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On the Far Right and Policing in America

Ali Winston, interviewed by Lucy McKeon
“There is an appetite for accountability reporting that is a direct result of the change in public attitude.”

On November 12, 2020, we published Ali Winston’s “New York’s Finest?”—a report on the New York Police Department’s brutal response to recent protests against police violence, the force’s widespread support for Trump’s reelection, public safety concerns amid the pandemic, and the continuing pursuit of police accountability.

Winston’s first piece for us was about the far-right Rise Above Movement (RAM), a world that he’s reported on extensively these past four years. “Ironically, I got into covering far-right and neo-fascist movements through a line of reporting on street gangs and gang policing in California,” Winston told me over email, “which has a long, rich history that includes white skinhead groups like the Aryan Brotherhood, Nazi Low Riders, Public Enemy Number One, and the Hammerskins. By mid-2016, we were already starting to see clashes between anti-fascists and groups of Klan members and racist skinheads, both in Anaheim and Sacramento.” He went down a rabbit hole of reporting on violent and paramilitary groups like RAM, Atomwaffen Division, and the Base. And now, with the emergence of the Boogaloo Boys and the Trump-inspired militia revival, there’s more to cover still.

I was curious how he detoxes after such a story. “Covering that world does expose reporters to a great deal of hate and awfulness. But for me, it is far healthier to examine the problem, understand it, and try to address it in a constructive way rather than pretend those elements of Western society and culture don’t exist.”

Based in New York City since 2018, when he was an investigative Metro reporter for The New York Times, Winston has also published in ProPublica, The Appeal, and The Intercept, and he recently worked on a film and radio project for the BBC about the transatlantic far right. How did he first get into journalism? “Through my love of history,” Winston told me. “But while writing my undergraduate thesis, I realized that historians have this temporal stricture placed on their research—it’s considered ‘bleeding edge’ to write about things that happened twenty years ago. So I decided that instead of reading primary sources for a living, I’d write them and try to make the first draft of history a decent one.”

When I saw that Winston had been a fellow at Type Investigations, I asked if he—like me—had gone through the internship program at The Nation magazine. He had. “Interning at The Nation back in 2006 was a formative experience. Fact-checking is the core of that position, and an essential skill for young journalists to learn. It is astounding how seldom proper fact-checking takes place in some of our most well-respected publications. It also taught me the importance of rigor and doing things right, instead of doing them quickly.”

Winston has carried that rigor into his reporting on criminal justice and surveillance, and I wondered what’s changed over the fourteen years he’s been covering those beats. “Over time, they certainly merged as police took on more intelligence-led techniques and benefited from an endless flow of federal grant dollars and private donations to purchase sophisticated hardware and software,” he said. “When I first started, it was difficult to report on law enforcement with an accountability lens, especially in New York City. You could do it, but the 9/11 card would often get trotted out as justification for some of the more abusive practices, like stop-and-frisk, widespread video surveillance, and spying on Muslim New Yorkers just because of their religion or ethnic backgrounds. Snowden and the 2013 reporting on the NSA’s surveillance abuses changed a bit of that, and so did the first Black Lives Matter cycle of 2013–2015.”

I wondered, too, how he found his work affected by this year’s protests against police violence and racial inequality, and more generally by growing public awareness, over the past decade or so, about the injustices of the criminal legal system. “My perspective on the public appetite for police accountability reporting is a bit skewed,” he said. “I was in Oakland from 2008 to 2018, and reported on the killing of Oscar Grant and the movement that ultimately led to the conviction of his killer, former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, which was the first time in California history a cop was convicted for a fatal shooting. That movement was sparked by a cellphone recording of the 2009 killing, and prefigured much of what we’re seeing now.

“Back in the day, the amount of pushback from police departments, city officials, and readers for publishing basic reporting on something like a fatal police shooting was far higher than now,” he went on. “There is an appetite for accountability reporting now that is a direct result of the change in public attitude and the widespread skepticism now towards the policing regime the US built up over the past thirty years, through the War on Drugs, the War on Crime, and the War on Terror. It is welcome, and overdue.

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“That said,” Winston added, “there is still a wild degree of deference within legacy media (including a number of places I’ve worked) to law enforcement institutions, that often is driven by access journalism or a bizarre impulse to ‘maintain sources.’”

With news of Biden’s projected win last weekend, what’s on Winston’s mind these days? “There’s a huge reckoning coming now that Trump lost,” he said. “Law enforcement (particularly local cops and sheriffs) by and large set itself up on one side of the political spectrum. However, the real pressure—for reform and diverting money away from law enforcement—is going to come on a local level, more so than from the Biden-Harris administration. Both of them have been milquetoast on police accountability, to put it mildly.

“My main focus right now is on a book I’m writing for Atria with my colleague Darwin Bond-Graham about the modern history of the Oakland Police Department and police reform. OPD is under the longest-standing consent decree in US history, and it is nowhere near completing its reform program. The department’s story, in many ways, serves as a case study for how America deals with law enforcement and accountability.”

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