What to Make of Antifa?

Until this week, I held the standard establishment view of the anti-fascist group Antifa and the “black blocs” they resemble: They’re anarchist or leftist mirror-images of the right-wing thugs they fight. I have heard personal friends say things similar to what Hullabaloo’s Tom Sullivan wrote Saturday:

The local Indivisible chapter organized a peace vigil downtown here last Sunday in solidarity with Charlottesville. It was one of many such vigils around the country. Not a Nazi symbol in sight. Yet the local antifa group that attended seemed bent on taking over what was intended to be a peaceful rally. There was a shouting match with police the organizers had requested. Later, the group split off and marched through downtown chanting slogans. To the usual “Whose streets? Our streets!” they added “Cops and the Klan go hand in hand.” and “What do we want? DEAD NAZIS. When do we want ’em? NOW!

The mirror-image-thug frame was present when CNN talked to a police spokesman from Portland, Oregon:

It is new, and this, like, this rumble mentality of, “I’m going to bring my friends, you’re going bring your friends, and we’re going to fight it out in the park” — it’s not something we’ve seen here. It’s not good for the city. People are just frustrated by it. It’s affecting their livability. It’s affecting their business. It’s affecting their commute.

The same piece quotes Cal State academic Brian Levin making a common liberal criticism:

It’s killing the cause — it’s not hurting it, it’s killing it, and it will kill it. We’re ceding the moral high ground and ceding the spotlight to where it should be, which is shining the spotlight on the vile. … No, it’s not OK to punch a Nazi. If white nationalists are sophisticated at anything, it’s the ability to try to grasp some kind of moral high ground when they have no other opportunity, and that’s provided when they appear to be violently victimized. That’s the only moral thread that they can hang their hats on. And we’re stupid if we give them that opportunity.

Trump took advantage of that opportunity in his controversial post-Charlottesville press conference on Tuesday:

What about the ‘alt-left’ that came charging at, as you say, the ‘alt-right’? Let me ask you this: What about the fact they came charging — that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do.

It’s Trump, of course, so you have to take “fact” with a grain of salt. But it sounds bad.

You get a different picture, though, from a number of eye-witness accounts of Charlottesville. Like this Democracy Now! interview:

CORNEL WEST: You had a number of the courageous students, of all colors, at the University of Virginia who were protesting against the neofascists themselves. The neofascists had their own ammunition. And this is very important to keep in mind, because the police, for the most part, pulled back. The next day, for example, those 20 of us who were standing, many of them clergy, we would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and the anti-fascists who approached, over 300, 350 anti-fascists. We just had 20. And we’re singing “This Little light of Mine,” you know what I mean? So that the—

AMY GOODMAN: “Antifa” meaning anti-fascist.

CORNEL WEST: The anti-fascists, and then, crucial, the anarchists, because they saved our lives, actually. We would have been completely crushed, and I’ll never forget that.

In the heat of the moment I doubt West counted precisely, so I’ll remain skeptical of his numbers. But Slate‘s Dahlia Lithwick collected several accounts of what I take to be the same event. Rebecca Menning told her:

No police officers in sight (that I could see from where I stood), and we were prepared to be beaten to a bloody pulp to show that while the state permitted white nationalists to rally in hate, in the many names of God, we did not. But we didn’t have to because the anarchists and anti-fascists got to them before they could get to us. I’ve never felt more grateful and more ashamed at the same time. The antifa were like angels to me in that moment.

Brandy Daniels described Antifa as respectful and helpful:

Some of the anarchists and anti-fascist folks came up to us and asked why we let [the white supremacists] through and asked what they could do to help. Rev. Osagyefo Sekou talked with them for a bit, explaining what we were doing and our stance and asking them to not provoke the Nazis. They agreed quickly and stood right in front of us, offering their help and protection.

And Rev. Seth Wispelwey added:

I am a pastor in Charlottesville, and antifa saved my life twice on Saturday. Indeed, they saved many lives from psychological and physical violence—I believe the body count could have been much worse, as hard as that is to believe. Thankfully, we had robust community defense standing up to white supremacist violence this past weekend.

I wasn’t there, and have never seen Antifa with my own eyes. But here’s how it looks to me: Antifa is based on an anarchist worldview, in which state institutions like the police are not to be trusted. When that assumption is false — when, say, organizers and police have made a plan for an orderly, peaceful demonstration and that plan is flowing smoothly — then having Antifa show up can be a real nuisance.

