Is Antifa a Street Gang?

The header of image of NYC Antifa, an “autonomous blog” dedicated to creating “effective cultural resistance against fascism.” (Source)

A recent article written on The Wall Street Journal advocates for the official classification of Antifa as a street gang, a proposal that, if implemented, could open a Pandora’s box of abuse by the state.

Citing recent calls to declare Antifa, a loosely-organized collective of anti-fascists, a domestic terrorist organization, Professors David Pyrooz and James Densley have advocated for the categorization of the group as a “street gang” instead.

Antifa, the academics argue, is a street gang because it:

  1. Has a collective identity.
  2. Engages in illegal activity, which fuels the former.
  3. And attempts to change the social order with a “progressive army.”

One problem to their argument, they admit, is that most gangs are apolitical, meaning that they are neither interested nor involved in politics. Antifa is clearly playing the politics game, the professors acknowledge. This gives strength to the argument that the group’s members could be classified as domestic terrorists.

Photograph by Alex Milan Tracy / Sipa via AP. (Source)

However, Pyrooz and Densley counter that the domestic terrorist “label is empty. No such term exists in criminal law.” Although GeoMovements is not a proponent of classifying Antifa as a terrorist entity, the instructors are wrong: The US government has defined domestic terrorism in 18 U.S.C. 2331.

The duo conclude by saying that if Antifa was designated as a gang, law enforcement agents could use social-network analysis and “focused deterrence strategies” against the anti-fascists.

Calaca, an MS13 gang member in San Pedro Sula. Illustration by German Andino Woods. (Source)

Pyrooz and Densley are on the right path that Antifa and their violent opponents (neo-Nazis, white supremacists, etc.) could qualify as street gangs. We write “could” because its definition varies across the world.

For example, in Texas, a criminal street gang is defined as “three or more persons having a common identifying sign… or an identifiable leadership who…associate in the commission of criminal activities.”

In Kansas, on the other hand, the definition of a gang is not as clear-cut, according to a legislation document found on the National Gang Center website.

And the definition is much more complicated in El Salvador, a country that knows the pains gangs inflict on society all too well.

But yes, Antifa does satisfy, though not completely, the conditions the two academics laid out in their September 17 piece: Antifa’s collective identity is well-documented, their violent behavior, and thus illegality, towards ideological opponents is well-known, including their resistance against the status quo.

However, what Pyrooz, Densley, and others advocate for would open a Pandora’s box of ways the state could mistreat social movement organizations throughout the country.

Categorizing Antifa as gangsters would set a precedent for other bodies of government to treat and classify other social movement organizations (SMOs) as such, a phenomenon that has reportedly already taken place before and during the Trump Era.

In July 2015, the Strategic Intelligence Unit (SIU) of the Rockland County District Attorney’s Office and the Clarkstown, New York Police Department, an agency created to explicitly track crime in the area, reportedly illegally monitored a collective named We The People, a local Black liberation SMO, and in particular, fourteen of its members, a charge that the city has admitted, according to Rewire.

Several of those illicitly targeted then established a Black Lives Matter chapter and were further harassed by the authorities, according to a lawsuit filed by the BLM members. The lawsuit also alleges Clarkstown PD agents “attended peaceful Black Lives Matter rallies intimidating the Plaintiffs by positioning snipers on rooftops” and placed every surveilled activist under the “same surveillance criteria as ‘Terrorism,’ ‘Gangs’… and ‘Police Riots.’”

A Black Lives Matter protester confronts a Minneapolis Police Officer over the death of Jamar Clark. (Source)

But the accusations of the criminality of Black Lives Matter members doesn’t stop there.

In January 2017, Garry McCarthy, the former superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, reportedly blamed the SMO for creating a “political atmosphere of anti-police sentiment” and for fueling the staggering homicide rate of the Windy City. And in July of this year it was reported that a Baton Rouge police officer injured by an alleged Black separatist in 2016 was suing Black Lives Matter movement leaders for his plight.

By categorizing Antifa as a street gang, law enforcement agents across the nation may feel empowered to do the same to Black Lives Matter and other SMOs that exhibit strong anti-police sentiments. Furthermore, anti-deportation groups like Serve the People — LA could face similar treatment from the authorities, especially in the Trump Era.

By writing that law enforcement officers could use social-network analysis to fight Antifa as if it were a gang, Pyrooz and Densley forget that Antifa is an umbrella SMO, a broad group that takes on a variety of causes. (A man who claims he is part of Antifa is essentially saying he opposes fascism. This makes it difficult for the state to find out who truly belongs to the violent elements of Antifa.)

An antifascist demonstrator burns a Blue Lives Matter flag during a protest in Portland, Oregon, in June 2017. (Scott Olson / Getty) (Source)

They also overlook that Antifa lacks a central leadership structure and the identities of many, if not most, of its mask-wearing members are unknown. The three aforementioned truths would make it very difficult for law enforcement to legally combat the group if they were to approach it as if it were a street gang.

Giving government agents the responsibility to discern who belongs to Antifa would also be risky: The collective is currently the victim of an online “smear campaign” involving alt-right trolls who deliberately mislead the public and the media about the group. And law enforcement agents could be next in who the trolls deceive, if they haven’t already.

The Antifa Question is a difficult one to answer. To officially designate them as street gangs or domestic terrorist networks will be problematic for those fighting against them. But it may also open the door for the state to illegally target nonviolent SMOs, a trend that will likely affect groups on both sides of the political spectrum.

We need to learn more about Antifa, its structure and operations, and what police officers are failing to do to keep the peace during protests before we, as the academic duo ironically write, “toss around” the gang designation.