White Power, White Violence

A manifesto is not something to be ignored; it’s a playbook for the next attack.

The Buffalo shooting suspect in police custody
BigDawg / Reuters

About the author: Kathleen Belew is the author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America and an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago.

The mass shooting of Black grocery shoppers in Buffalo, New York, on Saturday follows a string of similar attacks. Gunmen have targeted worshippers at synagogues and mosques and temples and Bible study; they have opened fire on summer camps and people at festivals. We know the names of these places: Charleston; El Paso; Poway; Pittsburgh; Oak Creek; Christchurch, New Zealand. We know the names of the shooters, too, although I won’t list them here, because adding to their notoriety deepens the problem.

Some of us also know by now that although we might think these are attacks on specific victim groups—and they are attacks on Black, Jewish, Islamic, Sikh, Latino, and immigrant populations—the aforementioned examples have all been part of one movement. In each event, a white-power activist was the perpetrator. Several of the assailants wrote extensively about their motivations in manifestos that outlined a coherent political ideology. And in the United States, they have been backed by a broad social movement that our legislators have failed to condemn, that our court system has failed to prosecute, and that our society has not stopped.

This means that these are not “lone wolf” attacks even when they may appear to be, and certainly not just because a shooter has claimed to have been operating alone. The white-power movement has, since the early 1980s, organized the disparate groups of the militant right (Klansmen, neo-Nazis, militiamen, and others) around cell-style terrorism. Activists deliberately obscure their connections with one another. Yet the historical record reveals an interwoven tapestry of people on the militant right who have united in common cause to target minority communities and to undermine American democracy, and who ultimately hope to provoke race war.

The recent litany of places hit is only the latest record of the white-power movement’s most craven acts of violence since its coming-out party at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. There is a longer list of sites of violence, including Oklahoma City, where in 1995 a white-power bomber killed 168 people in the nation’s largest act of domestic terrorism. There is also a longer list of smaller acts of violence, people killed in ones and twos, and a longer list of communities where this violence and intimidation still resonate.

But all of this violence represents only half of the urgent threat we must now confront. The other half of white nationalism is in our halls of governance and on our televisions, claiming ignorance of its most violent outgrowths. Think for instance of the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021: Although white-power and militant-right activists represented a small group of the participants, they were the most organized, the ones with tactical gear and advance planning. They were the ones with intergroup communication and battle readiness.

The crucial difference is that January 6 was meant to be not an act of mass-casualty violence but rather a piece of performative activism. We know this because of the symbology of the attack and its deep roots in white-power-movement texts such as The Turner Diaries, which—amid plans for many mass-casualty attacks and for genocide—set out an attack on the Capitol as something very different. It was meant to strike the seat of power and thus awaken others to the cause. It worked, too. Despite increased surveillance and deplatforming in the immediate aftermath, researchers have documented a regrouping: upticks in web traffic in white-power spaces, local organizing, and online radicalization. We may yet find that the alleged shooter in Buffalo, only 18—who wrote that he became radicalized in January 2022—was propelled by that latest wave in this cresting sea.

In white-power ideology, mass violence is seen as a tool rather than an end point. Here we need look no further than the manifestos that are now routinely shared online from gunman to gunman, imparting instructions for future mass shooters as well as explaining how the attack itself is meant to provoke race war and civil unrest. The Buffalo document includes long sections of text pasted from the manifesto connected to the Christchurch shooting; the El Paso document did the same.

All of this is much too important to ignore as a disconnected string of events or to set aside as simply inexplicable acts of hate and prejudice. The alleged shooter in Buffalo is said to have written that boredom, isolation, and internet radicalization led him to his act. When we imagine how many others like him are in front of their screens, alone but together, we might summon an appropriate level of concern to move us to action. Every person should demand accountability from our elected officials for these events, whether January 6 or yesterday’s mass shooting. The death toll is still mounting, and the threat to our democracy grows.