Is the broad collection of militant anti-fascist groups known as "antifa" a terrorist organization? President Donald Trump certainly seem to think so.
On Saturday, Trump tweeted that he was considering labeling the semi-autonomous groups that coalesced in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential election a terrorist organization. He decried the "gutless Radical Left Wack Jobs who go around hitting (only non-fighters) people over the heads with baseball bats" as a threat to American society on par with the international MS-13 gang organization.
The announcement came weeks after Representative Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania) wrote to Attorney General William Barr asking him to label antifa a terrorist group. Fitzpatrick's letter itself came on the heels of the highly publicized assault of conservative journalist Andy Ngo during a clash between the white nationalist Proud Boys and antifa activists in Portland, Oregon, which he was observing. Trump's tweet also came just days after Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Bill Cassidy introduced a non-binding resolution designed to declare various antifa organizations as "domestic terrorists."
"Antifa are terrorists, violent masked bullies who 'fight fascism' with actual fascism, protected by Liberal privilege," Cassidy said in a statement. "Bullies get their way until someone says no. Elected officials must have courage, not cowardice, to prevent terror."
Trump's broadside against antifa is something of a foregone conclusion: The Department of Homeland Security once labeled the group's activities as "domestic terrorist violence" back in an April of 2016 warning to state and local law enforcement. But Trump's invocation of "an organization of terror" as a description of antifa, and not its activities, has potentially dangerous implications for American civil liberties—and, in some ways, validates the entire raison d'être of antifa in the first place.
Under the 2001 Patriot Act, groups commit domestic terrorism by engaging in violent acts that "intimidate or coerce a civilian population ... to influence the policy of a government." But as of 2019, the FBI definition of domestic terrorism now refers to individuals and groups "that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature." Broadening that criteria for "domestic terrorism" to any so-called "extreme" categories doesn't just provide the Trump administration with a way to turn antifa into a political scapegoat, but another opportunity to refocus American fear onto non-existent targets while the real threats continue to wage war on civil society.
Like his frequent allusions to "American carnage" amid record-low national crime rates, Trump's rhetorical barbs about left-wing terrorism are factually inaccurate despite highly publicized clashes between various antifa factions and white nationalist groups. Only 2 percent of the 372 Americans killed by domestic political extremists over the last decade were at the hands of so-called "radical left" extremists, according to data published by the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism; by contrast, 74 percent of those killings were committed by right-wing extremists, levels that have only grown amid a global surge in far-right activity. Indeed, the one death at the 2017 Charlottesville rally that marked the first fatal clash between far-right and antifa activists came at the hands of the former. Lawmakers can grouse all they want about violent antifa counter-protesters, but the reality is that far-right extremism is far more dangerous.
Importantly, declaring a suspect a domestic terrorist isn't just a rhetorical gambit: A formal classification of "domestic terrorist" bestows a new class of investigatory powers on the Department of Justice (DOJ). As NPR explained in the aftermath of the Charlottesville incident, "domestic terrrorism" isn't a criminal act itself but a categorization that, under federal law, defines "acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law" that appears "intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population." In the eyes of the United States government, terrorism is necessarily an organizational crime rather than a "lone wolf" one, and requires a more aggressive investigatory response. While federal law does indeed specify a number of specific terrorism-related crimes, it's this separate designation that allows the government "to investigate not only an individual suspect, but also any group the suspect may be affiliated with."
As a result, a terror designation would allow for the U.S. government to investigate and punish members of antifa despite the fact that the organization lacks the coherent structure or organization of, say, ISIS. Indeed, the structure of terrorism-related offenses under federal law "allows prosecutors to seek high terrorism penalties while avoiding the problems of proving that the perpetrators actually have the motives characteristic of terrorism," as the Brennan Center for Justice's Faiza Patel explained back in 2015 following Charleston shooter Dylann Roof's arrest. "More common offenses like shootings or kidnappings don't necessarily fit into this scheme for obvious reasons: including them would sweep in regular criminal activity." Throwing a milkshake isn't the same as hijacking an airplane, but both would be "terrorism" by designation in the Trump DOJ's eyes.
Trump's deployment of the "terror" label as a political tool is not a new conservative move. As I wrote following far-right extremist Roof's fatal mass shooting at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, his murders almost certainly rose to the level of "terrorism" under the FBI's definition of intent to "intimidate or coerce a civilian population," especially given the history of white America's war of terror against its black citizens. But Roof wasn't labeled as a terrorist by the DOJ because, as I argued at the time, white mass murderers tend to enjoy the benefit of the doubt as "lone wolves" somehow disconnected from structural and organizational influences despite evidence otherwise.
That the bloodthirsty Roof was somehow not a domestic terrorist because he was a "lone wolf" but a handful of antifa activists might now be underscores the blind spots that are baked into the U.S. criminal justice system—and how Trump is so baldly deploying the "terror" designation as a political tool.
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