The day after a melee involving masked antifa members and right-wing activists in Berkeley, California, led to 13 arrests, Mayor Jesse Arreguin told CBS he believes law enforcement should start treating antifa as a “gang.”
“I think we should classify them as a gang,” said Arreguin, a Democrat. “They come dressed in uniforms. They have weapons, almost like militia, and I think we need to think about that in terms of our law enforcement approach.”
Berkeley as a community has faced a great deal of antifa activism over the past year. On Sunday, police used tear gas to break up the crowds, and charged three people for alleged battery and another for assault with a deadly weapon.
But a gang label from a law enforcement standpoint is a fairly serious designation. It gives police greater leeway to track and use surveillance on suspected gang members, and allows for stiffer sentencing once a crime is committed. But it is also problematic for a political group like antifa.
“It’s not a crime to be a gang member,” said Wes McBride, a retired sergeant and executive director of the California Gang Investigator’s Association who pioneered the state’s gang monitoring system. “But if they’re certified as a gang and commit a crime, then you can prosecute them and basically enhance their sentencing, so instead of six months, they get a year. That’s the big advantage.”
To get slapped with an enhancement charge, the original crime should be tied to gang activity. For example, if antifa were designated a gang, a person who used mace during a protest would likely face a gang enhancement charge, which would extend their sentence.
The Justice Department defines a “gang” as “an association of three or more individuals whose members collectively identify themselves by adopting a group identity which they use to create an atmosphere of fear or intimidation.”
The National Gang Center, a federal organization under the purview of the DOJ, says there is “ no single, generally accepted definition of a ‘gang.’” Indeed, 44 states and Washington, D.C., all have their own definitions of what a “gang” is. Officers from a police department’s gang unit will typically make a recommendation to their superiors that a particular group should be designated as a gang, based on a set of criteria. The recommendation then goes through a series of evidentiary reviews within a police department before it is stamped with the “gang” label.
But the label will be highly localized. If the Berkeley Police Department moved to designate antifa as a gang, that wouldn’t mean it would be considered a gang by, for example, the New York Police Department.
“This ‘gang status’ is the same political repression used on the Black Panthers and other revolutionary movements in the Bay Area,” a spokesperson for It’s Going Down, an online hub for antifa, told VICE News in an email. “If city government was capable of protecting its residents, it wouldn’t have to view them as an enemy. ”
According to David Pyrooz, a gang expert and sociology professor at the University of Boulder, Colorado, the criteria for gang designation usually comes down to five factors:
- durability and organization
- street-oriented, meaning the group is active in public spaces
- engaged in illegal activity
- has a group identity, that may be reinforced by signs, symbols, slogans
While antifa fits those criteria, the big caveat is the group’s political orientation as a far-left anti-fascist organization. If “illegal activity” like vandalism or intimidation is carried out with the aim of achieving a specific political outcome, then the gang label doesn’t really work, Pyrooz says.
“Gangs don’t care about political gain,” said McBride.
Some law enforcement experts think that antifa’s politics, together with its embrace of controversial and often violent tactics, places it in the realm of a domestic terror or extremist group, rather than a gang.
“From an investigative standpoint, I would have to know more facts, but I could see where they could perhaps fit into the definition of a domestic terror group, if they are advocating violence in some form, or advocating violence against the government,” said Dennis Franks, who spent 22 years in the FBI, during which time he became an expert in criminal enterprises and counterterrorism. McBride described antifa as being “on the cusp” between a gang and a domestic extremism group.
With the attention on warring political factions post-Charlottesville, Pyrooz says he’s found himself thinking a lot about how to classify the far-right groups who rallied and the antifa members who showed up in opposition.
“Some of these neo-Nazi groups are moving into the gang domain, depending on their involvement in illegal activity, because they are increasingly street-oriented,” said Pyrooz.
The increasing level of street orientation on both the far right and the left has complicated traditional understandings of how political extremist groups operate. Typically, those groups, especially on the right, have tended to organize behind closed doors, not out in the open (although it’s worth noting that antifa typically tries to obscure their identities by wearing all black and covering their faces).
In Charlottesville, the bold show of neo-Nazism, countered by anarchist antifa, seemingly marked a turning point.
“One of the reasons that Charlottesville sparked so much outrage is that we haven’t seen those activities on that level of openness in a very long time,” Pyrooz said.
Berkeley is set to grapple with the issue again with an upcoming “Free Speech event” in September with white nationalist provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and former White House strategist Steve Bannon. Arreguin reportedly urged the university to cancel the event, but it’s going forward. “Public institutions like UC Berkeley must permit speakers invited in accordance with campus policies to speak, without discrimination in regard to point of view,” wrote Chancellor Carol Christ.