LOS ANGELES - President Donald Trump tweeted Sunday that the U.S. will designate “Antifa” as a “terrorist organization.”
The tweet comes after days of protests in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man who died Monday after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on his neck until he stopped breathing. Tens of thousands marched peacefully, But many demonstrations sank into chaos as night fell: Cars and businesses were torched. The words “I can’t breathe” were spray-painted all over buildings. The damaged buildings include many near the White House.
Trump has alleged that the violence was “being led by Antifa and other radical groups.” Antifa, short for anti-fascists, is an umbrella term for far-left-leaning militant groups that resist neo-Nazis and white supremacists at demonstrations.
Attorney General William Barr has seemed to echo Trump's assertion, saying the violent incidents in Minneapolis were driven by groups using "Antifa-like tactics." Barr vowed that federal prosecutors across the country would use federal riots statutes to charge protesters who cross state lines to participate in violent rioting.
Police in many areas responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.
U.S. officials sought to determine Sunday whether extremist groups had infiltrated these protests across the country and deliberately tipped largely peaceful demonstrations toward violence — and if foreign adversaries were behind a burgeoning disinformation campaign on social media.
Barr on Sunday said the FBI would use its regional joint terrorism task forces to “identify criminal organizers,” and Trump threatened again to name antifa a terrorist group.
Others have seen evidence of right-wing extremists, too. J.J. MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, has been monitoring chatter about the protests among anti-government extremists on social media platforms. She has access to hundreds of private Facebook groups for followers of the loosely organized “Boogaloo” movement, which uses an ’80s movie sequel as a code word for a second civil war.
She also has been poring over images from the weekend protests and spotted some “boogaloo bois” in the crowds, carrying high-powered rifles and wearing tactical gear.
“I think mostly they don’t want to hurt these protests. They want to co-opt them in order to start their war. They see themselves as being on the side of protesters and that the protesters themselves are useful in causing anarchy,” MacNab said.
She also sees signs that the Three Percenters militia movement appears to be taking an interest.
Trump was expected in the coming days to draw distinctions between the legitimate anger of peaceful protesters and the unacceptable actions of violent agitators, said a White House official who was not authorized to discuss the plans ahead of time and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Trump administration has largely remained silent on local reports that far-right protesters were also involved. Meanwhile, Democratic mayors said Trump’s handling of the crisis was reminiscent of one of the darkest moments of his presidency — when he said there were “good people on both sides” of protests in 2017 over white supremacists demonstrating in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Hundreds have been arrested nationwide and cities braced for more protests. But booking information from the county jail in Minneapolis, for example, showed that out of 59 protest-related arrests, 47 people had a home address in Minnesota, with the majority coming from the Twin Cities.
In Washington, where protesters raged outside the White House, most of the 17 people arrested were from the area.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said the groups seemed, at the least, organized to destroy.
“They had tools to break windows and tools or a strategy to distribute materials, among them,” she said. "The thing that we're struck by is that it was an organized group that appeared more bent on destruction on then on protest.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.