What Is Antifa, Really?
The Charlottesville white supremacist rally left one woman dead, dozens injured and a country grappling with questions about how such a thing could happen on the streets of a supposedly liberal college town. Adding media insult to national injury, the tragedy inspired a festival of false equivalency from pundits on both sides of the aisle, who considered the anti-fascist or Antifa counterprotesters just as bad as those chanting "blood and soil."
Marc A. Thiessen wrote in the Washington Post that "Neo-Nazis are the violent advocates of a murderous ideology that killed 25 million people last century. Antifa members are the violent advocates of a murderous ideology that, according to 'The Black Book of Communism,' killed between 85 million and 100 million people last century."
Antifa groups have been misunderstood, condemned for being violent and mischaracterized as a centralized group with membership cards and a headquarters. In reality, Antifa is a label, used by those following a guiding principle oriented against all forms of fascism, racism and white supremacy.
To clear up some of the confusion, AlterNet spoke with Mark Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook. We discussed the origins of anti-fascism, the fight against Donald Trump and the far right, and the huge commitment people make to be part of the Antifa movement.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Ilana Novick: How you would define Antifa?
Mark Bray: Antifa is, of course, short for anti-fascism. But it really is a shorthand for a specific tendency that in English is usually referred to as militant anti-fascism. Militant anti-fascism is essentially a pan-radical-left politic of direct action against the far right.
IN: Is it more of a tactic or a guiding principle, rather than a specific movement that someone can join?
MB: Think about it like socialism. Is socialism something that someone can join? No, it's a politic. But are there socialist groups you can join? Yeah. Same with Antifa. Antifa is either an activity or a mode of politics, depending on exactly what kind of phrasing you prefer. In that sense, anyone can make their own Antifa group. There is no Antifa central command, but there are Antifa groups with membership that you could join. Or you could make your own group.
In that way, it's no one group, but there are groups.
IN: In your book, you trace Antifa principles to post-World War II Europe. Can you talk about how that started and why?
MB: Sure. It's a slightly different conversation if you talk about the U.K. versus continental Europe, in part because in continental Europe, many of the governments that emerged out of the ashes of World War II established themselves as officially anti-fascist institutions. In that sense, their solution for stopping a rebirth of fascism, or Nazism, was to make it illegal. Laws were passed against Nazi or fascist politics. That was an official governmental anti-fascism.
Decades later, really in the '80s and '90s, when you get a neo-Nazi skinhead movement, militant anti-fascism in continental Europe emerged as an alternative vision of anti-fascism that rejected turning to the state or the police, or legislation to stop the far right, but advocated for direct action from below. In that sense, it was sort of a contestation within continental Europe over what anti-fascism really means.
In Britain, it's a different conversation, because right after World War II, the government essentially allowed a lot more leeway for fascism far-right groups to reestablish themselves. In that sense, the militant anti-fascist resumes right again in 1946, and continues onward. Whereas in continental Europe, the importance of anti-fascism, in a real and literal sense, does not really reemerge until the '80s.
IN: What, if anything, sets American anti-fascism apart from its European counterpart?
MB: Part of it is a question of defining terms, of course. If you want to think of anti-fascism or opposition to white supremacy in a wider lens, of course, you can go back to opposition to the KKK. It can stretch far back. But if we're talking about the history of the specific Antifa politics that we're talking about, that would pretty much date with the creation of anti-racist action in the U.S., Canada, and somewhat beyond in the late '80s, into the '90s. That was largely modeled on the British anti-fascists action. It was created largely, initially by anti-racist-skinheads pushing back against the emergence of a neo-Nazi skinhead movement. They felt like the language of anti-racism fit in the American context better than anti-fascism.
Anti-racist action was the name of this network. It grew to have hundreds of chapters around the continent, with thousands of members, and was really a major force in pushing back against the far right in the '90s, into the 2000s. That's the lineage and legacy that today's Antifa groups grow out of.
IN: What were some of the other hallmarks of their tactics, in terms of direct action or recruitment? Is that still going on today? I remember seeing anti-racist action groups at punk shows in the late '90s and early 2000s.
MB: Sure. You're right that part of what they accomplished was creating an anti-racist youth culture. Especially in punk and alternative music, which was important, because the far right was trying to recruit in those scenes in the '80s and '90s. Being able to push back in that way was very important.
Sometimes anti-racist groups, sometimes through infiltration, or through spying on these groups, would figure out where that [recruiting] spot was, and show up with 150 people in that meetup spot, so the meetup couldn't happen, to disseminate the location for the show. A lot of it was this kind of local-level pushback against attempts to embed this in the punk scene. But it grew beyond that to have wider influences in hip-hop communities, and other kinds of left political groups.