But when that assumption is true, and the police are not going to protect you from right-wing violence, then it’s good to have some “robust community defense” around.

So if you’re disturbed by the rise of Antifa — whether you’re a conservative worried about leftist violence, a local government trying to maintain order, or a liberal group hoping to protest peacefully — the long-term way to shrink their numbers is clear: Don’t create the conditions that make them right.

When state institutions work well, and work for the benefit of the vast majority, then anarchists look like nut jobs. But when they don’t work, when the people have to start organizing their own defenses outside the system, and when the only path of protest liberals offer is nonviolent martyrdom, then anarchists who come prepared to face violence start to make a lot of sense.

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  • janowrite  On August 21, 2017 at 8:30 am

    Thoughtful, good post in times that confuse people. Thanks for posting.

  • Dennis Maher  On August 21, 2017 at 8:50 am

    I asked this same question last week. I saw an article last week that explained Karl Popper’s paradox of intolerance (cf Wikipedia), in which we have to conclude that if we want a tolerant society, we have to be intolerant of intolerance. I have seen in my career two liberal church organizations wrecked because they became so liberal they admitted people who disagreed with their liberal values, which they wanted to “respect.” I see Antifa as a group that takes the stand of absolute intolerance of intolerance. Many of us would prefer a non-violent response, but we would need to build a non-violent training organization such as King had in the ’60’s. This will be difficult because the churches are so weak today. In Iowa City in the 60’s we had anarchists, who frankly scared me.

  • Bartleby  On August 21, 2017 at 9:29 am

    Yeah, on the Boston Common this past Saturday, the antifa presence seemed overbaked, and in the black clothing and face masks they stood out awkwardly, like people wearing business suits to a picnic. But that’s because the scene on the Common last weekend was a picnic, especially compared to Charlottesville. If we had been confronting a sizable contingent of openly armed thugs, I think I would have been a lot more grateful for antifa’s seriousness of purpose.

  • Madalyn Johnson (@Cressida74)  On August 21, 2017 at 12:40 pm

    For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t trust anything Cornel West says. If he doesn’t want to be murdered by Nazis, maybe he should have thought about that before he trashed Hillary Clinton all last summer. I bet if you asked him even today, he’d still say there was no meaningful difference between Clinton and Trump.

    • weeklysift  On August 21, 2017 at 12:46 pm

      Trusting how someone looks at the world is different from trusting what they report having seen.

      • Dale Moses  On August 21, 2017 at 8:54 pm

        Also lets not trash our allies as they act as our allies. Even if they weren’t perfect in the past were not in a position to push them away.

    • Guest  On August 22, 2017 at 12:42 pm

      What a strange comment, Madalyn. With respect, if you choose to have your mind set against the Cornel Wests of the world (and the Michelle Alexanders, Naomi Kleins, Noam Chomskys, Amy Goodmans, Robert Reichs, et al) then please at least consider not trashing allies as Dale suggests.

      If you can get comfortable that measure of kindness with allies, then consider bringing some to self-reflection. Given the poor performance of Hillary Clinton and the DNC generally, maybe, just maybe, critiques of the Democrats from those to your left are not entirely unjustified. To flip your comment completely on its head, given how prescient Cornel West’s concerns turned out to be, maybe you should start giving him the time of day.

  • geoot  On August 21, 2017 at 1:56 pm

    Gandhi and MLKing never asserted that passive resistance would not have its price. Injuries would have to be suffered before the authorities would be shamed into doing the right thing. The same is true now. The left will not win unless the fascists are allowed to never claim self-defense. That means that (a) the Antifa are interfering with the process and (b) some of those on the “peaceful left” will get hurt.

    • Kim Cooper  On August 21, 2017 at 5:02 pm

      That only works if the people you are peacefully protesting are capable of shame.

      • stechjo  On August 21, 2017 at 6:19 pm

        Kim, I’m not so sure the British were feeling shamefully in haw they treated Gandhi and his followers. Perhaps they finally felt humiliation as the rest of the world derision upon them. With shame one usually also finds remose. That only came about after the fact.

      • Eric L  On August 21, 2017 at 6:31 pm

        Not true at all. MLK was successful not because white supremacists in his day were more responsive to shame, but because sympathy for white supremacists views declined among the general public. This can still work. You don’t have to convert the people marching with Nazi flags to win.

        Of course if your definition of success is 100% eradication of objectionable views, then you will need absolute power, complete totalitarianism, and even then you might not succeed. But there is a lot that can be accomplished without that.

