Calling Antifa a "Gang"

  • 18 September 2017
  • NormanL
Calling Antifa a "Gang"

As we continue to watch the activities of the group calling itself "Antifa," one question continues to crop up: are they domestic terrorists, or something else?

One possibility: call them a "gang." Writing in the Wall Street Journal, professors David Pyrooz and James Densley argue the gang label could be very effective for law enforcement:

...under any scientific or official definition, Antifa makes the grade. Gangs are groups. They have a collective identity, which includes signs, symbols and other features that distinguish the in-group from the out-group. Bloods wear red; Crips wear blue; Antifa wear black. It’s obvious when Antifa members join protests, even for the untrained eye. And don’t be fooled by Antifa’s diffuse structure. Conventional street gangs are pretty disorganized too.

Gangs are durable across time. Six months of continuity is the typical cut-off. The point is to separate gangs from, say, a band of criminals who join forces to rob marijuana dispensaries. Antifa has roots in the politics of 1930s Europe and the 1980s skinhead and punk scenes. Its continued presence at rallies suggests it is more than a fleeting association. Gangs also tend to be composed of people in their teens and 20s, not unlike the age demographics of Antifa members arrested lately.

By definition gangs must engage in illegal activity. That’s what sets them apart from basketball teams and chess clubs. What moves Antifa into the gang category is the propensity for violence that we have witnessed at political events. Such criminal activity is partly what contributes to group identity.

The street orientation of gangs is the final defining characteristic. Gangs spend time in public places, often to the chagrin of the public. Likewise, Antifa members enjoy making a statement, both in person and online, where they have mobilized a progressive army. Some performances, like the ones in Berkeley, do more than put on a display; they try to change the social order.

But there's a catch:

Which brings us to the caveat: Most gangs are apolitical. The line between domestic extremist groups and gangs is blurry at times. Antifa’s agenda sets it apart to the extent that some are calling for a different designation: “domestic terrorists.” The problem is the label is empty: No such term exists in criminal law.

If Antifa did earn the gang designation, law enforcement could use tools beyond crowd control. After years of failed suppression tactics, we now have a sense of what works in gang intervention. Social-network analysis can identify the most violent gang members. Focused deterrence strategies target the small number of chronic offenders who are most vulnerable to sanctions and communicate to them clear incentives for nonviolence. Civil injunctions can restrict gang behavior. An injunction in Birmingham, England, banned two rival gangs from a whole city.

For law enforcement purposes, the term "gang" may turn out to be very useful for responding to, and controlling, Antifa's black-clad members. To folks outside of law enforcement, what to call the group may seem beside the point. But labels do matter to the law. And if calling Antifa a "gang" gives law enforcement an array of tools to curb their violence, then "gang" might be an effective label after all.

If that doesn't work, then it's time for lawmakers to come up with a solid definition for "domestic terrorist," and apply it accordingly.