The profusion of identical green tents at this spring’s anti-Israel protests struck many as odd. “Why is everybody’s tent the same?,” asked New York mayor Eric Adams. Like others, the mayor suspected “a well-concerted organizing effort” driving the protests. More recent reporting shows a concerted push behind the Gaza protest movement. But it is not as simple as a single organization secretly rallying protesters or buying tents. Instead, the movement’s most determined activists represent a network of loosely linked far-left groups. Some are openly affiliated with well-known progressive nonprofits; others work in the shadows.

The movement also draws on diverse but generous sources of financial backing. Those funding streams may soon be augmented by the federal government. As I chronicled last year in a Manhattan Institute report, “The Big Squeeze: How Biden’s Environmental Justice Agenda Hurts the Economy and the Environment,” the administration’s massive program of environmental justice grants seems designed to prioritize the funding of highly ideological local groups. The Inflation Reduction Act, for example, earmarks $3 billion for “environmental and climate justice block grants” intended for local nonprofits. Today, hundreds of far-left political groups include language about environmental issues and “climate justice” in their mission statements. If just a fraction of planned grants flows to such groups, the effect will be a gusher of new funding for radical causes.

As the Gaza protests spread across U.S. college campuses, many observers noted an eerie uniformity among them. From one campus to the next, protesters operated in disciplined cadres, keeping their faces covered and using identical rote phrases as they refused to talk with reporters. The Atlantic noted the strangeness of seeing elite college students “chanting like automatons.” Students held up keffiyeh scarves or umbrellas to block the view of prying cameras and linked arms to halt the movements of outsiders. At Columbia University and elsewhere, protesters formed “liberated zones,” from which “Zionists” were excluded. Around the edges of the encampments, the more militaristic activists donned helmets and goggles and carried crude weapons, apparently eager to mix it up with police or counter-protesters. We’ve seen these tactics before—notably during the “mostly peaceful” Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, when full-time agitators helped ignite riots, set up a police-free (and violence-plagued) zone in Seattle, and laid nightly siege to Portland, Oregon’s federal courthouse.

In a remarkable work of reporting, Park MacDougald recently traced the tangled roots of organizations backing pro-jihad protests, both on and off campuses. These include Antifa and other networks of anonymous anarchists, along with “various communist and Marxist-Leninist groups, including the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party, the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), and the International ANSWER coalition,” MacDougald writes. Higher up the food chain, we find groups openly supported by America’s growing class of super-rich tech execs or the anti-capitalist heirs of great fortunes. For example, retired tech mogul Neville Roy Singham, who is married to Code Pink founder Jodie Evans, funds The People’s Forum, a lavish Manhattan resource center for far-left groups. As the Columbia protests intensified, the center urged members to head uptown to “support our students.” Following the money trail of other protest groups, MacDougald finds connections to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Ford Foundation, and—surprising no one—the George Soros-backed Tides Foundation.

Of course, the current wave of anti-Israel protests also involves alliances with pro-Hamas organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine. Last November, Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies testified to the House Ways and Means Committee that SJP and similar groups have deep ties to global terrorist organizations, including Hamas.

For many keffiyeh-wearing protestors, however, a recently professed concern for Palestinians is just the latest in a long list of causes they believe justify taking over streets and college quads. In Unherd, Mary Harrington dubs this medley of political beliefs the “omnicause,” writing that “all contemporary radical causes seem somehow to have been absorbed into one.” Today’s leftist activists share an interlocking worldview that sees racism, income inequality, trans intolerance, climate change, alleged police violence, and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts all as products of capitalism and “colonialism.” Therefore, the stated rationale for any individual protest is a stand-in for the real battle: attacking Western society and its institutions.

In the U.S., this type of general-purpose uprising goes back at least to the riots at the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. In those protests, mainstream liberal factions—including labor unions and environmentalists—were joined by “black bloc” anarchists and other radicals eager to engage in “direct action” against police. That pattern—relatively moderate demonstrators providing a friendly envelope for hard-core disruptors—formed the template for many later protests: the Occupy Wall Street encampments in 2011, demonstrations following the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, 2016’s Standing Rock anti-pipeline movement, and of course, the calamitous summer of 2020.

