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How should U.S. address white supremacist extremism?

August 14, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
Hari Sreenivasan takes a deep look at the nation’s divide following Saturday’s deadly incident during a white nationalist rally held in Charlottesville, Virginia, as well as what the Trump administration needs to do with Vanita Gupta of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and George Selim, a former Department of Homeland Security official.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: We return now to the events in Charlottesville over the weekend.

Joining me now is Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division during the Obama administration. She’s now the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a nonprofit legislative advocacy organization. And George Selim, he was the first director of the Office of Community Partnerships in the Department of Homeland Security and the interagency Countering Violent Extremism task force. He left the department just 10 days ago.

Vanita, it’s 2017. Last year, you helped run the Civil Rights Division under the first black president. What goes through your mind when you see Friday night young men holding torches, having a march, and obviously the events of yesterday as well?

VANITA GUPTA, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights: Well, I think what was so stark about the march on Friday night and then on Saturday was that these folks felt so emboldened, that they weren’t even wearing their masks and hoods that they had been in prior times.

And then, of course, hearing the president of the United States make the statement that he did Saturday, without specifically condemning the white supremacists who were marching in his name, with David Duke specifically saying they were carrying out the promise of Donald Trump, followed then by another anonymous statement from the White House on Sunday, it is deeply troubling that we are in a time in 2017, where today the national news is covering the news that the president of the United States has actually finally condemned white supremacy.

I mean, it’s shocking. None of this is normal. None of this should be normal. But we also knows it’s an administration that right sits — steps outside of the Oval Office, Steve Bannon is a strategic adviser, Sebastian Gorka and others. They have been pursuing a policy agenda which reflects some of what we are seeing played out right now in very visceral terms for the rest of the country.

HARI SREENIVASAN: George Selim, is this activity that we’re seeing, are the sizes of the groups, the number of people doing this, is that increasing, or are we just seeing it because it’s more visible thanks to social media and other?

GEORGE SELIM, Former Department of Homeland Security Official: Well, it’s both, to be honest with you.

And I’m sure Vanita can expand on this, but last year, the ADL, the Anti-Defamation League, published a report which tracks a lot of domestic hate groups and extremist movements of all fronts, both those of terrorist nature stemming from the Middle East and domestic ones like we saw this past weekend as well.

And what They tracked was that 2016 had the highest recorded number of hate-reported incidents and deaths since history that they were tracking these incidents.

I think that’s coupled with the fact that, you know, the spread of this hateful ideology on social media and online and various other means has really accelerated the rate and pace which this type of kind of venomous ideology continues to be spread.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Vanita Gupta, you have heard the president’s words today. What are the policies that need to back that up?

VANITA GUPTA: Well, as long as he has people like Steve Bannon as a strategic adviser — I think he needs to remove Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka and anyone else who identifies or has been identified with the alt-right from his immediate environment and from the White House.

But, look, that’s not going to be enough. He has been pursuing a policy agenda on voting rights, on LGBT rights, on the Muslim ban, on an anti-immigrant, even curbing legal immigration, that has sought to exclude vast swathes of the American population from economic opportunity, educational opportunity.

There has to be policy to follow up the words which we finally got today in some measure. And so I think that that’s got to be underscored here. This isn’t just about what’s happened in Charlottesville. The is about a broader policy agenda which I think is deeply troubling and is really dividing and polarizing the nation like never before.

HARI SREENIVASAN: George Selim, you just left the Department of Homeland Security recently. And there is some concern that the efforts inside, especially the Countering Violent Extremism task force, could be shifted to focusing on sources of terror from the Islamic State and elsewhere, and less on the domestic terror that we’re talking about post-Charlottesville.

GEORGE SELIM: There is no question that the supposed Islamic State or so-called Islamic State and other terrorist groups that have stemmed from the Middle East or elsewhere abroad pose a significant threat to the homeland, to public safety of Americans both at home and abroad. There’s no question about that.

One of the positions that I advocated for very vigorously, both in my time at DHS and elsewhere, is to ensure that there’s level of protection, an added number of steps to both prevent and intervene in the process of radicalization, irrespective of what the ideology is that stems from it, whether that’s a domestic hate group or an international designated foreign terrorist organization.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And, George, do you feel that the administration is still committed to that idea of trying to root out extremism and radicalization wherever it happens and for whatever the cause?

GEORGE SELIM: So, that’s what the lip service has been so far. I think we need to separate the rhetoric from the reality.

I think if you look at some of the statements that have come out today, I fully endorse the statement that Attorney General Sessions made on saying that some of the actions by the accused driver of the incident in Charlottesville is an act of domestic terrorism.

But I think, while some of that rhetoric is great, we need to look at the reality of the budget, where the priorities of both people and funding has gone for the next fiscal year and for the fiscal years to come. And I think we need to track that very, very closely.

And one of the things I look forward to doing outside of government now is advocating for a significant increase of resources, both from the federal government and from non-governmental organizations from civil society and from the private sector to do this work at the state, local and specifically the community-based level.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Vanita Gupta, one of the things that was interesting is that the delineation or calling this an act of domestic terror, there are certain legal consequences to this. Is there almost a new category that we need in differentiating what is a crime vs. what is an act of domestic terror, because it seems easy for us to categorize what is a terrorist act when someone looks a different way?

VANITA GUPTA: No, that’s right.

It’s interesting that the attorney general, and it’s heartening that he used that term today. It took a little while for the words domestic terrorism to be uttered. Domestic terrorism, the effect of that, of calling it that is that it’s going to allocate certain resources within the Justice Department.

Right now, there is not a separate substantive charge of domestic terrorism that the federal government has to pursue, unless it involves a weapon of mass destruction. And so it may be time to actually look at not only — I think George Selim is right — to investigate and make sure that violent extremism is investigated, not just with regards to ISIS, but also including white supremacists, neo-Nazi groups and the like that are really growing right now and that we need to be deeply concerned about, but also to consider whether there needs to be an additional charge of domestic terrorism.

I think still, though, it is deeply important for public officials to recognize these things as domestic terrorist acts or investigations when they’re engaged in them, because those words do carry resource allocation consequences for the way that the federal government will now investigate the case.

HARI SREENIVASAN: George Selim, what are the gaps in resources that you saw and what still need to be filled?

GEORGE SELIM: And so this is really a critical question which boils down to, what is the role of the federal government here? Where does the responsibility of states, localities, municipality, and civil society really begin, and where does the role of the federal government stop?

I think, in the past decade-plus that I have been in public service working on these initiatives, I continued to see an increased both evolution in the programs and policy and increase in the dollars and programs that have gone into domestic efforts to prevent violent extremism of all forms.

Coming into the next fiscal year, we have seen a leveling out, if not a decrease of some of those resources. But on the other hand, we have seen an increase in civil society and in the private sector.

One of the things I would advocate for very vigorously moving forward is, I saw some of the great statements by the mayor of Charlottesville and a number of other mayors and municipal officials across the country who have been very vocal on these issues about the need to protect their communities and enhance and increase the level of community resilience in municipalities around the country.

And that type of work really needs to increase. And it needs to do so on a size and scale that’s 10-fold where it is today.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, George Selim, Vanita Gupta, thank you both.

VANITA GUPTA: Thank you.

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