Conservatives in the U.S. have long sought to reframe grassroots political activism as dangerously radical, but efforts to criminalize protests have rapidly intensified since Donald Trump’s election. Most recently, Senators Ted Cruz and Bill Cassidy introduced a resolution that names “Antifa” as a “domestic terrorist organization.”
“This was a move designed to punish dissent against both racist groups and policies of the government,” David Rose, a member of Portland’s Rose City Antifa, told Truthout. “The senators are attempting to open the door to illegalizing any form of dissent against racist institutions or groups.”
The resolution, S.Res. 279, uses the recent controversy over the clash between right-wing reporter Andy Ngo and protesters in Portland, Oregon, as the impetus to designate antiracist protesters as a criminal operation. For Cruz, this is sly political posturing — Ngo and his loud right-wing talkosphere made #AntifaTerrorists the key talking point for weeks, as a minor scuffle was transformed into a nationwide threat in the popular imagination.
The bill itself, while a non-binding resolution, has found an enthusiastic supporter in President Trump. “Consideration is being given to declaring ANTIFA, the gutless Radical Left Wack Jobs who go around hitting (only non-fighters) people over the heads with baseball bats, a major Organization of Terror (along with MS-13 & others),” he wrote in a July 27 tweet, including that criminalizing the movement “would make it easier for police to do their job!” This makes it clear that the goal is to increase law enforcement action on antifascist protesters.
Just like the COINTELPRO attacks on the Black power movement, or the Green Scare suppression of the environmental activists in the early 2000s, these new forms of protest repression would have rippling detrimental effects on left-wing movements.
The Criminalization of Antifa
S.Res. 279, titled “A resolution calling for the designation of Antifa as a domestic terrorist organization,” lists a series of incidents from the Portland, Oregon, antifascist protest that happened on June 29, as well as earlier Portland protests. A number of groups, from Rose City Antifa to the Occupy ICE PDX protesters, would be labeled “Antifa” with a broad brush and condemned in language akin to that used after the 9/11 attacks. This stands in contrast to the fact that Antifa has never been charged with killing anybody. In fact, politically motivated killings are almost exclusively the province of the far right, with victims numbering well over a hundred in the past two years including those from a recent shooting at a food festival in California and several mass shootings at religious sites. Most recently, a shooter in El Paso, Texas, killed 22 people in an attack that was motivated by anti-immigrant hate and “white genocide” conspiracy theories.
The resolution does little to specify what further action would be taken beyond applying this label. There are also no clear legal consequences for the designation. Instead, it’s likely that it would be a clear message to law enforcement that the gloves are off in their treatment of protesters. This could mean the use of Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) charges to try and go after what is deemed a criminal conspiracy of antifascist activists. Because RICO is so broad, it has often been used to bring down entire organizations or networks of activists for the illegal behavior of some who may (or may not) be associated with them, creating a string of arrests that prosecutors attempt to prove is a “criminal conspiracy.” It could also mean police using informants and threats of enhanced prosecutions to drum up questionable confessions. Indictments could come down against those who simply interact with protests, similar to how the J20 protesters at Donald Trump’s inauguration were rounded up and charged with felonies simply for participating. More than anything, the resolution could lead to heavy-handed policing, the use of Grand Juries, the subpoenaing of journalists for sources, and an overall draconian approach by police.
It would also send a public message that antifascism is outside the bounds of normal political expression and make the public fearful of antifascist activists, while giving the signal to right-wing vigilantes like the Proud Boys to engage in violence against them. Investigations and heightened publicity would end the anonymity that many antifascist activists use to protect themselves and their families, creating a direct line to retribution. This would have a massive chilling effect, making participants in anything labeled as antifascist organizing subject to serious consequences.
This idea is not new to Ted Cruz. The Unmasking Antifa Act was introduced in 2017 by former Rep. Daniel Donovan and was specifically intended to make the use of masks by protesters illegal. During the protests of oil pipelines at Standing Rock, bills started to be introduced to make protest blockades illegal, starting in Oklahoma in 2017. Over the past two years, dozens of bills have come forward to limit protest rights in response to Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the organizing against ICE deportations. Many state bills were introduced to essentially make it legal to hit protesters with your car.
This Antifa bill is a step toward placing anti-protest restrictions on a particular political point of view. Lacking consensus opinion about what Antifa is in the administration or the resolution (and Antifa is not a single organization), this criminalization could create a wide net and include many types of protest.
“This isn’t a surprise. Ted Cruz has always courted the far right…. What we’re witnessing here is conservatives like Ted Cruz making common cause with neo-fascists in the hopes that they can control them rather than compete with them,” said Antifash Gordon, an antifascist activist operating through a pseudonym on Twitter, in an interview with Truthout. Gordon’s work often includes revealing information about white nationalists who are trying to go under the radar. Antifash Gordon has pointed out that Ted Cruz has his own relationship with the far right, including playing footsie with the Patriot militia movement active at the Cliven Bundy standoff.
