The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Justice Department’s rhetoric focuses on antifa. Its indictments don’t.

Attorney General William P. Barr speaks to reporters in Washington on June 4, 2020, about the ongoing protests in the wake of the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd.

During a news conference Thursday, Attorney General William P. Barr made clear who he held accountable for criminal activity that followed protests in a number of cities over the past week.

“We have evidence that antifa and other similar extremist groups, as well as actors of a variety of different political persuasions, have been involved in instigating and participating in the violent activity,” Barr said at one point. “Antifa” is a blanket term for a loose-knit group of often-militant activists targeting racism and fascism.

As it happens, it’s also the group that President Trump has most frequently sought to associate with the vandalism, looting and violence the country has seen in the past week. Barr, of course, knows this, as do his deputies.

“We’re seeing people who are exploiting this situation to pursue violent extremist agendas,” FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said during the same news conference. “Anarchists like antifa and other agitators.”

When Barr was asked about other groups who have been identified as contributing to violent activity, the attorney general defended his framing.

“I do think it’s important to point out the witches’ brew that we have of extremist individuals and groups that are involved,” he said. “And that’s why in my prepared statement, I specifically said, in addition to antifa and other extremist groups like antifa, there were a variety of groups and people of a variety of ideological persuasions.”

Barr said that he didn’t want to get overly specific but that there “are some specific cases against individuals, some antifa-related.”

Wray again backed him up.

“As I’ve said for quite some time, including even my first few months on the job,” he said, “we, the FBI, have quite a number of ongoing investigations of violent anarchist extremists, including those motivated by an antifa or antifa-like ideology.” Those groups were being actively pursued through the Justice Department’s joint terrorism task forces, Wray said.

You’ll notice, though, that Wray’s window is wider than Barr’s: The FBI has been on the antifa beat since at least late 2017, when Wray assumed his position. That’s a bit different from what Barr suggested, though the two aren’t necessarily in conflict.

This was not the first time that Barr has warned about the role of antifa in the protests.

In a statement May 30, he indicated that “Groups of outside radicals and agitators are exploiting the situation to pursue their own separate and violent agenda.” In some cases, he said, the violence was planned and driven by “far left extremists, using Antifa-like tactics.”

The next day, Trump announced on Twitter that he was designating antifa as a terror group — which he can’t. In a statement, Barr said that “The violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.”

A slightly different take on Trump’s declaration, with Barr treating the activity as terroristic and not the actors. Notice, though, how often Barr conflates extremism broadly with antifa specifically, repeatedly using descriptors such as “antifa-like” or classifications like “antifa and other groups.” The obvious point is to continually associate antifa with the worst effects of the violence even while he admitted that no cases had been brought and while Wray was suggesting that antifa investigations probably predate what has happened in the past few days.

What’s particularly telling about Barr’s comments May 31 is that an FBI document obtained by journalist Ken Klippenstein indicates that the bureau had “no intelligence indicating Antifa involvement/presence” at the protests in Washington that day. The bureau did, however, identify calls, possibly online, for “far-right provocateurs” to attack federal agents.

One group of far-right provocateurs identified as being at the fringes of the protest violence are members of the “boogaloo” movement. Taking its name from the cult movie “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” the right-wing group seeks to hasten a second Civil War, with some members seeing the anti-police anger that is part of the protests as a mechanism for spurring that conflict.

The question that spurred Barr’s clarification about other groups being involved in violent activity specifically mentioned the boogaloo movement — as did the attorney general’s response.

“There’s some groups that want to bring about a civil war, the boogaloo group that has been on the margin of this, as well, trying to exacerbate the violence,” Barr said Thursday. “So we are dealing with, as I say, a witches’ brew of a lot of different extremist organizations.”

That’s true. The only one that Barr spontaneously mentions, though, is antifa — one that happens to be left-leaning and a focal point of his boss. Antifa is a toxic, militant movement with violent actors, but as Barr notes, many other groups have similar attributes. But those groups aren’t mentioned quite as much.

On Wednesday, the Justice Department announced an indictment stemming from work conducted by one of the joint terrorism task forces — specifically, the one in Las Vegas. Three men are accused of “violations of federal and state law for conspiracy to cause destruction during protests in Las Vegas, and possession of an unregistered destructive device” — a molotov cocktail.

The three are also allegedly members of the boogaloo movement. They were arrested May 30, the day Barr warned about “far left extremists, using Antifa-like tactics.”

There may still be indictments filed against people suspected to be antifa activists or claiming to be associated with the group. Antifa remains dangerous, and there is evidence that antifa activists were involved in violence that followed the protests. But by focusing on antifa specifically and contextualizing other acts of violence through antifa, Barr is placing both attention and blame on the group — a decision that seems difficult to separate from the political utility Trump sees in doing so.