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Two senators want antifa activists to be labeled ‘domestic terrorists.’ Here’s what that means.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/20/2019 Marisa Iati
a group of people walking down the street: Unidentified Rose City Antifa members beat up Andy Ngo, an independent journalist, on June 29 in Portland, Ore. Two Republican senators have introduced a resolution that would classify antifa protesters as "domestic terrorists." (Moriah Ratner/Getty Images) © Moriah Ratner/Getty Images Unidentified Rose City Antifa members beat up Andy Ngo, an independent journalist, on June 29 in Portland, Ore. Two Republican senators have introduced a resolution that would classify antifa protesters as "domestic terrorists." (Moriah Ratner/Getty Images)

Two Republican senators have introduced a nonbinding resolution that would label antifascists — known as antifa — as “domestic terrorists,” doubling down against radical activists who have drawn criticism from conservatives and President Trump.

“Antifa are terrorists, violent masked bullies who ‘fight fascism’ with actual fascism, protected by Liberal privilege,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said in a statement. “Bullies get their way until someone says no. Elected officials must have courage, not cowardice, to prevent terror.”

Hina Shamsi, director of the national security project at the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Washington Post that she opposes labeling groups as domestic terrorists.

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“It is dangerous and overly broad to use labels that are disconnected [from] actual individual conduct,” she said. “And as we’ve seen how ‘terrorism’ has been used already in this country, any such scheme raises significant due process, equal protection and First Amendment constitutional concerns.” 

The resolution, which also is sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), would not change U.S. law. It cites antifa activists occupying the road outside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office and “doxing” ICE officials by posting their personal information online. The senators also pointed to conservative journalist Andy Ngo, who in June was left bloodied by antifa activists in Portland, Ore.

Conservatives have said antifa activists are a dangerous force. On Wednesday, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) sent a letter to Attorney General William P. Barr, asking him to designate antifa activists as domestic terrorists and denounce the attack on Ngo.

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Conservative media has already labeled antifa activists as terrorists. Fox News contributors Laura Ingraham and Michael Knowles have referred to them as such, while National Review magazine called them “violent thugs.”

Antifa protests have sometimes resulted in violence, such as during the conflict with white nationalists in Charlottesville in 2017. After the two groups clashed, Trump asked whether “the alt-left,” a term conservatives have used for a violent segment of left-wing activists, felt guilty.

Earlier this month, another potential clash was defused in Washington when a group of antifa activists planned a counterprotest against a conservative group. D.C. police turned out in force to prevent any conflict.

Others have defended antifa activists, saying they are protecting people from potentially violent far-right groups like the Proud Boys, according to Vox.

Although often referenced as a monolith, “antifa” is not one organization, but a loosely linked collection of groups, networks and individual people who support aggressive opposition to activists on the far right. And this is why the senators’ resolution and other efforts to label antifa activists as terrorists raises concerns.

Under the Patriot Act, a group commits domestic terrorism by committing crimes dangerous to human life that seem meant to intimidate the public, influence government policy by coercion or affect the government’s conduct by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.

Domestic terrorism is not a specific federal crime, but acts of domestic terrorism are charged under individual laws. The FBI classifies domestic terrorism into four categories: racially motivated, anti-government, environmental or abortion-related. The agency arrested 120 suspects in domestic terrorism investigations in 2018.

Designating a group as a domestic terrorist organization expands law enforcement’s ability to investigate it. The label also means that police can not only investigate a specific suspect, but also look into groups that person affiliates with, Neal Katyal, a Georgetown University law professor and former national security adviser, told NPR.

Similar concerns may be the reason the federal government does not make public an official list of domestic terrorist groups, Jerome Bjelopera, a specialist in organized crime and terrorism, wrote in a Congressional Research Service report. The government does include domestic and international terrorists on its terrorist watch list, Bjelopera wrote.

The lack of a central governing system for antifa creates the risk of wrongly applying the label to all counterprotesters of white supremacists, according to the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that opposes anti-Semitism. This kind of mislabeling, the ADL said, could cause police to violate the civil rights of peaceful activists.

The ADL said antifa activists’ violent tactics are wrong, but that antifa and white supremacists are not equivalent. Far-right extremists have killed hundreds of people in the past decade, the ADL said, while there have been no known antifa-related killings.

“The antifa reject racism but use unacceptable tactics,” the ADL wrote. “White supremacists use even more extreme violence to spread their ideologies of hate, to intimidate ethnic minorities, and undermine democratic norms.”

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