the Trump rally preceding the siege. He described the crowd as “as a cross between tailgating at a football game and a NASCAR race—families, dogs, children. Everyone being nice. I mean, it was like a family reunion without some of the hatefulness you can find at family reunions. It was a very good crowd.”
2) Lifetime bad-sheriff achievement award winner Sheriff Thomas Hodgson tweeted that the violence “saddened” him but reiterated his claims of election fraud. Did he also email Miller?
3) The Bexar County sheriff has one lieutenant under investigation “criminally and administratively” for participating in January 6.
4) The Franklin County (Ohio) Sheriff ordered his PIO to resign for posting on Facebook critical remarks about the far-right mob. (Go figure, the PIO was a Democrat.)
5) Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales – who has been an advisor to the Trump admin and ran as a Democrat – issued a public statement saying he would continue to stand “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the federal government “regardless of political affiliation.”
6) Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones conflated BLM and far-right protestors by saying that the county is “kind of torn up right now” and argued the problem was that the police were too passive all around.
7) Canadian County, Oklahoma, Sheriff Chris West says he was there and marched to the capitol. He denied going inside.
8) A Franklin County (Kentucky) deputy boasted on Facebook about being at the rally and riot. The public defenders asked the sheriff to remove him from active duty (he also has misconduct problems on the job). The sheriff reassigned the deputy but also defended the deputy’s participation as protected 1st Amendment activity.