Republicans have long embraced Trumpian lies they call “alternative facts,” but Texas Sen. Ted Cruz this week reached new depths by outright falsifying the record about a domestic terrorist who killed a federal police officer (as well as a sheriff’s deputy, eight days later)—while promulgating a false narrative blaming “antifa” and “the violent left” for violence at the nationwide protests against police brutality.
At a Tuesday hearing titled “The Right of the People Peaceably to Assemble: Protecting Speech by Stopping Anarchist Violence,” Cruz twice described—the second time even after he had been corrected—the terrorist who shot two federal officers, one fatally, with a rifle during a May 29 Black Lives Matter protest in Oakland (along with a deputy who attempted to arrest him the next week) as “antifa” and a pro-BLM terrorist. In fact, the man was a fanatical “Boogaloo” extremist with a right-wing libertarian background, and was an active staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force.
The hearing—as its title suggested—was primarily a farce that completely obliterated the factual reality that right-wing extremists have committed about 10 times as many acts of domestic terrorism in the United States in the past three years (49 incidents to 5) with a concomitant difference in lethality (144 people killed to 4). Its main utility appears to have been to bolster the false narrative promoted by the Trump administration, right-wing media, and the white nationalist movement that the “violent left” poses an existential threat to the nation—and that Democrats are to blame for it.
Cruz opened by claiming that “radical leftists” whose motives were “evil” had “hijacked” the protests over George Floyd’s murder: “More and more we are seeing signs that this rioting is not random, it’s not spontaneous. Rather, it is coordinated and inspired by leftist anarchist groups—groups like antifa, that will without shame exploit a national tragedy to attack American buildings, American homes, and American lives.”
Then he attacked “local officials—mayors and governors” for failing to stand up to these leftists, and whacked his Democratic colleagues for failing to adequately denounce the violence. After Democratic Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono’s opening remarks—she pointedly noted: “The hearing we should be having is one called ‘The Right of the People Peaceably to Assemble Without Being Beaten Up by Unidentifiable Federal Agents’”—Cruz attacked her statement:
Not a word was said about the murder of federal law-enforcement officer Patrick Underwood. Not a word was said about the murder of retired St. Louis police officer David Dorn—both of whom are African-American! And both of whom were murdered. Oh, we won’t condone this, but we won’t say a negative word about this terrorism.
In reality, David Dorn—who was retired and not on any kind of official duty—was not killed in the protests but by looters when he tried to protect a friend’s shop during the protests; his murder was not at the hands of “leftists” or anyone with a political agenda. That dubious characterization, however, looks sterling compared to how Cruz described the murder of Patrick Underwood on May 29 in Oakland.
Underwood’s killer—a 32-year-old Air Force sergeant named Steven Carrillo with elite training stationed at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield—was described by people who knew him as a libertarian extremist who had become enamored of the far-right “Boogaloo” movement, which advocates for a second civil war. Carrillo explained his strategy to a cohort in choosing the anti-police-brutality protest: “Use their anger to fuel our fire and we have mobs of angry people to use to our advantage.”
There have been multiple examples of these extremists using the police-brutality protests (as well as COVID-19-related protests) to attempt to amplify the violence so that it can be blamed on “the violent left.”
Cruz was corrected on the false characterization by Democratic Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin:
Patrick Underwood, I regret his passing and his death. The chairman [Cruz] started this meeting by saying we are talking about the leftists. Patrick Underwood was not killed by a leftist. He was killed by a member of an organization known as “Boogaloo”—a right-wing extremist organization. At least the gentleman—I shouldn’t call him a gentleman—a person named Carrillo has been charged with that crime at this time. It ain’t just leftists.
Cruz seemed not to notice. Later in the hearing—despite having just heard expert witness Michael German of the Brennan Center for Justice similarly describe Carrillo as “a member of a far-right ‘Boogaloo’ group, or members, engaged in deadly violence against police”—he repeated the falsehood:
It’s fairly striking that elected Democrats want to ignore the violence of antifa. They want to ignore the violence on the left, and they just scream ‘white supremacist, white supremacist.’ Rather than condemn violence from wherever it is coming—the 277 injuries of federal law enforcement officers in Portland are coming from the left! And not a single Democrat on this committee acknowledges that.
David Dorn—African-American police officer was murdered. A retired police officer in St. Louis, who is Black, was murdered. Not a single one of the seven Democratic senators who spoke at this hearing mentioned David Dorn’s name. Patrick Underwood—another officer! Senator Durbin was the one Democrat who mentioned Patrick Underwood’s name. Another black officer murdered.
