The violence and chaos that broke out in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this month during a rally for white supremacists and neo-Nazis propelled a lesser-known group into the mainstream political vernacular: antifa.
President Donald Trump used the word himself at a rally in Phoenix on Tuesday evening.
“They show up in the helmets and the black masks and they’ve got clubs – they’ve got everything,” he said. “Antifa!”
Trump was most likely referring to antifa activists when he blamed “many sides” for the Charlottesville violence in his initial statement on the matter. At a press conference later that week, Trump criticized what he called the “alt-left” for “charging with clubs” at the rally.
Antifa activists were among the many counterprotesters who mobilized in response to the white nationalist rally in Virginia. But the network of activists has been making waves across the US long before violence erupted in Charlottesville.
In and around Portland, Oregon, antifa activists smashed windows and hurled smoke bombs during a series of riots following Trump’s election. They also took to the campus of the University of California at Berkeley in February to rail against a scheduled speech by the conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.
The activists, dressed in black and wearing bandanas to obscure their faces, smashed store windows, set fires, threw Molotov cocktails, and rioted during what was originally intended to a be a peaceful protest.
Here’s what you need to know about the controversial activist movement:
What is antifa?
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Antifa, short for “anti-fascist,” describes a decentralized, leaderless movement dedicated to combatting right-wing authoritarianism and white supremacy. They have existed for decades, but gained prominence after the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, and have been at the center of a number of violent clashes and protests in the ensuing months.
Their members include a mixture of anarchists, socialists, communists, and other far-left activists. It’s unclear how many people count themselves as members, but local, autonomous chapters or cells exist in major cities across the United States, in many cases accompanied by sizable online followings.
The movement’s adherents reject the notion that white supremacy can be quashed by any government apparatus, and instead must be eradicated through direct action.
Sometimes that action consists of traditional community organizing efforts like peacefully protesting or fundraising. In other cases, antifa activists have staged doxxing campaigns to expose alleged white supremacists to their employers or landlords in an effort to prompt firings or evictions, or even used violence to clash with those they view as fascists.
Antifa believe that traditional means of opposing white supremacists – such as legislative efforts or action from law enforcement – are not only insufficient in expunging racist or fascist viewpoints, but perpetuate them.
These beliefs were put on full display during the Charlottesville rally, when counterprotesters complained that police had neglected to protect them from violence. It was antifa, instead, who had physically defended vulnerable counter-protesters and prevented further bloodshed, they argue.
“The police didn’t do anything in terms of protecting the people of the community, the clergy,” Cornel West, a prominent academic and activist, told The Washington Post. “If it hadn’t been for the anti-fascists protecting us from the neo-fascists, we would have been crushed like cockroaches.”
The origins of antifa
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Antifa’s origins are sometimes attributed to European movements in the 1930s against Nazis in Germany and Blackshirts in Italy, although a more direct and contemporary ancestor of the movement would be the far-left activists who opposed British neo-Nazis in the 1970s and 1980s during the height of the punk-rock subculture’s popularity.
In the US and Canada, The Anti-Racist Action Network (ARA) also sprang up around the same time in the 1980s, in a similarly loose and decentralized state that antifa exists in currently.
America’s oldest currently existing antifa group is the Rose City Antifa, which formed in 2007 in Portland, Oregon, according to historian and Dartmouth College lecturer Mark Bray, who has written a book titled “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook.”
Bray wrote in The Washington Post that these early antifa adherents typically faced outright animosity from the mainstream left for their attention to what was then seen as fringe, racist groups, instead of tackling “more large-scale, systemic injustices.”
“Years before the alt-right even had a name, antifascists were spending thankless hours scouring seedy message boards and researching clandestine neo-Nazi gatherings,” Bray wrote. “They were tracking those who planted the seeds of the death that we all witnessed in Charlottesville.”
Antifa, in their own words
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Antifa members don’t hesitate to describe their movement as one that uses any means necessary to oppose fascism.
