Should Antifa become America’s first designated domestic terrorist group?
On Saturday, August 17, 2019, a peaceful, turned violent far-right political rally took place at the Tom McCall Waterfront Park in Portland, Oregon. Over 1,000 people from both far-right and radical left groups were in attendance. Right-wing demonstration organizer Joe Biggs, with the assistance of Enrique Tarrio, the national leader of the right-wing, neo-fascist group, the Proud Boys, organized the rally as part of an “End Domestic Terrorism” campaign. As tensions escalated, physical confrontations between Proud Boys members and the Portland-based, Rose City Antifa compelled right-wing demonstrators to retreat behind police barricades. Thirteen people were arrested and six were injured as altercations continued into the early evening hours throughout the downtown Portland area.¹ The Portland Police Department was forced to declare the scenario as a civil disturbance and cleared a perimeter within the Southwest Park Avenue and Southwest Morrison Street areas. Portland police recovered stun guns, bear spray, shields and poles at the scene.¹
The significance of conducting political rallies in Portland, Oregon centers around the state’s unrestricted free-speech statutes. As per the Oregon Constitution, Article 1, Section 8. Freedom of speech and press, “No law shall be passed restraining the free expression of opinion, or restricting the right to speak, write, or print freely on any subject whatever”. Consequently, radicalized political groups, like Antifa, encounter far less legal opposition in Oregon than in other parts of the country.
The Antifa organization, consisting of anarchists, socialists, social democrats and communists, focuses on attacking white supremacy and other far-right, racist convictions. Derived from the German word ‘antifaschistisch’, Antifa ideologists unite to oppose fascism by means of physical force, if necessary. American-based Antifa groups claim the current U.S. administration is representative of fascist beliefs.
Similar to lone wolf terrorists, Antifa members operate in clusters, causing mass chaos. Working without a hierarchical structure, small cells employ unacceptable means of physical force, destruction of public or private property and harassment. Members have also been reported as having assaulted law enforcement officers and mistakenly attacking people suspected of expressing racial tendencies.
Originally established in Europe during the 1920s, there are now an approximate 200 known American Antifa factions who belligerently protest far-right rallies.³ Antifa members utilize Signal encrypted messaging services to relay information throughout their U.S. networks and to strategize plans of attack.⁴ At rallies, participants disguise themselves in “black bloc”, covering their bodies and faces in black attire to demonstrate unification and to bypass surveillance. During mob protests in Charlottesville, North Carolina and Berkeley, California, Antifa members sprayed their opposition with dyed liquids and deployed Molotov cocktails, respectively. Other Antifa weaponry includes bricks, water bottles, crowbars and balloons filled with excrement.⁵
Although some Antifa members utilize more reserved means of activism, such as disaster relief, anti-fascism workshops, and family-friendly community events, the potentially-illegal behaviors, including doxxing, are leading civil rights organizations to label Antifa’s efforts as counterproductive.⁵ Technologically-advanced Antifa members use the Internet to disseminate propaganda and conduct reconnaissance on far-right commanders. Once personal information is obtained via hacking or through open source channels, Antifa operatives will advertise the target’s identity, address, employer and group affiliations. This method is known as doxxing. The purpose of doxxing is to reveal a target’s unknown activities in an attempt to have the target socially ostracized. In June 2018, a Nebraska Antifa group publicly exposed 1,595 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials by uploading a list of the agents’ names and photographs.⁴
Unfortunately, growing media reports solely-focused on Antifa behavior are resulting in significant omissions of U.S. hate-related deaths. In 2018, fifty people in the United States were killed as a result of domestic extremism violence. All offenders associated with these deaths were discovered to have had direct links to right-wing, extremist campaigns.⁶ By omitting statistical data from media reports, information becomes misleading, stimulating further public bias.
Antifa protestors with anti-facist banner
Due to the increasing number of Antifa-related incidents, the White House has received numerous petitions from various groups requesting Antifa to be labeled as a terrorist organization. However, in a public statement, the White House formally stated that the federal government currently does not have a procedure in place to officially designate domestic terror organizations. To construct such a mechanism may require an approval from Congress.
In response, United States legislators Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy and Texas Senator Ted Cruz have recently incited action to incorporate a U.S. domestic terrorist organization classification system. Senator Cassidy and Senator Cruz have introduced a proposed congressional resolution to officially designate Antifa as a domestic terrorist organization. As per the resolution, the federal government is called upon to use “all available and appropriate tools, to combat the spread of all forms of domestic terrorism, including White supremacist terrorism.” The proposal, however, does not provide an official recommendation as to which federal agency would oversee the designation process. It may be prudent to incorporate the designation system into the pre-existing Department of Homeland Security (DHS) terrorism prevention program.
The DHS Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (TVTP) has partnered with federal agencies, state and local law enforcement, local governments, and communities, providing extremism prevention training and technical assistance. With the assistance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), TVTP has provided grants totaling up to $10 million for community-based training programs. Unfortunately, the TVTP FY2016 Countering Violent Extremism Grant Program expired at the end of July 2019. More state and federal funding should be allocated to combat the surmounting threat of domestic extremism.
Assisting in the fight against domestic terrorism, The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) and private organizations, like the Anti-Defamation League, are actively taking measures to deter and defeat the rising number of radical extremist confrontations. The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism (COE) is tracking extremist-related violence and updating their database on an annual basis.⁶ In a similar manner, CTG’s Behavior and Leadership team is actively observing, researching and documenting online behaviors indicative of extremist-based activity. Alarming behaviors include: leakage of violent intent via social media or telephonic communications; fascination with weapons; membership with exclusive groups that promote violence to rectify grievances; unusual purchasing of military-style weapons or tactical equipment; and online use of racial or prejudicial language. By understanding how radicalized groups, such as Antifa and the Proud Boys, communicate, coordinate and maneuver, analysts can apply suitable risk assessments to help isolate the extremist threats from the peaceful protesters.
Portland protests Aug. 17: What you need to know, The Oregonian, August 2019, https://www.oregonlive.com/crime/2019/08/portland-protests-aug-17-what-you-need-to-know.html
Oregon Constitution, Oregon State Legislature, 2018, https://www.oregonlegislature.gov/bills_laws/Pages/OrConst.aspx
Seven things you need to know about Antifa, BBC, August 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/X56rQkDgd0qqB7R68t6t7C/seven-things-you-need-to-know-about-antifa
Antifa (United States), Wikipedia, August 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antifa_(United_States)
Who are Antifa?, Anti-Defamation League, 2019, https://www.adl.org/resources/backgrounders/who-are-antifa
Murder and Extremism in the United States in 2018, ADL Center on Extremism, January 2019, https://www.adl.org/murder-and-extremism-2018
Far-right and antifa groups both claim victory at Portland, The Washington Post, August 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/at-least-13-people-arrested-at-portland-oregon-protest/2019/08/17/fc3daf1c-c152-11e9-a8b0-7ed8a0d5dc5d_story.html
Cassidy, Cruz: Antifa is a Domestic Terrorist Organization, United States Senate, Senator Bill Cassidy, M.D., July 2019, https://www.cassidy.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/cassidy-cruz-antifa-is-a-domestic-terrorist-organization
Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention, United States Department of Homeland Security, August 2019,