  • peteybee  On August 21, 2017 at 3:56 pm

    Trouble is, right-wing extremists could also claim to be “robust community defense”, especially if well-meaning leftist protesters or counter-protesters go over the line in their zeal to “stand up for common decency” etc.

    It is true that when police or authorities drop the ball, individuals and groups will step in. It’s not something whose outcome is necessarily what we want it to be.

    The most problematic side effect is that, if Antifa / counter protesters lack discipline, then you can have some very fast escalation. There is potential to rapidly radicalize the entire population, and in the worst case, reach a “critical mass” of formerly moderate people who are irreversibly offended and can never again reconcile with their “other”. In fact, the worst extremists will actively seek such a radicalization, and will do so by manipulating and putting out there unarmed sacrificial lambs, to serve as martyrs, while they provoke the other side off camera. This cycle has happened in many places and it can change the situation from 1-2% “extremist” to 20% “extremist” in a hurry. The danger factor rises a lot.

    One way to avoid this is to be seriously disciplined about non-violence. This is something the Civil Rights movement under MLK did with success. I am not confident that in today’s zeitgeist that can happen. Another way to avoid it is to have a government committed to avoiding the situation. Once again, Unclear. At best we can hope state governments and state national guards can play this role, if things begin to snowball.

    Seriously hoping they don’t.

  • Marj Lynn  On August 21, 2017 at 5:02 pm

    I felt some sympathy for an apparent need for the Antifa until I saw the author of the Antifa Handbook being interviewed. He stated that police should not be there at rallies and demonstrations and everything will work itself out. He had no concept that even those of us who see the great need to police the police, do want them on the scene to provide what they are hired to do…keep order and protect people and the community. Seems naive at best to think that things will just work themselves out. It is possible that the sheer numbers of protesters in Boston would have stepped up when they saw the need to provide protection when police were absent. We won’t know because Antifa rushed in. I’m north of Boston and I think the police did their job well. People may forget they had an obligation to protect the “free speechers” too.

    • Kim Cooper  On August 21, 2017 at 5:05 pm

      But, both sides say the police stood by and watched without stepping in.

    • weeklysift  On August 22, 2017 at 7:49 am

      I would say yes. But that’s the thing about leaderless groups. You and I could proclaim ourselves Antifa High Command and start issuing edicts, and who’s to say we’re not? I mean, nobody would follow our edicts, but they’d look great on the internet.

  • Typhoid Mary  On August 23, 2017 at 10:24 am

    This comment is not in any way meant to contradict this blog post, which I found interesting, thoughtful, and fairly well-informed. I’m sharing as somebody who has been involved politically in a southern state, meaning I have worked both in social services with marginalized populations, as well as participated in larger-scale actions. This is simply my experience.

    When I have worked with antifa, it has been some of the most well-organized, thoughtful, comprehensive preparation for safety at protests I have ever seen.

    Since “antifa” is not actually a centralized organization, it’s going to depend a lot on where you are geographically, but it my city it is one of the communities that I can trust to actually put their bodies on the line in the face of white supremacist violence.

    They’ve held large meetings before major protests to make sure everybody knows what is the best, most effective way to stay safe; in fact, the significant difference between the antifa organizing I’ve been to versus mainstream leftist organizing is 1) the assumption that the police will not protect you, and 2) the lack of centralized authority deciding when/how things happen; rather, those with the most experience share what they know, and everybody mobilizes according to the need most apparent to them.

    Additionally, my antifa community hosts workshops on street medic training as well as things like self-sufficiency farming, disability rights, and cyber security. What you see at protests–folks in black bloc–is only one part of antifa philosophy (which is NOT a lack of organization, by the way. It is a lack of ::leaders::.) Additionally, lots of folks in antifa have done a lot of reflection and studying about the basis of their philosophy; of course you’ve got your mainstream Marxists, but in many antifa communities there’s also pressure to actually RESEARCH what anarchism is, what models have been studied or proposed, how it would look in practice, how to transition from a centralized state to anarcho-communism or whatever, how anarchism intersects with racism, ableism, sexism, etc.

    And I know that when the KKK showed up in a small, southern town nearby–a town too small to attract mainstream news coverage, a town where there weren’t well-meaning white liberals to come counter protest, a town where the police were almost definitely KKK members themselves–it was folks in black bloc who were there to protect people of color.

    If you have not been to a KKK rally in the southern United States, please let me assure that they are terrifying and the police are at best ambivalent.

