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What Is Antifa? An Activist and Scholar Of the Movement Explains

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No-To-Marxism rally members and counter protesters clash on August 27 at Martin Luther King Park Jr. Civic Center Park in Berkeley.  (Amy Osborne/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor's Note (Tuesday, Aug. 29, 7 p.m.)
On Sunday afternoon, a handful of right-wing demonstrators were attacked by black-clad, masked protestors in Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. Black bloc is a tactic affiliated with the left-wing antifa movement that often involves militant, illegal actions. The violent protestors were a very small contingent of the roughly 2,000 mostly peaceful marchers participating in the city's “Rally Against Hate” gatherings.

During President Trump's now-infamous press conference earlier this month, he insisted that “both sides” were to blame for the violence and unrest during a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.

Trump asked: “What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the ‘alt-right’? Do they have any assemblage of guilt?”

Although there is no official “alt-left,” Trump was likely referring to antifa (pronounced an-tee-fah), a loosely organized network of left-wing agitators that have come out in force, sometimes physically, to oppose recent white nationalist rallies around the country. He subsequently mentioned the group by name during a late August rally in Phoenix.


Short for “anti-fascist,” antifa is not a single group or organization. It lacks any kind of formal leadership structure and encompasses a variety of leftist groups -- from anarchists to anti-capitalists -- who are devoted to squashing the growth of autocratic rule and white supremacy, sometimes by any means necessary.

"People who are going out in the streets might not be part of specific organization," said Nicholas Jeffries, an Oakland-based antifa activist. "It's  more of a sentiment ... a political counterweight that is trying to fight and ultimately destroy the ability of  white supremacists to organize.” Asked about the use of violent tactics to achieve this objective, he said: “Allowing these types of groups to have any room is ostensibly the most violent thing that anyone can do.” 

In his recently released history, author Mark Bray writes that antifa “can variously be described as a kind of ideology, an identity, a tendency or milieu, or an activity of self-defense.”

Antifa, Bray explains, traces its roots to the 1920s and ’30s, when militant leftists violently clashed with fascists – albeit unsuccessfully -- in the streets of Germany, Italy, and Spain. The movement, and its tactic of street-level clashes, had a resurgence in the 1970s and ’80s in reaction to the emergence of neo-Nazi skinheads in Britain's  punk music scene, and again in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It took hold within segments of  U.S. punk culture in the 1980s, more typically under the broader cause of anti-racism.

Generally speaking, those who identify with antifa neither want or trust government forces to suppress white supremacist movements; they want to be on the frontline, destroying it themselves.

For more perspective, I recently interviewed George Ciccariello-Maher, a professor of politics and global studies at Drexel University. He studies the history of radical social movements in Latin America and the United States, as well as the extreme right wing movements they oppose - in particular, those aligned with white supremacy and fascism.

For years, he has also participated in antifa-related organizing efforts and strongly defends its strategy. He spoke to me by phone from his home in Philadelphia.

MG: How would you define antifa?

GCM: Antifa is not a specific organization. Maybe you could call it a movement, but it's really more an orientation. And that orientation is of course in the name: it's against fascism and recognizing the need to confront that fascism directly.

As an orientation antifa plays a specific role. It is against something. Most antifa members identify with anarchism or communism of a certain sort. In other words, the radical overthrow of the existing system.

But at the same time antifa itself is a negative force in the sense of fighting against something else without specifying what it wants to build. And so it's different from most membership political organizations in that sense.

The strategy and approach that most define antifa is the need to directly confront fascism before it grows. Nip it in the bud. Destroy it before it can become a mass movement. This is something that history tells us is crucially important, that you don’t sit around and wait for Nazism and fascism to emerge and develop. You smash it at its inception.

In moments like Charlottesville, rather than a handful of masked people with antifa flags, you had hundreds of people if not more doing antifa work: confronting the fascists and identifying themselves not as members of this sort of non-organization that is antifa, but as part of an antifa force.

