The non-binding Senate resolution introduced this week in an effort to label “antifa” as “a domestic terrorist organization” is the product of years of well-publicized lies about antifa propagated by the right-wing press.
Senate Resolution 279 (S.Res. 279) which Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana) introduced on July 18, and which was co-sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), is the most serious attempt so far by the right to capitalize on a panic it has manufactured about antifa. Short for “antifascist,” antifa is a highly decentralized movement made of differing groups and individuals who counter-organize against fascist and other far-right organizing. It has exploded in popularity since 2016 but has no leadership, no national decision-making structure and no organized funding base.
But for two years now, a number of the more conservative media outlets have been erroneously portraying antifa as a highly disciplined organization that functions as the underground, paramilitary wing of the Democratic Party. They claim it is funded and controlled by liberal financier George Soros, who is portrayed as the movement’s “puppet master” — and who, just coincidentally, happens to be Jewish. (The image of the wealthy Jewish puppet master who is controlling progressive social movements from behind the scenes has been a mainstay of anti-Semitic politics since the 19th century.)
The Senate resolution itself is the culmination of years of fabricated claims pushed by conservatives. These outlandish lies include: antifa planned to start a civil war in November 2017; the mass shooter who killed 58 at a Las Vegas country music festival in October 2017 was associated with antifa; and that antifa flyers even called for the murder of white children.
The far right traffics heavily in projection, and this “antifa panic” is no exception. The far right is desperately trying to depict the radical left as doing what the far right itself is actually guilty of: engaging in sustained, murderous violence with deliberate indifference from the highest levels of the government.
The resolution introduced by Cassidy and Cruz “calls for the groups and organizations across the country who act under the banner of Antifa to be designated as domestic terrorist organizations.” But the text of the resolution is wildly inconsistent and inaccurate. For example, as Jessica Kwong points out in Newsweek, the resolution refers interchangeably to “antifa,” those “affiliated with Antifa,” and “left wing activists.” Kwong points to an instance in which the resolution takes an opinion piece by a far-right propagandist in The Wall Street Journal and represents it as a news article. The opinion piece refers to three incidents involving opposition to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by “left-wing activists” — whereas antifa is focused squarely on working to contain far-right actors who are not part of the government.
The resolution is so shoddy it’s unclear if it is even meant to be taken up seriously by the Senate, or if it’s just red meat thrown to a GOP base drunk on unhinged threats to deport Muslim congresswomen.
The resolution was preceded by a July 17 letter from Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania) asking Attorney General Bill Barr to “initiate the necessary proceedings to designate Antifa a domestic terrorist organization.” Senator Cruz then followed up on the resolution on July 23 while questioning FBI Director Christopher Wray. There, Cruz compared antifa to the Ku Klux Klan and the mafia, and said, “I will be sending to you today a letter to the Department of Justice asking you to open a RICO investigation into antifa.” (RICO is a federal racketeering act created to prosecute organized crime that has stiff penalties.)
The letter itself, which Cruz posted on Twitter, is filled with wild inaccuracies. It calls antifa “a left-wing anarchist terrorist organization.” And it paints the far right as the real victims, claiming that Ted Wheeler — the embattled mayor of Portland, Oregon, who is despised by the city’s left — is intentionally permitting “left-wing paramilitary organizations to terrorize ordinary Americans with impunity.”
Cooper Brinson, staff attorney for the Eugene, Oregon, Civil Liberties Defense Center, describes the resolution as a “calculated attempt to distract from the brutal violence of the Republican base” by making the baseless accusation that antifa activism is terrorism — an idea which originated in the white nationalist movement.
“Somebody’s got to carry the water for the fascists, and Ted Cruz seems to have found his place,” Brinson told me. “Not only is it ludicrous, but it betrays the foundational political program of Cruz and other Republicans.” These politicians have done little or nothing to combat the rise of the murderous far right, but are ready to tar their political opponents as terrorists.
Cruz, in particular, has long cozied up to the far right, especially the armed militias. As I detailed in my report on Oregon’s militias, during the 2013 budget crisis, Cruz spoke in Washington, D.C., in front of the flags of the Oath Keepers, an armed far-right group. He also made sympathetic comments about the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016, led by the Bundy family. During the subsequent presidential primary, he ran a TV ad in Nevada that called for public lands to be removed from federal hands — a main demand of the Bundys.
More recently, Cruz was photographed posing with Enrique Tarrio. Tarrio, who attended the fascist-led Charlottesville rally in 2017, is now the leader of the Proud Boys, an “alt-right” fight gang with formal membership. Members are required to engage in violence to advance in the group. As Brinson told me, if RICO laws are applied to those involved in recent street clashes between the far right and radical left, it would be difficult to pick a more obvious group to use it on than the Proud Boys.
The far right continues to be a vast drumbeat of murder. In 2018, it was responsible for all 50 murders connected to “extremism” in the United States. Since 1990, by a conservative count, the U.S. far right has committed over 500 murders — and other counts go significantly higher. Antifa-style activists have killed one person during that same period, and that fatality occurred at a 1993 fight with Nazi skinheads, in which both parties had firearms. The amount of actual “antifa violence” — mostly involving fists, sticks, and pepper spray — pales in comparison to your average Friday night in a college town after the bars let out.
Despite being a non-binding resolution, if S.Res. 279 is passed by Congress, it can do damage. There is no such thing as an official “domestic terrorist” designation — but the FBI does informally label certain groups and movements as such, and pours extra resources into prosecuting them. Similarly, Brinson also said that the resolution could be a first step in creating new federal guidelines for the Justice Department or other agencies that would make it easier to target leftists more generally.
Measures like this resolution threaten the U.S.’s long and largely overlooked tradition of antifascist resistance. The 1939 Nazi rally by the German-American Bund in New York City, which drew 20,000 people, is often remembered. But we don’t often hear about the fact that up to 100,000 protesters, many of whom attacked the Nazis, had to be held at bay by 1,700 New York City police. These antifascists were also denounced by the press and the authorities.
The protest against the Nazi Bund was hardly an isolated incident. In fact, brawling with Nazis is a veritable American tradition, whether one likes it or not. One might as well deploy federal agents to a local tavern on weekends, to be vigilant in case any “terrorism” breaks out after last call. Meanwhile, we wait in dread for the next report of a far-right murder to come across the news.