IN: Did that drop off after the late '90s or early 2000s?
MB: The people that I've spoken to definitely seem to indicate that into the mid-2000s, the role of militant anti-fascism in the radical left scene in the U.S. declined. The people that formed some of the oldest currently existing groups like Rose City Antifa in Portland, Oregon, which was founded in 2007, and others that formed groups in the late 2000s, early 20-teens, emphasized that during that era, it was a real challenge convincing other leftists that it was a worthwhile use of time to monitor, and track, and counteract the far right.
The politics was at a lull during this period, then made a resurgence, it seems, largely with the growth of the alt-right, and especially the Trump campaign. To some extent, that had to do with a kind of decline in the perceived need to fight back against these groups, and others. Just with the profile of the anti-war movement, into Occupy Wall Street, and people just putting time into other things.
IN: Following Charlottesville, much of the media coverage of Antifa focused on their willingness to use violence. Is that accurate? And why?
MB: Taken as a whole, the percentage of what [Antifa groups] do that entails physical confrontation is a very small percentage. The time commitment that's required to be part of one of these Antifa groups is massive. One person likened it, in terms of the amount of time they spend, to it being like a second job. To gain entry to some of these groups, it sometimes requires a long vetting process that takes months, with background checks, and a requirement that people participate in all sorts of activities to kind of demonstrate their commitment.
Much of it is research. Much of it entails figuring out who far-right groups [are], their membership, who they're working with, where they're holding their events; tracking individuals across multiple social media platforms; reading through message boards; figuring out what they're trying to do; trying to contact the owners of the venues to cancel the events. If the owners of the venue are resistant to canceling, organizing boycotts or pickets. Or gathering community support to shut down a white-collar rock show at a VFW.
A lot of it entails public education. In the '90s, anti-racist action also had an educational component where sometimes they would speak to schools and so forth. It also involved, as we discussed, cultural work, holding concert series, tabling at alternative venues. Trying to push back against the tendency of the far right to try and gain a foothold in subcultural spaces.
Danish anti-fascists in the '90s would sometimes, once they figured out who these neo-Nazi skinheads were, call their parents, and get their parents to stop them from going out and meeting with these people. It entailed noise protests, singing protests, putting up flyers and propaganda to kind of claim public space. Doxxing is a huge part of it.
IN: It sounds like a lot of time and effort and screening is involved, in order to be allowed in. Is that true for a lot of groups around the country?
MB: Not all groups accept new members. The ones who do, go through significant and long-term screening processes. It's decentralized, but for example, there's a network called the Torch Network. That's sort of a descendant of the Anti-Racist Action Network. They have a dozen groups that are affiliated. But there are groups that are not affiliated, that still coordinate, share resources, share information.
Some are also more secretive than others. In Michigan, Solidarity and Defense is a group that does not operate with as much security. They're more open-faced. They don't cover their faces. They try to do community work. Redneck Revolt is a network of anti-fascist groups that focus on bigger a left gun culture, and working to counter recruit at gun shows, to try and win white conservative men, especially in rural areas, away from the right, but towards the left. Sometimes they'll show up to demonstrations with firearms in open-carry states.
IN: Where does Antifa fit in with the larger rise of, or just general interest in, activism since Trump's election?
MB: Yeah, I mean you could even take it back further. I mean, this decade as a whole has witnessed a kind of rebirth of ... I don't know how you describe it, but kind of direction-action politics from below. Through Occupy, through Black Lives Matter, through anti-fascism, through organizing against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and other kinds of examples. So in that sense, the people that are part of these groups, also currently or in the past, have done other kinds of politic. Some of them have participated with Black Lives Matter or Occupy. Or have organized against gas pipelines and what have you.
There's the assumption there Antifa is sort of this one specific, very clearly defined box, and the people who participate in these groups are not also active in other groups. But... in my experience speaking to people, these folks don't just do one thing. It's also worth looking the development of a larger anti-racist movement, of which anti-fascism is one small facet, focused on direct-action resistance to the far right, and resistance to police brutality, and entails a broader vision white supremacy.
It’s part of a larger conversation about what direct action can mean, and what kinds of power communities can mobilize on their own, without turning to politicians to solve problems for them.
The larger context here is that there's been, over the past few decades, a rebirth of anti-authoritarian and anarchist politics in the United States—not always labeled as such. That has been a key motivator behind some of the recent protest movements. It's certainly very influential with anti-fascism. Part of this is a larger debate about how social change happens, and what kind of a world different factions want to see.