For a few years now, "Antifa" activists have served as a good foil for their Trumpian counterparts and handy villains for Fox News segments. Now, Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas) wants to up the stakes. On Tuesday, he urged the FBI to open an investigation into whether Antifa as a group is breaking federal law.
Nevermind that Antifa activists are no more a formal organization than your average group text or a gaggle of happy hour regulars—Cruz wants to treat them like an official criminal enterprise, chargeable under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.
This should be worrying no matter how one feels about Antifa activists.
The label Antifa—short for anti-fascist—has been around a while, and was adopted by disparate groups and individuals on the left in the wake of Trump's election. Some Antifa activists have engaged in unprovoked violence as a protest tactic; many more do not.
There is no official Antifa leadership, no formal party structures, no central planning board, no members. While Antifa "chapters" have sprung up in some U.S. cities, these groups have different origin stories, tactics, and goals, and are not sanctioned by any central Antifa leadership. There is no central Antifa leadership, and anyone can start a protest group in their city and call it, and themselves, Antifa.
Antifa is probably best described as a movement, in the same way that folks talk about "small-L libertarians" and the "liberty movement" to describe a branch of related activism and ideology independent from the Libertarian Party.
Cruz did not suggest that the FBI look into particular criminal acts committed by particular criminal actors who identify as Antifa. Instead, he wants the FBI to define the whole movement as a criminal enterprise, making anyone who adopts the label potentially liable for anything anyone else using the label does.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, Cruz mentioned a recent Portland protest where journalist Andy Ngo was beaten up by black-clad activists, and an attempted attack on a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement center in Washington state. "I am concerned that these are not isolated instances but rather this is a pattern, an organization that is engaged in masked, anonymous, violent terrorism," Cruz said.
FBI Director Christopher Wray told Cruz the agency is "absolutely concerned about violence committed on behalf of any ideology." But "the key there," said Wray, is that "the FBI doesn't investigate ideology, we investigate violent criminal activity."
— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) July 23, 2019
Wray continued, essentially telling Cruz that you can't just criminally investigate anyone associated with an ideological movement because a few proponents of that ideology have done bad things. The FBI definitely "considers Antifa more of an ideology than an organization," Wray said.
The FBI has a history of investigating people based only on their ideology; readers can decide for themselves whether they want to accept its assurances that those days are in the past. It's heartening, at any rate, to hear the bureau's director at least pay lip service to the idea that law enforcement should focus on actual crimes rather than Wrongthink.
Cruz, however, isn't satisfied with that. Comparing Antifa to the Ku Klux Klan and the Mafia, he told Wray he would be sending him and the Department of Justice a letter asking for a RICO Act investigation.
Basically, the RICO Act enhances penalties for doing things that are already crimes if one does them as part of an organized criminal enterprise.
Cruz's blatant political posturing about Antifa and RICO is especially concerning considering how Cruz talking points are prone to spreading across the GOP. None of us, no matter our ideologies, will be better off with more demands for corrupt and partisan investigations, nor from increasing pressure to make guilty-by-association the rule of law.