“Antifa are willing to employ muscle to achieve their ends.” Ian Tuttle, National Review Online, June 5, 2017
“For Antifa, the purpose of words is to cloak reality. Antifa’s reason for describing something or someone as ‘fascist’ is not that it is actually fascist (although perhaps on occasion they do stumble onto the genuine item), but that describing it that way is politically advantageous.” Ibid
“They’re mostly anarchists and anarcho-communists, and they often refer to fellow protesters as ‘comrades.’” The Wall Street Journal, August 29, 2017, p. A 14
The Wall Street Journal editorial
August 29, 2017, p. A 14
Politically charged street brawls broke out in Berkeley, California, on Sunday, with police arresting 13 charming participants on charges including assault with a deadly weapon. One Twitter
video showed masked activists kicking a man curled in fetal position on the ground; the beat-down stopped only when a journalist, Al Letson, shielded the man with his body. “I was scared they were going to kill him,” Mr. Letson said.
As Charlottesville drew attention to the worst elements of the far right, Sunday’s melee revealed an increasingly violent fringe of the radical left that has received far less media coverage, much less criticism. It’s called Antifa, pronounced “An-tee-fa,” which is short for “anti-fascist.”
Antifa members sometimes claim their movement spans the globe and dates to the 1920s and ’30s, citing the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, where protesters shut down a march by the British Union of Fascists. But in the United States and Britain, Antifa grew in the 1980s primarily out of the punk rock scene. As Nazi and white supremacist skinheads became a bigger part of this largely un-policed subculture, far-leftists met violence with violence, calling it self-defense.
As it grew beyond punk, Antifa’s adherents organized through the now-defunct Anti-Racist Action network and now sometimes through the Torch Network, as well as other less visible groups. Many activists also aligned themselves with the broader anti-globalization movement. But Donald Trump’s election has become the catalyst launching Antifa into a broader political movement.
The Antifa members we’ve interviewed shun the Democratic Party label, saying their activism constitutes its own political orientation. They’re mostly anarchists and anarcho-communists, and they often refer to fellow protesters as “comrades.” Adherents typically despise the government and corporate America alike, seeing police as defenders of both and thus also legitimate targets.
The anti-fascist anarchist website CrimethInc.com recently summarized its philosophy: “In this state of affairs, there is no such thing as nonviolence—the closest we can hope to come is to negate the harm or threat posed by the proponents of top-down violence . . . so instead of asking whether an action is violent, we might do better to ask simply: does it counteract power disparities, or reinforce them?”
Antifa’s activists use the Orwellian-sounding notion of “anticipatory self-defense” to justify direct confrontation. That can include violence, vandalism and other unlawful tactics. Many draw a false moral distinction between damaging private property and “corporate” property.
Antifa activists have also developed their own moral justification for suppressing free speech and assembly. As anarchists, they don’t want state censorship. But they do believe it’s the role of a healthy civil society to make sure some ideas don’t gain currency.
So they heartily approve of the heckler’s veto, seeking to shut down speeches and rallies that they see as abhorrent. Antifa activists also search for and publicize damaging information on their targets or opponents, or launch campaigns pressuring their bosses or companies to fire those opponents.
Words don’t constitute violence, despite what Antifa activists believe. But there are dangerous ideas and practices, and the radical left has embraced several of them. Democracies solve conflict through debate, not fisticuffs. But Antifa’s protesters believe that some ideas are better fought with force, and that some people are incapable of reason.
Implicit in this view is that Antifa alone has the right to define who is racist, fascist or Nazi. It’s a guerilla twist on the culture wars, when a microaggression must be met with a macroaggression.
Antifa has also widely embraced “Black Bloc” tactics, including disguising themselves with black garb and covering their faces with bandanas and balaclavas. It’s not a good look for a supposedly anti-authoritarian group to show up in uniform, like the KKK in white hoods, much less armed with batons.
Which brings us back to Berkeley. This weekend two right-wing groups sought to hold peaceful rallies. Their leaders—Patriot Prayer’s Joey Gibson, a Japanese-American, and Amber Cummings, a transgender Trump supporter—explicitly denounced racism. Amid fears of violence, both cancelled their events. Antifa showed up anyway, outnumbering and terrorizing any right-wingers or Trump supporters who dared show their faces.
Antifa views itself as fundamentally reactionary, as a necessary opposition to corrosive ideologies. But because your foe is a really bad guy doesn’t mean you’re inherently a good one. Movements are defined not merely by what they oppose but by what they do. Antifa’s censorious criminality resembles the very political behavior it claims to fight. The mainstream left ought to denounce it as much as the right should reject white supremacists.