As riots unfolded across America following the killing of George Floyd, President Donald Trump said Sunday that he’d label Antifa as a terrorist organization. Despite initial uncertainty as to what authority this declaration-by-tweet carries, the Department of Justice (DOJ) quickly moved to take action. According to a press release put out the same day by Attorney General William Barr, “Federal law enforcement actions will be directed at apprehending and charging” Antifa leadership. While those unsupportive of protestors may celebrate this move now, Barr’s overly broad policy is a serious danger to the First Amendment promises of free speech and free assembly — for everyone.
Twitter pundit and reporter Chris Tomlinson noted that under current law, “now that Antifa is a declared terrorist organization, the US must issue a travel ban for all foreign member[s] of this terror group, those who aid them, and those who fund them.” Indeed, laws like the Patriot Act remove key civil rights protections for anyone defined as a terrorist, justly or otherwise. Even now, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been given new powers to begin surveillance of protestors.
The civil rights implications are significant, and according to some, Trump’s declaration may not be legally binding. It may take years to get an answer from the judicial branch, but in the meantime, Trump’s declaration seems likely to fan the flames of this revolt against an overly punitive police system.
The Barr Memorandum targeting “far-left extremist groups” could legitimize crackdown on the thousands who tweeted #iamAntifa during the recent riots. It also leaves open how the Justice Department may choose to define membership in what is clearly a grassroots effort. Barr’s policy could also implicate hundreds, if not thousands, or millions of left-leaning Americans as members of a terrorist organization, despite the FBI’s finding that Antifa was not involved in Sunday’s violence.
The long-term impacts of this executive power could be unpleasant for Conservatives. Outspoken groups like the Tea Party, local and regional militia groups, or local political and social organizations that wouldn’t support a liberal president’s agenda may find themselves under fire, corralled, and imprisoned under this broad order. When a left-leaning president is running the White House at some point in the future, these precedents would likely be used in the same irresponsible fashion. Domestic terrorism is poorly defined, and in the case of Antifa, the line between so-called leadership and the violent acts in these recent riots is unclear.
Arresting and prosecuting those who see chaos as an opportunity to loot and destroy private property is one thing. In this case, however, the federal government is also being opportunistic, expanding powers at the very moment where checking overreach is essential. The protests are, in many ways, protesting overreaching government power, albeit channeled through police departments. The American people need less big brother and more local control to effectively quell violence and address issues of police misconduct and excessive force. We won’t heal the racial and cultural divide by empowering a more hierarchical power structure. If a president can define American citizens as terrorists via tweet, making them felons, we are all at risk of losing our rights.
Some may think this analysis is overdramatic. The best-case scenario is that those critics are correct. History, however, has shown that silencing opposition to the status quo is a typical step on the path to authoritarianism. In an attempt to bring order, extensive government powers have become law under the guise of stabilizing political, social, and cultural institutions during times of civil unrest.
The voices on the right and left seem to be speaking different languages. There is something lost in translation between the conservative drive for law-and-order and the left’s push for justice and equality. Small-government conservatives are, ironically, few and far between right now, but they are needed now more than ever. We need principles, not politics, to reign in the power of the growing administrative and authoritative state. This moment could be an olive branch for both sides of the ideological spectrum to work together to address the growing concerns about police militarization.
Some conservatives are rightly questioning the police practices that are foundational to the modern conception of law and order. But not enough, and not in the highest levels of government, where policy is set. This is a quintessential example of how government grows when partisan politics run the system. As one party seeks to make a power play against its opposition, shortsighted policy making enshrines governmental powers long past the current moment. Donald Trump shouldn’t have this power, nor should anyone else.
If the goal is to improve our culture, pursue a better future for all people, and seek justice when systemic violence occurs, the answer is, as it has always been, more liberty and less government.