Antifa's Tactics are Hurting the Goals of Progressive Social Movements

In the wake of the protests and looting following the death of George Floyd, many have wondered about the role that a shadowy band of activists called Antifa has played in the mayhem. After videos emerged showing looters and vandals dressed in all black clothing, the typical dress of Antifa supporters, Donald Trump developed a minor obsession with the group, tweeting, "The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.”

As usual, his tweet set off a firestorm. Two questions immediately flooded the media sphere: “is Antifa a terrorist organization” and “what is Antifa?” Let’s answer the second question first.

Antifa is an anarchist movement and the name is a neologism of the prefix “anti-” and the word “fascist.” People who consider themselves Antifa usually subscribe to leftist anarchist principles: anti-government, anti-hierarchy, usually anti-capitalism, are often sympathetic to communism in the form of anarcho-communism, and are above all, anti-fascist. Their goal is to counter-protest white supremacists and neo-nazis by actively engaging in violence against them. "Punch a Nazi" is likely what you’ll hear if you ask them what they want to achieve at a protest.

Beyond this, the most unifying aspect of Antifa is their garb. Antifa usually shows up dressed in black. Dressing in black, called "black bloc," is a tactic developed in Europe during the 1980s for staying anonymous and preventing law enforcement from identifying and prosecuting individuals at public demonstrations. When you see someone at a left-wing protest dressed head to toe in black, there is a solid chance they are Antifa, though because of the anonymity provided by the clothing, one can never be sure. 

In recent years Antifa has skirmished with the Proud Boys, a far-right group, and they have more or less decided to show up wherever skinheads and neo-nazis go. Before Antifa, neo-nazis and skinheads could openly parade around cities in America without necessarily experiencing any push back from locals. They were often protected by police, as they would, in principle, protect any protest or parade. Antifa felt that this was ceding too much public space to the fascists and that the police were aiding and abetting the neo-nazis, which is why Antifa also tends to be heavily anti-police (in addition to it dovetailing with their anarchist beliefs). 

Many Antifa are well-educated anarchists with fully developed ideologies, and others are just bandwagoners who are joining in for the fun of getting into street brawls. Lots of people in Leftist circles are sympathetic to Antifa and you will often see their patches on people's jackets, bike helmets, and backpacks. Being anarchists, they are very decentralized so it is hard to call them a group. A good analogy is that of "fans of the same sports team”. They'll show up to events wearing their group colors the same way fans of a sports team will show up to a game wearing matching jerseys. However, since they are fundamentally based on opposition to something, perhaps a better metaphor is the following: “Antifa is an organization in the same way that ‘people who hate the Dave Mathews Band’ is an organization.”

This is contrary to what many on the right would like to argue. Still, Antifa are much more defined by a set of principles, than they are by any form of group membership or organizational structure.

What has really caught the attention of the media, however, and especially the rightwing media, is their commitment to violence and the destruction of property as a way of achieving political goals. Antifa has shown up to protests in many cities over the past few days, and video has captured them vandalizing and inciting violence in the streets. As always, it is hard to identify them as Antifa for certain, although they do have a flag, and several people have been spotted carrying that flag in protests. The rest cannot be identified with 100% certainty, though they are most certainly out there in the protests. After all, if they weren’t, then Antifa would have lost credibility on those grounds alone. The fact that showing up to fight cops and fascists is their only reason for existing means that if they haven’t shown up yet, then they have lost the ideological battle by their own criteria. But again, their flag has been flown and videos show people wearing black bloc who could be Antifa behaving like Antifa — that is, engaging in vandalism, fighting, and looting.

It is this core belief in the use of violence that may end up being Antifa’s undoing. Violence and vandalism are not core aspects of the emerging movement around George Floyd’s death nor is it part of the broader Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Already, the looting and vandalism are subsiding, leaving Antifa’s ideological commitment to violence and vandalism out of step with the broader political moment. Their tactics have been rejected in favor of peaceful protests, and that rejection has by no means been passive. On the contrary, many videos of BLM activists and regular protesters alike confronting Antifa activists have emerged online, and they do not paint a nice portrait of Antifa. 

The core mismatch between Antifa and BLM is their racial composition. BLM is full of people of color, especially Black people. Antifa is composed predominantly of White people. The White people who join Antifa are often well educated and for the most part, do not live in the neighborhoods where Black people do. As a result, the videos capturing Antifa’s confrontations with BLM activists have been extraordinarily cringe-worthy. White Antifa activists can be seen spray-painting buildings with the letters “BLM” and then mouthing off to Black people who try to stop them. Others have been caught in the middle of committing more serious acts of vandalism against cities, such as destroying sewer drains. In one instance, BLM activists performed what amounts to a citizen's arrest of someone in black bloc chiseling away at the concrete mortar of a drain cover and delivered them to the police by force. To be clear, we will never know if these vandals were in fact Antifa. But this is the sort of action they have come to be associated with. And in the complex game of racial politics and media, appearances are often the only thing that matters. 

It is incidents like these, and not the silly conspiracy theory the rightwing media is promulgating, that discredit Antifa. Their tactics are at odds with the BLM and George Floyd movements. The current protests are about deescalations and peace, not about escalations and violence. The protesters do not want to fight fascists with violence and risk more lives lost. They do not want to incite more violence and police brutality of the sort that killed George Floyd. They want to end it. The great mistake the media has made in the early days of this protest is to associate the initial rash of looting and violence with the wider protest movement to end police brutality. Antifa has made the same mistake.

Now that the early stages of the uprisings are over and much of the initial wave of vandalism has passed, it will be interesting to see what Antifa does and how the BLM responds to their presence. Antifa has been present at many protests in the past and caused no violence or vandalism. But for many, they are now associated with those early days of ugliness and not the noble cause the BLM activists see themselves as serving. It would be wrong to label Antifa as a terrorist organization as the President aspires to do, because they are not really an organization at all. But the president may not have to. Soon, Antifa may fade from prominence all on their own.

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