These uprisings were not entirely spontaneous. In some cases, activists spend months planning mass actions—for example, against economic summits or political conventions—and can recruit street fighters from across the country. In others, an event, such as George Floyd’s death, sparks popular protests involving neophyte demonstrators. Those attract far-left activists, who swoop in to organize and expand the struggle, often tilting it toward more radical action.

That has certainly been the case at the college Gaza-paloozas. At Columbia, the New York Times spotted a woman old enough to be a student’s grandmother in the thick of the action as protesters barricaded that school’s Hamilton Hall. The woman was 63-year-old Lisa Fithian, a lifetime activist, who Portland’s alternative weekly Street Roots approvingly calls “a trainer of mass rebellion.” A counter-protester trying to block the pro-Hamas demonstrators told NBC News, “She was right in the middle of it, instructing them how to better set up the barriers.” Fithian told the Times she’d been invited to train students in protest safety and “general logistics.” She claims to have taken part in almost every major U.S. protest movement going back to the 1999 “Battle in Seattle.”

America’s radical network has plenty of Lisa Fithians, with the time and resources to travel the country educating newcomers about the “logistics” of disruptive protests. And these activists appear to have played key roles in the college occupations. The New York City Police Department says nearly half the demonstrators arrested on the Columbia and City University of New York (CUNY) campuses on April 30 were not affiliated with the schools. One hooded Hamilton Hall occupier—photographed scuffling with a Columbia custodian before getting arrested—turned out to be 40-year-old James Carlson, heir to a large advertising fortune. According to the New York Post, Carlson lives in a $2.3 million Park Slope townhouse and has a long rap sheet. For example, in 2005, he was arrested in San Francisco during the violent “West Coast Anti-Capitalist Mobilization and March Against the G8.” (Those charges were dropped.)

For a quarter-century now, Antifa and other anarchist networks have worked to refine tactics and share lessons following each major action. At Columbia, UCLA, and other schools, authorities found printouts of a “Do-It Yourself Occupation Guide” and similar documents. The young campus radicals are eager to learn from their more experienced elders. And, like the high-achieving students they are, they follow directions carefully. MacDougald asked Kyle Shideler, the director for homeland security and counterterrorism at the Center for Security Policy, about the mystery of the identical tents. There was no need for a central group to distribute hundreds of tents, Shideler said. Instead, “the organizers told [students] to buy a tent, and sent around a Google Doc with a link to that specific tent on Amazon. So they all went out and bought the same tent.”

In other words, America’s radical class has gotten very skilled at recruiting and instructing new activists—even from among the ranks of elite college students with a good deal to lose. How much more could this movement accomplish with hundreds of millions in federal dollars flooding activist groups around the country?

From its first week in office, the Biden administration has trumpeted its goal to funnel more environmental spending toward “disadvantaged communities that have been historically marginalized,” partly by issuing grants to grassroots organizations. Previous environmental justice (EJ) grant programs were small in scope. But, with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in August 2022, a huge pool of grant money became available. EPA administrator Michael Regan told reporters, “We’re going from tens of thousands of dollars to developing and designing a program that will distribute billions.”

More than a year and a half later, it remains hard to nail down just where the Biden administration’s billions in EJ grants will wind up. Money is being distributed through a confusing variety of programs, and the process of identifying recipients is ongoing. To help outsource the job of sifting through proposals, the EPA last year designated 11 institutions as “Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Grantmakers.” These groups are empowered to make subgrants directly to community organizations, under streamlined EPA oversight. In all, the Biden administration has entrusted these outfits with distributing a staggering $600 million in funding. The money is expected to start flowing this summer.