MG: And so how does antifa overlap with other radical leftist entities like black bloc and By Any Means Necessary that often participate in street protests?

GCM: Black bloc is a tactic that involves dressing a certain way [in black, with faces covered by masks or scarves] and often engaging in property destruction, which antifa doesn't always do, of course. And By Any Means Necessary is a specific membership organization that happens to be very present in the Bay but not so much other places.

These are all organized structures that are engaging with anti-fascist struggles in important ways and choosing to go to the streets when it comes to confronting these Nazis.

MG: How would you describe antifa’s resistance tactics? When is violence considered necessary?

GCM: The vast majority of these tactics are non-violent. It’s work on the computer. It’s reconnaissance and research work. It’s “doxing” and outing white supremacists to their employers and to their communities as a way of making their organizing impossible.

But it does also involve what we’ve seen in terms of direct action and resistance in the streets. And this all comes from antifa’s analysis that white supremacy is not a rational ideology. It’s not something that you can convince people to give up. It’s not something that they hold because it’s logical or rational in any way. You can give a million reasons as to why someone shouldn’t be a Nazi and that won’t convince them.

And so you really need to think about other ways of confronting and resisting and opposing them. That means obstruction. It means not letting them appear in public and not letting them speak or have a platform to spread their hate. It means making that impossible through direct action in the streets.

Disruption is necessary for social movements. It's used precisely to make it clear that business as usual can't move forward without some kind of change. In the end, the growing struggle between antifa and fascism is a material struggle that's going to take place in the streets.

Resistance also involves engaging [white supremacists] in what everyone who does real long-term antifa organizing knows can be deadly struggles. You have people shot, people stabbed. This has been going on for decades. And so protestors need to be prepared for confrontations with armed Nazis because they’re armed, dangerous, and violent. Aside from simply professing brutal genocidal ideologies, they're also showing up to these protests prepared to battle, as people saw very clearly in Berkeley (last April).

The broader left needs to be able to defend ourselves. We need to be able to create relationships that allow us to build strong and defended movements without relying on the police, who are not protecting the left, or on the government, but instead doing it for ourselves.

MG: What about the free speech argument – that white supremacists still have the constitutional right to express themselves? When is it acceptable to censor someone, and where do you draw that line?

GCM: I think we need to be very clear about what free speech is and what it means. The First Amendment protects you from the government censoring your speech. It doesn’t protect you from the consequences of that speech. It doesn’t protect you from people being outraged and disgusted by the speech and heckling you and shutting you down.

There’s no clause in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights that says people can’t use their free speech against your free speech. Many of us are raised with the idea that all speech is legitimate and should be tolerated, and that free speech should be absolute. And yet, of course, it's not absolute in practice, ever. There are many things that determine whether or not we all have effective speech: the amount of money we have, the influence we have, access to media and other platforms.

But more importantly, there is an ongoing debate now-- and I think it's a very good thing that we're having this debate -- about what kinds of speech are simply not things we're going to tolerate. And the lines there are not always crystal clear. But there are some clear demarcations, for example, between those who think that entire groups of people are inferior and should be, in the words of [white nationalist leader] Richard Spencer, subject to a peaceful ethnic cleansing, and those who don't.

MG: These white supremacist groups are clearly looking for provocation. And so I’ve heard the argument that the best strategy is to just ignore them -- that clashing with them gives them the attention they’re looking for.

GCM: There's essentially no historical precedent that ignoring (them) works. Because when you ignore them, they grow in different ways. They're building movements. They like attention, of course, but they also like to be able to build and organize in public.

When Richard Spencer was punched in the face (during a television interview near Trump's inauguration), one of the first things he said was that his movement wouldn’t be able to grow if it couldn’t organize publicly, if it couldn’t go out and have these marches. And so they require this.

