The United States has been engulfed in ongoing nationwide protests and riots for months now, following the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody. The majority of recent protests have been peaceful, with a few notable exceptions.
A team of researchers from Ipsos, the University of Chicago and the Oxford concluded in June that 80% of the 970 protests identified by the team since George Floyd’s death were nonviolent. Peaceful protest is of course a constitutionally-protected right and in many cases is an act of patriotism.
The most recent protests, however, appear to follow an equation: The nonviolent and politically-focused group dominates the day, but then a second group takes the night into violence, looting, and riots. The assaults of officers and the destruction of property witnessed in these riots could fall under several definitions of “domestic terrorism.”
Title 18, Section 2331(5) of the U.S. Criminal Code defines “domestic terrorism” as activities that involve “mass destruction” or “violent acts” with the intent to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population” or to affect the policy or conduct of the government.
The FBI expands this definition by adding that domestic terrorism is carried out with the intent “to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences.” These ideological goals can be of a “political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.”
Complicating matters is the fact that those protesting (and those rioting) are not homogeneous groups, and some of the groups are even at odds with each other. This makes it difficult or impossible to identify any single set of political agents or interests prompting the violence when it does occur.
The “Black Lives Matter” movement — separate from the organization of the same name — is localized and focused on specific racial justice goals. Antifa is a decentralized network of activists with the vague objective of “fighting fascism,” according to The Washington Post. “Black Lives Matter” protesters and antifa activists are arguably the most widely represented among rioters.
Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage executive director Justin Terrell said that outside groups were trying to co-opt the message of the “Black Lives Matter” movement after Floyd’s death, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
“I think about a third of the people are from out of town here to make the city burn,” Terrell said. “It is just putting black people in a crossfire not just between fascists and anarchists — but putting us in a crossfire with the National Guard.”
Regardless of what political affiliation these rioters hold, it is clear that segments of larger and otherwise peaceful protests have been engaging in violent and destructive acts in cities like Portland.
The Portland Police Department officially declared protests over the weekend to have become a riot after crowds marched to the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse Saturday, USA Today reported. An estimated 4,000 people were gathered at the courthouse as federal officers were sent in to protect the property, according to the Associated Press.
The rioters threw an assortment of objects over the fence of the courthouse where federal officers were stationed and attempted to tear down the fence, according to Daily Caller reporters on the ground in Portland.
They also used electric saws, hammers and ropes to break through and get inside. One portion of the fence was torn down Sunday after midnight, reporters said.
Federal law enforcement further intervened after the gathering was declared an “unlawful assembly” by dispersing the large crowds with flash bombs, pellets and tear gas. Rioters then used leaf blowers to redirect smoke and tear gas canisters back at police officers.
Portland police said in a statement Tuesday that the crowd threw rocks, glass bottles and fireworks at the courthouse for nearly two hours. One person was also reported to have thrown a device akin to a Molotov cocktail against the front door of the courthouse. The homemade bomb exploded into a fireball as rioters cheered on, the New York Post reported.
Attorney General William Barr said during a Tuesday hearing before the House Judiciary Committee that violent riots had endangered law enforcement and even injured several federal marshals. Some of the tactics Barr mentioned in the hearing included the use of “industrial grade fireworks” and “kerosene balloons.”
Barr also stated that protesters in Portland were using “powerful slingshots” and “pellet guns” that penetrated law enforcement officers “to the bone.”
Protests 175 miles away in Seattle, Washington also descended into violence. A letter sent July 23 to Seattle City Council from the city’s police chief Carmen Best reported “wide-scale property destruction and attacks on officers.” More than a dozen officers were reportedly injured, some significantly.
A protest in Oakland, California that took place Saturday turned violent as a group within the roughly 700-person demonstration set fire to a courthouse, vandalized a police station and shot fireworks at officers, the Associated Press reported. Several fires were reported in the downtown area and rioters threw rocks, makeshift paint bombs and frozen water bottles at law enforcement.
A number of other cities across the country saw similar incidents of violence and the destruction of property over the weekend as protestors gathered at various public buildings.
A number of Trump administration members have themselves condemned the rioters’ actions as domestic terrorism.
In a statement May 31, Barr said that the violence carried out by rioters “is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.” Barr said the Justice Department would “coordinate federal resources” with state and local officials. He also reportedly planned to employ the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces.
Acting Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Ken Cuccinelli referred to the riots in Portland as domestic terrorism in a tweet July 21. Cuccinelli defended the decision to send federal officers to Portland in a July 20 appearance on CNN. He said the response was appropriate given the planned attacks on federal buildings, The Hill reported.
It is increasingly evident that the targeting and destruction of federal buildings and government property fits the criteria of “mass destruction” as outlined in federal definitions of domestic terrorism. The use of homemade bombs and Molotov cocktails as weapons, as well as a plethora of violent incidents at these protests, could fall under the definition of “violent acts.”
Some rioters have made it clear that their movement is political and fueled by racial discontent over the deaths of George Floyd and other black people earlier this year. This doesn’t mean, however, that rioters can readily be conflated with protesters exercising their Constitutional rights.