The problem with calling armed protests ‘terrorism’
Why it’s dangerous to invoke a politically loaded word that has historically been used to criminalize dissent
Yesterday, rightwing protesters, many dressed in “tacticool” gear and armed with semi-automatic rifles, flooded into the Michigan State House to demand an end to the state’s shelter-in-place order. Liberals responded to the demonstration in unison: This isn’t a protest — it’s domestic terrorism. Many cited the broad Merriam Webster definition of terrorism, which is the “use or threat of violence especially against the state or the public as a politically motivated means of attack or coercion.”
This point of view isn’t without merit, and it’s hard to fault people for taking this position. It was a show of force by an armed group intended to intimidate the government. However, the discourse surrounding the incident didn’t sit well with me — particularly the widespread calls for the demonstrations to be suppressed and the participants arrested.
The legal basis for such an action is shaky and likely unconstitutional. Michigan is a de facto open carry state and there are no regulations prohibiting weapons on the premises of the statehouse. If people can congregate there, they can do it with guns.
Another common theme of these posts: Comparisons to the Black Panthers’ armed occupation of the California capitol building in the 1960s as well as references disparate use of force against any number of demonstrations by people of color, such as the Ferguson uprising or the DAPL water protests. Again, this is a perfectly valid thing to bring up, but with their calls for an authoritarian response, many seem to draw the wrong conclusion.
This double standard is precisely why it’s so problematic to label these demonstrations “terrorism.” There’s this sense that if only white conservatives would be crushed with the same force as black radicals, then that would be progress. But it doesn’t work that way in reality.
Here we see the difference in the liberal understanding of the state and that of the socialist left. To liberals, the state’s main purpose is to be an instrument — albeit an imperfect one — for guaranteeing liberal democratic rights under the law. The socialist critique of the state is that it exists primarily to protect property and enforce the rule of one class over the other.
From this perspective, one sees the danger inherent in expanding the definition of “terrorism.” The state is by no means neutral.
If endowed with greater powers, the state will use those powers disproportionately against any person or organization that threatens the interests it protects.
The Black Panthers were a threat, which is why they were “neutralized,” to use the preferred euphemism of the FBI Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO). They were disrupted through informants and wreckers, and their leaders were murdered.
Right now, there is no mechanism to legally proscribe a domestic organization as “terrorist” and if there were, it would almost certainly run afoul of the First Amendment protections for the right to free association.
But if that were possible, the first groups to be banned wouldn’t be the Three Percenters or any other militia demonstrating at state capitols now. It would be antifascists and Black Lives Matter. The right has been pushing President Trump to outlaw antifa since he first came into office. The earliest petition dates back to the month of the deadly Unite the Right protests in Charlottesville.
Trump can’t criminalize antifascism—for now
The president cannot designate antifa a ‘domestic terrorist organization’ without changing the law
Internationally, the State Department definition of “terrorist” is largely dependent on the interests of US foreign policy and it has little to do with whether an organization engages in terrorism. During (an for more than a decade after) the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the African National Congress was considered a terrorist organization. The Sandinista guerrillas were “terrorists” but the infinitely more brutal Contras were not.
As it stands, the statute on terrorism in the federal code is defined narrowly — and that’s a good thing. Terrorism is limited to “acts dangerous to human life” meant to intimidate or coerce the government or the civilian population. A expansive definition of “terrorism” that includes merely possessing a firearm at a demonstration leaves a lot of room for interpretation, which is to say it can be selectively enforced.
If we’re operating under the correct assumption that America is a racist society that privileges the rights of the propertied class, then laws that allow for the discretion of authorities can be expected to be used overwhelmingly against people of color, the left and the working class.
History shows that this is true. Like “terrorism,” “sedition” is a legal concept that has been weaponized against the left. Sedition laws passed in the early 20th century were aimed quashing dissent during World War I, and they were used to jail everyone from pacifist Quakers to socialists, like Eugene Debs. It was from Supreme Court challenges to these laws that we got the famous “clear and present danger” standard.
The act that Oliver Wendell Holmes considered tantamount to “shouting fire in a crowded theater?” Telling people to resist the draft.
That standard was eventually overturned in a Supreme Court case involving the far-right. In 1969, Klu Klux Klan leader Clarence Brandenburg was prosecuted under Ohio’s “criminal syndicalism” laws which had been passed in 1919 during the First Red Scare to create a broad legal basis for jailing communists. The court created the Brandenburg test, which asserts that speech is only unlawful if it’s likely to incite “imminent, lawless action.”
Even if most of us couldn’t care less that some bigot got thrown in jail, limiting the ability of the state to criminalize speech was undeniably a positive development for civil liberties. By that same token, any push to expand the definition of “terrorism” needs to be fought — especially during a time of crisis like the one we are currently in.
For those of us in the anti-war left, the Bush era brought anxiety about the potential for the War on Terror to be used to curtail civil liberties. After the passage of the Patriot Act, there was a very real concern that the government would start declaring anti-war organizations “terrorist.”
It wasn’t unjustified. There were signs of surveillance and infiltration everywhere. At the University of Texas, a campus police officer sat in the first meeting of our anti-war group. He stood out like a sore thumb — about 45 with a mullet and a bushy walrus-like cop mustache. When he took out a camcorder and started filming, we asked him to leave.
I’m sure there were many others who were less ham-fisted that we never even noticed. Once we had someone turn up at a larger city-wide meeting suggesting we should firebomb a bank. None of us knew him, so it was unclear if he was a provocateur or just some random crank.
In another incident, an FBI agent gave a presentation on campus in which he listed “domestic terror organizations.” On the list were Food Not Bombs, a left-wing mutual aid group that feeds the homeless, and the anarchist media collective Indymedia.
So as a student of history and someone who witnessed the emergence of a creeping surveillance state, I feel a reflexive unease any time I hear people play fast and loose with the word “terrorism.” Given the tremendous potential for the cornavirus outbreak to erode civil liberties, nuance is needed more than ever.
There’s a tendency among liberals to treat the word “terrorism” as mere hyperbole — a strong term that can be flippantly used to condemn the right — but language matters. How we talk about something establishes norms, which in turn have the capacity to become codified as law.
In our rush to disarm our political opponents, we have to take care not to arm the state with a weapon that can be used against us.