“This is a serious challenge to the supremacy of the state,” Antifash Gordon added. “The state, and its representatives like Ted Cruz, have responded by strengthening their alliances with fascists. This is the road to fascism, and Ted Cruz is paving the way.”
The Singling Out of Rose City Antifa
The resolution specifically names Rose City Antifa and says that the organization “explicitly rejects the authority of law enforcement officers.” RCA is based out of Portland and was one of the groups that organized the antifascist protest on June 29, which was intended to be a community defense action against the Proud Boys who were also trying to march that day. The identification of RCA in the resolution holds special significance, seeming to assign blame to the group and indicate that its activist work should be seen as organized crime.
“One thing that could result from this is a wave of surveillance and fishing expeditions that would curtail the civil rights of all kinds of activists,” says David Rose.
“We’ve seen this before from the government in the case of anti-war and anti-globalization protesters in recent years,” Rose added. “This could be the beginning of an even greater incursion on the free speech and free association of rights of protesters, using funding previously earmarked for fighting terrorism.”
Since the singling out of RCA seemed like a clear signal from Cruz and others that RCA should be targeted for legal action, the group put out the following public statement with several other antifascist groups signing on:
Not every person of conscience agrees on tactics, but they would all be considered terrorists according to this proposed resolution, because they declare themselves opposed to white supremacists and concentration camps. This resolution would open the door to violations of their civil rights. If ‘antifa’ are terrorists, so are the over one thousand Portlanders who stood against Patriot Prayer on June 4, 2017 and August 4, 2018, and the hundreds who peacefully blockaded the ICE offices in SW Portland. It would call the activists and spiritual leaders who stood against white supremacists in Charlottesville on August 11 and 12, 2017 domestic terrorists.
Blaming the Community
As the GOP shifts further to the right through the “Trump coalition,” white nationalist policies and the participation of organized white supremacist groups have become more commonplace. The antifascist movement is one of the largest grassroots social movements that is confronting both the threat of white nationalist violence and institutional racism, so many antifascists see this resolution as an indication that they see the movement as a threat to their political hegemony.
“I think the organizing and coalition building that antifascists have been doing across the country has been working and [fascists are] starting to see us as an actual threat to their power,” says Effie Baum, an organizer with the antifascist organizer Pop Mob who helped to organize the June 29 antifascist protest in Portland and who signed on to the resolution penned by Rose City Antifa.
“As the media circus following the 29th reached a fever pitch, it provided a perfect opportunity for the right to crack down on those who oppose them. There are literal concentration camps on our borders and more mainstream Democrats are finally starting to pay attention. They needed a martyr like Andy Ngo to redirect the conversation away from themselves.”
Since large-scale coalitions are involved in this organizing, and because there is incredible overlap between most social movements against oppression, this resolution will be felt in all spaces where organizing takes places, from reproductive justice to immigrant rights to environmentalism to the labor movement.
“All leftist activists are by default involved in antifascism. There are above-ground groups and underground groups,” says an organizer with Eugene Antifa who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns about retaliation from the far right. “Individuals involved in above-ground groups are often targeted the most by opposition and the state because their identities can more easily be known. Both types of groups are essential for a movement. Above ground, leftist activists would likely experience the brunt of this bill, if passed, since they are an easier target for the state.”
Mass social movements usually play out through a unique interplay of actors and entities, from grassroots groups to nonprofits to activists who prefer to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from neo-Nazis. By attacking the entire movement, Ted Cruz’s resolution makes all forms of activism appear suspect as they are always in a state of permanent interaction.
“Efforts to criminalize radical politics both legislatively and also rhetorically have an effect of reducing the legitimate space of resistance,” said Mark Bray, the author of Antifa: The Antifascist Handbook, in an interview with Truthout. “So while on the face of it, different measures on Antifa or BLM [Black Lives Matter] or anarchists or environmentalists may seem like separate issues … they have a collective cumulative effect so that the next time someone wants to snap out resistance there is a precedent for it.”
While many people have assumed that the resolution will go nowhere, Trump’s series of public declarations means that it could have legs. Trump is doubling down on his rhetoric to appeal to his base, and any effort to crack down on antifascism would win him a great deal of “law and order” appeal within that constituency. Now right-wing pundits are suggesting the recent shooting in Dayton, Ohio, which killed nine people, could have been antifa-related, though there is no actual evidence to suggest this. This rhetoric could add even more impetus to state officials to criminalize activists.
In the face of this threat, anti-fascist activists will need to continue building their coalitions to ensure that public solidarity and mutual aid become the standard response to attacks against them. That support is the only thing that can create the antidote to state repression.