Attorney General Bill Barr acknowledged yesterday that there is a “witches’ brew” of groups fostering violations, including an anarchist group from the right. The anarchists on the left or right are opportunists who will strike at any time of unrest to seek the breakdown of order. However, police are reporting a high number of Antifa and anarchist members arrested in various states. These are groups that are all too familiar to some of us on college and university campus. While I have opposed efforts to declare Antifa a terrorist organization, the role of all of these groups in the recent violence should be a cautionary tale for academics and politicians alike in the tolerance shown for such anti-free speech movements.
Ian Fleming famously lamented that history often moves so quickly that “heroes and villains keep on changing parts.” Our media and politicians are now struggling with the same problem today, following the killing of George Floyd. As rioting and looting continue across the country, the question is who to blame for the mayhem. Ultimately, the response was strikingly familiar and telling. Maybe white supremacists were behind it. Maybe the Russians were. It could be anyone except people in the rioting communities or, worse yet, groups lionized or tolerated by the left.
While most protesters remained peaceful, the narrative quickly spiraled glaringly out of sync with images of burning buildings in the background. Although “Today” show host Craig Melvin tweeted out a guide not to refer to them as rioters but rather as protesters, that narrative has since broken down. Indeed, news outlets have been reporting that “outsiders” have been fueling the rioting and that the destruction might be the work of nefarious groups of white supremacists or Russians.
Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and other officials there claimed a majority of those arrested were outsiders. Walz estimated the figure at 80 percent. National Urban League President Marc Morial ratcheted up the outrage in a cable news interview. He demanded an investigation to confirm “if it is white supremacists, if it is Russians, if it is other foreign actors who have tried to exploit the pain and exploit legitimate protests.”
It was manifestly implausible to suggest the rioting was the work of white supremacists or Russians. Arrest data showed a majority of those arrested in Minneapolis were from the city. The four people arrested in New York in fire bombing attacks were all state residents. The problem is that the most obvious culprits are all too familiar. A movement of anarchist, antifascist, and extreme left wing groups has been building for years, with violence from Washington to Berkeley. The most prominent is antifa, but there are also groups like By All Means Necessary with similar histories.
This is a broad movement, not one group, which makes the suggested designation by President Trump of antifa as a terrorist organization both constitutionally and practically dubious. However, the growing antifascist movement has attacked conservative speakers and events for years, with far less media attention than their right wing counterparts receive. Just as many critics have accused Trump of not doing enough to denounce extreme right wing groups, many Democratic leaders have been conspicuously silent in denouncing these antifascist groups.
Indeed, when Attorney General William Barr correctly observed that the rioting shows “antifa like tactics,” politicians and media figures both balked at the suggestion, as opposed to accepting the white supremacist or Russian option. Despite reports of antifa followers and anarchists being arrested, White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor objected that there was “no evidence” of any activity sparked by anarchists.
Antifa, By All Means Necessary, and other militant or anarchist groups have disrupted universities across the country, including my own, for years. They have found many political and academic allies. Dartmouth Professor Mark Bray wrote a book on antifa, defining the movement as committed to the silencing of opponents and the rejection of classic concepts of free speech. The movement has since found open or passive acceptance with many on the academic left. In fairness, however, many Democratic politicians have denounced past violent attacks.
Yet despite its violent history, some Democratic leaders have been enablers or outright supporters of the antifa movement, insisting that such groups cannot be compared to extreme right wing groups.
While criticizing antifa members three years ago, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted the group has “been there forever” and that “some people may have infiltrated” it. This was not viewed as her Charlottesville moment of claiming there are “very fine people” in antifa. It was a commonly held view that antifascists are by definition better than fascists.
Other Democratic leaders have been much more direct in their support, including the former deputy chair of the Democratic Party, Representative Keith Ellison. Although Germany has banned an antifa website, Ellison posed with the antifa handbook to show support at a Minneapolis bookshop and said it would “strike fear in the heart” of Trump.
Ellison, now the Minnesota state attorney general, was under fire this week for telling protesters they should not attack the National Guard on the streets or “react to them the way you might react to the Minneapolis Police Department. Their job is to try to bring peace and calm back again.” His son Jeremiah Ellison, a Minneapolis city council member, declared support for antifa even as the city endured rioting and looting.
Meanwhile, some media coverage has the uncomfortable feel of a new type of Russia collusion theory. Susan Rice, former national security adviser to President Obama, said that she suspects Russia is behind the effort “to hijack those protests and turn them into something very different” and that “this is right out of the Russian playbook.”
It is likely that racist or foreign actors will try to exploit the unrest on the internet. The same was true, on a larger scale, with Russian interference in the 2016 election. While most of us denounced that Russian interference, it was never plausible that the work of a dozen internet trolls in Saint Petersburg or a dozen military hackers in Moscow had a measurable, let alone meaningful, impact on the outcome of the election.
The same is true with these protests. The rioting began due to deep seated and legitimate anger over police brutality and the tragic death of Floyd. Young people and others did not rush to the streets because they read a posting from some skinhead on the Stormfront website. Yet the references to white supremacists or Russians continued even as reports filtered in of antifa and anarchists being arrested in various cities.
Some politicians in the past sought to tap into the antifascist movement. Others completely avoided denouncing the group. After all, for years, the movement threatened or attacked conservatives. They were not treated as an outside element but rather as this grassroots movement outraged by Trump and his policies. However, the same tactics and likely some of the same people are now burning buildings and cars, attacking police officers and business owners, and destroying property across the country. This is why, during the French Revolution, the journalist Jacques Mallet Pan warned, “Like Saturn, the revolution devours its children.”