BUFFALO, NEW YORK – MAY 15: People gather outside of Tops market on May 15, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. Yesterday a gunman opened fire at the store, killing ten people and wounding another three. Suspect Payton Gendron was taken into custody and charged with first degree murder. U.S. Attorney Merrick Garland released a statement, saying the US Department of Justice is investigating the shooting “as a hate crime and an act of racially-motivated violent extremism”. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The son of a Black woman shot and killed by a white supremacist begged members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday to take action against such domestic terrorism.
The gunman in Buffalo, New York, was motivated by the “great replacement theory,” a racist conspiracy theory that claims growing numbers of immigrants and people of color will lead to the extinction of the white race, according to the National Immigration Forum.
“It comes under the banner of white supremacy,” said Garnell Whitfield Jr., who lost his mother, Ruth, when the 18-year-old white supremacist traveled to a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo on May 14 and killed 10 Black people.
Whitfield talked about his mother, and how it’s impossible for his family to grasp that she was taken from them “by someone full of so much hate.”
“My mom’s life mattered,” he said. “Your actions here will tell us if and how much it mattered to you.”
Witnesses during the hearing also predicted that the spread of white supremacy in the United States will increase acts of domestic terrorism.
“Extremism is still a sad reality in America — we have to do everything to make America safer,” the chair of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said. “Buffalo, New York, was an illustration on why that’s necessary.”
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden met with Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, on Tuesday to discuss gun control negotiations in the Senate, following the New York mass shooting and a May 24 massacre in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 schoolchildren and two teachers were gunned down.
Murphy is part of a small bipartisan group of senators working to strike some type of deal to get 10 Republican votes for gun legislation.
In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi will bring a more sweeping package of eight related gun control bills for a vote Wednesday. It’s not expected to advance in the evenly divided Senate.
The package would raise the age of purchasing semiautomatic rifles from 18 to 21, create new requirements for storing guns in a home with children, prevent gun trafficking, require all firearms to be traceable and close the loophole on bump stocks, devices that increase the rate of fire of semiautomatic weapons, among other things.
The Biden administration issued a statement in support of the package. “The President has called on Congress to act now to reduce gun violence and save lives,” the White House said. “This legislation would make significant progress toward delivering on that call to action.”
No longer a fringe theory
At the Senate hearing, two witnesses, Michael German of the Brennan Center for Justice, and Robert Pape, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, warned senators that while the great replacement theory is not new, it is no longer a fringe idea.
They said it has become mainstream due to media coverage on outlets such as Fox News, as well as claims by right-wing politicians.
“We need to prepare for potential political violence in the future,” said Pape, who is also the director of the Chicago Project On Security And Threats.
The Department of Homeland Security issued a notice Tuesday that stated, due to the recent violent attacks against communities of color, in coming months “we expect the threat environment to become more dynamic as several high-profile events could be exploited to justify acts of violence against a range of possible targets.”
“These targets could include public gatherings, faith-based institutions, schools, racial and religious minorities, government facilities and personnel, U.S. critical infrastructure, the media, and perceived ideological opponents,” the DHS summary said.
“Threat actors have recently mobilized to violence due to factors such as personal grievances, reactions to current events, and adherence to violent extremist ideologies, including racially or ethnically motivated or anti-government/anti-authority violent extremism.”
Jan. 6 attack
Pape said that his research has shown that a key characteristic of the more than 800 people charged with participating in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol is that they are “middle-class whites residing in counties with the most loss of white population share — exactly who would most likely fear the great replacement as described by prominent political and media leaders.”
He said the white supremacist attack in Buffalo was a prime example. He added that the last time the U.S. saw middle class white Americans involved in political violence was during the second expansion of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.
Durbin said mass shootings targeting places of worship and communities of color are increasing, adding that the first hearing he called on domestic terrorism was 10 years ago after a Sikh temple was targeted. Seven worshipers died.
Durbin asked Pape what role social media plays, as well as the easy access to firearms used in mass shootings.
Weapons have combined with “volatile ideas and beliefs in the mainstream,” Pape said. “You’ve got the combination of these two, which is why we’re seeing many more of these events in the United States. This is a deadly cocktail that promises more violence coming forward.”
Pape added that media figures and politicians that either directly or indirectly embrace the great replacement theory are often rewarded, from high cable news ratings to campaign donations.
Pape said mass shootings related to the great replacement theory include the 2019 Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, where 11 Jewish worshipers were killed, and the 2019 El Paso shooting in a Hispanic neighborhood, where 23 Latinos were killed while shopping at Walmart.
German, a former F.B.I. agent, said there needs to be a federal record of domestic terrorism, adding that it’s not something the Department of Justice tracks.
“The failure to acknowledge the organized and interstate nature of violent white supremacists and far-right militant groups forfeits intelligence that could be used to prepare for and perhaps prevent future attacks,” he said.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, also asked one of the witnesses, Justin Herdman, a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, what role social media played in the spread of misinformation.
“It certainly has not played a positive role in spreading disinformation and radicalizing people who would do harm to others,” Herdman said.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat, said that a large factor in domestic terrorism is the accessibility of assault weapons.
Free speech concerns
The top Republican on the committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, said that the threat of domestic terrorism is always shifting and can also include political violence.
“We have to condemn all political violence,” he said, adding that “at the same time we have to protect free speech.”
He pointed to the 2017 shooting at the congressional baseball game, where Republicans were specifically targeted by a left-wing political activist, as an example of extreme political violence.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, also raised concerns about political free speech. She asked one of the witnesses, Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School, how law enforcement can make determinations between extreme speech and free speech.
“The concern is if you tie a particular ideology to the F.B.I.,” Turley said, adding that the U.S. has persecuted people for being communists and Marxists.
Senate Republicans in late May, blocked a bill that would require federal agencies to monitor domestic terrorism incidents, including those related to white supremacy. Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said the bill would brand police and military service members as white supremacists.
Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, said at the hearing that he was worried about the fate of the country.
“On that fateful day in Buffalo we realized the danger of allowing hatred in, any form, in our country to fester,” he said. “It tears at the overall fabric of our democracy. Will we be better at being a multicultural nation?”
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