Outside the spotlight of Washington politics, without passing a major piece of legislation like the notoriously repressive Patriot Act of the George W. Bush era (still in effect), the fascist forces led by the Trump/Pence regime are escalating political repression, and laying the legal and ideological groundwork for an unprecedented clampdown on political protest.
The recent threats by Trump's attorney general, Jeff Sessions--against the Oakland, California, mayor for having issued advance warning of upcoming Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and against the state of California for passing sanctuary laws that put limits on ICE's ability to carry out immigrant roundups--were a major escalation of fascist repression. (See "Trump, Sessions Escalate Attacks on Sanctuary for Immigrants--This Is Intolerable! This Must Be Stopped.") The following are some other examples of intensifying repression.
March in Los Angeles in support of DACA recipients, September 10, 2017.
(Image by Revolution newspaper) Permission Details DMCA
The January 20 Defendants and the Criminalization of Political Organizing
As we have written previously, the arrest of and charges against more than 200 people demonstrating against Trump's inauguration was "A MAJOR Escalation of Political Repression." The "legal theory" of the U.S. attorney's office was that every single person who participated in that demonstration was fully legally responsible for breaking windows at a half-dozen locations during the protest--and 194 faced charges carrying more than 60 years in prison! What's more, the federal government demanded the names and email addresses of 1.3 million people who visited the Inauguration Day protest website. (Courts ended up placing some restrictions on the government's massive online spying project.)
These charges were courageously resisted by the defendants, the vast majority of whom declined plea deals in favor of going to trial, and who collectively and with supporters carried out broad exposure of these repressive moves. On December 21, 2017, the trial of the first six defendants in this case ended in a stunning defeat for the government--all were acquitted, and one of the jurors explicitly stated afterwards that "The jury as a whole believes it is a legal act to attend a protest at which vandalism occurs."
In the face of this, on January 18, 2018, the government dropped charges against 129 defendants, but doubled down on its persecution of the remaining 59, who it claims "(1) engaged in identifiable acts of destruction, violence, or other assaultive conduct; (2) participated in the planning of the violence and destruction; and/or (3) engaged in conduct that demonstrates a knowing and intentional use of the black-bloc tactic..."
Essentially point 2 refers to people who organized the protest--while the government has (for now) abandoned the argument that participation in the protest was criminal, it is pressing the position that organizing a protest at which alleged criminal acts occur makes you responsible for all of those alleged acts. And point 3 ("intentional use of the black-bloc tactic") refers, in the government's own words, to wearing "black or dark colored clothing, gloves, scarves, sunglasses, ski masks, gas masks, helmets, hoodies and other face-concealing and face-protecting items...." So while the government has implicitly conceded that it was not illegal to be present at the protest, they are insisting that a certain style of dress ("black or dark clothing"), items aimed at protection against police assault ("gas masks, helmets") or just normal winter wear ("gloves, scarves, ... hoodies") mark you as a criminal and warrant 60 years in jail!
So while political and legal struggle did bring about significant victories, at this point the government is pursuing, in a more focused way, its effort to criminalize protest and to impose very long sentences on activists and organizers.
From Criminalization to Charges of "Terrorism"
From a number of angles, the fascists are moving to brand nonviolent civil disobedience and other forms of protest that go outside the boundaries of polite dissent as not only "criminal," but as "terrorism." Last May, we reported on anti-protest laws in legislatures in over 20 states. According to the ACLU, laws in two states (North Carolina and Washington) explicitly branded protests that caused economic disruption to be "terrorism," and this was implicit in a number of the other laws; e.g., one in Oklahoma which treated sit-ins at pipeline facilities as criminal attacks on the U.S. infrastructure.
While most of these laws have not been passed (yet), they are indicative of how the fascists view protest, and of what kind of laws they will implement if and as they more fully consolidate power. But even without such laws, federal, state, and local law enforcement are increasingly treating protest as terrorism. One major mark of this was the August 2017 FBI report (leaked to the public in October) branding Black activists against police brutality and in other movements against oppression as "Black Identity Extremists."
But the most chilling example comes from the months-long protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) organized by Native Americans who referred to themselves as "water protectors" in the Dakotas in 2016-17. The protests mainly consisted of peaceful encampments of hundreds of people on or near territory slated for pipeline construction, nonviolent protests, and Native American cultural and religious ceremonies. The Intercept revealed that in response, the corporation building DAPL brought in TigerSwan, a private security company started by a former Delta Force commander that bills itself as a counterterrorism operation and has offices in Iraq and Afghanistan.
TigerSwan described the water protectors as "an ideologically driven insurgency with a strong religious component ... [that] generally followed the jihadist insurgency model"; its internal reports refer to protesters as "terrorists," their protests as "attacks," their encampment as a "battlefield." TigerSwan also spoke of accumulating intelligence so they could "find, fix and eliminate" threats to the pipeline--language that closely echoes the military euphemism for assassination, "find, fix, finish."
TigerSwan carried out a broad range of actions against the protests, including continuous helicopter surveillance of the scene, following and videotaping activists, and infiltrating spies into the encampment who consciously sought to "exploit" "ongoing native vs. non-native rifts" and other contradictions among the people.
But if you're thinking that this was some rogue security operation backed by right-wing energy corporations, think again! TigerSwan worked in close conjunction with local, state, and federal law enforcement, sharing information including internal reports and live video feeds. Meanwhile the Federal Aviation Agency at times restricted media drones flying over the encampment while allowing police and TigerSwan aerial surveillance. To make the point even clearer, the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force was brought in to "interview" (i.e., harass) activists, and the Task Force, along with the Des Moines, Iowa, FBI office and Iowa's Homeland Security agency met with TigerSwan in March to discuss "security assets and persons of interest."
It's important to emphasize here that in recent decades, branding a group or individual as "terrorist" has been construed to mean that they have no legal rights. Under Bush, the Guanta'namo detention camp was filled with hundreds of captured men who were held indefinitely, many of whom were never charged with anything and almost none of whom ever had a trial. Under Obama, U.S. citizens branded as terrorists were executed in drone attacks (Anwar al-Awlaki, accused of producing Al Qaeda propaganda, and then two weeks later, his 16-year-old son, who was accused of nothing). During the presidential campaign, Trump called for killing the families of "terrorists," and just this week called for a vast expansion of the death penalty in the U.S. to include "drug dealers." So it is impossible to overstate the ominous significance of branding peaceful protesters as "terrorists."