The Alameda County Sheriffs Department officer who distributed a tweet by white supremacist Richard Spencer took responsibility for what he described as an error, while also saying that he was engaged in "legitimate research" on the part of the department.
Sgt. Ray Kelly came under criticism after retweeting a post from Spencer's account carrying a link to a 14 August 2017 press conference from him. He told us in a phone interview a day later that he tried to delete the retweet, only to accidentally "mute" Spencer's account, leaving him unable to see it or undo the action.
The tweet was reportedly taken down after 45 minutes, Kelly told us:
I had to call our IT person at 11 o'clock at night and get him up and he was able to track it down and undo the retweet. This was a comedy of errors on my part in my being not very sophisticated with Twitter.
The apparent gaffe led to criticism online and accusations that the department was tacitly supporting Spencer by distributing the link to the press conference. A San Francisco-based group, the Arab Resource & Organizing Center (AROC), said on its own Twitter account:
Although he says it was an accidental retweet, the @ACSOSheriffs openly supports Jeff Sessions. That makes him a white supremacist.
In a separate statement, Zachary Norris, president of the Oakland-based the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, demanded that the department stop providing federal officials with information concerning undocumented immigrants' release from local jails, among other demands. A spokesperson for the group, Zaineb Mohammed, told us:
We really see this as a bigger issue that goes beyond whether or not the tweet was sent on purpose or whether the Sheriff's Department has apologized. Our focus is really on the ongoing racial injustice and white supremacy that's perpetuated by the Sheriff's Department, which did not beginning or ending with this tweet. That's why we put out this statement sharing specific demands as ways for the sheriff to move forward and demonstrate a commitment to showing that they do not support white supremacy.
For his part, Kelly said that though he "couldn't feel further from the sentiments of people that spew that type of hatred and anger," he watched Spencer's livestream for professional reasons:
I was doing legitimate research in regards to what's going on with our nation, in regards to some of the hatred that's going on. As a police officer that deals with the media, it's important for me to understand what's being said. To know who the actors are. That's why we were looking at some of these folks. We absolutely monitor those folks.
Specifically, Kelly said, he watched the broadcast in order to gain information in advance of a white nationalist gathering planned for 27 August 2017 in nearby Berkeley. That was the same reason, Kelly said, the department's account was following that of another prominent white nationalist, Kyle "Based Stickman" Chapman:
I had just followed that person in the last day or two because his name was coming up as a person who was going to be in Berkeley and he's a person that we need to know about. If he's beating people with axe handles and all this other stuff, I need to know what he's saying. And there is no more real-time information that we can get than we can get through social media.
Chapman, one of the leaders of the "Proud Boys" fascist group, was arrested in March 2017 after being caught on video hitting counter-protesters during an unlicensed "free speech" rally in Berkeley. He has already described the upcoming event as "Battle of Berkeley 3".
Kelly said the department stopped following him on Twitter after being criticized for doing so in the wake of the errant retweeting of Spencer's post. He called the error "embarrassing," adding:
I'm trying to take away something from this that I can share with other law enforcement agencies, and that is the fact that I am not very tech savvy so I'll be upping my game with that. I couldn't feel further from the sentiments of people that spew that type of hatred and anger and white supremacist rhetoric.
We contacted AROC seeking a follow-up comment regarding their tweet about Kelly. They have not yet responded.