The EPA’s grantmakers include a number of educational institutions and left-leaning nonprofits. For example, the EPA chose Fordham University as its lead grantmaker in the New York region. Fordham, in turn, lists as partners two nonprofits that oppose immigration enforcement. (One, the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, states on its website: “NJAIJ believes in the human right to migrate, regardless of citizenship or political status.”) Neither group claims expertise in environmental issues. Given that the IRA’s eligibility requirements for EJ grants are extremely vague, however, perhaps that’s not a problem. Almost any activity that could help “spur economic opportunity for disadvantaged communities” (in the words of Biden’s EJ executive order) might qualify.

Perhaps the most prominent—and problematic—EPA grantmaker is the Berkeley, California-based Climate Justice Alliance. The CJA is a consortium of mostly far-left activist groups. It describes its mission as working for regenerative economic solutions and ecological justice—under a framework that challenges capitalism and both white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy. The group is a vigorous proponent of the omnicause, embracing almost every left-wing concern as a manifestation of climate change. For example, the CJA website proclaims: “The path to climate justice travels through a free Palestine. MacDougald notes that the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, one of CJA’s affiliated groups, “organized an illegal anti-Israel protest in the Capitol Rotunda in December at which more than 50 activists were arrested.”

The CJA website also includes a section dedicated to the cause known as Stop Cop City. It refers to an effort to halt the construction of an 85-acre police and firefighter training center outside Atlanta. Rag-tag activists from around the country have gathered around the facility since 2021. They have repeatedly battled with police—sometimes with fireworks and Molotov cocktails—and used bolt cutters to enter the site and torch construction equipment. (CJA’s Stop Cop City page features a cartoon illustration of three childlike activists; one brandishes bolt cutters.) The group also backs a legal defense fund for activists arrested in attacks on the training center or in other protests. For those looking for more inspiration, CJA links to an interview with former Black Panther and self-described revolutionary Angela Davis.

The Alliance is not an ideological outlier in Biden’s EJ coalition. On the contrary, when the White House assembled its White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC), a panel of outside experts meant to provide “horizon-expanding EJ advice and recommendations,” it chose CJA co-chair Elizabeth Yeampierre to help lead the committee. Like other members of the panel, she sees environmental issues through an ideological, not a scientific, lens. “Climate change is the result of a legacy of extraction, of colonialism, of slavery,” Yeampierre told Yale Environment 360. As a group, radical EJ activists tend not to focus on pragmatic ways to reduce pollution and carbon emissions; for them, the real goal is overturning what they see as an exploitative economic and political system. Since these are the voices the White House chose to help shape its EJ policies, we can assume this worldview will dominate grantmaking decisions.

In February 2023, House Oversight Committee chairman James Comer, along with fellow committee member Pat Fallon, wrote to EPA administrator Regan asking for more information on the EPA’s grant programs. They noted that the EPA’s own studies of EJ grants issued in previous years showed sloppy supervision. According to an EPA report, an earlier version of the program funded projects that did “not logically lead to the desired environmental and/or public health [result].” Without better oversight and more clearly defined goals, the congressmen wrote, the EPA’s EJ grant machine risks becoming simply a “slush fund for far-left organizations.”

Since then, the administration has done little to reassure skeptics. To the contrary, the EPA has put at least one far-left organization—CJA—in charge of distributing $50 million in grant money. No doubt, many of the EPA grants will go to worthwhile projects. But money is fungible. A group that gets a large grant to, say, clean up dirty parks or teach children about recycling will also be able to hire more staff and divert more resources to political action.

With graduation behind them, most of the anti-Israel college protesters have stowed away their keffiyehs and moved on to summer vacations or internships. But the peripatetic activists who helped guide and intensify those uprisings are doubtless already planning their next actions. After all, two political conventions are looming. This fall, the college protests will likely flare up again, though by then perhaps focused on a different facet of the omnicause. And, with hundreds of millions in fresh funding flowing through the activist ecosystem, the groups that quietly nurture extremists—like those who firebombed “Cop City,” or who chant “Intifada Revolution!,” or who block bridges in the name of “climate”—will be more emboldened than ever.

Photo by Probal Rashid/LightRocket via Getty Images


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