When cities across the nation erupted into disorder in late May 2020 following the killing of an African American man named George Floyd by Minneapolis police, the Trump administration was quick to place the blame on a left-wing protest movement with an exotic-sounding name.
"The violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly," Attorney General William Barr proclaimed in a press release. President Trump weighed in as well, tweeting that the U.S. government would be designating the group a "Terrorist Organization," a legal designation that technically is only applied to foreign organizations. In early June 2020, the White House official account tweeted that Antifa activists were "invading our communities" and posted video footage that supposedly showed supplies of bricks that had been pre-placed for use as weapons. (The White House later removed the video, which the Washington Post and other news outlets reported contained misleading images.)
For all that furor, arrest records and interviews with law enforcement officials yielded no evidence that Antifa activists had plotted a coordinated campaign or even had been a significant presence in the unrest following Floyd's death, according to The New York Times. Instead, the newspaper reported, federal prosecutors had attributed most of the violence to individuals unconnected with any group.
Many Americans may have heard of Antifa for the first time back in the summer of 2017, when T-shirt clad counter protesters, their faces masked with bandanas, showed up to confront white nationalists marching in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. In the ensuing clash, scores of people were injured, including a young woman who was killed when a car rammed into the crowd. Since then, Antifa activists have clashed with far-right groups in Berkeley, California, and Washington, D.C., among other places.
Antifa isn't easy to understand from the outside, because unlike most of the prominent political movements that we're familiar with, it's decentralized and lacks prominent leaders. And unlike environmentalists, civil rights or police reform activists, Antifa doesn't have big-picture policy objectives that it aims to accomplish. Instead, Antifa is a loosely organized alliance of people who join forces to oppose far-right groups whenever they show up in local communities, according to Stanislav Vysotsky. He's an associate professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater who's been studying the movement for years, and is the author of a soon-to-be-published book, "American Antifa: The Tactics, Culture and Practice of Militant Antifascism."
"It's always in response to fascist activity," says Vysotsky, who also has written about Antifa for The Conversation. "You tend not to see anti-fascist activity where there aren't any fascists."
The Origins of the Antifa Movement
In a sense, the Antifa movement traces back to Italy in the 1930s, when a left-wing group called Anti-Fascist Action — which they shortened to "Antifa" – rose up to resist the regime of Benito Mussolini, an authoritarian who espoused racist views and utilized squads of violent followers called Blackshirts in an effort to intimidate any opposition.
In the U.S., though, Vysotsky says that Antifa really grew more directly out of Anti-Racist Action, a movement that emerged in the Midwest in the late 1980s and early 1990s in opposition to the racist skinheads and neo-Nazis who, at the time, were showing up at punk rock shows and skateboarding parks in an effort to find new recruits to their hateful philosophy. "The scene already was defined by anti-authoritarianism," according to Vysotsky. "There already were punks opposed to Nazis. At first, it was informal, spontaneous — people working to drive these fascist elements out of their subculture."
In an era before broadband internet and smartphones, Antifa's predecessors relied on analog methods — fanzines, photocopied flyers, anti-Nazi graffiti and touring by political punk bands — to spread the word across the U.S., and soon numerous cities had organizations who called themselves anti-racist or anti-fascist. As organized far-right extremism ebbed, anti-racist activists would drift off to work on other causes they were passionate about – only to rise again whenever the right-wingers returned, according to Vysotsky.
A Three-pronged Approach to Action
In Portland, Oregon, one of the nation's most prominent Antifa groups, Rose City Antifa, formed in 2007, initially to oppose a neo-Nazi skinhead music festival.
"Antifascism is fairly self-explanatory," Rose City Antifa explains in an email. "Our role is to prevent and take action against fascist activity." (According to Vysotsky, even spokespeople for Antifa avoid revealing their identities or appearing on camera, to avoid violent reprisals from opponents.)
Rose City Antifa explains its approach: "As a group, we primarily use a three-pronged approach: direct action, education and solidarity with other left organizations. Direct action is any work that prevents fascist organizing, and when that is not possible, provides consequences to fascist organizers. It also includes researching and tracking fascist organizations and individuals. Education includes hosting speakers and educational events for our community, so that we can all be able to recognize fascism and oppose it effectively. Solidarity means things like providing security for local events and allying ourselves with other organizations who have similar goals."
Though news media coverage often depicts Antifa primarily as a bunch of street fighters, "physical protesting is a relatively small part of what we do," Rose City Antifa says. "Each of us is expected to put in several hours of work per week, and that time is spent doing everything from researching and writing articles, to providing advice and assistance, to people who reach out to us, to coordinating with other groups in the area to help them stay safe from provocateurs who attempt to disrupt them."
For example, after another activist group released logs of far-right extremists on a popular chat platform, Rose City Antifa used that information to expose the extremists' real-life identities.
"Our work and strategies are constantly evolving to match what we see happening in local and national politics," Rose City Antifa writes.
Anti-hierarchical Group Action
Individual Antifa activists themselves tend to remain low-profile because the movement is anti-hierarchical and focuses on group action.
"We work together to determine the best course of action based on everyone's ideas and input, and find that our best work comes from taking the time to collaborate as equals," Rose City Antifa explains. "We also want to avoid our actions being reduced to that of a single individual – that cannot only put that person at risk, but we want to demonstrate that we act in unity and that we don't do this for social capital, but because we think it is the right thing to do."
Additionally, Rose City Antifa notes, "We are just one group and the 'antifa movement' is more of a philosophy or ideology than a group that can be led by an individual. So it just isn't practical to have leaders when antifascists exist all around the world, in different communities, and in different walks of life."
As for the accusations by Trump, Barr and conservatives in politics and the news media that Antifa is terroristic, Rose City Antifa sees that as disinformation intended to silence opposition.
"Frankly, we think that these attacks are a transparent attempt to criminalize protesting, and to provide the state with an easy cover to quash social movements that consider themselves antifascist," the Portland group responds. "Since we're anonymous, people can choose to think just about anything about us."
"Recently we have been dealing with a lot of people suggesting we are responsible for the current national uprising, which simply isn't true," Rose City Antifa writes. "While we are fully supportive, it wouldn't be our place to lead or take over #BlackLivesMatter – we instead defer to organizers and activists who dedicate themselves to the black community and addressing state-sanctioned violence against black people. We suspect that this rumor is an attempt to discount the harm that has been done to black people all over the country and the resulting anger and frustration, as well as to minimize the organizing power and leadership of black people."
Vysotsky says that critics of Antifa often lump the movement in with Black bloc anarchist radicals, who sometimes destroy property as a form of protest against an economic and political system they see as unjust. Trump and other politicians, he says, are "conflating antifascism with black bloc tactics, using it as shorthand for anarchists. They're combining it into one bogeyman made up of different parts," as a way of generating fear and anxiety among their own base of support.
It's worth noting that when federal authorities in Las Vegas recently indicted three men on charges of conspiring to cause destruction during protests in the wake of Floyd's death, the suspects weren't Antifa. Instead, they were described in a Department of Justice press release as members of the far-right "Boogaloo" movement, who envision a coming civil war and collapse of society.