Wingnut with a Badge: You Might Want to Check on Your Sheriff

Even with a competent Administration, America would have faced a frustrating vulnerability in its fight against Covid-19 – its sheriffs. All over the country last spring, local sheriffs undermined scientists and local leaders, refusing to enforce lockdown rules and dismissing mitigation efforts. Their refusal to do their jobs cost countless lives and limited the Americans’ options to contain the pandemic.

Despite their “pro-freedom” pandemic talking points, sheriff’s deputies aren’t libertarian crusaders. The overwhelming bulk of deputies’ time is spent running jails, which is often a lucrative grift. The rest is mostly devoted to the similarly lucrative business of serving civil and criminal warrants, foreclosures and handling property seizures. Nationwide, police departments carry most of the weight of crime-fighting and patrol. Sheriffs mostly have more important roles to serve, staying closer to power, politics and money.

Sheriffs, who are almost always elected, have a disturbing tendency to serve as local pirates, using their badge to extort money from those unfortunate enough to fall into their grasp. It’s not surprising that sheriffs would be reluctant to get involved in work with no financial angle. However, there’s a more troubling dynamic at work in so many sheriffs’ refusal to protect their communities during the pandemic.

Religious nuts have had their eye on sheriff’s departments for a long time. As desegregation undermined white power in the wider political system, the Dixiecrats in the religious right recognized the potential of sheriffs to act as an obstacle to progress. They began investing energy in getting their followers into these positions, which largely fly under the local political radar.

It only takes modest coordination in most communities to seize the sheriff’s office, a post that can sometimes be won with a few congregations’ worth of votes. White nationalists in the religious right may have lost the capacity to determine which laws get passed, but by electing sympathetic sheriffs they can at least influence which laws get enforced. That campaign has been very successful, and it isn’t limited to the usual deep red enclaves. Sheriffs aligned with the Patriot Movement, CSPOA, and various anti-immigrant groups are enforcing the law in places like Western New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, even in the suburbs of some large cities. You might want to check on your sheriff because their politics could impact your life in days to come.

A strange and little-noted provision appeared in the 2010 Texas Republican Party Platform:

State Militia – We support the establishment and maintenance of a volunteer Constitutional State Militia, with assistance from County Sheriffs.

Hardly anyone commented on this blurb, as it pales against the lunacy of the larger document. Texas Republicans’ 2010 platform was a Kaczynski-esque cry for help, 25 pages long, delivered in a florid hyperbole normally screamed through a megaphone or scrawled on the basement walls of a serial killer. Much of it is incomprehensible, with paranoid diversions into subjects like “raw milk,” vaccine databases and sodomy. It even features a rant against child protective services, which somehow incorporates a jab at UN. The people who wrote it were not OK.

One can be excused for missing the significance of one sentence about sheriffs, but it matters. That provision, expanded in later platforms, marks a major political debut for the white nationalist “Constitutional Sheriff” movement. Texas Republicans dropped that sentence into their platform because the movement was already well established in law enforcement.

The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, enthusiastically embraced by the religious right, insists that the county sheriff is the highest elected officer in our political system. Sheriffs, they reason, have the sole power to determine which laws will apply in their county. The movement evolved out the neo-Nazi Posse Comitatus group in the 80’s. Its membership has blossomed over the past two decades with political help from the Christian right.

When white terrorists seized the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, they had the enthusiastic support of the local sheriff, Glenn Palmer, a CSPOA member. The FBI considered Palmer a security risk having to organize their response to the attack around his subversion. Other prominent members of CPSOA include Joe Arpaio and David Clarke.

In Northern California, CSPOA Sheriff Jon Lopey set up roadblocks ahead of the 2016 primary to stop and search Hmong immigrants. Deputies asked the immigrants whether they were registered to vote, arrested any they found with minor violations, then visited the homes of the registered voters to “verify” their status.

When the FBI this month shut down a rightwing militia plot to kidnap Michigan’s Governor, a Michigan sheriff who had appeared on stage at a rally with one of the plotters, stood up to defend them. Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf, a CSPOA member who attended their 2019 conference, justified the terrorist plot as a “citizen’s arrest” necessary to prosecute a “felony.”

Though the state’s Sheriff’s Association immediately condemned Leaf’s comments, he’s only in trouble for saying the quiet part out loud. And he’s still at his job. Do not assume your local law enforcement will protect you from a coming wave of wingnut violence. Odds are pretty good that your local sheriff will back the fascists when the choice arises. And that choice probably arrives in the next few months.

