They were wearing masks before mask wearing was necessary. They have dressed in black, sometimes carrying sticks, waved flags with guns on them, smashed windows at Starbucks and pelted police with eggs.
For the past few years, Antifa have been a curiosity at radical protests and counterprotests throughout the US. They are a small group, but clad in mystery and romanticism. Progressive and anti-Trump activists have hailed them as heroes. Conservative and pro-Trump activists have cast them as a bogeyman bent on using terrorism to establish a Marxist dictatorship.
They have been alternately described as a modern day representation of the American troops storming Normandy; a figment of Trump’s and Ted Cruz’s imagination; and an organized group funded by George Soros, flying from city to city in private planes and perpetuating every act of protest and rioting in the country.
They are none of these things. Antifa is a relatively small contingent of loosely organized groups and sympathizers, who have taken advantage of lawlessness and lack of trust in government to enhance their prominence.
Now that protests and riots have continued unabated in the US for months and with an election coming up in November, politicians and activists on both sides are spreading false narratives about Antifa meant to influence public opinion. I wish to take this opportunity to correct the record. The two extreme narratives from the left and right, respectively, are that anyone who opposes fascism or right-wing extremism is antifa and that Antifa is a highly organized group orchestrating violence nationwide.
Antifa Storms Normandy: The Progressive Meme Version
Progressive Facebook and Twitter users have posted I am antifa or shared images of American troops from World War II under the headline. Some seem to believe, as Joe Biden said at the first debate, that “Antifa is an idea.”
Antifa takes its name from the Swiss group Antifascistisk Aktion. While the group has directed violence, including fire bombings, against actual neo-Nazis, they also advocate for anarchy and socialism. Hence, their ideology goes well beyond simply opposing fascism. A similar organization with the same name, Anglicized, was active in England in the 1980s and 90s. Their logo shows a man tossing a Molotov cocktail.
Just because a group has a word in its name, or proclaims itself to hold certain principles, doesn’t mean that group really believes in those principles. After all, the murderous communist dictatorship in power on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula calls itself the Democratic Republic of Korea. How many progressives think a country that throws people into prison camps for watching banned DVDs is a democratic republic?
The anti-abortion movement in America calls itself pro-life, but few progressives will grant them the label, especially when many pro-lifers have displayed tepid reactions to police brutality and to the 210,000 Americans who have died of coronavirus.
Socialists fiercely deny that the National Socialist German Workers’ Party was socialist. They oppose that party.
So we can dismiss the simplistic argument that the name tells you everything you need to know about Antifa. The fact that a group claims a name or principle is certainly not proof of what the group stands for.
Antifa in Common Discourse
For the past few years, it has been clear what people have been referring to when they talk about Antifa. They are the groups of people wearing all black (and sometimes helmets) and covering their faces with ski masks to hide their identities. They march in groups. Frequently, they smash windows and vandalize property.
At the Unite the Right II counterprotest in Washington, DC on 12 August 2018, I took the following videos of Antifa to illustrate their activities.
You can see Antifa violently attacking personal and corporate property in this video filmed by ABC Action News.
Every progressive must ask herself: are you really Antifa? Would you really swing your flagpole into the window of a car for no reason? Ninety-nine percent of the people saying, I am antifa would never do such a thing. They say they are anti-fascist because they oppose fascism, but they are not really proponents of Antifa’s violent tactics. They oppose fascism with their voices and their votes.
Waving the Antifa Flag
In the ABC News video, a few of the members of the black-clad Antifa contingent are waving the Antifaschistische Aktion flag: black with a black and red flag inside a white circle in the center. That flag is commonly waved by Antifa groups at counterprotests, including the one I filmed in Washington. A group that waves a particular flag must subscribe to some common ideologies or tactics. Antifa, then, is not just a random selection of anti-fascist people.
However, Antifa is not a highly organized group, either. Rather, it is a loosely organized contingent of groups and people. Some Antifa groups literally describe themselves as Antifa. Rose City Antifa, for example, recognizes itself as a group, affiliated with other organized groups of anti-racist activists. One of DC’s Antifa groups, DefendDC, has a profile on ActionNetwork.org with the url antifa-dc and the stated mission to “support antifascist resistance.” (Rose City Antifa member Michael Isaacson has outlined the group’s aims, ideology and methods at length in this public correspondence with Gretchen Mullen at Letter, as discussed in more detail elsewhere in this magazine.)
