Following the events of last week’s violent Antifa protest in Berkeley, California, state leaders and law enforcement experts are considering whether to treat the black-clad, far-left extremist movement as a criminal street gang.
The call to designate Antifa as a gang was first proposed by Berkeley mayor Jesse Arreguin. A long-standing ally of the left and self-avowed “unapologetic progressive,” Arreguin described Antifa in clear terms: “They come dressed in uniforms. They have weapons, almost like a militia.”
According to a Los Angeles Times report Monday, legislators in Sacramento later recommended for violent acts committed by white nationalists — Antifa’s enemies — to be treated as terrorist acts. If passed, such a resolution will also allow for Antifa members who commit violence to be prosecuted for terrorism.
There is precedent to these efforts. On September 1, confidential documents dating to 2016 from the Department of Homeland Security formally classified Antifa activities as “domestic terrorist violence.” Violent white nationalist groups are already designated as domestic terror groups.
Concerning both Antifa and its alt-right rivals on the opposite of the spectrum, experts say those using “black bloc” militant tactics share similarities with street gangs.
“It is gang behavior with some ideology,” said Brian Levin, who directs the Cal State San Bernardino Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. “But it is also a social entity as well as a political one.”
Meanwhile, Arreguin said that the topic is one he intends to discuss with law enforcement partners before making any formal announcements. “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,” he said, adding that violent extremist groups on both end of the political spectrum come to Berkeley to physically confront their opponents.
Britt Imes, the Deputy District Attorney for San Bernardino County, says that criminal actions of groups like Antifa will be what defines them as a street gang, and not their political stance. “There’s an argument for it, but there’s also a very grave concern because they are exercising their constitutional rights,” said Imes, referring to their free speech actions.
Imes disagreed with the argument that states Antifa can’t be defined as a gang because of its structure, which more closely resembles an ideological movement rather than a hierarchical, structured organization. He said that many black and Hispanic factions in California that are designated as gangs also lack structure or membership.
“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.”
Under California’s Street Terrorism and Prevention Act, individuals prosecuted under the anti-gang law can receive two to 15 years of jail. The LA Times reports that identified gang members are also subject to a variety of other prohibitions, preventing them from entering certain public spaces or congregating with friends and family.