By Sergio Olmos
Those looking to see whether programs aimed at helping gang members could be applied to extremist groups first have to deal with an obvious question: Are groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer gangs? The answer: It depends.
Oregon law prevents police from collecting or maintaining files on political, religious or social activities of individuals or organizations unless there is evidence of criminal activity.
A records request with the Vancouver Police Department reveals that Patriot Prayer, which is run from that city, is not labeled a gang. The Portland Police Bureau stopped the use of “gang” labeling in 2017, in part from critics who argued that it was being disproportionately applied to people of color. A 2016 analysis by The Oregonian found while the bureau did identify a few gangs whose members were predominantly or exclusively white, 81% of the “criminal gang affiliates” in the database were people of color.
Michael German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program, says that’s typical, even though white supremacist and right-wing extremist groups often act like ethnic and racial gangs.
The Proud Boys, for example, boast of their “security” role at big rallies.
German says police could use that claim as a tool. “Enforce the licensing procedure for security guards. When people show up to these rallies claiming their ‘security,’ police should ask them to see their license,” German says.
“Every city or state requires security guards to be licensed,” he notes. “You have to have a clean record, insurance, in case something goes wrong.” In Portland, security guards are required to get training and pass a background check through the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training.
Prohibiting extremists from justifying their violence as “security” is “a way to de-escalate and thin out rallies that attract violence seekers,” he says.
German, who twice infiltrated white supremacists groups as an FBI agent,says he thinks law enforcement should use every tool it can to prevent violence, but should stay away from trying to police beliefs.
“A big part of the problem is a lack of discipline in describing the problem we’re trying to solve,” he says. “If the problem is violent crime from people who hold extremist beliefs, that’s one thing,” he says, and it can be addressed as a police issue.
“If the problem is people associating with one another with certain beliefs,” German says, “that’s another thing. If we’re trying to prevent violence, focus on the small number of people who are actually violent.”
German is wary of attempts to apply the “gang” label on any group, noting how easy it was for young men of color to be tagged as “gang” members without due process.
“We don’t need to mirror those bad practices,” he says. “But look at them the same way you would any other organized crime.”
Sergio Olmos is an investigative reporter for Underscore.news, a nonprofit news organization in Portland that specializes in collaborative in-depth journalism projects. For this series, Underscore.news partnered with the Pamplin Media Group and The Columbian. This story has been supported by Meyer Memorial Trust and the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.