A September 2016 DHS report describes law enforcement action during clashes between white supremacists and antifascists (commonly known as “antifa”). The report, obtained by the government transparency nonprofit Property of the People and shared with The Daily Beast, reveals how the Obama DHS profiled leftist protesters. Just months after the report’s release, the Trump Justice Department would use similar, overbroad profiles to prosecute hundreds of people who protested at President Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony.
The DHS report highlights “two violent clashes in 2016 in Sacramento and Anaheim between anarchist extremists and lawfully protesting white supremacists at legally permitted rallies.”
The report uses those cases to describe how law enforcement might target future “anarchist extremists” who protest at white supremacist rallies. But the agency’s description of “anarchist extremists” is dubious and suggests the DHS might be conflating multiple distinct social movements.
Anarchists want to abolish the government. Some anarchists also participate in the antifacist movement, although the latter also includes leftists and liberals who support support the idea of a state.
The report’s guide to “symbols often associated with anti-racist anarchist extremists” includes an “A” in a circle (a popular anarchist symbol), but also images associated with the broader leftist movement. One symbol, three downward arrows in a circle, originated in 1930s Germany among opponents to the Nazi party. Originally designed to plaster over swastikas, the symbol has become common among antifacists and other anti-Trump protesters. Another antifascist symbol in the report is a pair of flags: one black in reference to the anarchist movement, and another red to symbolize other leftist affiliations. The list of symbols also includes a crossed-out swastika, and the “Good Night White Pride” symbol: the silhouette of a man kicking a Nazi.
The report also includes a list of “potential indicators of planned violence” that law enforcement can use to “justify increased suspicion” of counterprotesters. The list includes things like carrying knives, but also innocuous activity like wearing dark clothing or bandanas, scouting a marching route in advance, and carpooling to a demonstration—actions that could apply to a wide swath of protesters.
The DHS’ inclusion of generalized behavior is “troubling and consistent with what we’ve seen of the FBI targeting and surveilling environmentalists, civil rights activists, and lumping them together based on a few incidents,” Vera Eidelman, a Brennan fellow at the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project told The Daily Beast. “There’s a tendency to sweep up a huge group of people who might not even share an ideology.
“The carpooling example is particularly interesting because all people are doing is pooling resources. You could argue that going with friends is part of the appeal,” Eidelman said, adding that the scrutiny might chill political activism by large groups.
Already, sweeping definition of left-wing extremism has had real consequences. On Jan. 20, 2017, three months after the DHS report’s publication, D.C. police arrested hundreds of people at a protest outside Trump’s inauguration. Prosecutors initially pressed charges against 200 people, accusing them of conspiring to riot based on evidence as thin as the defendants allegedly walking with a group or wearing dark clothing.
Six defendants were later found not guilty on all charges in December. The U.S. attorney’s office subsequently dropped charges against 129 other defendants but is still pushing charges against 59 people, including a journalist who was arrested while covering the anti-Trump protests, and an activist who was arrested at his home after the protests. He previously told The Daily Beast he wasn’t even at the demonstrations when the mass arrests occurred.
At some of the clashes described in the DHS report, counterprotesters suffered the brunt of the arrests, largely because the white supremacist rallies were classified as “legally permitted rallies.”
One clash at a KKK rally in February 2016 in Anaheim, California, saw seven people arrested, whom the DHS describes as anarchist extremists. The report describes the counterprotesters as violent, and the white supremacists as acting in self-defense.
“According to police reports, violent anti-fascists punched and kicked the white supremacists; hurled rocks, bottles and other projectiles; and assaulted them with makeshift weapons including wooden sticks, clubs, and a skateboard,” the report reads. “One of the white supremacists used a flagpole defensively as a weapon to stab the attackers.”
The report includes a picture of the flagpole incident.
“A Klansman stabs at violent anti-fascists and anarchist extremists with the decorative end of a flag pole, resulting in injuries at the Anaheim event,” the photo caption reads. “Note the Klan patches on his shirt and blood spatter on the ground.”
White supremacists sometimes bring flags to protests, with the intention of using the poles as makeshift spears. An ongoing lawsuit against white supremacists who participated in a deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August accuses a neo-Confederate group leader of “trigger[ing] a violent melee by charging at counter-protestors with his flagpole.”
The man’s group entered an agreement last week promising not to host another protest in Charlottesville while armed with any weapons, including makeshift spears.
White supremacists at the 2016 Anaheim rally also appeared to stab counterprotesters, although the DHS report uses the passive voice to describe the attacks.
“Two other anarchist extremists were stabbed with a knife and an unidentified weapon,” the report reads, making it unclear whether a KKK member was behind the attack.
At the time of the September 2016 report, only counterprotesters had been arrested for their involvement in the Anaheim brawl. Two months later, police in North Carolina arrested William Hagen, a KKK leader who had organized the Anaheim rally.
Hagen had allegedly stabbed a fellow KKK member at a KKK rally in advance of a parade celebrating Donald Trump’s election.