Trump, so­cial me­dia, right-wing news stir up an­tifa scares

El Dorado News-Times - - National Extra - By Claire Galofaro and Michael Kunzelman Kunzelman re­ported from Col­lege Park, Mary­land. As­so­ci­ated Press re­porter Michael Biesecker con­trib­uted to this story.

LEITCHFIEL­D, Ky. — The group gath­ered around the town square, wait­ing for the ar­rival of what has be­come a new Amer­i­can boogey­man: an­tifa.

Michael John­son and oth­ers were cer­tain that school buses full of rad­i­cal left-wing ex­trem­ists from big cities were com­ing to Leitchfiel­d, Ken­tucky, where about 50 of their neigh­bors had gath­ered on the court­house lawn to chant, “Black lives mat­ter!” and wave signs in sol­i­dar­ity with the na­tion’s surg­ing protest move­ment.

The June 10 protest ended peace­fully with no sign of any an­tifas­cist ac­tivists in the town of less than 7,000 peo­ple, but John­son and his son sat awake out­side their house all night, armed with a shot­gun, just in case the an­tifa ru­mors he saw cir­cu­lat­ing on­line were true.

“There’s no rea­son not to be­lieve it af­ter you watch TV, what’s go­ing on,” said John­son, 53.

It’s a scene that has un­folded in many other cities and small towns this year, the prod­uct of fear and con­flict stoked by bo­gus posts on so­cial me­dia, right-wing news out­lets and even some of the na­tion’s most pow­er­ful lead­ers.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has said the fed­eral gov­ern­ment would des­ig­nate an­tifa as a “ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion” and has blamed it for vi­o­lence at protests against racial in­jus­tice and po­lice bru­tal­ity. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam Barr has claimed groups us­ing “an­tifa-like tac­tics” fu­eled vi­o­lent clashes in Min­neapo­lis af­ter the killing of Ge­orge Floyd, a black man who died af­ter a white po­lice of­fi­cer pressed a knee into his neck for sev­eral min­utes.

How­ever, FBI Direc­tor Christo­pher Wray told a con­gres­sional panel last Thurs­day that an­tifa is more of an ide­ol­ogy or a move­ment than an or­ga­ni­za­tion. While the FBI has had do­mes­tic ter­ror­ism in­ves­ti­ga­tions of “vi­o­lent an­ar­chist ex­trem­ists, any num­ber of whom self iden­tify with the an­tifa move­ment,” Wray noted that ex­trem­ists driven by white su­prem­a­cist or anti-gov­ern­ment ide­olo­gies have been re­spon­si­ble for most deadly at­tacks in the U.S. over the past few years.

A man sus­pected of fa­tally shoot­ing a Trump sup­porter af­ter a pro-Trump car­a­van in Port­land, Ore­gon, last month had de­scribed him­self in a so­cial me­dia post as “100% AN­TIFA.” Fed­eral agents later shot and killed the sus­pect, Michael For­est Rei­noehl, in Wash­ing­ton state.

But fed­eral ar­rest records of more than 300 peo­ple at protests across the coun­try in­clude very few ob­vi­ous men­tions of the word an­tifa. They could be hard to iden­tify, how­ever, be­cause there is no do­mes­tic ter­ror­ism statute un­der which to charge protesters in­volved in vi­o­lence or van­dal­ism.

Louisville, Ken­tuck­y­based at­tor­ney David Mour has rep­re­sented many protesters in­volved in demon­stra­tions over the killing of Bre­onna Tay­lor, a 26-year-old emer­gency med­i­cal tech­ni­cian who was shot by Louisville po­lice of­fi­cers when they barged into her house in the mid­dle of the night to serve a search war­rant. Protesters have oc­cu­pied a square in down­town Louisville for more than three months. All along, Mour has dealt with wild ru­mors that an­tifa is some­how in­volved.

“It’s con­stant. These peo­ple are just try­ing to gen­er­ate fear and frenzy. They’re try­ing to blame all this stuff on an­tifa, and I’m like, ‘Who ex­actly is an­tifa? Where are they? Who are you talk­ing about?’ It’s in­sane,” he said.

Rut­gers Univer­sity his­to­rian Mark Bray, au­thor of the book “An­tifa: The Anti-Fas­cist Hand­book,” said there are well or­ga­nized, tightly knit an­tifa groups that have op­er­ated for years.

“But that’s dif­fer­ent from say­ing that the pol­i­tics of an­tifa is just one sin­gle, mono­lithic or­ga­ni­za­tion, which is ob­vi­ously false,” said Bray, whose book traces the his­tory and evo­lu­tion of the move­ment.

