The Fall of America: Who Is The Antifa Movement Burning Up America?

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Written by Dana Sanchez
A protester runs past burning cars and buildings on Chicago Avenue, Saturday, May 30, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

President Donald Trump is blaming Antifa activists for violence at weeklong protests around the U.S. over police brutality against Black people, but Antifa isn’t a unified group. Pinning it down will be complicated.

Trump tweeted on Sunday, “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.”

The English word Antifa is not new but has assumed a whole new level of publicity from Trump promoting the movement as a terrorist organization. Its name derives from a shortened form of the German word antifaschistisch (anti-fascist). The word “emerged from relative obscurity to become an established part of the English lexicon in 2017,” and made the shortlist for 2017 Word of the Year, according to Oxford University Press.

Antifa in the U.S. sees itself as the successor to anti-Nazi activists of the 1930s, according to Ben Sales. European activist groups that originally organized to oppose World War II-era fascist dictatorships re-emerged in the 1970s and ’80s to oppose white supremacy and skinheads, and eventually spread to the U.S., Ben Sales wrote.

Antifa has grown since the 2016 U.S. presidential election. About 200 groups have existed as of August 2017, with varying sizes and levels of activity.

Ideologically, people involved in the Antifa movement tend to be anti-capitalist and anti-government. A majority describe themselves as revolutionaries, according to Sean Illing, reporting for Vox. The movement is non-hierarchical and united by opposition to right-wing extremism, white supremacy and a centralized government. 

Antifa activists reject anti-fascist conservatives as well as liberals, Carlos Lozada wrote for the Washington Post. The movement deliberately avoids mainstream liberal democracy and electoral politics in favor of direct action. Despite the movement’s opposition to liberalism, right-wing commentators have accused Antifa of supporting liberalism and being aided by “liberal sympathizers,” Peter Beinart wrote for The Atlantic.

Structurally, Antifa is not a unified organization. It has no chain of command or hierarchical leadership structure, but is instead made up of many autonomous groups and individuals. The movement is loosely affiliated. Antifa groups share “resources and information about far-right activity across regional and national borders through loosely knit networks and informal relationships of trust and solidarity,” according to Mark Bray, a Dartmouth College historian and expert on Antifa.

Activists typically organize protests on social media and through websites. Some activists have built peer-to-peer networks, or use encrypted-texting services such as Signal. Antifa is an organizing strategy, not a group of people, Chauncey Devega wrote for Salon.

Scott Crow, a former Antifa organizer, said the philosophy of Antifa is based on the idea of direct action. “The idea in Antifa is that we go where they (right-wingers) go. That hate speech is not free speech. That if you are endangering people with what you say and the actions that are behind them, then you do not have the right to do that,” CNN reported.

The vast majority of anti-fascist organizing is nonviolent, according to Bray, who wrote “Antifa: The Anti-Facist Handbook” (Melville House). “But their willingness to physically defend themselves and others from white supremacist violence and preemptively shut down fascist organizing efforts before they turn deadly distinguishes them from liberal anti-racists,” Bray said in a Washington Post report.

Antifa activists feel the need to participate in violent actions because “they believe that elites are controlling the government and the media,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at the California State University, San Bernardino, in a CNN report. “So they need to make a statement head-on against the people who they regard as racist.”

At least a thousand protesters gathered on May 30, 2020, in Downtown Pittsburgh to demonstrate George Floyd’s killing. Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert said that anarchists and Antifa were responsible for hijacking that message and turning a peaceful protest into a violent riot, Pittsburgh CBS Local reported.

“Throwing a milkshake is not equivalent to killing someone,” historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat said in July 2019. “But because the people in power are allied with the right, any provocation, any dissent against right-wing violence, backfires.”

The effect is that “militancy on the left” can “become a justification for those in power and allies on the right to crack down” on the left, Ben-Ghiat said, according to the New York Times.

Harvard Divinity School professor Cornel West attended a counter-protest to the white supremacist and neo-Nazi Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, according to Democracy Now.

“We would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and the anti-fascists” West said, describing a situation where a group of 20 counter-protesters were surrounded by marchers whom he described as “neofascists”.

Antifa was at the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. They have clashed repeatedly with far-right groups in Portland, Oregon.

“The murder of #GeorgeFloyd and the current #COVID19 crisis illustrates once again the painful and dangerous legacy that white supremacy has had on our country, and the desperate need to fully acknowledge and understand how our history of inequality continues today,” Rep. Barbara Lee tweeted.

Over the weekend, Attorney General William Barr said Antifa was instigating violence and engaging in “domestic terrorism” and would be dealt with accordingly. He described “Antifa-like tactics” by out-of-state agitators, AP reported.

At the White House on Monday, Trump blamed Antifa for the violent mobs, arson and looting.

Antifa’s tactics may be so successful that they have inspired imitators. Twitter said an account claiming to be Antifa that pushes violent rhetoric related to ongoing protests has been linked to the white nationalist group Identity Evropa. The Twitter account was closed for inciting violence.

Trump also got blocked on Twitter for using a phrase borrowed from 1960s segregationists — “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The phrase is interpreted widely as a threat of violence against protesters.

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Twitter hid MAGA’s post behind a warning that said the tweet glorified violence, which is against Twitter’s rules. The White House’s later retweeted Trump’s first post with the hidden content and Twitter hid that too.

MAGA called the protesters “thugs,” and intentionally fomented racial violence to whip up his base, “a segment of which has always been motivated by white grievance,” wrote Jennifer Rubin in an opinion piece for the Washington Post.

Out of 42 people killed by domestic extremists in the U.S. in 2019, 38 were killed by right-wing extremists.