The rise of President Donald J. Trump has emboldened a number of right-wing groups, Anitfa has presented itself as a counter to this rise in right-wing activity.
In August 2017, when President Trump used the term “Antifa” to denounce a group of demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, he brought renewed attention to the roiling racial divisiveness which has characterized this past U.S. presidential election. However, most observers of the news may not have heard of the disparate groups which form Antifa until recent months. Now its motives and membership are under scrutiny after it engaged in physical violence against neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), white nationalist, the alt-right and white supremacists during rallies and protests.
In simple terms, Antifa is a self-styled anti-fascist group. The ultimate goal of its members is to oppose and fight fascism through protest and direct confrontation. Since the election of Donald Trump, there has been a rise in right-wing extremist activity. In response, Antifa has increased its activity. Through the use of Twitter, Facebook, websites, word of mouth, fliers, and graffiti, Antifa is unifying independent groups to oppose far-right organizations. Antifa even has a step-by-step guide to organizing your own local Antifa group.
The history of Antifa is older and more complex than it appears. One theory suggests that the name may have its origins in the Antifaschistische Aktion movement, which started in opposition to fascist movements in Italy and Germany in the early 20th century. According to Mark Bray, author of The Antifascist Handbook, during the 1980s, U.S. anti-fascists took on the name Anti-Racist Action Network. The name fell out of favor during the 2000s. The current wave of antifascists has taken on the name and image of the post World War II European Antifa.
Autonomous local action
Antifa is now shorthand for anti-fascist or anti-fascist action. The movement is known for using physical violence in order to achieve their goal of fighting fascism. Without official leadership, Antifa uses a network of autonomous local groups for its structure and strategically uses social media and the internet for communication.
Although critics have tried to find parallels between Antifa and traditional hate-groups like the KKK and neo-nazis, there is little common ground.
To apply some context, the KKK is a terrorist organization that originated after the U.S. Civil War. It is one of America’s oldest hate groups, and a vigilante group established to intimidate Southern African-Americans through cross burnings, lynchings, and murders. The goal of the KKK is to strip African-Americans of their civil rights, voting rights, and economic rights.
Unlike other groups which lean to the far left or the far right, Antifa does not advocate a singular central doctrine. The lack of a central doctrine also means the Antifa movement is driven by a wide range of political motives, including anti-capitalism, environmentalism and gay rights. In recent years in the U.S., Antifa groups have allied themselves with members of the Black Lives Matter movement and other social-justice organizations.
This distinguishes them from other American entities like the KKK, which advocates racial purity. It also differentiates them from political parties such as the Nazis in Germany, who used genocide as a means of achieving their goals.
In the U.S., Antifa is not classified as a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League – which defines a hate group as an organization whose goals are based on a shared hatred towards different races, religions, ethnicities, nationalities, national origins, genders, and/or sexual identities. To be classified as a hate-group, the organization itself must have a hate-based purpose.
Antifa members usually gravitate towards a commonly shared ideological view which does not look to governments to solve a problem. More radical elements argue only violence can quell the rise of racism and fascism. Antifa groups also express disdain for mainstream liberal politics and the traditional media, which they view as protecting white supremacy and not working to support the oppressed. They specifically call out the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as being inadequate and ill-prepared to fight against fascism – stating that their “middle of the road” position is the means by which racists and fascists have become legitimized.
One of the most vivid examples of how Antifa members differ from other traditional protest movements occurred last January during the inauguration of President Trump when a masked Antifa member punched Richard B. Spencer — a prominent white supremacist — in the face. In September another noteworthy attack occurred in Seattle, Washington, when Antifa members used social media to track down a Nazi for harassing a black bus rider. Once they found him they physically attacked him and knocked him unconscious. These actions are a shock to a country with a long history of peace-abiding left-wing movements. What followed was a national debate over whether it was ever morally justifiable to “punch a Nazi.”
Critics of Antifa say the movement ultimately opposes free speech. They argue white-supremacists like the KKK, neo-Nazis, alt-right groups and other white-nationalist organizations should be permitted to assemble in public without fear of resistance. They have also, according to The Atlantic, criticized the violent attacks by some members as alienating to sections of American society. They argue Antifa-related violence could contribute to the re-election of Trump in 2020.
Unlike members of the KKK, Antifa followers do not wear a uniform, but occasionally adopt clothing which helps avoid identification by the authorities. This may include black clothing, and masks or balaclavas. The face-covering is employed to obscure a person’s identity and, in some instances, intimidate opponents. This can be traced back to the anarchist movements of the “black bloc” coalition of the 1980s, who regularly wore similar attire to avoid prosecution.
As the political and social climate continues to polarize, there is one thing that the right and the left can agree on: they are not in favor of Antifa. Liberals such as U.S. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi have condemned violent acts from Antifa demonstrations. Noam Chomsky criticized Antifa as being counterproductive, while right-wing extremists criticize Antifa for interfering with their 1st Amendment rights. What looks to be inevitable is that the U.S. will see an increase in Antifa’s protests as Nazi, KKK, White Nationalist and Alt-Right groups increase their activity.