WASHINGTON • The US Justice Department moved swiftly to bring federal charges against 53 individuals accused of violence during nationwide protests that swept across the United States calling for an end to police brutality.
Attorney-General William Barr promised a crackdown on members of the anti-fascist movement known as antifa and other “extremists” he blamed for helping to drive the violence.
But a Reuters examination of federal court records related to the charges, social media posts by some of the suspects, and interviews with defence lawyers and prosecutors found mostly disorganised acts of violence by people who have few obvious connections to antifa or other left-wing groups.
Reuters reviewed only federal cases, both because of the allegations by the Justice Department about the involvement of antifa and similar groups, and since federal charges generally carry harsher penalties. In some of the charge sheets reviewed by Reuters, no violent acts are alleged at all.
The Department of Justice declined to comment on Reuters’ findings and referred to an interview that Mr Barr gave to Fox News on Monday. He said then that while his department had some investigations under way into antifa, it was still in the “initial phase of identifying people”.
Looting and violence broke out at some of the hundreds of largely peaceful demonstrations over the past week, sparked by the May 25 death of Mr George Floyd, an African-American, after a white Minneapolis police officer pinned him with a knee to the neck for almost nine minutes.
US President Donald Trump on Tuesday tweeted an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory about a 75-year-old protester in Buffalo who was critically injured after being shoved by police during a march sparked by Mr Floyd’s death.
Mr Trump wrote that the protester, Mr Martin Gugino, could be a member of antifa.
“Buffalo protester shoved by Police could be an ANTIFA provocateur. 75 year old Martin Gugino was pushed away after appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment. @OANN I watched, he fell harder than was pushed. Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?” Mr Trump tweeted.
While Mr Barr and Mr Trump have repeatedly singled out antifa – an amorphous movement of primarily leftist anti-authoritarians (the name is derived from anti-fascist) – as a major instigator of the unrest, the term does not appear in any of the federal charge sheets reviewed by Reuters.
It is possible that more evidence could emerge as the cases progress.
TRUMP’S CONSPIRACY THEORY
Buffalo protester shoved by Police could be an ANTIFA provocateur. 75 year old Martin Gugino was pushed away after appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment. @OANN I watched, he fell harder than was pushed. Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?
US PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP, tweeted an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory about Mr Gugino, a 75-year-old protester who was critically injured after being shoved by the police.
Only one group was called out by name in a federal complaint: the so-called boogaloo movement, whose followers, according to prosecutors, believe in an impending civil war.
Hate group experts say boogaloo’s followers are largely an assortment of right-wing extremists.
Prosecutors alleged that three men affiliated with “the movement” plotted to set off explosives in Las Vegas in the hopes of touching off rioting before a protest.
Ms Barbara McQuade, who was US attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan during then President Barack Obama’s administration, noted that prosecutors were generally cautious about making allegations based on someone’s ideology, owing to constitutional guarantees of free speech.