Activism and ‘extremism’ in the era of Trump


Following protests and rioting in Berkeley, California last week over a scheduled — and then cancelled — appearance by conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos that brought condemnation from President Donald Trump, and new executive orders signed this week including one aimed at “preventing violence” against law enforcement,  many are wondering how aggressively the new administration plans on targeting activism against it.

While the action in Berkeley got more attention, last week also saw the publication of a new in-depth investigation from The Intercept into the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s “secret rules” and the extensive capabilities it developed largely unopposed during the Obama years, which Trump has now inherited.

New revelations from the investigation include that the FBI can bypass its own rules to infiltrate organizations it deems “illegitimate,” that it continues to employ fairly loose guidelines when it comes to recruiting informants and paying them, and new details of how its surveillance databases and agent provocateur online trolling operations work.

In other related news at the state level, in New Jersey the state’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness has elevated the categories of “black separatist extremists” and “anarchist extremists” from a “low” threat level to “moderate” in its 2017 Terrorism Threat Assessment, putting them at the same “threat level” as ISIS and al Qaeda.

A document jointly prepared by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) dated April 2016 and marked “for official use only” but subsequently published, meanwhile, shows an increased level of attention being paid by federal law enforcement authorities to the alleged “anarchist extremist” threat.

The FBI/DHS document compares “anarchist extremist movements” within and outside of the U.S. It notes that the “vast majority of US anarchist extremist attacks targeted property” compared to “foreign anarchist extremists’ greater willingness to use more violent tactics” targeting people. Despite its rhetoric about “extremists” the document seems to suggest that some anarchists do not qualify as such, even if they actually break laws rather than simply opposing them in principle.

“Within the United States, criminal acts by anarchist extremists—as well as the larger anarchist movement—tend to be low-level, non-violent incidents, such as vandalisms—and when US-based anarchist extremists commit violent acts they are generally aimed at property, based on the reviewed incidents,” the document states.

Despite the nearly exclusive focus of U.S. anarchist “violence” on property rather than people (96 percent of incidents, according to the FBI/DHS report) the document nonetheless goes on to list various scenarios that “could potentially lead US anarchist extremists to adopt more violent tactics.”

Last week’s protest in Berkeley saw a large contingent of activists using the “black bloc” tactic of covering their faces and dressing in all black to blend in with a crowd before and after committing illegal acts such as property destruction, or simply to provide cover for others taking such actions. While those who use the black bloc tactic are sometimes accused of “infiltrating” protests, perhaps a more troubling aspect of the tactic is its vulnerability to infiltration itself by police provocateurs.

At last week’s protest in Berkeley, coincidentally, not only property destruction but a greater degree of violence against people was reported, certainly compared to the proportions of violent “extremist” action undertaken by U.S. anarchists as reported in last year’s FBI/DHS study. Milo Yiannopoulos — meanwhile, who has built an entire brand around generating outrage and protest in liberal college towns where he makes appearances — has already announced plans to return to Berkeley, “hopefully within the next few months.”

At a time when the federal government is under full Republican control, and the new administration has already declared its strong support for “law and order” and appears to be actively weighing a crackdown on political activism, anarchist activists, among others, might want to pick their battles carefully. Yiannopoulos’ speech may offend, but he hasn’t been physically violent and given the president’s support for him, responding to offensive speech with violence seems likely to end badly for those who are offended.

While some activists might not like what others have to say and feel tempted to try to silence them, especially when their favored party holds political power, they should certainly also be able to recognize the importance of defending people’s right to speak their mind openly, especially when it is activists themselves that the government seems eager to label as “extremists” based on their political leanings. Freedom of speech, after all, is a double-edged sword.



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