News & Politics

Has the Liberal Media Enabled a Nationwide Crackdown on Trump's Political Enemies?

The president's smear of the "alt-left" echoes what mainstream outlets have been saying for months.

Photo Credit: Jesse Adam Davis / Shutterstock.com

Less than 48 hours after formally denouncing neo-Nazis and the KKK, Donald Trump stood before the White House press corps and the nation Tuesday and declared that "both sides" were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville that injured dozens and claimed the life of 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

The president has since been pilloried for his remarks, but he is not alone in drawing a false equivalence between fascist terror and community defense. In fact, Trump's smear of the "alt-left" echoes not only conservatives and fellow Republicans but many in the purportedly liberal media. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is mobilizing to brutally suppress anti-racist movements spearheaded by the very anarchists and antifascists who have come under attack.

On August 11, hundreds of alt-right protesters marched across the University of Virginia campus, encircling and finally assaulting about a dozen peaceful antifascists with pepper spray and tiki torches. After allowing the white supremacists to disperse, police declared the few remaining medics, legal observers and demonstrators an illegal assembly and cleared the area with batons. 

The following day, as alt-right provocateurs attacked Antifas at Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park, local Democratic State Senator David Toscano blamed the day’s violence on “skirmishes between the alt-right and what I would describe as the outside agitators.” Tuscano’s failure to identify the alt-right as outside agitators themselves came moments before James Alex Fields, who hails from Ohio, plowed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters.

President Trump issued a statement regretting violence “from many sides,” while Attorney General Jeff Sessions condemned the killing as a possible act of domestic terror. The alt-right brushed off such statements, insisting that nobody took them seriously while blaming the “violent left” for the day’s mayhem. On Monday, Trump reassured his white supremacist supporters by publicly contemplating a pardon for Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has been convicted of contempt of court after refusing to follow a court order to stop racial profiling in immigration enforcement.

The Crackdown

The Trump administration’s crackdown began on Inauguration Day, January 20, in Washington, D.C., when police staged a mass-arrest of 231 anti-Trump protesters. With cumulative charges of inciting or urging to riot, conspiracy to riot and destruction of property, the “J20” arrestees face sentences of 75 years in prison.

Last month, officials intensified pressure on the activist community, as officers served North Carolina anarchist Katie Yow a subpoena to appear before a grand jury investigating an attack on a GOP office in Hillsborough. Yow has refused to comply, likening it to “fishing expeditions to attempt to coerce testimony on First Amendment-protected information." The North Carolina GOP is calling for Yow’s arrest pending cooperation.

The FBI is also investigating Jayden Sevino, who has similarly refused to cooperate with the state. She likens her case to Yow's: “These seemingly unrelated cases appear to be parts of separate investigations, but the parallels paint a picture of increased and possibly coordinated targeted repression of anarchists in this part of the country.”

On July 18, 2017, police arrested California activist Yvette Felarca. An organizer with the antifascist group By Any Means Necessary, Felarca is outspoken about confronting violent white supremacists in the streets. She has been charged with assault, participating in a riot and inciting a riot in connection with clashes between fascists and antifascist counter-protesters in Sacramento on June 26 last year. Fellow counter-protesters Porfiro Paz and Mike Williams were arrested during the standoff as well.

Amidst these arrests, civil rights attorneys and activists have sharply rebuked law enforcement’s militant defense of alt-right demonstrations. During a June 4 rally in Portland, Oregon, which came a week after a racially motivated double-murder, police cleared a mostly peaceful counter-protest with tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray, while facilitating the safe exit of alt-right demonstrators. A similar incident occurred on July 8 during a separate Klan rally in Charlottesville, which preceded city's Unite the Right rally.

'State Repression Is Expected'

Escalating tensions last month, the New Jersey Department of Homeland Security has listed Antifa as an “anarchist extremist” group, one of the categories named alongside white supremacists as a “moderate threat” in the 2017 “Terrorism Threat Analysis.” On their website, DHS cites antifascist tactics like doxxing fascist leaders and protesting fascist events, omitting the alt-right’s recent string of murders, bomb threats, and targeted harassment of women and people of color.

According to the anarchist website It’s Going Down, which has drawn the ire of far-right groups for publishing articles by Antifa and anti-racist groups, “law enforcement seeks to neutralize forces which create disorder, which would be us, because the far-right people are getting permits and everything.”

The Trump administration's targets are not limited to the Antifa movement. Daryle Lamont Jenkins, founder of the One People's Project, believes the administration is going after a larger number of groups that line up with the enemies of the far right, including, “the targeting of Muslims and the spying on Mosques, they are already targeted as terrorists, and of course black people being profiled.” 

“When it comes to antifascist work, state repression is expected, since they are doing it to other people,” Jenkins told AlterNet.

