On Sunday night, a mob of nearly 300 people marched into a Portland city park, strapped chains around statues of Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, and pulled them to the ground.
Demonstrators dressed in black smashed the windows of the Oregon Historical Society and threw flares inside in an attempt to burn the building down. They vandalized businesses, tagged buildings with graffiti, and fired bullets through a restaurant’s front window as a riot was declared.
Riots like this may look like pure chaos, but police leaders believe Sunday’s criminal behavior was planned from the start. Advertisements for the “direct action” event barred cameras and journalists, evidence that organizers wanted to avoid accountability for the violence, police say.
The violent demonstrations that erupted in American cities after George Floyd’s death in May are often portrayed in mainstream media as spontaneous, leaderless uprisings.
But people who study extremist groups say much of the chaos is orchestrated by a core of radical left-wing agitators whose online organization has become increasingly sophisticated.
For decades, scholars who study extremist violence have focused most of their attention on Islamic radicals and ideologically right-wing militants, like the group accused this month in the plot to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. In terms of lethality, experts agree those groups have posed the greatest threat in recent years.
But as violent protests continue in American cities – they’ve been occurring nightly for nearly five months in Portland — some researchers are increasingly concerned about the growing threat posed by radical left-wing groups, whose protests have already led to one killing in Portland.
Members of the mainstream press and a number of national Democrats have argued that left-wing street violence poses a lesser threat than its right-wing counterpart because its participants are less organized and operate without centralized leadership.
The so-called Antifa movement that has terrorized the streets of American cities is an “idea,” Vice President Joe Biden assured viewers during the first presidential debate, misquoting FBI Director Christopher Wray, who said during recent congressional testimony that Antifa amounts to an “ideology.” Wray later clarified that Antifa is a “real thing,” and “not a fiction.”
“The idea that we could have a street war with Antifa and some of these more radical right-wing elements that could leave dozens of people dead or injured is so obviously within the realm of possibility that it’s laughable to say it’s not,” said Joel Finkelstein, co-founder of the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) at Rutgers University.
The NCRI uses machine learning and data-driven approaches to analyze social media and create landscape threat assessments involving extremist groups. In a report released in September, the NCRI found that in just the past several months, the online structure supporting militant anti-fascist and anarcho-socialist groups has grown rapidly.
The report found striking similarities between hard-left and hard-right groups, including how their members gather virtually in fringe Internet forums and use those forums to spread violent and propagandistic memes. They also found evidence that those online networks are being used to coordinate real-world riots around the country.
“What’s happening with the Left is something that’s new,” Finkelstein said.
Tayler Hansen, a self-described independent journalist who went to Portland last month to document the mayhem, said news organizations misunderstand how well-organized the demonstrations are.
Hansen, 20, a tattooed pro-life activist with wild blond hair and a populist streak, tried to blend in with the rioters, dressing in black and chatting up the people he met.
He said many of the people he met were, in fact, “normal people,” who just “want to belong to something bigger than themselves.”
But he also noted that the structure of the protests and the tactics the protesters use are the same night after night. The evening demonstrations, or “direct action” campaigns, are organized and promoted online, he said.
Most of the protesters who return each night know their roles – some are medics, some man the shield line to face down police. Others are there to instigate confrontations, which are caught on camera by people Hansen describes as “Antifa press.”
People dressed in “black bloc” direct the action on the ground, he said.
“Every single protest they use the exact same techniques,” said Hansen, who left Portland after he was beaten by four demonstrators dressed in black. “They are using and learning these techniques from somebody.”
In January, the NCRI researchers released a report dissecting the threat posed by the Boogaloo movement, whose adherents are preparing for an apocalyptic civil war and communicate through memes and online jokes.
When the researchers turned their attention to potential threats posed by anarcho-socialist extremists, they found that left-wing groups were using many of the same online tactics.
Groups on both ideological extremes organized followers around apocalyptic beliefs and utopian legends. They both used fringe Internet forums to spread violent memes and propaganda. They glorified lone-wolf terror attacks and martyrs for their causes.
Both sides seemed to enjoy posting pictures of their guns, along with symbols of their movements – Hawaiian shirts for the Boogaloos, Antifa flags for the anarcho-socialist groups.
And they both co-opt events, such as quarantine and Floyd’s death, to pull people in.
Their efforts spread online, like a virus.
“What shocked me was that a parallel structure had emerged very rapidly on the left,” Finkelstein said. “In the course of just one year we saw really sizable communities that were incubating these really hostile political ideals and dehumanizing political opponents, law enforcement, and political leadership with memes that were vulgar, and in some cases explicitly violent.”
There were some differences in tactics.
