Making Case for Labeling White Supremacist Groups as Gangs

Patriot Prayer and Proud Boy rallies in Portland have turned violent on several occasions. Photo Credit: Old White Truck/Flickr

Eric Tegethoff
Public News Service

PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland has become a hot spot for far-right rallies that often turn violent. Could more be done if the groups holding these rallies were considered gangs?

Two criminologists believe so, and they say groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, which organized a rally in Portland earlier this month, exhibit the same characteristics as other street gangs. However, Shannon Reid, criminologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said the gang problem stereotypically is associated with black and brown youth.

“Now we have this group of white youth who are doing sort of these same things that we’re concerned about: being involved in violence, a lot of the ones that are interviewed also drugs and drug sales and all these other street crimes – but they are somehow different,” Reid said. “And race plays a huge role in that.”

Reid and her colleague said groups like the Proud Boys identify themselves much as other gangs do, by wearing certain clothing brands, and they have an initiation process. They and other so-called alt-right groups also have a public presence, often intimidating local communities.

Matthew Valasik, a criminologist at Louisiana State University, said police departments have been hesitant to label white supremacists groups as street gangs. For instance, before Portland Police purged their gang member database last year, less than 10 percent were from white power groups while more than 80 percent identified with some racial or ethnic group.

But Valasik said police could add another tool to their toolbox if they considered white supremacists groups as they do other street gangs.

“If law enforcement were to go more in this direction and treat them more accordingly as a street gang, then there’d be a whole host of possibilities for them to intervene with these groups,” Valasik said; “as opposed to what’s happening now.”

Valasik said the focused deterrent method is one tool where law enforcement tells gang members it is dedicated to pursuing the group if it continues to be violent and disruptive.

Groups from the left also have been present at white supremacists rallies in Portland, protesting these groups and sometimes participating in violence. Some criminologists have made the case for describing groups like Antifa as gangs as well.

Reid said it doesn’t have to be that either one group or the other is a gang, but noted that the white power rallies have been the catalysts for violent protests.

“Step one is we have not been dealing with this violent group of white supremacists, white nationalists, at all,” she said.

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