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Lawmakers Tussle Over Role Of Extremists In Protest-Related Violence

House Homeland Security Committee member Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, questions witnesses during a hearing Thursday on threats to the United States.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
House Homeland Security Committee member Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, questions witnesses during a hearing Thursday on threats to the United States.

Republicans, Democrats and witnesses on Thursday were fighting in microcosm the national political argument over the demonstrations — and some violence — that have followed the police killing of George Floyd earlier this year.

The often bitter debate, which played out Thursday at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing, is about the political legitimacy of that movement. Its supporters, mostly Democrats in this context, argued that it's a true grassroots response to injustice and bias by law enforcement. Only a small number of those taking part cause any problem, supporters say.

Critics, most of whom were Republicans in this hearing, focused on antifa, which they described as a well-organized domestic terror organization. They pressed FBI Director Christopher Wray about what they called antifa's sources of funding and asked him what the bureau is doing to smash it.

Wray tried to take pains to describe the FBI's perspective, which is different from the characterizations made by the members of Congress. Antifa, he said, is a "real thing," but he also characterized it as more of an "ideology or a movement," as opposed to a terror organization.

An analysis of federal court records in June showed no signs of anti-fascist links in cases brought because of the unrest. Another look at cases in Portland, Ore., showed most federal charges there were misdemeanors. That's despite Attorney General William Barr's repeated assertions that antifa is fueling or organizing the violence.

On Thursday, Wray told lawmakers that the protest-related violence "does not appear to be organized or attributed to one particular group or even movement."

He acknowledged that the FBI has opened investigations into "violent anarchists, extremists" who he said are tied to the antifa movement. The bureau, Wray said, has seen people who self-identify as antifa coalescing regionally into "small groups or nodes," but he stopped short of declaring it an organization.

That frustrated Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, who said he thought Wray was "downplaying it." Antifa has "uniforms," Crenshaw said. It raises money to buy laser dazzlers for use against police; it adopts similar tactics at different protests and so on, he said.

Other Republicans focused their remarks on the deaths and injuries suffered by police in the demonstrations following Floyd's death.

Their narrative in the hearing room mirrored the message projected at the Republican National Committee this year and other venues: The nation is under siege by anarchists in this telling, and the movement responding to law enforcement in Black communities must be viewed warily because of the extremists who have infiltrated it.

Democrats, especially the panel's Black lawmakers, pressed Wray from a completely different perspective. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., for example, asked Wray about whether the FBI viewed the Black Lives Matter movement as a target for investigation.

Richmond, his colleagues and Black political activists view the FBI with deep suspicion because of its history of surveillance on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders.

The FBI in modern times has tried to put that history away with deliberate outreach to people of color, particularly Black audiences.

The bureau's director told members of Congress that the FBI isn't plumbing political organizing groups for leads. The process works backward from acts or threats, he said.

"We investigate the violence," Wray said. "We're agnostic about the ideology. But when the ideology inspires violence, we will investigate the violence aggressively."

NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.