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DOJ To Help Local Authorities In Policing Riots Around The Country


The Justice Department is stepping up its response to the violence spreading across the country in response to George Floyd's death. And NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas joins us now.

Hi, Ryan.


SHAPIRO: This is the most sustained and widespread social unrest we have seen in the U.S. for a long time. What's the Justice Department doing in response?

LUCAS: Well, the protests demanding justice over Floyd's death and more generally against police brutality have turned violent in some places, particularly after sunset. State and local police and other authorities are the - response on this. They're the ones on the streets making arrests. But the federal government is obviously helping out. I'm told by a senior Justice Department official that Attorney General William Barr has dispatched riot teams from the Federal Bureau of Prisons to Washington, D.C., and Miami to help authorities there with the unrest. These are called Special Operations Response Teams. They have special training to respond to things like prison riots. The attorney general also dispatched an FBI hostage rescue team late last night in D.C. to help police here as some of the protests turned violent. And I'm told that federal law enforcement will be out in force again in D.C. this evening.

SHAPIRO: How else are federal authorities involved?

LUCAS: Well, there are a couple of tracks here. So the FBI and the Justice Department are conducting an investigation into Floyd's death, looking to see whether any of his constitutional rights were violated. These are tough cases, though, because the standard of proof is really high. Federal prosecutors would have to prove that the officer who had his knee on Floyd's neck, as we saw in that video, was acting with the specific intent of violating Floyd's civil rights. And if you remember the case of Eric Garner, the African American man who died in police custody in New York in 2014, all of which was captured on video as well, the Justice Department ultimately decided not to bring civil rights charges against the officer involved in that instance.

The FBI is also, of course, investigating the violence that has broken out in some cities in connection with these protests. FBI field offices across the country have set up command posts to help coordinate and share information with state and local police to help them out. The FBI tends to set these sorts of things up after big complicated events such as terrorist attacks, school shootings. So these do - these sort of command posts are set up from time to time. State and local police are, as I said, they're the first responders. But I'm told the FBI is interviewing people who have been arrested to see whether any federal laws have been broken, such as, say, crossing state lines to conduct violence.

SHAPIRO: Now, the attorney general blamed far-left radicals for the violence and then the president tweeted that he would designate antifa a terrorist organization, which is not actually something he can do. So bring us up to speed on what's happening there.

LUCAS: There has been a ton of conflicting statements from authorities about who's behind this violence. Barr and the president, as you said, are blaming the far left. Others have pointed the finger at the far right. The common thread at this point is that the public really hasn't seen any evidence to support either of those claims. As for the president's threat to declare antifa a terrorist organization, it's important to make clear here that, you know, antifa isn't a single group. It's not a monolith. It doesn't have a hierarchy. It's really more of a diffuse movement of far-left ideologies and activists who oppose fascism, often actively on the streets. The other thing is that legal experts say there is no authority under which the president could designate antifa a terrorist group. And that's because the laws that allow for a terrorist designation apply to foreign groups only, not to domestic ones. And then this also, of course, would really implicate First Amendment issues as well, First Amendment-protected issues.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas.

Thanks, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.