Many Amer­i­cans had never heard of an­tifa be­fore Trump’s elec­tion and the vi­o­lent clashes be­tween far-right ex­trem­ists and coun­ter­protesters at a white na­tion­al­ist rally in Char­lottesvill­e, Vir­ginia, in Au­gust 2017. Bray said Trump’s cam­paign and pres­i­dency stim­u­lated far­right or­ga­niz­ing and the an­tifas­cist re­sponse to it. He be­lieves Trump and his al­lies are de­mo­niz­ing an­tifa for po­lit­i­cal gain.

“The por­trayal they present serves their pur­poses of us­ing it as a boogey­man to rally sup­port and to kind of re­di­rect at­ten­tion away from the le­git­i­mate griev­ances be­hind the Black Lives Mat­ter protests,” he said.

Adam Klein, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion stud­ies at Pace Univer­sity, an­a­lyzed so­cial me­dia posts by far­right ex­trem­ists and an­tifas­cist ac­tivists lead­ing up to the Char­lottesvill­e rally three years ago. He found an­tifas­cists have a “pretty loose” com­mu­ni­ca­tion net­work.

“You don’t get the sense on­line that there is an or­ga­ni­za­tion as much as there are some prom­i­nent (so­cial me­dia) ac­counts as­so­ci­ated with an­tifa,” he said.

Lind­say Ayling, a 32-year-old doc­toral stu­dent at the Univer­sity of North Carolina’s flag­ship Chapel Hill cam­pus, is a fix­ture at coun­ter­protests against neo-Con­fed­er­ates and other far-right group mem­bers. They of­ten call her “an­tifa,” a la­bel she ac­cepts “in the sense that I op­pose fas­cism and I am will­ing to go and con­front fas­cists on the streets.”

“The thing that’s so dan­ger­ous about la­bel­ing any­one who is an­tifas­cist as a ter­ror­ist is that it’s crim­i­nal­iz­ing thought,” she said. “Not just thought, but it’s crim­i­nal­iz­ing ac­tive re­sis­tance to fas­cism.”

Ayling said the first per­son to call her an an­tifa leader was a Florida man, Daniel McMa­hon, who dubbed him­self “the An­tifa hunter” on­line. McMa­hon was sen­tenced to more than three years in prison af­ter plead­ing guilty in April to us­ing so­cial me­dia to threaten a Black ac­tivist to de­ter the man from run­ning for of­fice in Char­lottesvill­e.

Far-right ex­trem­ists aren’t the only ones who use the term against her, Ayling said. Last week, she posted a video of her­self ask­ing Ala­mance County Sher­iff Terry John­son why he and his deputies were “break­ing the law” by not wear­ing masks at the scene of a protest in North Carolina.

“Ma’am, why are you break­ing the law? We know you’re with an­tifa,” the sher­iff re­sponded.

Ru­mors of an­tifa in­vad­ing Leitchfiel­d, Ken­tucky, started on Face­book and quickly spread through the com­mu­nity. Stephanie Ann Fulk­er­son, who had or­ga­nized the demon­stra­tion, was stunned. She usu­ally keeps to her­self but felt strongly enough about the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment that she de­cided to plan some­thing in the small town in Grayson County about 70 miles south of Louisville.

“This is the first time I’ve re­ally spoke up for any­thing. I’m a stay-at-home mom that’s very anti-so­cial. That’s the crazy part of all this,” she said.

As the protest got un­der­way, res­i­dents lined up in front of busi­nesses to guard against van­dal­ism, some of them on mo­tor­cy­cles. A hand­ful heck­led the protesters. At one point, one of them stormed across the street to­ward the demon­stra­tion, but law en­force­ment re­strained him.

The buses didn’t show, but that didn’t mean ev­ery­one ac­cepted it was just a base­less ru­mor. John­son said he heard that 15 an­tifa mem­bers in a Win­nebago were stopped in town by lo­cal res­i­dents and law en­force­ment and com­plied with a com­mand to go home.

Grayson County Sher­iff Nor­man Chaffins said that didn’t hap­pen.

“That’s a ru­mor,” the sher­iff said. “Peo­ple are pretty de­tailed when they make up sto­ries.”

(AP Photo/Claire Galofaro)

This June 10 photo shows Michael John­son, part of a group that be­lieved an­tifa was com­ing to Leitchfiel­d, Ky., when a lo­cal res­i­dent or­ga­nized a Black Lives Mat­ter rally. He said the sign he af­fixed to his truck was meant to say that all peo­ple’s lives should mat­ter equally. John­son said he was troubled by Ge­orge Floyd’s death un­der the knee of a po­lice of­fi­cer, but wor­ried the protests across the coun­try would de­volve into vi­o­lence and van­dal­ism.

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