Column: ‘Go Brandon’ joke is latest sign of right-wing extremism in law enforcement
The deputies of the scandal-plagued Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department are probably the last public employees I’d pick to spread international goodwill.
Yet that’s exactly what happened Thursday morning with the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program. The decades-old initiative seeks to spread democracy by bringing in people from across the globe to learn from American institutions and officials.
Photos on social media posted by the sheriff’s Community Partnerships Bureau showed employees chatting with a delegation from various African countries, as kids from the local Youth Activity League listened. The topic at hand, per the bureau: “Dissuading radicalization.”
At the same time, President Biden was in L.A. for the Summit of the Americas. Federal authorities enacted a no-fly zone until 10 p.m., limiting even law enforcement agencies from using helicopters without permission.
A memo describing the no-fly rules went to Sheriff’s Department patrol units and station dispatch centers in the afternoon. Sources told me that someone then tacked on a new ending, “Go Brandon Go Brandon Go Brandon!!!!!!!!!” — a weak-salsa insult that conservatives use as a stand-in vulgarity against Biden — and passed along the altered message to other deputies.
I tweeted a photo of it, and it quickly went viral. Hours later, the Sheriff’s Department Twitter account chimed in: The last line was a “hoax.”
While denying my initial assertion that the doctored “Go Brandon” memo went departmentwide, the tweet didn’t deny that it circulated among employees, stating, “We will conduct a follow-up inquiry on the matter.” In responses to my colleague Alene Tchekmedyian, Lt. Oscar A. Martinez of the Sheriff’s Information Bureau repeated the anodyne line, despite her pointed questions.
The department also didn’t address what I asked in my tweet: “Are these the far-right employees Sheriff Alex Villanueva talked to me about?”
Earlier this year, I spoke to Villanueva in a one-hour interview that was supposed to focus on the Latino essence of his administration but instead careened into all sorts of problematic terrain, including the political makeup of his employees.
After trading barbs in the media with Times columnist Gustavo Arellano, Sheriff Alex Villanueva sits down to discuss Latinos and his administration.
When I asked why he didn’t require his deputies to take the COVID-19 vaccine, Villanueva responded, “When you want to impose a mandate on your workforce, you better damn well know who your workforce is. Because as soon as you mandate something, especially people that are suspicious of government, they believe in all these conspiracy theories.
“You know they’re out there, especially on the right — the conservative crowd in the far right,” he continued. “And what is 80% of my workforce? Conservative and far right.”
Law enforcement has never exactly recruited from the liberal crowd. But actions like mocking a directive to help protect the president are yet another indication of how far down the polarization hole too many officers and deputies have fallen. They’re supposed to be the nonpartisan defenders of everyone, regardless of beliefs. Instead, we’re seeing more and more members pledge their allegiance to the “Big Lie.” What was once latent is now blatant.
The African delegation’s check-in with deputies and the “Go Brandon!” prank happened the same day a House select committee opened hearings on the Jan. 6 insurrection, where Blue Lives Matter flags waved even as protesters assaulted Capitol police.
A USA Today investigation found that at least 19 current or former officers have been criminally charged for their actions during the attempted coup. Six have pleaded guilty, and two have been convicted. Dozens more were there but so far haven’t faced charges, including Monica Alston, a former special officer with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. FBI agents searched her home in February 2021, and she was placed on administrative leave soon after. She left her job this January.
Law enforcement officials know that right-wing radicalization in their profession is an issue. No less an authority than former Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said so last year to The Times.
“It is the first time in modern history that we have officers engaging in acts of sedition,” he said. “We have to do everything we can as police departments to weed out extremists who support violence, be it far right or far left.”
Locally, some sheriffs don’t seem to care.
Sheriffs in Southern California are turning out to be Keystone corona-Kops during the COVID-19 pandemic, failing to bring law and order to their counties.
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco is a former member of the Oath Keepers, an antigovernment militia that includes hundreds of former and current members of law enforcement. When news emerged of his history, Bianco tried to portray the Oath Keepers as just a club of patriotic, law-abiding Americans.
“Except for a few fringe people, [the Jan. 6 insurrection] is not really what they stand for,” he told KPCC reporter Frank Stoltze. “They certainly don’t promote violence and government overthrow. They stand for protecting the Constitution.”
More than a dozen Oath Keepers face charges for their role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, including the group’s founder, Stewart Rhodes. Prosecutors allege that Rhodes committed “seditious conspiracy” by being part of the hell that went down on Capitol Hill. A federal filing says he talked to someone close to Trump and “repeatedly implore[d] the individual to tell President Trump to call upon groups like the Oath Keepers to forcibly oppose the transfer of power.”
In Orange County, Deputy Russell Sison was caught on camera wearing a patch of the Oath Keepers and another extremist militia, the Three Percenters, next to his badge during a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest in Costa Mesa. Sheriff Don Barnes initially put the 13-year veteran on administrative leave, saying that “the implication of his association with an extremist group is unacceptable and deeply concerning to me.”
Sison’s punishment? Mandatory training, alongside his colleagues, about extremist groups. He quit the O.C. Sheriff’s Department in October of last year.
L.A. County’s big extremist law enforcement problem, of course, is deputy gangs. Villanueva has alternately denied that they’re still around, downplayed their existence, claimed that they’re a menace that has been neutralized or attacked as racist anyone who calls them “gangs.” It’s little surprise that the “far-right” deputies who, by his own admission, dominate his department feel emboldened to pass anti-Biden messages among themselves or post pro-Trump paraphernalia at Men’s Central Jail.
The sheriff, who remains a registered Democrat, is either turning a blind eye to the rhetorical rot in his ranks or is scared of alienating his deputies. Actually, it’s the latter. In our interview this spring, Villanueva admitted that if he were to impose a COVID-19 vaccination mandate, “I lose credibility within the workforce, and people are just going to head to the exits.”
That’s just cowardice, which is unbecoming of the L.A. County sheriff. Did his deputies tell the African delegation about that?
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