While Boogaloo adherents were flashy – they want to be seen in their Hawaiian shirts, and rally around zany code words – the left-wing groups want members to avoid detection, and are tactically evasive. They urge followers to “be like water,” shapeless, and they weaponize online code words that are almost boring or inane, like “ACAB,” an acronym for “all cops are bastards.”
After Floyd’s death, researchers identified significant spikes in anarcho-socialist code words and anti-police language on Twitter and in toxic Reddit forums.
The rage wasn’t contained online. Finkelstein said the so-called “network-enabled mob” is responsible for inciting and orchestrating riots in four cities on July 25.
“That’s what the Boogaloos say they want to do, but these guys have actually done it,” he said.
The idea that peaceful racial-justice protests are being hijacked by violent radicals isn’t new.
In July, Portland NAACP President E.D. Mondainé penned an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that white people with their own agendas were co-opting the Black Lives Matter movement and distracting attention from racial-justice concerns.
“Vandalizing government buildings and hurling projectiles at law enforcement draw attention – but how do these actions stop police from killing black people? What are Antifa and other leftist agitators achieving for the cause of black equality?” he wrote.
In September, New York Times columnist Farah Stockman argued that the chaos in American cities was being “strategically planned, facilitated and advertised on social media by anarchists who believed that their actions advanced the cause of racial justice.”
Stockman’s column was based on the work of another independent journalist, Jeremy Lee Quinn, who documents the tactics of insurrectionary anarchy on his website, Public Report.
Quinn has video from protests around the country that shows similar cases of strategic mayhem: Black-clad actors with masks, operating away from more peaceful protests, take crowbars to store windows and then summon in teams of looters.
An analysis of Stockman’s column on an anarchist website called her report “nonsense.”
The “riotous crowds have been multiracial” and “anarchists made up only a small part of most large demonstrations,” the anonymous author wrote, calling it conspiratorial thinking to believe that “a small group of white anarchists somehow managed to coordinate a multiethnic movement that brought tens of millions of Americans into the streets.”
Alex Goldenberg, another co-author of the NCRI report, said that while it’s true the demonstrations are technically leaderless, it’s clear that a small number of the demonstrators are coordinating the efforts.
“They are still sharing the same network of tactics, and there is small cell-like activity,” he said. “These people are communicating with each other.”
A left-wing or right-wing problem?
The question of which side of the ideological spectrum is most dangerous was a main point of contention during the first presidential debate, when President Donald Trump was asked to condemn white supremacy and the far-right Proud Boys.
But Trump said he didn’t think right-wing violence was the country’s main problem.
“Somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the Left, because this is not a right-wing problem; this is a left-wing problem,” Trump said.
Finkelstein called the exchange between Trump and Biden “a real tragedy” and evidence that national leaders can’t discuss the extremism problem in a mature way.
“You can see the accelerationists are really leading the national dialogue,” he said.
The NCRI report suggests that fomenting hard-left radicalism could lead to a “mass-casualty event,” such as an attack on infrastructure or a street war. But Finkelstein said it remains unclear just how big the threat is. There hasn’t been enough attention by extremist researchers.
“There’s been something of a spotlight effect in the extremist research community on right-wing violence, but there hasn’t been enough attention paid to this because it’s so new,” he said.
“Whatever else is true, it’s obviously worse than we think it is,” Finkelstein added.
Brian Levin, director of the non-partisan Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernadino, agrees that the threat of left-wing violence is real, but he said it is overblown.
While there have been violent demonstrations in several cities around the country, most were spurred by a significant event and quickly dissipated. The sustained protests have mostly been contained to progressive, West Coast cities with more sophisticated left-wing networks.
While the NCRI report documents growth among left-wing militias such as the John Brown Gun Club and the Socialist Rifle Association, Levin said hard-left radicals have historically been more interested in a kind of street theater that is “part extremist violence, part bohemian county fair.”
Hard-left radicals typically aren’t “into that mass-casualty stuff,” he said, but added that “when you get an arms race on one side, you get an arms race on the other side, too.”
Generally, the hard Left lacks structure, the glorification of weapons, and locations where radical members can train to use their weapons.
“The hard Left is more concerned with property damage and pyrotechnics than they are with a body count,” Levin said. “But that doesn’t mean they’ll always be that way.”
Finkelstein said his researchers have seen such dramatic growth among left-wing radical groups that they’re having difficulty keeping pace with it. He expects future attacks will be carried out by groups no one has heard of because they’re developing so fast online.
Twitter in particular needs to be held accountable for allowing left-wing extremist groups to operate, Finkelstein said, though social-media companies in general have been slow to respond.
“I think everyone is slower to the game because we haven’t seen this movie before,” he said. “People are still unsure that this is something that has lethal potential, and it clearly does.”