Neil MacFarquhar, New York Times, May 31, 2020
Amid the rush to assign blame for the widespread violence and vandalism breaking out in American cities, accusations that extremists or other outside agitators were behind the destruction continued to ricochet online and on the airwaves on Sunday.
Numerous political leaders, starting with President Trump, have leveled accusations at various groups, asserting that some radical agenda is at play in transforming once peaceful protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
“We have reason to believe that bad actors continue to infiltrate the rightful protests of George Floyd’s murder, which is why we are extending the curfew by one day,” Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota tweeted on Sunday, after previously suggesting that white supremacists or people from outside the state fomented the unrest.
In New York City, a senior police official said anarchists had planned to start mayhem in the city even before the protests started, using encrypted communication to raise bail money and to recruit medics. During the demonstrations, they maintained supply routes to distribute gasoline, rocks and bottles, and also dispatched scouts to find areas devoid of police officers, said John Miller, the deputy commissioner in charge of the Police Department’s counter-terrorism and intelligence efforts.
“They prepared to commit property damage and directed people who were following them that this should be done selectively and only in wealthier areas or at high-end stores run by corporate entities,” he said in a telephone briefing with reporters. Such activity was still under investigation, Mr. Miller said, but many participants, he said, were from outside New York. “They instructed group leaders to tell the people following them that this was not meant to be orderly activity,” he said.
Still, few of those pointing the finger at extremists presented much detailed evidence to support the accusations, and some officials conceded the lack of solid information.
“The truth is, nobody really knows,” Keith Ellison, Minnesota’s attorney general and a former Democratic congressman from Minneapolis, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
People associated with both the extreme right and left are being accused of igniting the conflagration. The Trump administration blamed what it called the radical left, naming antifa, a contraction of the word “anti-fascist” that has come to be associated with a diffuse movement of left-wing protesters who engage in more aggressive techniques like vandalism.
Others said white supremacists and far-right groups were responsible, pointing to online statements by adherents that the upheaval would hasten the collapse of a multiethnic, multicultural United States.
“The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter on Sunday, although it was unclear on what legal authority he could make that call.
The president has periodically criticized antifa, but it was not clear that Mr. Trump’s declaration would have any real meaning beyond his characteristic attempts to stir up culture war controversy, attract attention and please his base.
Antifa is not an organization, and it does not have a leader, membership roles or any defined, centralized structure. It is a vaguely defined movement of people who share common protest tactics and targets.
More important, even if antifa were a real organization, the laws that permit the federal government to deem entities terrorists and impose sanctions on them are limited to foreign groups. There is no domestic terrorism law despite periodic proposals to create one.
Antifa-style protesters are hostile to law enforcement and are oriented toward street action, said Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, so these demonstrations provide an opportunity even if their goals are not the same as those of the original protesters. Still, he cautioned that in such a complex stew, not all the vandalism can be attributed to any one faction.
“While we have seen tactics they embrace at times during these protests, it is also unclear how many of the individuals committing violence or destroying property are antifa or just upset with the ongoing issue of police brutality,” he said.
Signs of any organized effort or even participation in the violence were relatively rare. “I have not seen any clear evidence that white supremacists or militiamen are masking up and going out to burn and loot,” said Howard Graves, a research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center who tracks white supremacist and other anti-government extremist groups.