Despite claims by President Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr, there is scant evidence that loosely organized anti-fascists are a significant player in protests.
Inciting a riot. Hurling a Molotov cocktail. Plotting to sow destruction. Those are some of the most serious charges brought by federal prosectors against demonstrators at protests across the country in recent weeks.
But despite cries from President Trump and others in his administration, none of those charged with serious federal crimes amid the unrest have been linked so far to the loose collective of anti-fascist activists known as antifa.
A review of the arrests of dozens of people on federal charges reveals no known effort by antifa to perpetrate a coordinated campaign of violence. Some criminal complaints described vague, anti-government political leanings among suspects, but the majority of the violent acts that have taken place at protests have been attributed by federal prosecutors to individuals with no affiliation to any particular group.
Even so, Attorney General William P. Barr has blamed antifa for orchestrating the mass protests, which broke out in cities and towns across the country following the death in police custody of George Floyd. “There is clearly some high degree of organization involved at some of these events and coordinated tactics that we are seeing,” Mr. Barr said. “Some of it relates to antifa, some of it relates to groups that act very much like antifa.”
Mr. Trump has sought to expand and exploit accusations against what he has called the involvement of “radical leftists” in the protests. At one point the president said that antifa would be declared a “terrorist organization,” although it is not a single organization nor does any American law allow using that designation against a domestic group. On Tuesday, the president suggested on Twitter, without providing any evidence, that a 75-year-old Buffalo protester hospitalized after being knocked down by police, could be “an ANTIFA provocateur.”
Mr. Trump and other Republicans have also sought to raise campaign funds off the unsubstantiated accusations. “Stand with President Trump against antifa!” read a banner advertisement on Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign website this week.
Marjorie Green, a congressional candidate in Georgia, produced a campaign ad showing her armed with an AR-15 military-style rifle and threatening antifa activists. “You won’t burn our churches, loot our businesses or destroy our homes,” she said.
Asked why the myriad criminal complaints do not single out antifa, Mr. Barr said on Fox News this week that preliminary charges do not require linking suspects to a particular group, adding that there was, “a witches’ brew of extremist groups that are trying to exploit this situation on all sides.”
F.B.I. agents and federal prosecutors have pursued charges aggressively against rioters, looters and others accused of wreaking havoc during the demonstrations. Law enforcement officials have relied on a variety of federal statutes to make arrests, including conspiracy to commit arson, starting a riot, civil disorder and possession of a Molotov cocktail.
The most serious case that has emerged in federal court involved three men in Nevada linked to a loose, national network of far-right extremists advocating for the overthrow of the U.S. government. They were arrested on May 30 on charges of trying to foment violence during Black Lives Matter protests.
Given the sheer volume of thousands of arrests nationwide in recent weeks, officials cautioned that many investigations remain in the early stages with investigators still trying to determine affiliations. In addition, state and local court documents are far harder to search comprehensively.
However, interviews with several major local police departments and a review of hundreds of newspaper stories about arrests around the country revealed no evidence of an organized political effort behind the looting and other violence.
“We saw no organized effort of antifa here in Los Angeles,” said Josh Rubenstein, the spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department.
Asked in an interview about the involvement of antifa or other extremists groups in Minneapolis, Medaria Arradondo, the chief of police, said, “As I sit here today, I have not received any sort of official information identifying any of the groups.”
In the one example where antifa is mentioned, local police in Austin, Texas, said members of the Red Guards, a Maoist organization, were involved in organizing the looting of a Target store. The Red Guards have been associated with antifa protests in Austin in the past, but local activists said they were largely estranged from the group.
While anarchists and anti-fascists openly acknowledged being part of the massive crowds, they call the scale, intensity and durability of the protests far beyond anything that they might dream of organizing. Some tactics used at the protests, like the wearing of all black and the shattering of store windows, are reminiscent of those used by anarchist groups, say those who study such movements.
In Portland, those affiliated with Rose City Antifa said they have supported the continuing protests. But the city’s antifa actions have long involved a wide range of people, some who dress in black apparel and face coverings and others who show up in everyday clothing to decry far-right extremists and police militarization. There has also been various far-left activities in Seattle, including people who have spray-painted anarchist symbols on public property.
Antifa has roots in the Occupy Wall Street protests of a decade ago and the demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in the 1990s. During Mr. Trump’s inauguration, antifa activists marched in Washington vandalizing businesses and at one point setting fire to a limousine.
