Amid the rush to assign blame for the widespread violence and vandalism breaking out in American cities, accusations that extremists or other outside agitators were behind the destruction continued to ricochet online and on the airwaves on Sunday.
Numerous political leaders, starting with President Trump, have leveled accusations at various groups, asserting that some radical agenda is at play in transforming once peaceful protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
“We have reason to believe that bad actors continue to infiltrate the rightful protests of George Floyd’s murder, which is why we are extending the curfew by one day,” Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota tweeted on Sunday, after previously suggesting that white supremacists or people from outside the state fomented the unrest.
In New York City, a senior police official said anarchists had planned to start mayhem in the city even before the protests started, using encrypted communication to raise bail money and to recruit medics. During the demonstrations, they maintained supply routes to distribute gasoline, rocks and bottles, and also dispatched scouts to find areas devoid of police officers, said John Miller, the deputy commissioner in charge of the Police Department’s counter-terrorism and intelligence efforts.
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“They prepared to commit property damage and directed people who were following them that this should be done selectively and only in wealthier areas or at high-end stores run by corporate entities,” he said in a telephone briefing with reporters. Such activity was still under investigation, Mr. Miller said, but many participants, he said, were from outside New York. “They instructed group leaders to tell the people following them that this was not meant to be orderly activity,” he said.
Still, few of those pointing the finger at extremists presented much detailed evidence to support the accusations, and some officials conceded the lack of solid information.
“The truth is, nobody really knows,” Keith Ellison, Minnesota’s attorney general and a former Democratic congressman from Minneapolis, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“There’s been a lot of videotape taken by demonstrators of people who are very suspicious, who really did start breaking windows,” Mr. Ellison said. “There have been other photographs of cars with no license plates. Very suspicious behavior.”
It would all have to be investigated, he said.
People associated with both the extreme right and left are being accused of igniting the conflagration. The Trump administration blamed what it called the radical left, naming antifa, a contraction of the word “anti-fascist” that has come to be associated with a diffuse movement of left-wing protesters who engage in more aggressive techniques like vandalism.
Others said white supremacists and far-right groups were responsible, pointing to online statements by adherents that the upheaval would hasten the collapse of a multiethnic, multicultural United States.
“The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter on Sunday, although it was unclear on what legal authority he could make that call.
The president has periodically criticized antifa, but it was not clear that Mr. Trump’s declaration would have any real meaning beyond his characteristic attempts to stir up culture war controversy, attract attention and please his base.
Antifa is not an organization, and it does not have a leader, membership roles or any defined, centralized structure. It is a vaguely defined movement of people who share common protest tactics and targets.
More important, even if antifa were a real organization, the laws that permit the federal government to deem entities terrorists and impose sanctions on them are limited to foreign groups. There is no domestic terrorism law despite periodic proposals to create one.
“There is no authority under law to do that — and if such a statute were passed, it would face serious First Amendment challenges,” said Mary B. McCord, a former head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division.
Nevertheless, in a statement after Mr. Trump’s tweet, Attorney General William P. Barr said the F.B.I. would ally with state and local police to identify violent protesters, whom he also called domestic terrorists.
“Groups of outside radicals and agitators are exploiting the situation to pursue their own separate, violent and extremist agenda,” Mr. Barr said. “The violence instigated and carried out by antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.”
Antifa-style protesters are hostile to law enforcement and are oriented toward street action, said Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, so these demonstrations provide an opportunity even if their goals are not the same as those of the original protesters. Still, he cautioned that in such a complex stew, not all the vandalism can be attributed to any one faction.
“While we have seen tactics they embrace at times during these protests, it is also unclear how many of the individuals committing violence or destroying property are antifa or just upset with the ongoing issue of police brutality,” he said.
Analysts noted a range of participants.
“We’re going to see a diversity of fringe malefactors,” said Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “We know for a fact there have been far-right agitators both online and at these rallies, as well as far-left.”
Far-right adherents generated an avalanche of posts on social media in recent days suggesting the unrest was a sign that the collapse of the American system they have long awaited was at hand. These groups, known as “accelerationists,” attempt to promote any circumstances that might speed that goal.
Last month they were pushing the idea that the coronavirus pandemic and the demonstrations against shutting down public life might be their moment to incite discord.
The groups are not monolithic. There are factions that express solidarity with some in the African-American community in their animosity toward the police, a position dating to violent showdowns in the 1990s between white supremacists and law enforcement in places like Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
Others, however, believe that sparking a race war would ultimately bring about the establishment of a pure white ethnic state in at least part of the current United States.
Signs of any organized effort or even participation in the violence were relatively rare. “I have not seen any clear evidence that white supremacists or militiamen are masking up and going out to burn and loot,” said Howard Graves, a research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center who tracks white supremacist and other anti-government extremist groups.
Some participants included heavily armed members of the militia movement, ardent supporters of the Second Amendment right to bear arms who believe it is their constitutional duty to protect citizens and businesses.
Members of hate groups or far-right organizations filmed themselves, sometimes heavily armed or waving extremist symbols, at demonstrations in at least 20 cities in recent days, from Boston to Buffalo to Richmond, Va., to Dallas to Salem, Ore.
A common nickname for their anticipated second Civil War is the “boogaloo,” which sometimes gets mutated into the “Big Igloo” or the “Big Luau,” prompting its adherents to wear Hawaiian shirts. Many of them use Facebook to organize despite the company’s May 1 announcement that it would remove such content.
Their flag is often a variation of the American flag, with an igloo instead of stars, one stripe replaced by a Hawaiian print and the rest showing the names of both African-Americans and white people killed in confrontations with the police.
In a Facebook post from Richmond, two young white men are shown holding that flag up behind an African-American woman with a hand-lettered sign reading “A knee is the new noose!!” That referred to the police action used in the death of Mr. Floyd.
Mike Griffin, a longtime activist in Minneapolis, said the demonstrations in his city attracted people he had never seen before. They included well-dressed young white men in expensive boots carrying hammers and talking about torching buildings. “I know protests, I’ve been doing it for 20 years,” he said. “People not affiliated with the protests are creating havoc on the streets.”
If it is happening, analysts said, it is probably arbitrary acts by individuals rather than an organized effort. Federal agents this year dismantled the Base and Atomwaffen, two of the most violent far-right groups.
It is one thing to share racist jokes and memes online and something else to organize an armed group to travel across state lines, said Megan Squire, a professor at Elon University in North Carolina who tracks extremists online. “They do not have strong real-world networks where they really trust each other,” she said.
Reporting was contributed by Charlie Savage, Katie Benner, Adam Goldman, Maggie Haberman and Ashley Southall.