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.
“Yes, absolutely,” DeVos replied when asked if she was trying to “utilize” the crisis to help “faith-based schools”
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos admitted that she was trying to use the ongoing coronavirus crisis to push through her private school choice agenda during a Tuesday radio interview.
DeVos made the comments during an interview with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, on his Sirius XM show. The interview was first flagged by the nonprofit education news outlet Chalkbeat.
Dolan asked the secretary whether she was trying to “utilize this particular crisis to ensure that justice is finally done to our kids and the parents who choose to send them to faith-based schools.”
“Am I correct in understanding what your agenda is?” he asked.
“Yes, absolutely,” DeVos replied. “For more than three decades, that has been something that I’ve been passionate about. This whole pandemic has brought into clear focus that everyone has been impacted, and we shouldn’t be thinking about students that are in public schools versus private schools.”
Department of Education spokeswoman Angela Morabito said in a statement to Chalkbeat that DeVos “is helping Catholic schools just as she is helping all schools; this does not mean she is favoring any one type of school over another.”
“There is no question that this crisis has impacted all students — no matter what kind of school they’re enrolled in,” she added.
DeVos’ comments came as she defended her decision to redirect coronavirus relief funds away from public schools with high numbers of impoverished students to private schools which tend to serve wealthy students. Congress allocated about $13.5 billion to help schools, most of which was intended to go to schools based on a formula that determines how many poor children they serve.
The formula has long allocated some of the funding for poor children who attend private schools, The Washington Post reported. But DeVos said states should calculate how many total students private schools serve rather than just the number of poor students. As a result, millions in aid will be redirected away from schools with high poverty rates to private schools which may not have many poor students.
The move drew criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
“My sense was that the money should have been distributed in the same way we distribute Title I money,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Education Committee who is typically a DeVos ally, told reporters Wednesday. “I think that’s what most of Congress was expecting.”
Democrats also decried the decision.
“[The guidance] seeks to repurpose hundreds-of-millions of taxpayer dollars intended for public school students to provide services for private school students, in contravention of both the plain reading of the statute and the intent of Congress,” House Education Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., House Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLaura, D-Ct., and Senate Education ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a letter to DeVos on Tuesday.
“Given that the guidance contradicts the clear requirements of the CARES Act, it will cause confusion among states and local education agencies that will be uncertain of how to comply with both the department’s guidance and the plain language of the CARES Act,” the lawmakers urged, asking her to “immediately revise” the guidance.
But DeVos defended the decision Thursday to reporters.
“It’s our interpretation that [the funding] is meant literally for all students, and that includes students no matter where they’re learning,” she said.
The Democrats’ warning has proven right, however, as states are already dealing with confusion sparked by the policy.
The Education Law Center said DeVos’ policy was a “patent misreading” of the federal law and could redirect $800,000 in aid from Newark Public Schools in New Jersey to private school students. Tennessee’s education chief said she plans to follow DeVos’ guidance, but other school leaders argue that it is not legally binding and should be ignored.
Indiana’s schools chief Jennifer McCormick said that the state would ignore the guidance after consulting with the state’s attorney general.
“I will not play political agenda games with relief funds,” she said.
Scott told NPR that “there is rightfully pushback” on the decision.
“The actions of the Department of Education have left states and districts stuck between compliance with the law,” he said, “and adhering to ideologically motivated guidance.”
In early May, after weeks of delay prompted by the pandemic, the US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in three highly-anticipated cases about president Donald Trump’s financial records. One of those matters involve a subpoena for Trump’s taxes.
The case is important. Trump, unlike any president in recent history, has refused to disclose his finances, obscuring potential conflict of interests between his government and his personal business. But the issue has now taken on a whole new urgency because the $2.2 trillion CARES Act passed by Congress last month contains deep within its 800 pages two barely-noticeable tax clauses that only benefit rich Americans, perhaps including the president.
The new tax clauses will cost Americans about $195 billion over 10 years. They suspend previously-placed limits on tax offsets and apply retroactively, meaning millionaires will make a killing based on past circumstances while millions of Americans lose their jobs and struggle to survive the economic effects of the coronavirus crisis. This, despite the fact that, officially, the businesses of Trump and others in government cannot benefit from the stimulus package.
In other words, politicians apparently found a workaround for the protections meant to shield the people from government corruption.
“The [tax] policy is complex,” senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island told Quartz. “But the principle is straightforward: In the midst of a national health emergency, we ought to help those who need it—like healthcare workers and small businesses—not give huge tax breaks to hedge fund managers and real estate investors. This is a special-interest looting of the American taxpayer, plain and simple.”
Precisely how much Trump stands to gain from the “bonanza” tax breaks is unclear because he has refused to disclose his finances. The president has so far intervened in cases ordering his accountants and business associates to reveal their dealings with him, arguing that the chief executive’s records are special.