Over the next several months, its followers disrupted events hosted by right-wing speakers like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulous. When the far right fought back, organizing its own public protests, anti-fascist activists met them on the streets in what often turned into violent confrontations, culminating in the bloody rally in 2017 in Charlottesville, Va.
Anarchists and others accuse officials of trying to assign blame to extremists rather than accept the idea that millions of Americans from a variety of political backgrounds have been on the streets demanding change. Numerous experts called the participation of extremist organizations overstated, as well.
“A significant number of people in positions of authority are pushing a false narrative about antifa being behind a lot of this activity,” said J.M. Berger, the author of the book “Extremism,” and an authority on militant movements. “These are just unbelievably large protests at a time of great turmoil in this country, and there is surprisingly little violence given the size of this movement.”
In July 2019, Christopher Wray, the F.B.I. director, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the agency “considers antifa more of an ideology than an organization.”
In Las Vegas, the complaint filed in U.S. District Court said the three suspects called themselves members of the “boogaloo,” which is described as a far-right movement “to signify a coming civil war and/or fall of civilization.”
At an initial protest, the three strapped on bulletproof vests, grabbed their rifles and waded into the crowd, hoping to provoke clashes between protesters and the police, according to court papers. One taunted police officers, yelling in their faces, while a second chided protesters “that peaceful protests don’t accomplish anything and they needed to be violent,” the complaint said.
When that failed, they plotted to blow up an electric substation along the route of the demonstration in the hope that would prompt more violence between police and protesters, according to the complaint. They were arrested after preparing Molotov cocktails from gasoline and lemonade bottles before a march.
Robert M. Drascovich Jr., an attorney for one of the accused, Stephen T. Parshall, 35, said his client denied all the charges.
Individuals associated with the boogaloo movement have been out in force at countless demonstrations in the past few years, clad in their distinctive combat dress and armed with rifles. They often claim that they appear armed in public to underscore their commitment to Second Amendment rights, or to protect local businesses.
But online, boogaloo discussion groups overflow with racist statements and threats to exploit any unrest to spark a race war that will bring about a new government system.
In Denver, police seized a small arsenal including three assault rifles, numerous magazines, several bullet proof vests and other military paraphernalia from the car trunk of a self-professed “boogaloo” adherent headed toward a protest, a man who had previously live-streamed his own support for armed confrontations with police.
After a demonstration in Athens, Ga., on May 31 ended with the National Guard being called in and tear gas fired to clear protesters away from the gates of University of Georgia, Chief Cleveland L. Spruill wrote a lengthy memo spelling out his concerns around extremist involvement in the protests.
Given the volatile mix of protesters, including armed men, he said, he feared a repeat of Charlottesville. Some participants called such fears overblown given the overall peaceful tenor of the protest.
In New York, police briefed reporters on May 31, claiming that radical anarchists from out of state had plotted ahead of the protests by setting up encrypted communications systems, arranging for street medics and collecting bail funds.
Within five days, however, Dermot F. Shea, the city’s police commissioner, acknowledged that most of the hundreds of people arrested at the protests in New York were actually New Yorkers who took advantage of the chaos to commit crimes and were not motivated by political ideology. John Miller, the police official who had briefed reporters, told CNN that most looting in New York had been committed by “regular criminal groups.”
In Austin, Texas, court documents said several members of the Red Guards participated in burglarizing a Target store, including a woman who streamed the event on Facebook Live, encouraging people to come “even if you do not want to loot,” one affidavit said.
Although the court documents identified the Red Guards as part of the city’s anti-fascist umbrella organization, several Austin activists described the group as either defunct or estranged from one another because of their penchant for troubling acts like laying a dead cat on the doorstep of a business involved in a gentrification dispute.
Kit O’Connell, a longtime radical leftist activist and community organizer in Austin, said that shortly after Mr. Trump’s election, the group took part in anti-fascist protests in the city against a local white supremacist group and scuffled separately with Act for America, an anti-Muslim organization.
“They’ve been an influence at the protests but they’re not in charge — no one’s really in charge,” Mr. O’Connell said.
Carl Guthrie, a lawyer for Samuel Miller, one of those charged with burglary, denied that his client had any connection to the Red Guards. He called such accusations “a transparent, incendiary attempt to distract from the problems plaguing our society — systemic racism and state-sponsored murder.”
Experts on extremism said the few suspects arrested with overt political goals fall under the broad category of “accelerationists,” groups that hope to exploit any public unrest to further their own anti-government goals.