CALIFORNIA — According to the LA TIMES, over the weekend, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin made clear his disdain for vigilantes and protesters participating in the Antifa movement, which he says is no different than a street gang, after dozens of black-hooded protesters were filmed pummeling people on his city’s streets to oppose anyone against their cause,
Arreguin has publicly stated that police should start treating protesters in the anti-fascist movement “accordingly.”
While Arreguin is quick to label the extremist group as a street gang, other legislators, lawmakers and left-leaning officials are more hesitant. In Sacramento, California, lawmakers advanced resolutions that would treat violent acts committed by groups such as nationalists and neo-Nazis as terrorist acts under state law, but no legislation was designed to condemn Antifa.
A “street gang” designation could give law enforcement more control to restrict and combat Antifa groups, but resistance is being met in granting Antifa the label since, unlike traditional street gangs, the underlying motive of these extremist groups is a political expression rather than criminal enterprise. Of course, this poses legal problems and hurdles.
“It is gang behavior with some ideology. But it is also a social entity as well as a political one,” said Brian Levin, director of Cal State San Bernardino Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. “There are violent extremists on both sides, and we need to look at a variety of legal and law enforcement strategies to deal with these groups. There are organized groups — violent extremists groups — on the left and right that have encouraged people to come to Berkeley and physically confront the Antifa or to confront the alt-right.”
Law enforcement experts say the groups that have been warring in California’s Bay Area for months are encompassing a street gang mentality. Anti-fascists and those using “black bloc” militant tactics, as well as the alt-right organizations such as the Proud Boys and the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, and white nationalist groups such as Identity Evropa, have plagued California streets with violence and anarchy. Arreguin believes that groups on both the left and the right meet the mentality of a street gang organization.
However, some gang experts also expressed concern about correlating far-left groups to street gang activity, despite their common actions, and are claiming it’s inciting the improper labeling of political viewpoint and opinion as a punishable crime.
“There’s an argument for it, but there’s also a very grave concern because they are exercising their constitutional rights,” said San Bernardino County Deputy Dist. Atty. Britt Imes, a nationally renowned expert on gang activity. “Their criminal actions, not their free speech actions … their criminal actions will determine whether they qualify as a criminal street gang.”
According to a Los Angeles Times report, a spokeswoman for the Berkeley Police Department said she did not know whether Antifa would be technically qualified to be considered a street gang under California law. The report also states:
“Labeling either far-left or far-right groups as street gangs could have serious consequences for those arrested during the inevitable next clash at a counter-protest in California. Under the state’s Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act — a piece of legislation passed at the height of the nation’s gang boom — gang enhancements can add two to 15 years to a criminal sentence for people convicted of committing a crime in concert with gang activity.”
In addition, members can also be subject to injunctions if considered to be in the league of a “street gang.” This also includes civil restraining orders that would prevent them from being in certain areas or convening with family and friends.
Any law enforcement agency trying to classify Antifa protesters as gang members might also run into another technical problem: According to senior investigative research by Joanna Mendelson for the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, Antifa is generally described and recognized as a way of thinking, rather than an organized, hostile group.
“The Antifa is a loose network of individuals who believe in active, aggressive opposition to far-right movements,” Mendelson said. “There’s not a clear organizational structure. It’s a movement.” She further stated that Antifa technically does not have an official membership list, and no one is required to claim allegiance to them in order to be part of the group’s violent protests.
Imes, who said that he was speaking as an expert and that his comments did not reflect the opinions of the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, counters this sentiment, adding that numerous black and Hispanic factions also lack structure or formal membership, but are defined as gangs under state law.
“The question is going to become: Have they engaged in a pattern of criminal activity … and is that part of their primary purpose for existing? When you talk about a group engaging in civil disobedience, I am very hesitant to label them a street gang,” Imes said. “However, if their purpose is to come together to cause havoc, or engage in violence, and this is Antifa or the white supremacist side … they’re going to engage in conduct that will eventually fit the definition of what a criminal street gang is.”
Additionally, a few law enforcement officials argue that Antifa groups can most certainly fit the description of a street gang, even if identifying their followers would be next to impossible. “I think under state law they could easily be declared a gang,” said Wes McBride, president of the California Gang Investigators’ Association. “They behave like a gang. They have defined commitment to violence. They have their own gang dress.”
Still, most experts agree that it’s easier to label a group a gang when its criminal acts are separate from political speech and messaging. The L.A. Times report notes that the Golden State Skinheads are a white supremacy group, for example, but its members have also been known to engage in organized robberies and drug trafficking.
Regardless, McBride said he’s less concerned with labels than he is with stopping the endless series of brawls and violence overshadowing the Bay Area, which he fears may escalate into something worse. “These young men see it as an adventure, with the excitement of a fight,” he said, warning that sooner or later “someone is going to pull a gun.”
On Monday, it was reported that Linwood Michael Kaine, the youngest son of Virginia senator and former vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine, is facing misdemeanor charges in Minnesota after he was arrested for acting out with Antifa protesters at a pro-Donald Trump rally in March.
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