Supreme Court precedent indicates otherwise, however, and the new tax provisions in the CARES Act raise additional suspicions about his secret records that can’t be put to rest without full disclosure.
“If we had Trump’s tax returns, as we do for every other president in the modern era, the American people could see what kind of conflicts of interest and financial mischief swirl around their president,” Whitehouse said. “In this case, we could see whether Trump himself would benefit from giveaways like these provisions.”
On swindles and windfalls
The suspect clauses are hundreds of pages deep in the hastily-passed emergency CARES Act. They benefit a relatively small group of wealthy taxpayers and have nothing to do with battling Covid-19 or providing relief to the Americans worst-hit by the crisis, but Whitehouse said Republican politicians made them a priority during negotiations.
Members of Congress knew the tax clauses were in there. But the specifics, the extent to which these breaks could line the pockets of the rich and benefit wealthy real estate investors like the president and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, were not immediately apparent.
“What was a surprise was just how much money those provisions will loot from taxpayers to send to real estate investors and other million-dollar-plus earners—tax filers like the Trumps and Kushners,” Whitehouse said.
The astronomical cost only became evident a day after CARES was signed into law, when the nonpartisan congressional Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) published an analysis of the provisions. The committee’s latest findings show that four of five millionaires will pocket an average of $1.6 million more this year alone thanks to the stimulus bill. This of course dwarfs the $1,200 one-time checks average Americans will receive.
In total the tax clauses will cost taxpayers more than the funding allotted in the CARES Act to all hospitals throughout the US, and more than the relief provided to all state and local governments, according to the JCT analysis. Together, they are the costliest elements of the relief package. For that reason, Whitehouse and Texas representative Lloyd Doggett, as committee members, want to know what role, if any, the Trump administration played in advocating for these policies.
On April 9, they sent a letter demanding to review all communications pertaining to any internal advocacy for the suspect clauses. The missive was addressed to vice president Mike Pence, secretary of the treasury Steven Mnuchin, and acting director of the Office of Management and Budget Russell Vought. The lawmakers want the records “so that Congress and the American public can better understand the provenance of these tax law changes, and assess whether any individuals within the Administration who stand to gain from these provisions were involved in their development.”
SCOTUS to the rescue?
One bitter irony of this especially cruel spring of 2020 is that the CARES Act was signed into law on March 27, just days before the Supreme Court was originally meant to hear the Trump finance matters.
The hearings were delayed due to concerns about crowds in the courtroom. They would not have addressed the suspicious provisions in the CARES Act. But perhaps the JCT’s discovery of the tax clauses’ astronomical cost, published just ahead of debates over the president’s unprecedented secrecy, would have alerted Americans to the need for full financial disclosure from Trump and his subpoenaed business associates.
Instead, whispers of the secret tax windfalls were drowned out by the roar of justified pandemic panic. At that point, the people were more worried about ventilator and mask shortages than secret surpluses for the super rich and there was no dearth of pressing news to preoccupy journalists and readers. Indeed, it seemed—at least to some—that the typical ideological rifts had been overcome for the common good. “At times, our nation can appear sharply divided; divided by generations, by left and right, by our differences, and even by the donkey and the elephant,” Forbes wrote hopefully of the stimulus bill. “Sometimes, circumstances arise that compel us to either rise as one or be shattered.”
Alas, that quickly proved to be an illusion. The reality is far more stark. As The Washington Post put it on April 14, “[E]very voter should know that, at a time when hospitals, cities and states cried out for help with the pandemic, the president’s allies in Congress tossed a [$195 billion] lifeline in the direction of Trump, Kushner and other rich people who needed it the least.”
Now, with the federal and state governments planning an easing of lockdowns—or as the Trump administration puts it “Opening Up America Again”—it’s perhaps also the right moment to pay attention to the president’s unprecedented secrecy about his finances.
If the Supreme Court decides after its historic telephonic oral arguments on May 4 that Trump doesn’t have the right to hide his taxes and financial records, contrary to his claims, the third parties subpoenaed over their dealings with Trump will turn the records over, they say. Whitehouse said the documentation could potentially clarify the extent to which Trump will personally benefit from the costly tax clauses in the CARES Act.
“We already know about massive conflicts of interest for the president, whether it’s foreign dignitaries staying at his hotels or shunting military planes to Scotland to steer business to his resorts,” the senator said. “Seeing the president’s full financial records would show us much more, like whether these provisions will pad the Trump family’s bottom line.”
The Trump administration is putting together a rumored trillion-dollar-plus stimulus package that will include taxpayer funded bailouts of Corporate America, according to leaks cited widely by the media. Trump in the press conference today singled out $50 billion in bailout funds for US airlines alone. A bailout of this type is designed to bail out shareholders and unsecured creditors. That’s all it is. The alternative would be a US chapter 11 bankruptcy procedure which would allow the company to operate, while it is being handed to the creditors, with shareholders getting wiped out.
