by Lexi Matthews ‘18
In August, the nation was rattled when a white nationalist drove a car into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one and injuring dozens. President Trump’s now-infamous remarks on this tragedy being borne from “violence from many sides” incited great amounts of bipartisan anger, pain, and confusion. Above all, it begged one crucial question; who is this ‘other side?’
Antifa entered our national lexicon once conservative publications like Breitbart, Fox News, and the Drudge Report began running dozens of articles slamming the far-left activists, whose name is shorthand for ‘anti-fascists,’ for being the main initiators of the Charlottesville bloodshed by inciting fights with alt-right members on the scene.
This was not the first time the group had been critiqued by the media and politicians alike; months earlier in February, they drew condemnation from both sides of the Congressional aisle for setting fires, destroying property, and pepper spraying Trump supporters at conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’ UC Berkeley speech. Just weeks before that, an Antifa member had gained viral fame for punching white supremacist Richard Spencer in the face at an inaugural event in New York. That same day, an Antifa member was shot by a Trump supporter while destroying property at a Seattle rally.
Thus started the regular cycle of Antifa media coverage: a member commits a violent act against the alt-right, conservatives become enraged at this ‘disgusting, horrific infringement on free speech,’ liberals stress that these acts do not represent the views of the Democratic party and only delegitimize lawful protest against hateful perspectives, and the American public is stuck in the crossfire. Amid the Republican tendency to try to blow the story out of proportion– and paint themselves as the victims– and the Democratic desperation to sweep it all under the rug, we learn almost nothing concrete about the polarizing group.
Here are the facts: Antifa’s story begins long before 2017. Just after Word War I, militant leftist ‘Antifa’ gangs began popping up across Germany, Italy, and Spain to fight fascist forces in Europe. Sixty years later, these groups reemerged in response to skinheads in Britain and neo-Nazis in Germany. Young anarchists, reacting violently against these alt-right forces, clad in black clothes and nondescript masks, crafted the Antifa we recognize today.
And today’s Antifa is not easy to define in strict terms. No central leaders or headquarters exist for the group, who mostly exist in small, autonomous rings scattered across the country. This localized nature makes it hard to determine the exact number of members, but most estimate it exists in the low thousands. A large number of them are college-aged men and women who also identify as anarchists, communists, or socialists. Some are simply disgruntled teachers, rebellious parents, or adventurous teens.
While most of Antifa is united by a willingness to do ‘anything’ to prevent fascism from taking root in the United States, including violence against those they deem a threat to democracy, the extent and justification for this violence exist in a gray area.
Some claim they act purely defensively, as hate speech against vulnerable minorities, they argue, leads to violence against them. Others seem to delight in the chaos, cheering at the opportunity to ‘stick it to the man’ and cash in on a cheap thrill. More try to turn the tables on their critics and blame those who ‘sit around just waiting for injustice to fix itself’ for ‘making them get up and do something extreme.’
Undoubtedly, this extremist approach has made Antifa its fair share of enemies. A White House petition calling for Antifa to be labeled as terrorist group received more than 100,000 signatures, and the mayor of Berkeley, a Democrat, has called for Antifa to be federally classified as a gang. However, the group has also been met with support; a Mother Jones op-ed praised Antifa for their ‘bravery to stand up against hate,’ and many clergy members at the Charlotte rally credited Antifa activists with saving their lives.
So what, exactly, is Antifa? In the crudest, most objective terms, Antifa is a mostly obscure, loosely affiliated collection of self-proclaimed freedom fighters who are widely disliked by the mainstream for their radical, violent methods of confronting the complex, age-old issue of institutionalized hatred. In the words of Antifa member James Anderson, “society keeps pushing one way, and [Antifa] are the ones not afraid to push back.”