Also, many of their followers think that this is a game, that this a joke, that they can come off the Internet and into the streets without this having very serious implications. And a lot of what antifa is doing is making it perfectly clear to them that if you really want to be a Nazi, this is a dangerous thing and you really need to think twice about throwing yourself behind a racist white supremacist movement that is preaching the death of others.

Nazism was not defeated by being ignored. And slavery and the Confederacy were not ignored. They were not reasoned with or defeated with rational arguments because they were not rational structures. They were material forces and they were defeated by material forces. In other words, by resistance, by struggle, by war, by battles.

MG: Do you think antifa model will continue to grow and expand?

GCM: Absolutely. Antifa as a  force is growing nationwide as are other direct action forces aiming to resist the effects of the Trump presidency and the dangers posed by his base. More people are gravitating towards the recognition that these movements need to be fought directly. For example, you see armed left-wing movements like Redneck Revolt, which seeks to counter-recruit people away from the far right and into a left-wing gun culture, that says we have the Second Amendment and we're going to use it.

We're living in a moment of global polarization in which the center is collapsing. The sort of neo-liberal consensus of the Clintonite Democrats is not sufficient and is leaving a whole range of people out of the equation and abandoned. And those people may move to the right or they may move to the left. That's what's happening in Europe and it's what's happening in the United States. It's something that the left really needs to pay attention to.

The fact that people are increasingly willing to recognize that we need to fight fascism, Nazism, white supremacy and the Klan directly, and fight them in the streets is a very good sign. But it's also a frightening reflection that we’re in a moment of resurgent white supremacy.

But they are not the vast majority. Trump was elected by a small fragment of the U.S. population. He represents an important part of U.S. history but also a part that is dying off and that is going to be eventually overthrown by movements in the streets. We have no choice but to do so.

So it's a good thing that with this expansion of the forces of fascism, we’re also seeing the forces of liberation expanding as well.

MG: What are your projections for this weekend’s protests in San Francisco and Berkeley?

GCM: I think in the aftermath of Charlottesville, things are going to look a little different.

It's not totally clear, but the far right seems to be splintering. They have always had these internal tensions, but now it's really falling apart in a dramatic way. So I think you'll see attendance at these white supremacist rallies go down as certain groups boycott them and refuse to show up.

And you'll see antifa forces growing, as you saw in Boston: tens of thousands of people out there – and not just protestors in masks -- to shut down and to refuse the presence of these Nazis in the streets. And that's, I think, one of the most important developments that we've seen: people are realizing the threat and coming into the streets and organizing themselves to make this impossible. Not always having physical confrontations. But making these things impossible nonetheless.

I'm hoping that that's more of what we see in these rallies in Berkeley and elsewhere.

Additional Resources for Teachers

The following is a list of resources to continue the conversation in your classroom or community, and learn more about the sometimes strained relationship between antifa and other progressive movements as they fight against white nationalism within right-wing political groups.  

  • Teaching Tolerance: But What About Antifa?
    This article offers background on both the “alt-right” and antifa movements, and encourages educators to learn more about how to discuss the actions of each side. Also included are helpful links to other references, including a primer on right-wing extremism in the United States.
  • Facing History and Ourselves: Six Steps for Nonviolent Social Change
    This lesson dives into the methodology that guided the Civil Rights Movement. The lesson is part of a larger unit on anti-segregation student protests in Nashville in the 1960s.
  • New York Times Learning Network: ‘Protesters Flood the Street and Trump Offers a Measure of Praise’
    This lesson plan asks students to reflect on two pieces on white supremacy that contrast dramatically in tone. One is an article reporting on the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, the other, an op-ed about a nonviolent protest technique using humor to counter neo-Nazi messages.
  • The Atlantic: The Rise of the Violent Left
    This article centers around the question of whether antifa’s activists are successfully fighting the rise of right-wing authoritarianism or just fanning the flames.

  • The New York Times: Beyond Berkeley’s Semester of Hate
    This article features student voices on both sides of the political spectrum.


- Prepared by Rachel Roberson

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