‘It’s about intimidation’: Trump allies suggest using federal racketeering laws to bully anti-racism activists
President Donald Trump and his supporters have been consistently disingenuous and misleading in their attacks on protesters, describing antifa as “terrorists” and glossing over the fact that thousands of Black Lives Matter activists all over the United States have been totally peaceful. Amplifying Trump's message, Chad Wolf — acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — has suggested possibly using anti-racketeering laws to go after left-wing protesters. And reporter Kelly Weill examines that suggestion from a legal/civil rights standpoint in a Daily Beast article published on September 3.
“Can the United States government really use the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, mostly known as a weapon the feds use to target mob bosses, to successfully prosecute protesters, as Wolf implied?,” Weill writes. “It wouldn’t be easy, legal experts say. But the chatter signals a potent new effort — bolstered by extra-deranged conspiracy theories — to crack down on protesters, and may already be having its desired effect: freaking people out.”
When Wolf was interviewed by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson on Monday night, August 31, the far-right Carlson asked him, “Why haven’t we seen the leaders of antifa and BLM arrested and charged with conspiracy under, say, RICO, like the heads of mafia families were?” — to which the acting DHS secretary responded, “Well, this is something that I have talked to (Attorney General William Barr) personally about. I know that they are working on it.” And Wolf told Carlson that the U.S. Department of Justice was investigating “the heads of those organizations.”
Weill notes that in July, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas wrote a letter to Barr and the FBI calling for an investigation of antifa “under the RICO Act.” But attorney Ken White, a former federal prosecutor, is dismissive of politicians who throw the word “RICO” around casually.
White told the Daily Beast that the RICO Act “was useful, and still is sometimes, at taking down genuine organized crime. The problem is that (RICO) sounds badass so people want to use it on everything. People basically use it like an angry emoji…. I think 98% of the time it’s invoked, it’s more emotional or performative than it is substantive.”
Chip Gibbons, policy director of Defending Rights And Dissent, stressed that antifa is not an actual organization. Gibbons told the Beast, “When (Wolf) says they’re looking at the leaders of Black Lives Matter for RICO charges, who do they mean? Do they mean the board of trustees on the actual 501(c)(3) (nonprofit) organization? Do they mean the three individuals who are credited with coming up with the hashtag? These are pretty decentralized movements…. How are we going to subpoena the hotel records of antifa? It’s a nonsensical proposition, like if I said I’m going to subpoena the hotel records of feminism.”
However, Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, argued that even if RICO charges didn’t hold up in the courts, they could still have a chilling effect on protesters. Patel told the Beast, “One of the things this administration has tried to do is label protesters as part of some criminal organization, because once you have the idea of an organization, then that makes it a lot easier to go after people who are related. You might not necessarily have to get the individual person who might have committed a crime; you can actually treat the entire group as being dangerous or criminal. And that gives you a lot more leverage in going after its members.”
Gibbons said of threats to use the RICO Act against demonstrators, “It’s about intimidation. If you’re a normal person and you’re disgusted by police racism but you think, ‘If I go out and protest, is the FBI going to open a file on me?,’ you might think twice about doing so.”