It all began with a tweet. Chandler Wirostek, of Charlotte, North Carolina, was reading the news last Monday when he saw that the attorney general had declared that the leaderless anti-fascist movement known as antifa was engaged in domestic terrorism. The 24-year-old found the notion absurd, so he decided to say something.
Addressing himself to the FBI’s main Twitter account and the bureau’s Charlotte office, Wirostek wrote: “Hi, I am the leader of Charlotte, NC Antifa. DM me for my address, or I can turn myself in. I’d be happy to let you test your bullshit terrorism statute in a U.S. court. Anyone who thinks antifascists are the bad guys are fascists.” Wirostek signed the tweet, “#IAMAntifa.”
“What makes you email the FBI saying you’re the leader of antifa in Charlotte?”
Two days later, the bureau came calling. “First, they called my mom,” Wirostek told The Intercept. When the FBI finally reached him, Wirostek was in his kitchen. With his phone on speaker, a friend filmed a portion of the conversation, which Wirostek shared with The Intercept.
“What makes you email the FBI saying you’re the leader of antifa in Charlotte?” the agent on the other end of the line asked.
Wirostek explained that he was not, in fact, the local leader of antifa, and that the tweet “was just a statement of solidarity.” By that point, his friend had stopped filming the call, but according to Wirostek, the agent told him that’s what he suspected and that he was simply following a supervisor’s orders. He asked Wirostek if he knew any antifa members or had any information about the movement’s structure. After a bit of small talk, the agent asked the young man if he would be interested in becoming an informant for the FBI.
While he did not mention antifa directly, Wirostek felt that the agent’s previous questions about the anti-fascist movement made the bureau’s interests abundantly clear.
“Sure,” Wirostek told him. “Just send me the information.”
Shelley Lynch, a public affairs specialist at the FBI’s Charlotte office, said Wirostek’s experience was simply the result of run-of-the-mill police work. “While I cannot comment on any specific social media post, I can say the FBI receives information from the public in a variety of ways including online/email, via phone, or as a walk-in to one of our local offices,” Lynch said in an email to The Intercept. “The same way we would return a phone call from a citizen, it is not [un]usual for us to reach out to someone directly who tried to contact us via social media to see if they need assistance.”
The Intercept also contacted the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. to see if the bureau has augmented its approach to social media posts concerning antifa in light of the attorney general’s recent statement, which reported that the Department of Justice had activated all 56 Joint Terrorism Task Forces — bodies that coordinate between federal investigators and local law enforcement — in a hunt to “identify criminal organizers and instigators” affiliated with the anti-fascist movement.
The FBI responded to the inquiry with a statement that did not address the question. “The FBI is supporting our state, local, and federal law enforcement partners with maintaining public safety in the communities we serve,” a spokesperson at FBI headquarters said in a statement. “Our efforts are focused on identifying, investigating, and disrupting individuals that are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity. We are not focused on peaceful protests.”
With protests against police brutality sweeping the country, the Trump administration and the political right have seized on antifa as a buzzword and boogeyman, projecting a notion that the nationwide uprising against police violence and unaccountability has been infiltrated and co-opted by a sophisticated network of left-wing radicals.
“Buffalo protester shoved by Police could be an ANTIFA provocateur,” the president tweeted Tuesday morning. He was referring to a viral video showing riot police in New York, shoving 75-year-old Martin Gugino to the ground and splitting his head open. Trump went on to baselessly claim that Gugino, a longtime activist with nonviolent protest movements such as the Plowshares and the Catholic worker, “fell harder than was pushed.”
“Could be a set up?” the president wrote.
Trump’s words were the latest example of a steadily expanding antifa paranoia that has infected both American citizens and law enforcement. In Klamath Falls, Oregon, a wave of Facebook-assisted conspiracy theories spread word that antifa was coming to town by the busloads, prompting local residents to take up arms and flood the streets. The New York Police Department, meanwhile, has turned over residents arrested for curfew violations to FBI agents for interrogations about their political beliefs.
Michael German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and former FBI agent, said Wirostek’s experience had the signs of a rank-and-file agent being given an assignment that he knew to be meritless, and going through the motions to satisfy his boss. That said, the fact that at least some FBI supervisors are apparently directing their subordinates to run-down low-level, antifa-related information suggested a deeper problem.
“Based on the reporting coming out of New York that FBI agents are interrogating detainees that are arrested at protests, whether they’re involved in some kind of misconduct or just out after curfew, for antifa information is a dangerous sign,” German told The Intercept. “It appears that the FBI is trying to make President Trump’s tantrum come true, and willing to use questionable methods in order for that to happen.”
Recently, the FBI’s Charlotte office notified the public of a pattern of spoofers making calls pretending to be special agents, so late last week, Wirostek called the office back to confirm that the person who reached to him did in fact work for the bureau. After explaining his experience to an operator, Wirostek received another call from the agent he spoke to earlier, who identified himself as Newsome. He did not give his first name.
Wirostek told The Intercept that he had no intention of actually helping the FBI, though he was interested in what the on-boarding process for a federal snitch might look like. “I just kind of wanted to get that information,” he explained.
With a degree in political science, Wirostek works in the anti-money laundering department of a bank. Having come of age during the war on terror, he developed a deep concern regarding the “coercive power of the state,” he explained, particularly as it pertains to the expression of political views that challenge or question that power. With plans to go to law school in the fall, Wirostek has avoided physically joining the protests out of concern that he might be arrested. He described his tweet as his way of speaking out against an inexcusable attempt to criminalize anti-fascist dissent.
“I’m definitely thinking and being hesitant before I say anything online, which could be the intention of those types of calls, to kind of chill speech.”
“I’m not involved with it in any way,” he explained. “But I do support them and don’t really want them to be labeled a terrorist organization.”
Online, Wirostek’s Twitter avatar is a Japanese ad for the movie “Point Break” featuring Keanu Reeves. The image has its own page on the website “Know Your Meme.” Anyone with basic familiarity with the internet, or anti-fascism, for that matter, could see that Wirostek’s post was not grounded in reality — so why did the country’s premiere domestic intelligence and law enforcement agency choose to follow up?
It’s possible that despite seeing itself as a cutting-edge army of investigators, the FBI remains largely internet illiterate — agent Newsome, after all, repeatedly referred to Wirostek’s tweet as an “email.” Wirostek is not so sure: “It seems like obviously that’s not a real lead to follow up on.” Alternatively, it could be the case that the bureau knew the claim was untrue, and that the purpose of the call was not to investigate the substance of the tweet, but to send a message to those who would show support for a movement that the Trump administration has deemed an enemy.
If that’s the case, Wirostek said, then the bureau had a degree of success. “I’m definitely thinking and being hesitant before I say anything online,” he explained, “which could be the intention of those types of calls, to kind of chill speech.”
While he was not the subject of direct surveillance, Wirostek recognizes that his interaction with the FBI could result in his placement on one of the many opaque and often invasive watch lists that U.S. law enforcement maintains. That kind of surveillance, he argued, which the United States has embraced with historic vigor in the years following the September 11 attacks: “definitely chills political discourse, even if it’s not explicit.”
Update: June 9, 2020, 1:11 p.m. ET
This story has been updated to include a response from FBI headquarters received after publication.