AUSTIN (KXAN) – There is hardly a section of brick outside of the Austin Police Department that isn’t covered in graffiti. Much of the painted messages are not fit to print here.
Some of the messages wished death “to cops” and expressed hateful sentiments for the men and women who wear guns and badges. The messages appeared in the midst of protests that popped up across the country after George Floyd died in the custody of Minneapolis Police.
Most of the people marching around downtown Austin were loud, holding fists in the air and chanting. Others held middle fingers up to officers along the march route while yelling expletives at them. Very few showed signs of any physical violence during the day on Sunday.
The later it got, the more violent and rowdy some people in the crowds became.
Around 10 p.m. Sunday night, a crowd of more than 100 people left the Texas Capitol and headed back to the Austin Police Department’s headquarters. They were met with a wall of officers guarding the front doors of headquarters.
Then, shots rang out from the wall of officers and streams of pepper spray rained down on the protesters from the Interstate 35 overpass. Officers said someone from the crowd threw something and officers fired “non-lethal” rounds from orange-colored 12-gauge shotguns from the steps of headquarters.
Soon after, we watched people spray painting buildings around the police department and a group of people were lobbing rocks, water bottles and fireworks toward officers in riot gear. A gas station and liquor store were looted during the exchange.
Stratfor Global Security Analyst Ben West said the type of violence he saw in Austin the past few nights points to an anti-fascist group known as ANTIFA.
“They try to portray themselves as the good guys, fighting fascism and fighting police violence, obviously all things people look at say oh, yeah…we should all fight fascism and not tolerate police violence, but obviously ANTIFA is associated with more violent tactics, property damage even attacks on individuals,” West told KXAN.
Stratfor describes itself as a “geopolitical intelligence” firm and has studied and tracked ANTIFA groups across the country, according to West. Much of the violence West monitored over the weekend can be attributed to groups who share what he calls ANTIFA “ideology.”
“It’s certainly no kind of central command and control structure here and it’s very much like a grassroots effort,” West said, “So, you might have like-minded individuals in Austin who kind of give themselves the ANTIFA name, or they might adopt other leftist ideological names.”
Typically, members of these groups wear black and red, cover their faces with masks, wear hoodies and often outfitted in tactical gear. With no formal organized structure, West said the group operates from cells and chapters spread across the country.
In a press conference in Dallas on Tuesday, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told reporters that ANTIFA groups were operating in Texas. “Keep in mind, ANTIFA is a loosely-knit group. There’s not a higher up infrastructure. They self-identify, so it’s the same people you’ve seen before in these protests and they’re more often involved in these counter protests are the same individuals involved right now using this as an opportunity. They just can’t help themselves,” McCraw said.
McCraw, referring to a looting incident at an Austin business, described ANTIFA members connected to that event as “violent extremists.” The director said “special agents” have embedded with some of these groups in order to identify “criminals that are leveraging these or using this as an opportunity—exploiting these demonstrations.”
“ANTIFA is not an organization, it’s a mindset,” Austin businessman Brandon Nagle told KXAN. Engle is a self-proclaimed ANTIFA member and said he’s not part of a “cell or chapter” of the anti-fascist group. Nagle contacted KXAN disputing Stratfor’s characterization of ANTIFA’s tactics.
Nagle took exception to the blame ANTIFA groups are getting for the violence happening in the protests around the city, “Do they get out of hand sometimes, sure. Typically in those situations, we were aggressed on, we are not the aggressors,” Nagle said.
“If antifa is against racism and against fascists, why would they got to a black lives matter rally and disrupt it? I haven’t ever set a fire, I have never attacked police,” Nagle told KXAN investigator Jody Barr. ”You don’t dispute people who identify with ANTIFA have done so?” Barr asked, “There’s always going to be a bad apple, but it doesn’t mean it was organized by ANTIFA,” Nagle responded.
President Donald Trump tweeted over the weekend that the federal government was seeking to tag ANTIFA as a terror organization. West believes that move won’t make much of a difference in combating the violence associated with the group.
“This is a campaign, an umbrella title over a very disparate group of individuals and cells across the country. So, there’s not a single funding source, leadership structure, hierarchy—it’s trying to go after ANTIFA using the same counter-terrorism tools used to go after Al Qaeda or the Islamic State wouldn’t be the same at all,” West said.
Groups identifying as ANTIFA protestors have flocked to protests involving issues of race or police brutality.
“People kind of ascribing to that ideology have been active for a long time and it doesn’t come to a surprise that they are mobilizing on a massive scale during the current wave of unrest,” West said.
Another major distinction that might keep a terror label off ANTIFA groups is the result of and the focus of their use of violence in “…advancing their political ideology through physical damage,” West said.
“Generally what we’re talking about here is threats emanating from individuals or very small cells of people that usually result in property damage, broken windows, graffiti, property damage. There is a very short list of examples of individuals associate with ANTIFA trying to cause physical harm to people or even trying to kill people. There’s a precedent for that, but that’s not their main aim,” West told KXAN.