    For the record, I consider myself anti-fascist. I am a Quaker, and I abhor violence. But the older I get, the more I read, and the more I witness state violence in action, the more I am convinced that I have no right to tell marginalized people not to defend themselves in the face of white supremacist incitement. Antifa meetings are one of the few places where I see folks struggling with the tension between liberatory, justified violence and the desire for peace and nonviolence.

    Like I said, this doesn’t necessarily contradict anything stated here. I’ve also met antifa folks who are just spoiling for a fight, or who aren’t really interested in examining their own racism. It’s just that I meet those same people in the mainstream left with the same frequency. I really appreciate seeing an honest, curious inquiry into the antifa movement; there is plenty to critique about it, and it’s nice to see it done with a sophistication beyond “I guess they’re the ‘alt-left’!”

    • Chris P  On August 31, 2017 at 1:09 pm

      Thanks for sharing your experience on this. Too many people weighing in with strong opinions on this who seem to have no direct experience meeting someone who has worked with antifa or having actually worked with antifa folks themselves.

    • weeklysift  On September 1, 2017 at 7:57 am

      I’m doing more background reading and plan to write something in more depth soon. And like Chris P, I appreciate getting a point of view rooted in experience.

  • Some Hippy in Oz  On August 24, 2017 at 7:10 pm

    My experience is closer to Typhoid Mary’s than the other descriptions I’ve seen. Commonly antifa will work with the legal observers and first aiders to provide support for the main protest, and only really become visible when there’s trouble. Anarchism is a broad movement, and to some extent antifa provides an outlet for vigorous youth to express their desire to get physically involved. I feel old saying that 🙂 The gap between “will jump into a fight to calm it down” and “jumping into the fight inflames it” is often hard to see, and even harder to do.

    Often it’s antifa doing quiet actions like talking to disruptive people during protests, calming them down or at least discouraging them from making trouble. Seeing their discussions of whether that’s justified, when to intervene and what exactly it’s ethical to do gives an interesting insight into anarchist philosophy (like “if someone’s having a mental health problem we can’t deal with should we hand them over to the police” – at least in Australia Police are less likely to simply shoot them, but it’s still not an ideal response).

    It’s worth noting that anyone can put on a bandanna and smash stuff. There’s video of a G20 protest in Melbourne where a small group of “smash the state” types was escorted through police lines after breaking shop windows (but not arrested), then as they removed their face coverings police attacked the person who was filming them. It’s almost as though the police didn’t want the identity of the “black bloc” known…

  • Some Hippy in Oz  On August 24, 2017 at 7:15 pm

    Remember that projects like https://www.indymedia.org and http://www.ic.org/wiki/conflict-consensus/ are explicitly anarchist, and the reason Occupy suffered eternal meetings was because of their anarchist politics.

    Or look through the discography of Chumbawamba (the band who gave us “I get knocked down, but I get up again” the drinkers anthem that really isn’t. Like “fight for your right to party” it’s designed to have the opposite meaning when you read the lyrics and think for a second).

  • shorelinedre  On August 31, 2017 at 1:51 pm

    Just a few responses to the ideas brought forth in the last paragraphs:

    The idea that police can be trusted sometimes but not others is one that doesn’t resonate with a lot of people. The example you give of a time when it’s right to trust police is when “organizers and police have made a plan for an orderly, peaceful demonstration and that plan is flowing smoothly.” What are the cops doing in this situation worthy of earning trust? Not shooting people with tear gas and rubber bullets? Not put up a bunch of red tape? They certainly aren’t going to help people at protests, that’s a given. Simply not acting violently towards people is a pretty low standard of what it means to be trustworthy.

    You say “When state institutions work well, and work for the benefit of the vast majority, then anarchists look like nut jobs.” When has this ever happened? Point to a time when millions of people were not poor while a small handful of other people were rich. Point to a time when police were not serving the purpose of keeping this disparity of wealth and power in place. Point to a social movement which fought for greater freedom, equality, justice, and dignity which state institutions didn’t actively and violently oppose.

    The institution of policing exists to hold up the interests of the state and the state exists to create a social order which is beneficial to some at the expense of others and make it seem legitimate. I’m glad you seem to be warming up to the idea that the state and police often aren’t to be trusted, but I think you should go a little further and see that police defending white nationalists more than they defend leftists is not a problem with police, but a natural feature of the institution.

    • weeklysift  On September 1, 2017 at 7:51 am

      The situation I had in mind with police is when they stand between protesters and counter-protesters, allowing both to express themselves, but not fight with each other.


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