A grayscale of a blindfolded Lady Justice figurine holding the scales.

Racial Violence and the Unanswered Calls for Justice

Last Saturday, a white supremacist murdered three Black people in a Jacksonville, Florida, store (NPR). In a statement announcing the investigation of the Jacksonville shooting as a hate crime, Attorney General Merrick Garland emphasized, “One of the Justice Department’s first priorities upon its founding in 1870 was to bring to justice white supremacists who used violence to terrorize Black Americans. That remains our urgent charge today” (DOJ). It’s true that the Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecuted KKK members after the Civil War (Smithsonian). But the implication that the Department of Justice—which includes such agencies as the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Drug Enforcement Agency—is an advocate for racial justice is untrue.


• Support the Community Justice Action Fund and a local organization confronting gun violence.

• Take action with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition to oppose mass surveillance by law enforcement. 

Under its first attorney general, ex-Confederate Amos Akerman, the Department of Justice prosecuted hundreds of KKK members attempting to subvert Black political power. Historian William McFeely wrote, “Perhaps no attorney general since his tenure…has been more vigorous in the prosecution of cases designed to protect the lives and rights of black Americans.” This means that the Department’s defense of civil rights reached its high point in the early 1870s (Smithsonian). Since then, DOJ abuse of civil rights has more often been the norm. Though the United States signed the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1966, compliance with the convention is “grossly inadequate,” since “structural racism and xenophobia persist as powerful and pervasive forces in American society” (HRW). Unlike other countries, the United States lacks a federal human rights institution within the Justice Department (OHCHR). Garland also fails to acknowledge that the DOJ “has no national strategy designed to identify white supremacist police officers or to protect the safety and civil rights of the communities they patrol,” despite internal documents acknowledging that far-right extremists frequently have “active links” to law enforcement (Brennan Center). 

In 1919 and 1920, the Department of Justice arrested thousands of immigrant political dissidents. A thousand men in Detroit alone were detained without food for almost a week, and 249 resisters were sent to the Soviet Union (History). During World War II, the Department of Justice put 120,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps (History). The Department of Justice persecuted the American Indian Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Britannica). 

DOJ abuse didn’t stop with the (alleged) end of COINTELPRO. In the 2000s, the Department of Justice targeted nonviolent environmental justice and animal rights saboteurs as the top domestic “terrorism” threat, overlooking neo-Nazis to threaten green activists with life sentences (The Intercept). The DOJ targeted hundreds of protesters in the George Floyd Rebellion with federal charges (CNN). The subjects of Justice Department terrorism investigations include Black Lives Matter protesters (The Intercept), a civil rights attorney (NPR), and hundreds of attendees at some of the country’s largest mosques (ACLU). An environmental justice activist will serve eight years as a terrorist because of nonviolent direct action against the catastrophic Dakota Access Pipeline (KX News). 

The Department of Justice’s federal prisons “are plagued by inadequate medical care, overcrowding, staff shortages, unsanitary conditions, violence, and abuse” (The Sentencing Project). An “overwhelming majority” of their “disproportionately Black and Brown” captives “are indigent at the time of trial” (The Sentencing Project). A 2021 report found that “neither the Biden administration nor Congress has taken action that reflects a commitment toward sustained decarceration” (Vera). 

The communities of color targeted for racist violence like the Jacksonville shooting are also disproportionately harmed by the Department of Justice. During the Trump administration, liberals grew outraged at federal police power as kids in cages and an attempted “Muslim ban” made front-page news. Under a Democratic president, political elites are trying to whitewash those same federal agencies: the same men holding the same guns guarding the same cages, though likely with different children inside. We’re supposed to forget federal agents snatching Black Lives Matter protesters off the street in unmarked vans (The Guardian) because now, we’re told, the Evil Republican Department of Justice has been replaced by a Basically Anti-Racist, Constitution-Defending Democratic one. But sprawling federal bureaucracies don’t toss out all of their protocols and career civil servants when a new president takes office. The mission of the Justice Department continues between administrations: to protect the most powerful and violent government in the world from internal threats, including those posed by its own citizens demanding justice. 

We can’t prevent racist violence like the Jacksonville shooting by empowering a racist institution. Every mass shooting is a tragedy. It’s also true that police killed 20 times as many people as mass shooters last year (StatistaStatista). For police to be able to preemptively stop each of the 341 mass shooters in 2021, they would have had to surveil, arrest, and strip civil liberties from millions more (Insider). If recent history is any guide, the majority of those attacked would not be aspiring mass shooters but members of marginalized communities and progressive activists.

There’s no magic wand we can wave to solve these problems, and if we did, it certainly wouldn’t involve racist cops, courts, or prisons. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. 98% of mass shooters are male, meaning that trauma-informed schools and interrupting the toxic masculinity that hurts everyone, including young men themselves, can play an important role (NPR). Anti-fascist organizers and researchers are disrupting the far-right spaces that encourage “lone wolf” acts of fascist violence (Al JazeeraTruthout).

Communities of color are fighting gun violence in ways that don’t depend on the gun violence of over-policing. And because of the reality of gun ownership in the United States, marginalized communities are also organizing for collective self-defense (The GuardianSalonVox). Stopping right-wing radicalization, promoting self-defense, and confronting male violence are real interventions that might stop the next Jacksonville shooting before it starts. 


• Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Department of Justice prioritizes fighting white supremacy. 

• The Department of Justice oversees mass incarceration and political repression. 

• Community self-defense and feminist and anti-fascist interventions can prevent mass violence, like the Jacksonville shooting, without police surveillance and violence. 

1280 853 Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

All stories by : Andrew Lee
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