Opinion: Trump's Antifa crackdown treads on First Amendment
As Michigan reaches almost two weeks of largely nonviolent protests, trouble is brewing at the federal level that could impact the civil liberties of citizens exercising their First Amendment rights.
As demonstrations unfolded across America following the killing of George Floyd, President Donald Trump said he’d label Antifa a terrorist organization. Despite uncertainty as to what authority this declaration-by-tweet carries, the Department of Justice moved to take action. According to a press release put out the same day by Attorney General William Barr, “Federal law enforcement actions will be directed at apprehending and charging” Antifa leadership.
While anti-protest factions may celebrate this move now, Barr’s broad policy is a danger to the First Amendment promises of free speech and free assembly — for everyone. Indeed, laws like the Patriot Act remove key civil rights protections for anyone defined as a terrorist, justly or otherwise. Even now, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been given new powers to begin surveillance of protestors.
The Barr Memorandum also leaves open how the Justice Department may choose to define membership in what is clearly a grassroots effort. The civil rights implications are significant, and according to some, Trump’s declaration may not be legally binding. It may take years to get a court ruling, but in the meantime, Trump’s declaration seems likely to fan the flames.
The impact of this executive power could also be unpleasant for Conservatives. Outspoken groups like the Tea Party, regional militia groups, or local organizations that wouldn’t support a liberal president’s agenda may find themselves under fire, corralled, and imprisoned under this broad order. When a left-leaning future president is running the White House, these precedents could be used in the same irresponsible fashion. Domestic terrorism is poorly defined, leaving discretion to unelected bureaucrats.
Arresting and prosecuting those who see chaos as an opportunity to loot and destroy private property is one thing. In this case, however, the federal government is also being opportunistic, expanding powers at a moment where checking overreach is essential. The protests are, in many ways, protesting overreaching government power, albeit channeled through police departments. The American people need less big brother and more local control to effectively quell violence and address issues of police misconduct. We won’t heal the cultural divide by empowering a more hierarchical power structure. If a president can define American citizens as terrorists via tweet, making them felons, we are all at risk of losing our rights.
Some may think this analysis is overdramatic. The best-case scenario is that those critics are correct. History, however, has shown that silencing opposition is a typical step toward authoritarianism. In an attempt to bring order, extensive government powers have become law under the guise of restoring order during times of unrest.
The voices on the right and left seem to be speaking different languages. Something is lost in translation between the conservative drive for law-and-order and the left’s push for justice and equality. Small-government conservatives are a rarity right now, but that voice is needed. We need principles, not politics, to reign in the power of the growing state. Both sides of the ideological spectrum should work together to address the growing concerns about police militarization.
Some conservatives are rightly questioning the police practices that are foundational to the modern conception of law and order. But not enough, and not in the highest levels of government, where policy is set. This is a quintessential example of how government grows when partisan politics run the system. As one party seeks to make a power play against its opposition, shortsighted policy making enshrines governmental powers long past the current moment. Trump shouldn’t have this power, nor should anyone else.
If the goal is to improve our culture, pursue a better future for all people, and seek justice when systemic violence occurs, the answer is, as it has always been, more liberty and less government.
Conner Drigotas is the director of communications and development at a national law firm and is a contributor to Young Voices, a nonprofit providing pro bono media placement services to young conservative writers. He lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.