Heightening the farcical nature of the hearing was an appearance by Portland-based anti-antifa provocateur Andy Ngo, who was there to help spin the “violent left” narrative. Ngo—who gained national notoriety by claiming martyrdom at the hand of “concrete milkshakes”—was described as a journalist, despite his frequent abandonment of the profession’s ethical standards, including his role in promulgating a Quillette smear piece that attempted to portray numerous journalists as secret agents of “antifa.”
Ngo’s remarks Tuesday were perfectly aligned with Cruz’s agenda: “I come to you today with a message for senators from both parties. Antifa’s goal is not only to abolish the criminal justice system, it is to bring down the republic itself.” He called Portland “the canary in the coal mine for America.”
There were several voices of sanity at the hearing, as Natasha Lennard at The Intercept observed, including Hirono—who gamely attempted to point out that white nationalists pose a significant threat, compared to the largely imaginary dangers claimed by Cruz and his witnesses, but then was simply ignored—and German, a former FBI agent who tried to point out the realities of domestic terrorism in America.
“We’re all concerned about protest violence, but framing the issue as a problem of anarchist violence only spreads misinformation that puts law-enforcement officers and the communities they serve at greater risk,” German said. “It also distracts from the police accountability and anti-discrimination issues that millions of Black Lives Matter supporters come into the streets to support.”
German noted that “attributing violent acts to a particular group or movement without evidence is dangerous, because it misleads law enforcement about actual threats,” adding that “misinformation about antifa [is] spread by white supremacists” and infected law enforcement accordingly.
This “sensationalized” focus on the far left has “distracted from focus on the deadly threats” posed by the far right, German said. “Unfortunately, as a matter of policy, far-right violence is deprioritized by the FBI and the Justice Department,” German said.
This, in fact, was one of the main findings of a recent Reveal News/Type Investigations database of domestic terrorism that covered the Trump years through 2019—namely, that law enforcement authorities on the federal, state, and local levels all have skewed their enforcement priorities to emphasize Islamist radicals and leftists, in direct contravention of the significantly greater presence of right-wing-extremist terrorism:
Yet law enforcement priorities remain skewed. The database shows that during the first three years of the Trump administration, cases involving Islamist extremists were preempted 18 times, compared with seven completed attacks, or 72%—a powerful indicator of the resources federal agencies poured into such probes. In contrast, a minority of right-wing extremist cases were preempted—18, compared with 30 realized attacks, or 37.5%.
Other indicators suggest a continuing law enforcement fixation on Islamists. More than half of the 25 Islamist cases in the 2017-2019 database arose from sting operations. But sting ops were involved in only six of the 48 cases involving right-wing extremists, or 12.5%. Prosecutors also were far more likely to file terrorism charges against Islamist radicals (22 out of 28 cases, or 79%) than against right-wing extremists (12 out of 46 cases, or 26%), among cases with living suspects. Islamists also faced federal charges far more often—25 of 28 cases, or 89%, compared with a little over half—25 of 46—of right-wing extremist cases.
In stark contrast to the death toll at the hands of the far right during those years (144) is the toll attributed to “antifa” (0). Indeed, a Department of Homeland Security bulletin on the violence at the current anti-police-brutality protests relegated “antifa” to a footnote, their role in these protests being relatively minor. Moreover, the underlying thesis of Cruz’s hearing obliterated the painfully obvious role that hyper-reactive police forces have played in instigating the violence at the protests.
Yet to hear Trump, Attorney General William Barr, and Ted Cruz along with his witnesses, “antifa” is a major existential threat to free speech—even though these same figures seem comfortable with the idea of declaring people who espouse antifascist or anarchist ideas criminals: Free speech for me, none for thee.
The reality is that “antifa” is comprised largely of nonviolent ordinary people who are focused on opposing the rise of white-nationalist fascism in the USA, and are prepared to take on the job of opposing their hatred and violence, since they (quite reasonably, for reasons seen above) have no confidence in the ability or desire of the nation’s law-enforcement apparatus to do that job. There are always violent outliers within any movement (particularly Black Bloc actors), but the movement’s leaders primarily remain devotedly nonviolent.
The threat of domestic terrorism—particularly at the hands of far-right “Boogaloo Bois”—is currently growing intense, and experts are warning that this will worsen around the time of the November election. False narratives like this actually inflame the likelihood of this violence, as we have seen with the multiple instances of armed extremists taking to the streets of American small towns to counter the entirely fictitious threat of “antifa buses” coming to their neighborhoods.
It would be a kindness to say that Cruz merely lied: In fact, he turned reality entirely on its head. At a time when the nation is awash in the white-nationalist terrorism his lie sought to erase, this kind of disinformation is not just profoundly irresponsible but dangerous.