The extent of state repression is startling, observes Joe Lowndes, a professor at the University of Oregon who researches the modern far-right and its ties to the U.S. government. “There is of course a long history in the U.S. of criminalizing the left,” Lowndes told AlterNet. “But the intensity of the attack on Antifa is ominous. It looks like the coordination between the FBI, DHS and local police departments put in place to contain Occupy and then Black Lives Matter is being deployed against Antifa with alarming speed and velocity.”

'Make Hay While the Sun Is Shining'

Despite a recent surge in far-right violence against trans people and Muslims, including the bombing of a mosque in Minneapolis on August 6, the Trump administration has resolved to focus on “Islamist terrorism” by cutting all grants associated with the Countering Violent Extremism program that extends support to communities threatened by white supremacists. Trump’s tweet banning trans people from military service has signaled further targeting of the LGBT community.

The refocusing of counterterrorism efforts on Muslims has only emboldened fascists and radical right-wing groups. In Seattle, a Trump supporter shot a member of the IWW attempting to de-escalate tensions during a January 20 protest of former Breitbart journalist Milo Yiannopoulos. Since then, alt-right associated groups like the Red Elephants and Proud Boys have attacked leftists, disrupted left-wing events, and vandalized socialist spaces in Southern California, New Mexico, Florida, Texas, Washington, D.C., New York, and Nova Scotia. 

Law enforcement has also coordinated with the far right to suppress left-wing antifascists. In late May, 28-year-old professor Eric Clanton was arrested and charged with attacking a man with a bike lock at a rally in Berkeley, California, on the basis of dubious information from the online message board 4chan, a home base for the alt-right. On June 4 in Portland, Oregon, an armed militia and federal law enforcement worked in concert, as DHS officers called for assistance from a member of a local Patriot group in arresting an antifascist

James Buchal, head of the Multnomah County GOP,  gave a recruitment speech at the latter rally and has since officially declared his intention to invite Three Percenters and Oath Keepers to provide official security for Republican Party events. The event’s organizer, Islamophobic and anti-LGBT activist Joey Gibson, has led a number of other rallies in the Pacific Northwest since Trump’s election, including a recent gathering calling on DHS to make Antifa a terrorist organization.

Reflecting on these developments in his alt-right podcast Fash the Nation late last month, Mike Peinovich declared, “[Trump’s] going to give us space to operate, and frankly, it is space to destroy.” His co-host responded, “Now is the time that we have to make hay while the sun shines… while these investigations of ‘domestic terrorist groups’ are not being funded by the government, they’re not being pushed by the Department of Homeland Security.” 

There are mounting signals that far-right groups and the Trump administration are open to collaboration. Activists have pointed to the roles of Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller in the White House as an indication of a tacit partnership. The former head of alt-right media platform Breitbart, Bannon is linked to an international reactionary Catholic network and cites fascists like Julius Evola and Alexander Dugin as some of his most formative influences. Miller and alt-right leader Richard Spencer were close while members of the Conservative Union at Duke University, according to Spencer, and worked together to bring notorious white nationalist Peter Brimelow to campus for a debate on immigration in 2007. More recently, White House advisor Sebastian Gorka has played down the threat of white nationalists.

'They’re Coming For You Too'

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Pacific Northwest correspondent David Neiwert told AlterNet that there is reason to be concerned about the “symbiotic relationship” between government officials, the alt-right and militia groups. 

“Trump is such a clear and unmistakable authoritarian leader. He has a clear social dominance orientation and has formed a lethal alliance with right-wing authoritarians,” Neiwert said. “A lot of them are discussing strategies. A lot of them are ready to take up arms and defend Trump.”

Similarly, Jenkins adds, liberal groups have been all-too-willing to throw Antifa and anti-racist activists under the Trump train to preserve the status quo. “Liberal groups cling to institutions, and just like any conservative they feel the need to maintain these institutions for better or for worse,” Jenkins said. 

“Because we buck that and say we have to fight back against these guys, those liberals will actually help this current administration even while denouncing it.”

According to Neiwert, who has been to numerous far-right protests contested by antifascists, there is a concomitant tendency in the media to pursue the campaign against Antifa. “The media is very happy to portray these guys as violent thugs,” he said. “My own observation is that very few of them are violent thugs. In fact very few of them act thuggishly, but they react angrily to certain provocations. So there is a risk of violence. I would say that the vast majority of Antifa people that I’ve observed have been nonviolent and are just there to voice their opposition.”

Despite this, recent articles in the Atlantic and Politico have pointed to a growing consensus condemning antifascist community defense as responsible for increased far-right violence. To the website It’s Going Down, the pattern is clear: “The right is victimizing itself and vilifying us. There’s a reason why we’re being demonized at the same time as we’re being repressed.”

It’s Going Down's message for liberals is simple: “They’re coming for you too.”

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