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Upon arriving at the first-ever Tri-County Sheriff’s Forum in California, you might find yourself asking whether you’re at a community forum or a spy convention. Supercars, guns, gadgets, snowmobiles, helicopters, military-grade special operations gear, armored vehicles, scuba-diving equipment, and even a rocket propelled grenade launcher? There was quite a militarized spectacle on display at the April 23rd event, hosted by the Sheriff’s Departments of Los Angeles, Riverside, and hometown team San Bernardino. Chino Airport, home to a large military aviation museum, was the venue. It matched the war-dog theme of the event well. Sheriff’s deputies and their supporters gathered in and around an old hangar alongside well-maintained fighter-planes dating back to World War II. It all seemed like a hefty buffet for any law enforcement and military buff, but it wasn’t the fancy war toys of past and present that caught my eye.
As I waded through the crowd towards the entrance of the hangar, my gaze lingered on a flag hanging at a booth right at the hangar opening, surrounded by pro-Trump memorabilia. The roman numeral “three” on the flag stood out amongst the U.S. and “Thin Blue Line” flags. The Three Percenters use this flag as their symbol.
But they aren’t a law enforcement agency.
They’re a self-described militia,designated as terrorists in Canada and have a history of far-right militancy and violence across North America.
From armed participation in the deadly neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville to involvement in multiple bombing plots, the anti-government extremists are hardly what you’d expect to find at a law enforcement forum, right?
Perhaps not. The Three Percenters, like many white supremacist and far-right extremist groups, have a long history of ties to law enforcement and government. The state of California just released an audit of five law enforcement departments with ties to hate groups, and two of the departments in the audit are among the three that were here: San Bernardino County and Los Angeles County. The audit found that some deputies and officers had an alarming bias in favor of fascist and white supremacist extremist groups, specifically citing support for the Confederate States of America, the Proud Boys, and yes, the Three Percenters.
As for the third Sheriff’s department of the trio, Riverside County Sheriff’s Department is headed by Sheriff Chad Bianco, a confirmed dues-paying member of the Oath Keepers, another far-right extremist group who was central in the storming of the United States Capitol on January 6th. The leaders of the Oath Keepers were the first insurrectionists to be charged with seditious conspiracy against the United States of America. And here’s a man who has defended his membership in the Oath Keepers as leader of one of the most powerful Sheriff’s departments in the state of California.
The forum centered around Bianco, San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus and Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. They spoke to a conservative and far-right crowd for about an hour and a half and answered questions that were submitted online. There were no critical questions asked. The moderator of the forum was pro-Trump radio host Jennifer Horn, who was very open about her admiration for all three Sheriffs. For the duration of the forum, the three top lawmen talked about fighting local and state governments, building community relations, fighting allegedly illegal marijuana distribution, vilification against sex workers, and your typical “law and order” talking points. Notably, there was a lot of dehumanizing rhetoric about unhoused people.
“Our government will never fix this issue if we keep calling it homelessness, because it has nothing to do with homes or lack of homes. It’s a drug-induced psychosis…” Sheriff Chad Bianco said.
Meanwhile, in a statement widely condemned as fascist and cruel, Sheriff Alex Villanueva suggested putting unhoused people on trains and sending them away with a “one way ticket back to wherever they came from.”
The three of them appealed to the crowd with talk of CCW permits, COVID-denialist rhetoric that condemned vaccine and mask mandates, and an obsession with attacking the esoteric concept of “wokeness,” which seemed to mean any liberal or left-leaning political belief that their right-wing base despised. The Sheriffs also made a point to condemn journalism as a whole, with Dicus saying that investigative reporting is a “lost art” and Bianco literally saying “there is no such thing as journalism.” Sheriff Dicus has butted heads with reporters over his department’s illegal heists of over $1 million from armored cars hired by a legal marijuana company. The government had to return the money. Meanwhile, Bianco is constantly fighting journalists over his membership in the Oath Keepers and Villanueva has gone as far as to investigate an L.A. Times journalist for reporting on his department’s use of force.
All three Sheriffs have elections coming up, and this forum, on the surface, seemed to be a way for all three to generate momentum for their respective campaigns. But there wasn’t a lot of campaigning going on at this forum, besides the odd “Vote for Bianco” shirts I spotted in the crowd. The Sheriffs were more focused on talking about overpowering government officials and collaborating with each other across counties, for criminal investigations as well as for flexing their own political might. This crowd ate it up, cheering and hollering anytime right-wing talking points were celebrated by any of the three men. After the forum ended, Villanueva could be seen posing for photos with anti-vaccine activists and even a far-right gubernatorial candidate.
The forum was a big networking opportunity for political operatives who want to portray themselves as having close ties to powerful law enforcement officials. And it doesn’t get more powerful than Villanueva, leader of the largest Sheriff’s Department in the nation.
Once the forum ended, I couldn’t stay very long. I had been live-tweeting about the event, and some of the audience members recognized me and took issue with me sharing the image of the Three Percenters flag at the entrance. I was the only journalist who shared images of that flag. I was verbally accosted before I could leave my seat, and was forced to exit the forum for my own safety as right-wing activists pointed and screamed at me and onlookers watched on in confusion.
During his final closing statements, Bianco summed up the event with surprising transparency: “We’re all thinking the same thing. We are all dealing with the same thing and we all believe the same thing.” The three Sheriffs often mirrored each other’s answers during the forum, bordering on redundancy.
This forum was important and significant. The uniting of these three departments in a charged political setting helps these controversial Sheriffs flex their cultivated political power to a primarily right-wing base. And none of these Sheriffs seem bothered by the ensuing associations with far-right extremists and even designated terrorist groups.