In the long history of protest, governments have often sought to discredit political activists who challenge the status quo. President Donald Trump’s recent declaration, that “antifa”—shorthand for “anti-fascist”—is a domestic terrorist organization, is no departure from this tradition. As protests continue to erupt around the country in response to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis Police officer on May 25, people of all classes, races, genders, and political orientations are expressing outrage and grief in the streets and on social media. The demonstrators have been repeatedly and violently attacked by heavily militarized police departments using an array of tactics—including chemical weapons during a global pandemic—against people in the streets. In an effort to shift blame away from legitimate calls for racial justice and the violent police response to protests, the President is using his bully pulpit to obscure the fact that these demonstrations are supported by a broad majority of Americans.
The term antifa originates in the 1930s when progressive activists organized to oppose far-right authoritarianism emerging throughout the world. In recent history, some have re-adopted the phrase as a political orientation opposed to the re-emergent ultranationalism in the US and throughout Europe and Latin America. Contrary to the suggestions of Trump and many of the right-wing politicians who support his presidency, antifa has no leaders and it is not a formal organization, although activists who identify with the term often favor direct action instead of policy reform, as well as autonomous mutual aid. It is not clear who or what the targets of a federal antifa investigation would be, and whether such an effort would be lawful.
“When police continue to murder Black people with impunity and when calls for systemic change to policing and structural racism are ignored, popular unrest is inevitable,” said National Lawyers Guild legal worker Kris Hermes. “Federal investigations and the targeting of antifa will unfortunately result in increased surveillance and repression, and must be resisted.”
While the Department of Justice (DOJ) can indict people on federal terrorism charges, no clear legal authority exists for the President to designate antifa a “domestic terrorist organization.” Nevertheless, Attorney General William Barr quickly followed Trump’s declaration with an official statement announcing that the DOJ would use its existing network of 56 FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) offices to investigate antifa. DOJ investigations will only serve to harass protesters and provide the state with additional means to prosecute political activists. The Trump administration’s threats are nothing more than political theater and an attempt to sow division and intimidate those who exercise their right to fight injustice.
“Trump’s declaration that antifa is a domestic terrorist organization has no basis in fact or law and is merely an attempt to criminalize ordinary people who are exercising their right to protest,” said NLG Mass Defense Director Tyler Crawford. “The NLG condemns any such attempts by the government to interfere with the right of the people to have their voices heard in demanding justice for George Floyd and an end to racist police violence.”
The NLG will continue to oppose any attempts to exploit this crisis to repress political activism and social justice movements working to end to white supremacy. The Trump administration continues to ignore the ongoing injustice wrought on Black communities by institutional racism, including police brutality, in favor of seeking to physically or politically punish those who are part of anti-racist and anti-fascist movements. The NLG will continue to provide legal support to activists as they take to the streets to call for justice for George Floyd, from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C. and many other cities.
Related Links & Resources:
- NLG Know Your Rights Guides
- Directory of NLG Chapters
- NLG Mass Defense Program
- Movement for Black Lives
- Law for Black Lives
- Directory of US bail funds by the National Bail Fund Network
- Black Lives Matter petition to #DefundThePolice
- 6/1/20: NLG Condemns Violent Police Response to Black Lives Matter Protests Nationwide
- 5/28/20: NLG in Solidarity with Minneapolis Following Police Killing of George Floyd
The National Lawyers Guild, whose membership includes lawyers, legal workers, jailhouse lawyers, and law students, was formed in 1937 as the United States’ first racially-integrated bar association to advocate for the protection of constitutional, human and civil rights.