In the wake of the January 6 pro-Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol, momentum has grown across the country to institute a new, domestic “war on terror.” In response, scores of civil rights organizations such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and a group of progressive lawmakers including Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) have objected, cautioning that such an aggressive response could end up targeting activist groups and vulnerable communities.
The events since January 6 suggest that these warnings are all-too accurate.
Even as the FBI was leaking information to media outlets after the Capitol riot suggesting the possibility of imminent, armed pro-Trump actions across all 50 states, the agency was training its sights on the Left. On January 15, the Bureau, alongside state law enforcement, arrested 33-year-old military veteran and Tallahassee activist Daniel Baker, charging him with “using social media to recruit and train like-minded individuals in furtherance of his Anti-Government or Anti-Authority Violent Extremism Ideology.” The Bureau’s arrest of Baker was so aggressive that his blind, elderly landlord called the police out of fright.
As the FBI’s criminal complaint ultimately revealed, however, no such plot actually existed. Instead, the FBI had targeted Baker over a series of social media posts showing that, alarmed by the Capitol riot and the Bureau’s own leaks, he had urged fellow residents to take up arms and resist what he thought was a coming, armed far-right uprising. To make the case that Baker was a threat to peace and order, the FBI packed its court filing with references to various constitutionally protected activities: Baker’s involvement in last year’s protests against racism and police brutality, his use of various left-wing slogans and hyperbolic language criticizing cops.
Lawrence Keefe, the Trump-appointed U.S. attorney who announced the arrest, made clear that the targeting of Baker was intended to send a message.
“Extremists intent on violence from either end of the political and social spectrums must be stopped, and they will be stopped,” Keefe said. Keefe — a political ally of Matt Gaetz, the right-wing Florida congressperson who has baselessly blamed Antifa for the Capitol riot — had vowed to go after the “shameless criminals” who stormed the Capitol. Now, he appears determined to lump left-wing activists into this group.
The case may well turn out to be the start of something much bigger.
The push to outlaw peaceful protests are gaining legislative steam around the country in the wake of the Capitol riot. According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, since January 6, 48 anti-protest bills have been introduced in 23 states, only four of which have been defeated so far. The vast majority of these bills have been authored and sponsored by Trump allies, including by many of the same people who pushed the very misinformation over the 2020 election results that led Trump supporters to storm the Capitol.
An Ohio bill, for instance, would force protesters who have committed vandalism or “aggravated riot” to pay law enforcement back for its response to a protest. In Georgia, legislation has been introduced which would ban protests on public property without a permit, while simultaneously making it much harder to get one. Meanwhile, an Arizona bill stipulates that being involved in a group of six or more people who threaten personal or property damage, obstruct government services, or disturb anyone’s enjoyment of a right, would be illegal as a “violent or disorderly assembly.” Along with outlining a number of new felonies, such as for using fireworks or defacing a monument while assembled, the bill also blocks anyone found guilty of such newly designated crimes from future government employment and benefits, including welfare.
The same day Daniel Baker was arrested, the FBI and New Jersey state police paid a visit to the Newark home of activist Zulu Sharod, an interaction he filmed and posted to social media. Sharod, also known as Shaka Zulu, is the founder of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party, a group that has organized protests against a planned youth prison in Newark and the March, 2020 police killing of Daniel Prude in Rochester, New York.
Referencing a statement Sharod had made on Facebook disavowing a group of seven protesters who had been arrested for property damage at the protest over Prude’s death, the FBI agent told Sharod he “completely believe[d]” that “they don’t represent what you all represent.” Instead, he was asking for his help.
“What happened down at the Capitol was a lot of people who were probably along that same line of thinking that infiltrated some of the groups down there who were causing problems,” the agent tells Sharod in the video he uploaded, prompting Sharod to deny any involvement in the Capitol riot. “That’s all I wanna hear,” the agent replies.
“This was pure, unmitigated harassment,” Sharod now tells In These Times.
The FBI agent who questioned Sharod identified himself as special agent Michael Hooper, the same name and title as the author of a June 2020 court filing in the district of New Jersey that concerned the case of a Trenton man who set fire to a police car in the middle of a protest sparked by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Sharod says this wasn’t the first time he’d been targeted by law enforcement. He recounts traveling to California in October 2019 to speak at three colleges, and being pulled out of line at airport security and searched for weapons and bomb material. He was on a watchlist, he says he was told, and that he could expect similar treatment every time he flew.
“And sure enough, on my way back from California, I had to go through the exact same treatment,” he says.
The FBI’s January 15 visit to Sharod isn’t an outlier, says Moira Meltzer-Cohen, a civil rights attorney with the National Lawyers Guild.
“Law enforcement is using the Capitol riot as hook to go after people they perceive as being on the Left,” Meltzer-Cohen says. “There has been a flurry of visits of people perceived by the government as leftists, leftist dissidents.”
One of Meltzer-Cohen’s clients, who didn’t want to reveal their name out of fear of reprisal, is part of a mutual aid organization that has distributed personal protective equipment and taught about firearm safety and laws. This client was visited twice by the FBI: once in December, and again in January after President Biden’s inauguration. The client describes the door-knock as a “good cop” and “bad cop” dynamic, with the first visit featuring the Bureau professing concern over a local fascist group’s threat to the client’s safety, and the second inquiring about their firearm-related work. According to the client, the FBI asked them not to tell anyone they had visited and, after an attorney was invoked, attempted to contact several of their family members and professional colleagues.