So get this: The big four US airlines – Delta, United, American, and Southwest – whose stocks are now getting crushed because they may run out of cash in a few months, would be the primary recipients of that $50 billion bailout, well, after they wasted, blew, and incinerated willfully and recklessly together $43.7 billion in cash on share buybacks since 2012 for the sole purpose of enriching the very shareholders that will now be bailed out by the taxpayer (buyback data via YCHARTS):
Share buybacks were considered a form of market manipulation and were illegal under SEC rules until 1982, when the SEC issued Rule 10b-18 which provided corporations a “safe harbor” to buy back their own shares under certain conditions. Once corporations figured out that no one cared about those conditions, and that no one was auditing anything, share buybacks exploded. And they’ve have been hyped endlessly by Wall Street.
The S&P 500 companies, including those that are now asking for huge bailouts from taxpayers and from the Fed, have blown, wasted and incinerated together $4.5 trillion with a T in cash to buy back their own shares just since 2012:
And those $4.5 trillion in cash that was wasted, blown, and incinerated on share buybacks since 2012 for the sole purpose of enriching shareholders is now sorely missing from corporate balance sheets, where these share buybacks were often funded with debt.
And the record amount of corporate debt – “record” by any measure – that has piled up since 2012 has become the Fed’s number one concern as trigger of the next financial crisis. So here we are.
In 2018, even the SEC got briefly nervous about the ravenous share buybacks and what they did to corporate financial and operational health. “On too many occasions, companies doing buybacks have failed to make the long-term investments in innovation or their workforce that our economy so badly needs,” SEC Commissioner Jackson pointed out. And he fretted whether the existing rules “can protect investors, workers, and communities from the torrent of corporate trading dominating today’s markets.”
Obviously, they couldn’t, as we now see.
Enriching shareholders is the number one goal no matter what the risks.These shareholders are also the very corporate executives and board members that make the buyback decisions. And when it hits the fan, there is always the taxpayer or the Fed to bail out those shareholders, the thinking goes. But this type of thinking is heinous.
Boeing is also on the bailout docket. Today it called for “at least” a $60-billion bailout of the aerospace industry, where it is the biggest player. It alone wasted, blew, and incinerated $43 billion in cash since 2012 to manipulate up its own shares until its liquidity crisis forced it to stop the practice last year, and its shares have since collapsed (buyback data via YCHARTS):
If Boeing’s current liquidity crisis causes the company to run out of funds to pay its creditors, it needs to file for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Under the supervision of the Court, the company would be restructured, with creditors getting the company, and with shareholders likely getting wiped out.
Boeing would continue to operate throughout, and afterwards emerge as a stronger company with less debt, and hopefully an entirely new executive suite and board that are hostile to share buybacks and won’t give in to the heinous clamoring by Wall Street for them.
No one could foresee the arrival of the coronavirus and what it would do to US industry. I get that. But there is always some crisis in the future, and companies need to prepare for them to have the resources to deal with them.
A company that systematically and recklessly hollows out its balance sheet by converting cash and capital into share buybacks, often with borrowed money, to “distribute value to shareholders” or “unlock shareholder value” or whatever Wall Street BS is being hyped, has set itself up for failure at the next crisis. And that’s fine. But shareholders should pay for it since they benefited from those share buybacks – and not taxpayers or workers with dollar-paychecks. Shareholders should know that they won’t be bailed out by the government or the Fed, but zeroed out in bankruptcy court.
The eventual costs of enriching shareholders recklessly in a way that used to be illegal must not be inflicted on taxpayers via a government bailout; or on everyone earning income in dollars via a bailout from the Fed.
The solution has already been finely tuned in the US: Delta, United, American, and other airlines already went through chapter 11 bankruptcies. They work. The airlines continued to operate in a manner where passengers couldn’t tell the difference. The airlines were essentially turned over to creditors and restructured. When they emerged from bankruptcy, they issued new shares to new shareholders, and in most cases, the old shares became worthless. The new airlines emerged as stronger companies – until they started blowing it with their share buybacks.
Companies like Boeing, GE, any of the airlines, or any company that blew this now sorely needed cash on share buybacks must put the ultimate cost of those share buybacks on shareholders and unsecured creditors. Any bailouts, whether from the Fed or the government, should only be offered as Debtor in Possession (DIP) loans during a chapter 11 bankruptcy filing where shareholders get wiped out.
In other words, companies that buy back their owns shares must be permanently disqualified for bailouts, though they may qualify for a government-backed DIP loan in bankruptcy court if shareholders get wiped out. Because those proposed taxpayer and Fed bailouts of these share-buyback queens are just heinous.