Law enforcement officials, Attorney General William Barr and now President Donald Trump have turned their eyes toward the anti-fascist group called antifa and anarchist groups as the root cause of the increasing violence toward police and the destruction of property as protests breakout in major American cities.
U.S. police officials said they are examining both local and out-of-state actors focused on creating damage and inciting violent confrontations with police (and possibly other protesters) in the name of anarchist and antifa causes.
As has been seen in New York’s SOHO and Union Square neighborhoods, as well as in L.A.’s Fairfax District, Chicago’s The Loop, and Philadelphia’s Center City neighborhood, some of these actors appear to be specifically targeting more wealthy areas or areas perceived as more wealthy.
NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea told NBC News on Saturday night that the groups use “hit and run” tactics that make it difficult for police to identify them in the large crowds. Law enforcement officials said that makes it difficult to catch up with these actors and make arrests.
Shea said, “They had tactics deployed, prepping stations with additional weapons available.” He would not identify these groups by name when asked by NBC News.
Over the last decade the intelligence apparatus of police departments that tries to anticipate and track the movements of antifa or anarchists has diminished, according to multiple senior law enforcement officers.
This has limited the ability of departments to better understand how these small and very loosely coordinated groups move and interact with protesters or attach themselves to protests, the officials said.
One of the problems this poses is not only from an information gathering perspective, but also for law enforcement agencies to disrupt these groups from becoming better organized and causing increased damage and violence associated with larger protests.
Law enforcement officials said that as the terrorism threat has impacted more of the country, police agencies have redirected their focus on foreign terror groups and terror acts that those foreign terror groups seek to inspire in the United States. As a result, the breadth of understanding of these anti-fascist and anarchist groups is not robust.
A sampling of local law enforcement officials found that they believe that there were out-of-state actors among non-violent local community protesters who later were arrested for violent acts or destruction of property over the past few days. But those officials note that they are trying to further assess if there are more established networks facilitating and funding these actors.
The LAPD says that most of the crimes associated with Saturday night’s protests and violence were local actors. However, Shea told NBC News that in New York City the arrests for violence on Friday were at least 20 percent from out of town and he suggested the number could grow much higher as they suspected that false addresses were initially given to police at the time of arrest.
This is not the first time that antifa or anarchist clashes with police have gotten attention.
In 2017, Boston Police officials commented on these rogue groups and their ability to hit quickly with violence at officers as well as attempt to destroy property. At a “free speech” rally along the lines of the “Unite The Right” protest that followed the deadly incident in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, then-Police Commissioner William Evans said his officers were hit with bags of urine and other projectiles that senior law enforcement officials told NBC News were tied to antifa-type actors.
Additionally, law enforcement agencies in the New York City area have had these groups on their radar since 2017 when they started appearing at right-wing extremist events to hijack those protests in a more violent way, officials said.
Tom Winter reported from New York and Andrew Blankstein reported from Los Angeles.