Two U.S. senators have introduced a resolution calling for antifa activists to be designated as domestic terrorists, singling out violent protests in Portland and a local branch of the anti-fascist movement in particular.
The resolution, sponsored by Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, comes on the heels of a recent clash between competing demonstrators in downtown Portland that made national headlines.
The resolution cited an attack on conservative writer Andy Ngo during the June 29 rallies that brought supporters of an area #HimToo group, Proud Boys and antifa-affiliated protesters to the city’s core as well as a 2018 camp-in at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Southwest Portland.
A video of the attack on Ngo shows people dressed in black, some with their faces covered, punching Ngo, kicking and spraying him and throwing things at him. Police arrested three people at the protests that day on various allegations, including assault and harassment, though none specifically for the Ngo confrontation.
“Antifa is a terrorist organization composed of hateful, intolerant radicals who pursue their extreme agenda through aggressive violence,” Cruz said in a statement. “Time and time again their actions have demonstrated that their central purpose is to inflict harm on those who oppose their views.”
The resolution is meant to express a nonbinding position of the Senate and would not make any changes to the U.S. legal code. The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for information on whether designating antifa a “domestic terrorist organization” would change the way it prosecutes members of the organization who are accused of crimes.
Antifa, a shortening of anti-fascist, is a militant leftist movement that rose to greater prominence after Donald Trump’s election in response to the public ascent of white nationalism.
Antifa isn’t a single organization, instead operating loosely in various cities without central leadership, and using disruption and sometimes violent tactics to carry out its stated agenda against hate, homophobia and anti-Semitism. Antifa protesters are known to wear black and mask their faces.
Rose City Antifa, Portland’s oldest and most well-known antifascist group, last month posted a call for supporters to counter the Proud Boys gathering, writing: “If we don’t show up, won’t they just go home disappointed?”
The Senate resolution declares that Rose City Antifa “explicitly rejects the authority of law enforcement officers in the United States, and Federal, State, and local governments, to protect free speech and stop acts of violence.”
Rose City Antifa didn’t immediately respond Friday to a request for a response.
Antifa protesters have been at the center of violent clashes with right-wing activists around the country. In 2017, for instance, about 100 masked people including anarchists and antifa members pepper-sprayed and chased peaceful right-wing marchers in Berkeley, Calif. Around the same time, antifa physically confronted white nationalists at the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., when a man who had expressed racist, anti-Semitic beliefs drove into a crowd of left-wing protesters, killing one person. On numerous occasions, black-clad demonstrators have thrown rocks and other objects at police.
The Anti-Defamation League, a nonprofit organization that tracks anti-Semitism in the U.S., says the antifa label is often misapplied to include all counterprotesters, rather than just those who seek out physical confrontations with the groups they’re protesting.
“Their presence at a protest is intended to intimidate and dissuade racists, but the use of violent measures by some antifa against their adversaries can create a vicious, self-defeating cycle of attacks, counter-attacks and blame,” the organization says on its website.
At the same time, the Anti-Defamation League said white supremacists have committed far greater acts of violence. In 2018, domestic extremists — the “great majority” of whom were white supremacists — killed at least 50 people in the U.S., the organization reported. Among them was Robert Bowers, accused of gunning down 11 people and injuring seven in and around the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
The resolution introduced by Cruz and Cassidy also calls on “the Federal Government to redouble its efforts, using all available and appropriate tools, to combat the spread of all forms of domestic terrorism, including White supremacist terrorism.”
While domestic terrorism isn’t a specific crime under U.S. law, federal law enforcement agencies have broader powers to investigate people defined as domestic terrorists for violations of other laws. The Patriot Act defines domestic terrorism as criminal activity that appears intended to “intimidate or coerce” civilians or influence government policy using violent methods.
Unlike foreign terrorist organizations, the federal government doesn’t maintain an official public list of domestic terrorist groups. But the FBI reported earlier this year that it’s investigating 850 cases of potential domestic terrorism following high-profile attacks against synagogues and churches carried out by avowed white supremacists.
Multiple news outlets have reported that the Department of Homeland Security formally classified antifa activities as “domestic terrorist violence” in 2016, citing confidential documents.
But calls for a public designation intensified this year after the June 29 Portland clashes, leading to multiple petitions circling around the internet. Cruz at the time took to Twitter to call for federal agents to “investigate & bring legal action” against Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler for seemingly letting the attacks happen.
Wheeler has condemned the violence but has so far been stymied in policy attempts to prevent similar brawls, including an unsuccessful proposal to give the mayor broad powers to restrict protests. He hasn’t commented on two recent proposals by Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw, who has suggested barring people from wearing masks during protests and allowing officers to videotape demonstrations.
— Diana Kruzman
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