For many of these groups, violence is not their primary objective. Counterprotesting and exposing white supremacists and attacking their lives and careers is one of their main objectives. Rose City Antifa, for example, publishes the identities of members of hate groups.
Antifa groups are not very large and therefore cannot be responsible for the widespread protests and riots that have been taking place across the country this year. The right is wrong to label everything they dislike Antifa. Donald Trump, for example, even labeled an elderly protester who was violently shoved by the police in Buffalo as Antifa. If such a frail old man is Antifa, Antifa really isn’t anything to fear.
When Everything Is Antifa, Nothing Is Antifa
Trump falsely blames the protests almost entirely on Antifa. In Bob Woodward’s book Rage, Trump is quoted as saying, “These are very well-organized thugs. You’ll be seeing that when it comes out. These are very well organized. Antifa’s leading it.”
But even where they are participating, Antifa form a very small contingent of the protests. Most of the protesters (and rioters) are individuals concerned about police brutality, racism and related issues. If some of the protesters suddenly explode into acts of vandalism and violence, the violence doesn’t make them suddenly become members of Antifa. Antifa is a group, not an action.
In reality, Antifa members stick together at protests. They march together, hide together and engage in actions together. They don’t mingle with the masses of everyday citizens.
After all, Antifa members are trying to hide their identities. They know that they are engaging in acts of various degrees of illegality. They wear masks to hide from both the police, whom they fear and hate, and their right-wing rivals, whether they be legitimate neo-Nazis or those they label as such. Antifa, as they explained to journalists at the Unite the Right II rally, are scared of being doxxed and attacked by their right-wing opponents. Plus, Antifa is radically anti-liberal and anti-democratic, so they don’t identify with the mainstream liberal protesters, who insist on changing policy slowly through voting and engaging with a system that Antifa wants to overthrow.
Antifa as the KKK and al-Qaeda: The Right’s Version
The Republican Party—and the American right in general—wants to use Antifa as a weapon to attack protesters, Democrats and the left. This agenda has been in the works for the past few years. In 2018, Republican lawmakers have proposed making it illegal to wear masks at protests and labeling Antifa a terrorist group. They have kept up that demand. Ted Cruz has even compared Antifa to the KKK, to which FBI Director Christopher Wray has responded that Antifa isn’t a highly organized group like the Klan. “It’s a movement or an ideology,” Wray said, perhaps perversely inspiring Biden’s comment during the recent presidential debate. (Ideas and ideologies, Biden seems to have forgotten, are not always good in themselves.)
Antifa is far less of a threat than the KKK and other actual terrorist groups. The KKK has murdered hundreds of thousands of African-Americans, while Antifa has murdered no one and only infrequently commits non-lethal assaults. A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) found no homicides attributed to Antifa. The only homicide that might conceivably be attributed to Antifa occurred at a protest in Portland on 29 August 2020, when Michael Reinoehl, who described himself as an Antifa supporter, fatally shot a counterprotester.
Tucker Carlson and Rand Paul have exaggerated Antifa’s organizational structure so much that they have suggested Antifa be subpoenaed and charged with RICO after some random protesters yelled at Trump supporters leaving a mass gathering on the White House lawn this summer.
The dark shirts and masks and the secrecy make it easy for the right to label anything and everything relating to protest as Antifa. The right’s fantastical use of the term to smear protesters prompts the left to dismiss all concerns about Antifa and attempt to redefine the terminology. That Antifa-related elements have sometimes engaged in righteous acts of violence—punching Richard Spencer in the face, for example—has made people sympathize with them.
The influence of Antifa is exaggerated by both the right and the left. The right would love to have something simple and evil on which to blame all protests and anti-Trump activities, something that could be wholeheartedly condemned without having to do any troublesome reckoning with American racism or American history. The left would love to have a wholesome heroic narrative that would enable them to insert themselves into the good side of American history right next to the troops who stormed Normandy.
But history has never been that simple—and neither is Antifa.