President Donald Trump warned Saturday that “consideration is being given” to declaring antifacist protesters — Antifa — a “terror” organization. He issued the threat even though Antifa followers haven’t been linked to a single killing, while the death toll of far-right extremists is surging.
Trump’s warning follows a nonbinding resolution introduced earlier this month by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) calling for the “designation of Antifa as a domestic terrorist organization.” Cruz later called on Attorney General William Barr to investigate Antifa. He attacked Antifa after conservative journalist Andy Ngo was bloodied in a clash last month with counterprotesters in Portland, Oregon.
Lawbreakers driven by political ideology aren’t charged in the U.S. with domestic terrorism, but rather with offenses such as assault, hate crimes or homicide. But designating antifascist protesters as a terror organization would allow law enforcement more leeway to investigate participants, as well as their affiliations, according to Georgetown University law professor Neal Katyal, a former national security adviser to the Justice Department.
But targeting Antifa misses the source of deadly political violence in the nation. Just weeks ago, acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan branded white supremacist violence a “huge issue” and an “increasingly concerning threat” in a Capitol Hill hearing.
Last year, 11 people were killed when accused gunman Robert Bowers, who spewed his anti-Semitic rants on a favorite social media site of neo-Nazis, opened fire at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in the deadliest attack on Jews in the nation’s history. In 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof fatally shot nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Earlier this month, self-avowed neo-Nazi James Alex Fields Jr. was sentenced to life plus 419 years for deliberately driving his car into a crowd of counterprotesters at the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring several others.
A preliminary tally by the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism found that domestic extremists took the lives of at least 50 people in 2018 — up from 37 the previous year — and that each of the killings “had a link to right-wing extremism.” It was the fourth-deadliest year for extremist attacks since 1970. The FBI reported a 17% jump in hate crimes in 2017, its latest report, over the previous year.
The far right accounted for 73% of 425 extremist murders in the U.S. between 2009 and 2018, according to the ADL data.
Antifa is a loosely linked collection of groups of protesters who take on right-wing demonstrators on an ad hoc basis, rather than a single organized group. Designating such protesters as part of a terror group risks branding any demonstrators against a right-wing ideology as terrorists.
“It is dangerous and overly broad to use labels that are disconnected [from] actual individual conduct,” Hina Shamsi, director of the national security project at the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Washington Post last week. “Any such scheme raises significant due process, equal protection and First Amendment constitutional concerns.”
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