On Sunday, the Trump administration said it will designate Antifa as a terrorist organization. Experts say it’s unclear if those associated with the movement are responsible for the violent riots and that designating Antifa as a terrorist organization would be difficult and potentially unconstitutional.
What has Trump said?
Trump’s announcement that Antifa would be designated as a terror group came as protests over the death of Floyd — a Black man who died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck in Minneapolis, Minn. — continued across the country and turned violent in many cities, including Los Angeles and New York City.
Speaking at the Kennedy Space Center on Saturday, Trump said the memory of Floyd was being “dishonoured by rioters, looters and anarchists.”
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“The violence and vandalism is being led by Antifa and other radical left-wing groups who are terrorizing the innocent, destroying jobs, hurting businesses and burning down buildings,” he said.
What is Antifa?
The title “Antifa” is short for anti-fascists. The term defines a broad group of people with far left-leaning ideologies who use a variety of tactics to combat actions or policies they deem to be fascist, homophobic, xenophobic or racist.
“It’s a kind of politics of social revolutionary self-defence against the far-right that unites various different kinds of leftists from socialists to communists to anarchists,” said Mark Bray, a history lecturer at Dartmouth College and the author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook.
But Bray explained that Antifa is not one overarching organization and does not have a leader or a headquarters.
“It’s a kind of politics that is practised by many different autonomous groups across North America, Latin America, Europe and beyond,” he said.
Is Antifa behind the George Floyd protests?
While the Trump administration has repeatedly suggested Antifa is behind the riots, it is not clear how many of those associated with the movement are protesting or if they are actually inciting violence.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history at New York University who studies fascism, said at this time it’s not clear who the looters are.
“We don’t have enough information yet to know if the looters are Antifa, (or) if they’re people who are opportunistic looters,” she said. “In some cases, there’s evidence that these are members of far-right groups who are infiltrating.”
According to Bray, while those associated with Antifa probably have been participating in the protests, they likely only account for a “small fraction” of the turnout.
“These groups tend to be very small, in large part because they’re concerned about infiltration from the far-right and law enforcement, so they keep things tightly knit,” he explained.
Bray added it’s “just not logistically feasible that they could have done all of this on their own.”
Ultimately, he said the protests represent the most significant wave of political violence the U.S. has seen since the 1960s and that ascribing the “macro historical event” on just a handful of people is “just ludicrous.”
Can Trump designate Antifa as a terrorist group?
Mary McCord, a former senior Justice Department official, told Reuters that “no current legal authority exists for designating domestic organizations as terrorist organizations.”
“Any attempt at such a designation would raise significant First Amendment concerns,” said McCord, who previously served in the Trump administration.
Ben-Ghiat echoed McCord’s remarks, saying because Antifa is not an organization and lacks a central leader, designating it as a terrorist group would be difficult.
But she said the real meaning of Trump’s tweet was likely not to designate Antifa as a terrorist organization.
She said Trump was trying to reach the police, National Guard and other members of government with his tweet.
“And the message to them is that the president of the United States legitimates you to view protesters as terrorists, and this is going to encourage violent action,” she said, noting a number of acts of violence against protesters and members of the press have been reported.
“So if you’re telling people that they are terrorists, everyone knows how terrorists should be treated: very badly,” she explained. “We don’t accord them human dignity, we don’t accord them human rights because they’re terrorists.”
Bray, too, said he doesn’t think Trump actually cares about designating Antifa as a terrorist group, noting that the president has toyed with the idea on a number of occasions but has never followed through.
He said Trump’s tweet on Sunday was all about optics.
“Trump’s comments that Antifa should be declared a terrorist organization are, in my opinion, essentially a really kind of transparent ploy to scapegoat what is a really broad, multifaceted wave of resistance on a kind of shadowy boogeyman in order to avoid addressing directly the widespread anger and rage at the police killing of George Floyd, and many other people over the years and the kind of social factors that precipitated it,” he said.
He said for Trump, it’s about changing the conversation and “shifting the public’s view away from the question of how we got here.”
— With files from Reuters