Dissent in the crosshairs
It’s not hard to imagine how any future domestic terror legislation would be used by law enforcement to suppress the Left, given the FBI’s long history of targeting so-called “black identity extremists” for protesting police brutality, while also harassing all kinds of civil rights groups and leaders, if not worse. Just look at the last year alone. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) of Syracuse University, which tracks this data, 2020 saw the highest number of federal prosecutions classified as “domestic terrorism” in the 25 years since the U.S. government began keeping track, with 183 such cases—more than double that of 2019, and up 195 percent from just five years ago.
TRAC identifies the nationwide George Floyd protests over the summer of 2020 as the main driver of this surge, with the largest share (78) taking place in Oregon, whose largest city, Portland, eventually became the focal point of authoritarian attempts, backed by former President Donald Trump and his allies, to quash the protest movement.
“On many nights, after peaceful demonstrations end, violent agitators have physically attacked police officers and firefighters, damaged buildings, and repeatedly attempted to set public buildings on fire,” U.S. attorney for Oregon Billy J. Williams complained last year, pointing to protesters’ use of slingshots, shields and, as with the Capitol rioters, use of bear spray against officers.
According to TRAC, the most common charge for 2020’s domestic terrorism offenses was “assaulting, resisting, or impeding” officers, followed by “interstate communications,” the same charge currently being used to put Daniel Baker in prison over his social media activity. Ranked fifth is “civil disorders.”
A domestic “war on terror” of the kind being currently pushed in statehouses across the country could potentially lead to a lot more cases like that of Loren Reed, an indigenous Arizona man who has been charged under a federal arson law and is facing up to 10 years in prison over online comments made during the racial justice protests last year, in which he allegedly suggested he would burn down a local courthouse. Given the broad nature of terms like “civil disorder,” this new push to stamp out “domestic terrorism” could lead to overzealous officials targeting a wide swath of activities and people. Just look at the city of Olympia, Washington, whose mayor recently labelled an occupation of a hotel by a homelessness advocacy group “an act of domestic terrorism.”
While the rash of post-January 6 anti-protest legislation around the country would criminalize demonstrations across the political spectrum, it seems clear that, by and large, they are chiefly driven by concerns about protests from the Left. This is not just because of the similarity in language to the crop of anti-protest bills that emerged last year during the George Floyd protests, but because of the bills’ specific targeting of vandalism of government property, defacing of statues and monuments, use of fireworks, or “camping” in front of state capitols — clear references to activities carried out by left-wing groups in the recent past. Five of the proposed bills specifically target protests around oil and gas pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure.
A showdown in Florida
Florida is currently the epicenter of efforts to use the events of January 6 to stamp out dissent. Trump-backed Gov. Ron DeSantis responded to last year’s demonstrations against police brutality by pushing the “Combatting Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act” — what he called “anti-rioting, anti-looting legislation” — which the ACLU deemed “fundamentally hostile to American values.” The bill was so aggressive that even some of the state’s top law enforcement officials thought it was overkill. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, for example, said, “I can also see just some blanket categorical that would legitimately give people pause and give people concern where you wouldn’t just accept it as it’s proposed.” Despite DeSantis’ best efforts, by November 2020, the bill had stalled, and the Republican-controlled legislature declined the governor’s request for a special session to pass it. It later died in committee.
But the fallout from the Capitol riot appears to have changed things. DeSantis seized on the event, declaring that “it was totally unacceptable and those folks need to be held accountable, and it doesn’t matter what banner you’re flying under, the violence is wrong, the rioting and the disorder is wrong.” He quickly reintroduced the “anti-mob” legislation.
“I hope maybe now we’ll get even more support for my legislation because it’s something that needs to be done,” DeSantis said a day after the riot. DeSantis had previously appeared to side with the cause of the January 6 rioters, having called the ballot-counting process in Wisconsin “troubling” and later urging Republican legislators to send “faithless electors” to the Electoral College.
Among the Florida bill’s provisions are a new criminal offense of “mob intimidation,” defined as a situation where three or more people try to “compel or induce, another person by force, or by threat of force, to do any act or to assume or abandon a particular viewpoint,” in effect criminalizing even non-violent gatherings aimed at pressuring lawmakers to support or oppose particular policies. The bill also includes harsher punishments for damaging public monuments, the outlawing of blocking traffic while protesting, granting power to the governor and cabinet to reverse local efforts to defund police departments, and even protections for Floridians who may “unintentionally” kill or injure protesters when they obstruct traffic.
The bill has caught flack from quarters as diverse as civil liberties advocates, racial justice activists, environmental groups, Democratic officials and prosecutors. Yet in the present climate, it now looks likely to sail through the Florida state legislature, with the House version having passed the Criminal Justice & Public Safety Subcommittee at the end of January.
“The newly proposed laws go too far in criminalizing conduct and penalizing people for participating in lawful activity,” says Mitchell A. Stone, president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “The proposals suffer from definitional problems and create punishment that seems to violate the Constitution and our principles of justice.”
Considering the long-running hostility to the Left among the U.S. security state, the recent efforts in Florida and across the country are a stark reminder that a domestic “war on terror,” far from stamping out right-wing violence, could target the very activist groups combatting the ongoing fascist threats to U.S. democracy. Law enforcement and politicians have wasted no time in making it clear where new terror-fighting powers and resources will be directed. Progressives would be wise to take notice.
Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019-2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.