About 1 in 8 US sheriffs are full members of CSPOA, according to the organization. This law enforcement organization maintains close ties with terrorists. Religious Right and neo-Nazi “patriot” groups have cultivated a following in law enforcement for decades but worming their way into urban police departments can be more challenging. Higher levels of the police hierarchy tend to be well-trained, educated, and qualified. It would take a long time, a lot of money, and much effort to recruit them at scale. Sheriffs, on the other hand, just have to win an election, in a little-noticed down-ballot slot, and often don’t even have a law enforcement background. Once that office is secured, it can be used to install sympathetic staff as deputies. Gaining a hold on sheriffs’ offices is a cheaper, fast route to infiltration than working through the police.

All over the country, police departments are consistently whiter than the communities they serve, but no government institution is whiter than our sheriffs’ departments. Over 90% of American sheriffs are white men. The overwhelming majority of sheriffs cover at least partially rural, if not entirely rural areas. Sheriffs are the most powerful elected office that white nationalist voters can still dominate, making them a natural political target.

As the country reaches a tipping point in the declining electoral power of white nationalism, this Fifth Column among law enforcement could be their firewall. Violent fascist organizations are pinning their hopes for a white America on your sheriff. You might want to check on them before they check on you.

17 Comments

  1. So, Biden’s campaign cancels an event in Texas because 1.5 and 2 ton vehicles harass a 20 ton vehicle. I am not going to even ask where the Secret Service was. Just another reason why the loser party keeps losing. Name the last time an attempt was made, at the very least, to stop a campaign bus, ridden off the road at the worst. The wise thing would have been to accelerate, instead of decelerating to 20 mph on an Interstate. Run the enemy off the road.

    After the first or second pick up truck driven by a member of the death cult goes up in flames, the rest will grasp the concept.

    Those that are aghast at this idea, get used to it buttercups. You are going to see a lot more of these choices needing to be made in less than 96 hours. You either do what is necessary to defend democracy, or you march with just a cell phone and then act stunned when the last vestiges of democracy are eradicated.

    1. There was no Secret Service because only Wendy Davis and some campaign staff were on the bus. But yes, this is a preview of the mayhem coming after the election and it Democrats think they’re going to respond by dialing 911 and calling off events, then we’re in for a first few years of this war that look a lot like 1860-63.

      The quicker you roll out the General Sherman, the faster this all ends.

      1. Who’s Sherman these days, the FBI? They are investigating this now, although you’ll need Biden in charge to have a chance for this to go anywhere. Speaking of the FBI, a whole lot of them went on the record as not wanting Wray to be fired. I doubt Trump would care.

        Or if not the FBI, who?

        As for this incident, I feel a personal sense of shame, as I lived in Comal and Hayes counties before moving to the Houston area. It’s quite possible that I went to school with some of these Trumpanzees; but I’m not going to try to find out. It makes me not want to visit there anymore. It looks like the ringleaders are based in New Braunfels, and if the local authorities let this slide they are dumber than a box of rocks, because that city’s economy relies heavily on tourism. Yes, Covid is messing with that, but eventually even this pandemic will pass, and a reputation as a hive of violent ignorant rednecks is going to repel a lot of visitors.

      2. You mean more mayhem like this?

        https://www.cjonline.com/news/20201101/3-shot-in-dispute-over-trump-signs-allegedly-stolen

        I plan on watching the impotent rage machine on CNN and various other channels starting Tuesday aft/evening as they start to realize the worst fears are realized with regard to vote suppression. A big chunk of the votes cast, especially the non-in person votes, will never be counted, or at least counted accurately.

        And that there is nothing that can be done about it. Not without killing.

  2. Good article:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/27/magazine/trump-influence-gop.html

    The tl;dr of it is that whatever policy the GOP has is just residual from what they had before, and will likely decay or be completely forgotten over time. What all and every GOP operator on every level has learned, is that they have to be loud, obnoxious, and aggressive on literally everything ever, and right now that means in loudly sucking 45’s dick while he holds the center of power. If he stays, they’ll continue to play dick sucking competition games to stay closer to his inner circle, and if they go, they’ll probably be left to debating loudly that theirs is the dick most worth sucking.

    As long as they shit on brown people, they’ll have a leg in the race, be it local or national. After Trump we’ll have worse than one person tweeting obnoxious nonsense incessantly — we’ll have an entire party apparatus doing it. Endlessly. Forever.

    This is where I really did wish adult human beings capable of rational thought made decisions along the lines of, “I wouldn’t sit across this person at a dinner table, why would I let him run any functions of government?” but you know, abortion et al.

