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Attorney General Steps Up Federal Law Enforcement Response To Protests

Attorney General William Barr, at the White House last month, has placed blame for violence on what he calls "anarchistic and far-left extremists."
Brendan Smialowski
AFP via Getty Images
Attorney General William Barr, at the White House last month, has placed blame for violence on what he calls "anarchistic and far-left extremists."

Attorney General William Barr is sending specialized teams of federal agents to help control protests in Washington, D.C., and Miami, and the FBI is setting up command posts in cities across the country as demonstrations against George Floyd's deathmove into a second week.

Barr has directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to dispatch riot teams to the nation's capital and to Miami to assist local authorities in responding to protests there, according to a senior Justice Department official.

The attorney general also sent an FBI hostage rescue team to help authorities Sunday in Washington with demonstrations, the official said, adding that the federal law enforcement presence will be "maximized" in the city on Monday evening.

The moves come as protesters continue to take to the streets in cities across the country in outrage and grief over Floyd's May 25 death in Minneapolis while in police custody.

Video of Floyd's arrest shows him handcuffed and pinned facedown on the street. A Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, is shown kneeling on top of him with his knee pushing on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes.

Barr has called the outrage over Floyd's death "real and legitimate" but said the criminal justice system must be the venue to hold those responsible to account. And he argues that is already happening.

Chauvin and three other officers involved have been fired from the police force. Minnesota authorities also have charged Chauvin with third-degree murder and manslaughter.

On a parallel track, the FBI and Justice Department are conducting a separate investigation to determine whether any federal civil rights laws were violated.

Some of the protests against Floyd's death have turned violent and destructive.

Shops in Washington, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and elsewhere have been looted, burned and destroyed. Police stations and police vehicles have been attacked.

It is unclear at this point who exactly is behind the violence, but Barr and President Trump put the blame squarely on what they have labeled far-left radicals and extremists.

"Unfortunately, with the rioting that is occurring in many of our cities around the country, the voices of peaceful protest are being hijacked by violent radical elements," Barr said over the weekend. "Groups of outside radicals and agitators are exploiting the situation to pursue their own separate and violent agenda."

He said that in many places, the violence appears to be driven by "anarchistic and far-left extremists, using antifa-like tactics, many of whom travel from out of state to promote the violence."

It is unclear what Barr meant by "antifa-like tactics," and he did not offer any evidence to support his assertions. A Justice Department official later said it was based on information provided by state and local authorities.

On Sunday, the president went a step further and threatened to designate antifa a terrorist group, although experts said there is no legal authority that allows a domestic entity to be labeled a "terrorist organization."

On top of that, antifa, short for anti-fascist, isn't an organization but rather a diffuse movement of activists on the far left.

While Barr and Trump have put the blame on them, some state authorities, such as Minnesota's Democratic governor, Tim Walz, have blamed white nationalists. He, too, did not offer evidence to support his assertion.

For now, state and local police and other authorities are leading the law enforcement response to the protests.

They make the arrests, although the FBI is conducting interviews to determine whether any federal laws — such as crossing state lines to conduct violence —have been violated.

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Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.