A manual for organizing local antifa groups published on “It’s Going Down,” an antifa-supporting journal, advises prospective members to stay anonymous, track and document “white nationalist, Far Right, and fascist activity,” and organize counter-demonstrations to any events held by white nationalists or members of the so-called alt-right.
The manual warns against accepting “people who just want to fight,” adding that “physically confronting and defending against fascists is a necessary part of anti-fascist work, but is not the only or even necessarily the most important part.”
“No, I did not behave peacefully when I saw a thousand Nazis occupy a sizable American city,” one activist wrote in a letter published on “It’s Going Down.” “I fought them with the most persuasive instruments at hand, the way both my grandfathers did. I was maced, punched, kicked, and beaten with sticks, but I gave as good as I got, and usually better. Donald Trump says that ‘there was violence on both sides.’ Of course there was.”
The necessity of violence in the face of what they perceive as a growing fascist threat is a sentiment expressed by many antifa adherents, who emphasize that white nationalists often cannot be reasoned with or otherwise opposed.
“You need violence in order to protect nonviolence,” Emily Rose Nauert, an antifa member best known for being punched in the face by a white nationalist during a clash at Berkeley in April, told The New York Times. “That’s what’s very obviously necessary right now. It’s full-on war, basically.”
How the right views antifa
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Right-wing critics of antifa have mainly expressed concerns about the chilling effect the group has on conservatives’ First Amendment rights.
Conservatives have long complained of censorship and infringement on their freedom of speech – particularly on college campuses, where predominantly left-wing student bodies and faculties have often succeeded at shutting or shouting down controversial right-wing speakers and events.
Perhaps the most prominent of such instances was Berkeley’s cancellation of Ann Coulter’s campus speech in April, out of fear that far-left activists and antifa members would respond with violence. The American Civil Liberties Union denounced the cancellation as a “heckler’s veto,” a legal term in which the government suppresses speech out of fear that it will prompt a violent reaction.
Others on the right have taken their complaints further – some have called for antifa to be labeled a terrorist group, even circulating a petition that has so far garnered nearly three times the 100,000 signatures required to warrant a formal response from the White House.
Right-wing media has also fixated on the antifa movement, portraying it as an example of violence inherent in left-wing ideology. Fox News’ Jesse Watters even attempted to confront a purported antifa member on air – a stint that backfired when it emerged that the purported antifa member was really an 18-year-old YouTuber pulling an apparent prank.
Meanwhile, Trump and his supporters have reacted to antifa violence with zeal, drawing parallels between the movement and the neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members who antifa oppose.
Trump was possibly referring to antifa when he gave his now-infamous press conference at Trump Tower, during which he slammed what he called the “alt-left” – a term created by white nationalists that no actual left-wing group self-identifies under – as being equally to blame for the Charlottesville violence.
“What about the ‘alt-left’ that came charging at the, as you say, the ‘alt-right’?” Trump said last Tuesday. “You had, you had a group on one side that was bad. And you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now.”
How the left views antifa
Liberals, meanwhile, have generally been slow to acknowledge antifa. While some have lamented the violence at recent protests, others have reacted with amusement at certain antifa antics.
One of the most broadly popular instances of antifa violence came on Inauguration Day, when an activist punched avowed white nationalist Richard Spencer in the face as he was giving an interview. A video clip of the encounter immediately went viral, to the raucous cheers of prominent mainstream liberals.
The incident and its viral response prompted a debate over whether it’s moral to “punch a Nazi,” and whether broad acceptance of that behavior could increase ambiguity over which people can be accurately described as Nazis, and who has the right to decide.
“No, it’s not OK to punch a Nazi,” Brian Levin, directer of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, told CNN. “If white nationalists are sophisticated at anything, it’s the ability to try to grasp some kind of moral high ground when they have no other opportunity, and that’s provided when they appear to be violently victimized.”
Levin continued: “That’s the only moral thread that they can hang their hats on. And we’re stupid if we give them that opportunity.”