  3. In one of the reddest counties in TX, Montgomery County, the new sheriff campaigned on his squeaky clean looks and fair and reasonable law and order agenda.

    He won and promptly signed an agreement with ICE to build and operate a detention center. It was downhill from there. The leadership of the county changed as well to be led by an evangelical minister. Together, they have done everything they could to thwart the governor’s mandatory masking policy and partial closing orders when covid infections spiked.

    Who needs friends?

  4. You wrote:

    “It even features a rant against child protective services, which somehow incorporates a jab at UN.”

    This may be the work of the Republican candidate for state lege for my district. Her campaign literature arrives on my porch unbidden.

    Not only does she want to get rid of CPS, she’s also an anti-vaxxer. It seems the two ideas are connected in her mind.

    Her campaign sent out lots of hateful claims about her opponent, making sure to include a photo of that African-American opposition.

    She seems to be unaware her own photo on her literature does not help her. There’s madness in her eyes; she looks deranged. But she’s blonde, so maybe that’s qualification enough for Republicans.

    As to how the UN figures into all of this, I haven’t a clue.

    1. “how the UN figures into all of this, I haven’t a clue.”

      The UN is a long bugbear of the religious right. Pat Robertson claimed it was founded by the Illuminati. Basically ‘globalism’ ‘Satanism’ ‘Illuminati’ and ‘bankers’ in right wing-ese are more or less conflated into one general villain of impending doom, and that villain is Jews. Usually the top-level “global coastal elites’ stuff points the arrow toward, eventually, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or whatever other whackery.

      It helps that Americans were bitter about the UN not cosigning the War on Iraq, and more recently that its members mostly support the two-state solution to Palestine (wingnuts may hate Jews but they love Israeli nationalism and hate Muslims too).

      That’s about all I know. I’m sure there’s a lot, much much more. I don’t know exactly how to express it but the right wing is great at creating this media meme ecology where the concept of a thing — the UN, child protective services, whatever — quickly become this very detached, malleable symbol where various Bad Things can be swapped what looks to me, as an outsider, mostly arbitrarily and based on whatever the individual speaker is choosing to talk about this time. All that matters is that it’s an evil bad thing and everybody knows that everybody knows it is, and then it becomes a short hand for how everything else is bad. “You can tell the Satanists are involved because the UN is.”

  5. A few weeks ago I was excoriated for saying “and so it begins” when referencing how ultimately, the fascists will impose their will, with guns, at the polls. (Of course, there is always SCOTUS to end democracy anyway)

    Well, the Michigan legislature has now vetoed the governor’s ruling against automatic weapons not allowed within 100 feet of polls. I have no idea how many other states have a similar ruling disallowing armed fascists next to poll booths, but how many sheriffs, or other “law enforcement groups”, will ignore enforcing such a law, if it exists.

    I have said it explicitly, and Chris has beat around the same bush. Next week, or the week after, when the killing starts, most levels of law enforcement will stand idly by, or actively help the fascists. The only bulwark will be the National Guard, and Chris has pointed out that the tyrant can nationalize them in a moment.

    Depending on what poll you look at, Biden has a 7-12% lead, nationally, over the tyrant. We all know that is meaningless, as swing states/EC is the only thing that matters. And I am quite confident that any lead of 5% or less by Biden, in any state, will evaporate once the serious vote suppression kicks in. It is wonderful that all these votes have already been cast. The thing that matters, is how many will be counted, and counted accurately.

  6. Orange County Mayor Jerry L. Demings was previously the Sheriff in Orange County Florida, a black man. One of the things that need fixing the most are our Police and Sheriff departments.

    Growing up in an area where KKK terrorism was strong in it’s hey days the police enabled that terrorism. The FBI had to infiltrate and break the KKK’s influence and control of the government in the sixties. My dad who grew up in Sanford Florida and hate the klan . He told me it was as bad as joining the communist party. A deep south southern white man he had his prejudices but thought all people should be treated with kindness and respect.

    BTW this Mayor has enforced lock down rules and mask wearing. And the current sheriff is working to do those things. Pretty sure the people you spoke about did not support his candidacy. But the voters , including white voters like me put him in power anyway.

    In this time of trouble my county because of leaders like him are fairly calm. We had protest this summer like other places in the country but were mainly peaceful. With local leaders joining in. But Florida seldom has the violent outbreaks of protest that other parts of the country do. Seems our leaders can come together and damp violence down . Yes Florida can be crazy but not in that way.

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