On the same day President Donald Trump tweeted that the "United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization," federal prosecutors announced that the Colorado Joint Terrorism Task Force will "be deployed to apprehend and charge violent agitators hijacking peaceful protests and engaging in violations of federal law" in Denver.
"The last few days have seen protests in Denver hijacked by criminal elements, who have turned these protests into violent riots in our own communities. While we can and should peacefully advocate for our beliefs, no one may incite a riot, start a fire, or injure other people in the process," Jason Dunn, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado, said in a May 31 statement.
The Department of Justice has activated other Joint Terrorism Task Forces around the country to investigate "violent agitators" at the protests over the death of George Floyd, who died after being arrested by Minneapolis police on May 25.
"The violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly," William Barr, the U.S. Attorney General, said in a statement announcing the activation.
The Trump administration's move to highlight the criminal activities of some protesters and link them with an organized effort to sow chaos in major U.S. cities matches the recent attempts of high-profile Republicans and conservative social media personalities to shift public attention from the initial reason for the protest, and to focus only on those who vandalize and fight with police.
The Anti-Defamation League defines Antifa, which stands for anti-fascist, as a "loose collection of groups, networks and individuals who believe in active, aggressive opposition to far right-wing movements."
That description on the ADL website continues, "antifa, who have many anti-police anarchists in their ranks, can also target law enforcement with both verbal and physical assaults because they believe the police are providing cover for white supremacists. They will sometimes chant against fascism and against law enforcement in the same breath."
But while individuals who self-identify as Antifa may sometimes slide into committing crimes when protesting, the federal government can't simply declare Antifa to be a terrorist organization, according to experts. "Current and former government officials say it would be unconstitutional for the US government to proscribe First Amendment-protected activity inside the US based on simple ideology," according to a recent CNN piece.
"This is not a statement that terrorist organizations are involved, but rather that we are using the task force as a resource, which is typically otherwise focused on terrorism activity," says Jeff Dorschner, a spokesperon for Dunn. "The task force is led by the FBI with any prosecutions led by our office. We are prepared to address any domestic terrorism threats if identified."
A local FBI spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.
In Colorado, the Joint Terrorism Task Force "consists of highly trained FBI agents and investigators from federal and local law enforcement agencies, including task force officers from the Denver Police Department," according to Dunn's statement.
The Denver Police Department declines to confirm whether it's involved in the task force. "The Denver Police Department does support both federal and other agencies with task forces, but as far as specifics, which ones we support, that’s not any information that we would actually put out," says DPD spokesman Kurt Barnes.
The protests in downtown Denver, which started on May 28 and have continued daily, have been characterized by both large, peaceful demonstrations and tense confrontations between some people on the streets and law enforcement. Denver police officers have been deploying tear gas and firing pepper-spray balls and foam canisters at protesters to get them to disperse. These measures are being taken as a response to protesters throwing bottles and rocks at officers, according to Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen.
"Sadly, a few number of agitators are inciting violence and causing destruction in our community," Pazen said at a May 30 press conference.
Some protesters participating in the demonstrations, however, contend that police officers are escalating conflict between the two sides.
Both police officers and demonstrators have been hurt. Over the last few nights, businesses and government buildings have been vandalized, with windows smashed and some shops looted.
The 8 p.m. curfew that Mayor Michael Hancock instituted on May 30 will remain in force on June 1.
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