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Is 'antifa' a gang?

After violent protests in Berkeley, California debates classifying groups as criminal

‘They behave like a gang,’ one law enforcement official said after the violent protests in Berkeley. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Time)</p></p>

‘They behave like a gang,’ one law enforcement official said after the violent protests in Berkeley. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Time)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/9/2017 (1028 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Not long after dozens of black-hooded protesters were filmed pummelling people on his city’s streets, Berkeley, Calif., Mayor Jesse Arreguin made clear his disgust for the self-stylized vigilantes.

"Antifa," he said, is no different than a street gang and police should start treating protesters in the anti-fascist movement accordingly.

Later that day, legislators in Sacramento advanced resolutions that would treat violent acts committed by the antifa movement’s enemies — white nationalists and neo-Nazis — as terrorist acts under state law.

As forces on the extremes of the nation’s ever-widening political divide continue to battle with fists and weapons on the streets of California, law enforcement officials and politicians have started debating whether these groups should be classified as street gangs.

Such a designation could give law enforcement new tools to combat the groups. Numerous laws on the books give authorities the power to restrict the movements of gang members and enhance criminal charges against them.

But such a move raises legal issues because, unlike traditional street gangs, the underlying motive of these extremist groups is political expression, not criminal enterprise.

Law enforcement experts say the groups that have been warring in the San Francisco Bay Area for months — which include anti-fascists and those using "black bloc" militant tactics, far-right organizations such as the Proud Boys and the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, and white nationalist groups — certainly share similarities with a street gang.

"It is gang behaviour with some ideology. But it is also a social entity, as well as a political one," said Brian Levin, director of California State University, San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.

Arreguin, the mayor, said he believes groups on the left and the right meet this definition. But "it’s something I would want to discuss with our enforcement partners before I make that announcement," he said.

"There are violent extremists on both sides, and we need to look at a variety of legal and law enforcement strategies to deal with these groups," he said. "There are organized groups — violent extremist groups — on the left and right that have encouraged people to come to Berkeley and physically confront the antifa or to confront the alt-right."

But some gang experts also expressed concern about linking the far left to street gang activity. Though the groups may share commonalities with gangs, the idea of labelling them as such could be seen as a punishing a political viewpoint, no matter how extreme.

Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times</p><p>Members of the black bloc march into Martin Luther King Park after police officers retreated during a day full of protests in Berkeley, Calif., on Aug. 27.</p>

Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times

Members of the black bloc march into Martin Luther King Park after police officers retreated during a day full of protests in Berkeley, Calif., on Aug. 27.

"There’s an argument for it, but there’s also a very grave concern because they are exercising their constitutional rights," said San Bernardino County deputy district attorney Britt Imes, a nationally renowned expert on gang activity. "Their criminal actions, not their free speech actions, their criminal actions, will determine whether they qualify as a criminal street gang."

Labelling either far-left or far-right groups as street gangs could have serious consequences for those arrested during the inevitable next clash at a counterprotest in California. Under the state’s Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act — a piece of legislation passed at the height of the nation’s gang boom — gang enhancements can add two to 15 years to a criminal sentence for people convicted of committing a crime in concert with gang activity.

Identified gang members can also be subject to injunctions, or civil restraining orders, that would prevent them from being in certain areas or congregating with friends and even family. Such tactics have been hailed as successes, and decried as draconian by civil liberties groups, in Los Angeles.

A spokeswoman for the Berkeley Police Department said she did not know whether antifa would qualify as a gang under California law. Any law enforcement agency trying to label antifa protesters as gang members might also run into another problem: technically, they don’t exist.

Joanna Mendelson, a senior investigative researcher for the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said "antifa" generally describes a way of thinking, rather than a group. "The antifa is a loose network of individuals who believe in active, aggressive opposition to far-right movements," she said. "There’s not a clear organizational structure. It’s a movement."

Antifa does not have a membership, nor does anyone have to claim to be part of the group to embrace its approach to protests, she added. But some far-left groups that espouse violence have taken on this banner.

Some law enforcement officials believe those groups fit the description of a street gang, even if identifying their followers would be next to impossible.

"I think under state law they could easily be declared a gang," said Wes McBride, president of the California Gang Investigators’ Association. "They behave like a gang. They have defined commitment to violence. They have their own gang dress."

Antifa’s stated goal may be to defeat white supremacists and neo-Nazis, but if the means by which its followers achieve that mission are violent, they could still be defined as a gang, Imes said.

"The question is going to become, have they engaged in a pattern of criminal activity... and is that part of their primary purpose for existing? When you talk about a group engaging in civil disobedience, I am very hesitant to label them a street gang," Imes said.

Those standing across Bay Area battle lines from anti-fascists seem to have more in common with what the average citizen associates with gang lore. The Proud Boys, a national collective of "western chauvinists" founded by former Vice media executive Gavin McInnes, has a formalized initiation process that includes being beaten by members, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

After an April rally, the Bay Area Proud Boys claimed Berkeley as its "territory," according to a post pinned atop its Twitter page.

"When they do things like that, and they put things in writing like bylaws... it makes our job a lot easier," Imes said. "It makes proving the associational organization much easier."

— Los Angeles Times

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