In many ways, I think it shouldn’t be surprising that the government and the people backing the current capitalist order don’t like those who organize under the banner of “antifa”. Capitalism and conservatism have always been uncomfortably close to fascism, not just in who the United States has historically supported around the world, but also in terms of shared ideological tendencies at home. Add common misunderstandings about antifascist activism, the willingness of those activists to stand up to police as well as non-police violence, and the general dislike for authoritarian structures expressed by most involved in such action, and it makes a lot of sense that those with power would want to quash antifascist actors. I think the fact that antifa groups spring up more or less out of nowhere in response to fascist action, means that people who don’t get what’s going on could easily come away with the impression that there’s some sort of organization with nation-wide, or even international reach that’s behind these people, rather than local activists using common tactics and symbology to achieve common goals, without any real coordination. If you want to learn more about “Antifa”, I highly recommend The Philosophy of Antifa by Ollie Thorn at Philosophy Tube.
We’ve reached a point at which global capitalism is not only working against democracy in the current and former colonies of the various imperial societies, but also against efforts to create or maintain democracy at home, particularly in the United States right now. This is situation is fertile soil for fascism, which tends not to threaten established systems of power, but also for various ideologies and movements that question established systems of power, and established ways of distributing resources.
The laws of the United States are mostly designed to make it difficult for any political faction in power to use their control of the government to increase their power and oppose political opposition. The conservative movement in America has never valued these principles, whether it has been the efforts by Democrats in the late 19th century and early 20th century to obstruct the black vote, to the bipartisan eradication of leftist political power during the Cold War, to the modern Republican Party’s decades-long effort to consolidate power through voter suppression, gerrymandering, and a takeover of the judiciary. Even so, one of the better things about the U.S. is the ways in which has become more difficult – though not impossible – to attack political minorities, or to crush movements.
There are various legal frameworks in place that prevent domestic terrorist groups like the KKK from being treated as terrorists, at least in the ways we have come to expect. While protecting the Klan is not good, the same laws that protect them also protect left-wing groups from being targeted by the Department of Homeland Security. Rather than risk someone going after right-wing extremists in the United States, the Republican administration is, instead, trying to tie their left-wing opposition to foreign actors, to get around the law, and allow them to treat anyone labeled “antifa” in the U.S., in the words of a DHS source, “Like Al Qaeda”.
“They targeted Americans like they’re Al Qaeda” a former senior DHS intelligence officer with knowledge of the operations told The Nation. The officer, who served for years in the DHS’s Office of Intelligence & Analysis (I&A), compared the operations to the illegal surveillance of activists during the civil rights era. “They essentially were violating people’s rights like this was the ’60s…the type of shit the Church and Pike committee[s] had to address.”
While the law generally prohibits intelligence agencies from spying on US residents, many of those protections do not apply if the individual is believed to be acting as an agent of a foreign power.
“Designating someone as foreign-sponsored can make a huge legal and practical difference in the government’s ability to pursue them,” explained Steven Aftergood, who heads the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “It’s a crucial distinction. Once someone (or some group) is identified as an agent of a foreign power, they are subject to warrantless search and surveillance in a way that would be illegal and unconstitutional for any other US person. The whole apparatus of US intelligence can be brought to bear on someone who is considered an agent of a foreign power.”
Perversely, the way they are trying to do this is by focusing on those Americans who went as volunteers to fight alongside groups like the Kurds in Syria – and the US army – against ISIS.
The intelligence report describes over half a dozen people who traveled to Syria in order to fight alongside Kurdish factions—usually the YPG, but also other Kurdish groups like the PKK and the Peshmerga. Some of the individuals described have denied membership in antifa but variously identified with far-left causes. The DHS appears to define antifa broadly, to encompass various left-wing tendencies: “[A]ntifa is driven by a mixed range of far-left political ideologies, including anti-capitalism, communism, socialism, and anarchism.” In two cases, evidence of antifa affiliation was limited to photos taken in front of an antifa flag. As the intelligence report itself notes, “ANTIFA claims no official leadership,” raising questions about whether antifa even exists in any sort of operational capacity.
The first individual mentioned in the intelligence report, Brace Belden, cohosts the popular left-wing podcast TrueAnon, and fought with the YPG in 2016. The information appears to be partly drawn from a 2017 article on Belden in Rolling Stone. Belden is described as “a minor criminal and drug addict who started reading Marx and Lenin in drug rehabilitation treatment and became involved in a number of political causes before deciding to fight alongside the YPG.”
I’ll repeat, just to be very clear – these people chose to go fight alongside US allies, against an enemy of the US, and that is now being used to justify using international counter-terrorism resources to attack left-wing activists in the United States. The US government is in the process of classifying American citizens as “enemy combatants” in a way that would, based on how administrations of both parties have behaved in the last two decades, cancel out most if not all of the rights that are supposedly guaranteed to all citizens of that country.
More than ever, this underscores the importance not just of opposing the Trump administration, but also the general trend of consolidating and militarizing law enforcement, and of using America’s various armed forces, mercenaries and intelligence services to kill people and destabilize nations around the world.
This is doubly worrying to me given the increasing reliance on so-called “signature strikes”, which kill people – almost entirely using drones – not based on who they are, or what they have done, but based on things like demographics and movement patterns.
So what’s a signature behavior? “The definition is a male between the ages of 20 and 40,” former ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter told the Daily Beast’s Tara McKelvey. “My feeling is one man’s combatant is another man’s — well, a chump who went to a meeting.” The New York Times quoted a senior State Department official as saying that when the CIA sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp.
That day in Datta Khel, the signature behavior was a meeting, or “jirga,” which is an assembly of tribal elders who convene to settle a local dispute. In this case, a conflict over a chromite mine was being resolved. And, in fact, the elders had informed the Pakistani army about the meeting 10 days in advance. “So this was an open, public event that pretty much everyone in the community and surrounding area knew about,” says Stanford law professor James Cavallaro in the video.
It’s also not new for the US government to show unreasonable hostility towards left-wing groups, including things like surveillance of Quakers opposed to the invasion of Iraq, student groups, and other anti-war activists. Because they were anti-war activists. Tying left-wing American activists to foreign actors, for the purpose of declaring them to be affiliates of international terrorist groups provides the pretext to move beyond surveillance to any number of other measures. It means that anyone on the record opposing fascism becomes a target, along with anyone with whom they interact. It means that everyone at the protests this year could “fit the profile” in a way very similar to the justification used to launch missiles at people in other countries, simply for existing in a community. Will drones be used against Americans? It’s hard to tell. It seems unlikely, but we are in unprecedented times, and police have already used a robot to deliver an explosive and kill an active shooter, “based on where the suspect was”. I don’t think we’ll know how close we are to the unthinkable until it has already happened.
It is imperative to get Trump out of office, but that is not nearly enough to stop the trajectory on which we find ourselves. Biden himself has endorsed criminalizing people simply for holding political beliefs that he doesn’t like, and probably doesn’t understand. Democratic Senator Christ Murphy has openly stated that his problem with the botched attempt at a coup in Venezuela was not that it was attempted, but that it failed. Fascism has been described as colonialist or imperialist oppression brought home, and while it can be argued that some version of that has always been in place for minority groups in the United States, it seems like it will increasingly be applied to everyone. That we have not truly addressed racial injustice in this country has always been a colossal moral failing, and lethal to the people who were failed. That will get worse if this trend continues, and expand out to ever-larger portions of the population, as fascism has always done.
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