The militant group Antifa, seen by many as the militant wing of the left, has garnered quite a bit of attention in the past months. Ever since Trump’s election victory, the ranks of groups identifying with Antifa’s violent tactics have grown exponentially. Ironically, the entering of the darling of the far-right into the White House only served to embolden and strengthen the most extreme elements of America’s political left. Events such as the vandalizing of UC campus at Berkeley in response to a conservative guest speaker in February, and more recently, clashes between alt-right demonstrators and Antifa activists in Charlottesville are poignant examples of the growing threat Antifa poses to domestic safety in the country.
This growing rate of organized politically motivated violence will have its consequences, and will probably be most noticeable in the way law enforcement addresses these groups and investigating and combating their actions.
The growing list of attacks, ever growing in size and scope since Trump’s election, have culminated in reports of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) \ issuing an official classification of these activities as “domestic terror.” According to reports, a joint intelligence assessment by the FBI and DHS described these groups as “anarchist extremists” who target police, government institutions, “symbols of capitalism” and who see themselves as aligned with the political left.
This should not come as a surprise.
Antifa draws its influence from the Black Bloc, a violent political movement which began in Germany decades ago and then became a staple of the violent political activism and organized anti-police violence in the chaotic urban scenes of Brazil. Today several groups around the country fall under the large umbrella of Antifa activists such Redneck Revolt and the Red Guards, and the infamous By Any Means Necessary. Although the Antifa movement has relatively “humble” beginnings as rowdy, aggressive mobs, assembling in response to right-wing activism as counter protesters, Antifa has evolved into a much more dangerous phenomenon. Antifa activists show up to events wielding weapons. And not just pepper spray canisters. The black clad left-wing warriors carry clubs, homemade or even military grade shields, and throw molotov cocktails. Episodes of Antifa violence have begun to be ‘unprovoked’ meaning, not in response to the activism of political adversaries but independently organized.
Well before the deadly events in Charlottesville, DHS had been warning about increased clashes between opposing groups at political rallies leading to mild to severe violence and unrest. These warnings were signals to local law enforcement agencies that any political event ran the risk of turning into an all-out street war. The police on the streets are the ones feeling the heat.
In the words of one senior law enforcement officer interviewed in the wake of Charlottesville, “Everybody is wondering, 'What are we gonna do? How are we gonna deal with this?’ Emotions get high, and fingers get twitchy on the trigger.” City police departments are especially anxious now as several major right-wing rallies have been scheduled over the next few months across the country. Locations include Texas, Oregon, Missouri, and Florida. In many of these states, it is legal to brandish assault weapons in public. These can and will most likely be brought to events similar to Charlottesville.
From a broader policy perspective, investigations by federal intelligence bodies into Antifa signal a paradigm shift, slow in coming but certainly one that will have its effects. Agencies like the FBI and DHS have become concerned that Antifa may produce a full-blown terror network from within its most extreme elements, something based on the model of European and South American anarchists. This concern was alluded to already in a 2016 federal report entitled Baseline Comparison of US and Foreign Anarchist Extremist Movements. The risk of such a group doesn’t end with street violence but rather in planned sabotage and orchestrated bombings.
The fact that Antifa’s activities have only been increasing throughout the country doesn’t serve to quell these fears. What will this mean for how the feds go about investigating these groups? To answer this question, we can look to the difference between how cops investigate a late night mugging and how they investigate a suspected ISIS cell.
Granted, Antifa affiliated groups aren’t quite at the level of Islamist militants, but the view of Antifa as domestic terrorists will be reflected in both local and federal policy levels.
We are already witnessing police investigations into students who attend schools known to be bulwarks of Antifa sympathizers. This trend has increased since the series of violent incidents in California over last spring. Any affiliation with known Antifa members could be reason for investigation, and if an actual criminal conspiracy is being looked into, for arrest. Antifa groups very commonly show up to counter-protest with other like-minded, albeit significantly less aggressive, political groups. Black Live Matter activists, for instance, are often seen alongside Antifa members protesting rallies in support of Trump. Many individuals, especially on campus, could become inadvertently affiliated with people the federal government considers to be potential terrorists. Could the FBI soon be showing up at colleges?
To the concerned reader: This is not meant to sound like a doomsday prophecy. This assessment is meant to soberly consider the effects that increased commonality and severity of organized political violence may have on the practices of law enforcement in this country.
It should be noted that the shifting of views toward militant political groups in America is transpiring alongside another slightly older phenomenon, that of the militarization of local police forces. Largely on the initiative of the federal government going back to the Bush era, budget programs have been developing for at least the past ten years, all across the country to outfit local law enforcement with military-style gear and equipment. These programs were spurred by the belief that the possibility of a local police department having to respond to a large-scale violent incident was becoming a reality. The shotgun in the back of the squad car wasn’t going to cut it. As of 2014, state and local security programs funded by the federal government stood at about $1 billion. The increase in violent incidents between political groups over the past year coupled with increased federal spending to militarize local police has had a dual effect. Some states and cities have become all too eager to gear up and have the federal government foot the bill. With states of emergency being declared due to Antifa and alt-right clashes from California to Virginia, many police forces see this step as a necessary measure to protect both citizens and officers in the face of a large-scale incident.
Others don’t quite share that view.
Consider the case of Montana, the state that in 2015 passed a bill outlawing the acquisition of many types of military gear for police use. Or New Jersey, who in the same year passed a law requiring “approval from local legislative bodies before municipalities and counties can obtain military equipment.” This issue may, in and of itself become a new battleground between the left and the right, nested within the context of the growing Antifa phenomenon. In late August, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told a gathering of the Fraternal Order of Police that President Trump had done away with federal restrictions placed by Obama on local police implementing military equipment. Many observers of Sessions’ address, saw it as a clear signal that the federal government was actively promoting a shock-and-awe approach for local police departments to be prepared in the age of Antifa.
It will be interesting to see how the two issues of political violence and police militarization interact. The latter, until this point, has not been a partisan issue by any means. Going back to the previous examples, the Montana bill was passed in the local state legislature with strong Republican support, while the New Jersey law was pushed forward by Republican governor Chris Christie. However, the rift between Republicans and Democrats may indeed come to influence the policies of the states on militarization, which will likely, in turn, have a strong influence on how individual local law enforcement groups address the observable rising levels of political violence.