What Antifa Is, What It Isn’t, and Why It Matters
One day earlier, two Buffalo, New York, police officers shoved Gugino, leaving him bleeding from his ear. What led the president to believe that Gugino — a 75-year-old and lifelong peace activist — was a member of Antifa, a highly decentralized movement of anti-racists who seek to combat neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and far-right extremists whom Antifa’s followers consider “fascist”?
A week and a half before the incident involving Gugino, in the midst of the protests convulsing the country after the murder of George Floyd, Trump announced on Twitter that “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney General William Barr claimed that so-called far-left extremists groups were to blame for the violence at the demonstrations, accusing Antifa of “domestic terrorism” while presenting no evidence. A recent review of those individuals arrested on federal charges shows no links to Antifa. While this finding may change as investigations progress, the lack of an Antifa “terrorism” connection comes as little surprise to terrorism analysts who have been tracking domestic terrorism threats, including neo-Nazi groups such as the Atomwaffen Division and the Rise Above Movement.
So, why are the Trump administration and the attorney general so obsessed with Antifa?
The Antifa label has become a political cudgel wielded by politicians who are more intent on demonizing political opponents and framing terrorism as a partisan issue than on countering the most dangerous groups operating on U.S. soil. After all, Atomwaffen has murdered several American citizens and had its members arrested with bomb-making materials, while Antifa has smashed store windows and engaged in street brawls.
To understand why Antifa has become a popular bogeyman for some public officials, it is critical to understand what the group is, what it isn’t, and why it matters.
To do so, we draw on interviews that one of us conducted with a handful of activists who identified themselves as anti-fascists or anarchists, along with studies and documents written by activists and supporters. Given Antifa’s atomized, amorphous structure, our respondents’ comments should not be interpreted as representing the anti-fascist or anarchist position. In fact, there is no single anti-fascist or anarchist position — a point that was made to us early on by a long-time activist who identifies as an anarchist anti-racist:
One thing I want to be clear on is when I’m speaking it’s never from a position, like, “This is the anarchist platform.” Anarchism allows for absolute personal freedom … There’s no anarchist spokesperson who’s gonna be like, “This is the anarchist platform on this issue,” because it’s so broad.
What Is Antifa?
Contrary to how it is often portrayed in the media, Antifa — short for anti-fascist — is not a single organization. Rather, it is a loose network of groups and individuals who coordinate their anti-racist activism on an ad hoc basis in different areas both within and outside the United States.
Antifa has no centralized leadership structure or formalized membership. In the United States, some anti-fascist groups share ideas by participating in the Torch Network, which evolved out of the old Anti-Racist Action Network. But, neither the Torch Network nor popular anarchist websites such as It’s Going Down and CrimethInc. exert any command and control over local activists. Instead, like-minded supporters coordinate autonomously — typically in small, tight-knit groups — with other activists they know and trust. Internal decision-making is based on group consensus and direct democracy. Activists communicate face to face and through social media and encrypted apps like Signal. These and other operational security practices are meant to protect activists from unwanted attention by the police and white supremacists.
Such secrecy complicates efforts to estimate the size of the Antifa movement in the United States. Just as supporters do not become “card-carrying” members, local groups do not publicize their numbers. In some cities — such as Berkeley, California, and Portland, Oregon — local chapters are active and well organized. Nationally, however, the movement is small and dispersed. According to Mark Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, a historical and comparative study of the movement based on his interviews with 61 anti-fascists in North America and Europe, Antifa has about “five to 15 members” in most American cities where it operates. Given the movement’s small size, Bray is skeptical about Antifa’s ability to direct the nation-wide protests against police brutality and systemic racism that have erupted across the United States in recent weeks:
If antifa on its own could orchestrate a national campaign of burning down police stations and burning down malls, they would have done it years ago … They agree with these kinds of actions. But the number of people involved is so small.
Despite the small size of the Antifa movement, its members do not follow a single ideology. Anti-fascists express political beliefs commonly associated with the far-left end of the political spectrum. Such beliefs include different varieties of anarchism, communism, and socialism. Historically, anti-fascism has been associated with the larger anarchist movement. More recently, many key organizers behind the Anti-Racist Action Network and other groups have drawn on anarchist ideas in coordinating their activism. Even today, many anti-fascists follow anarchist principles.
Such overlap makes it difficult to distinguish anarchism from anti-fascism. Yet, they are not identical. One important difference can be found between their views on the state. Anarchists believe that governments throughout the world repress their citizens through authoritarian laws, institutions, and practices. For human beings to be truly free, they maintain, existing governments must be replaced by local, voluntary associations that organize social and economic life through direct democracy and mutual aid.
Many anti-fascists do not share such strong anti-statist views, even if they are deeply skeptical of law enforcement and security agencies. Anti-racists who identify with Antifa would like to see major police reforms, but they do not necessarily wish to abolish all government institutions. Nor do they share anarchists’ faith in running contemporary societies and economies entirely through local voluntary associations and networks. These “liberal anti-fascists” want to combat white supremacism using the institutions of democratic states and societies, including progressive political parties and independent news media. They downplay ideology and focus on their practical mission: stopping white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and other racists from organizing and propagating their views in public. As one activist explained to us in an interview, “Anyone … who is against Nazis or against fascism is anti-fascist. Many, many people are anti-fascists.” In other words, Antifa is as complex and diverse as the like-minded individuals who coordinate in small local groups under its collective banner.
Finally, anti-fascists do not practice a single protest tactic. Activists’ “repertoires of contention” include a mix of violent and non-violent practices. As Bray describes in his book, parts of which read like a “how-to” manual on anti-fascist activism, supporters create websites, write articles, post videos, distribute leaflets, and organize public events. They expose and intimidate white supremacists by “doxxing” them, publishing their private information on the Internet in order to embarrass them, build support against them, and — whenever possible — get them fired from their jobs. At protests, some anti-racists, taking a page from their anarchist counterparts, form “black blocs,” especially when they expect to scuffle with the police or confront white supremacists. In these formations, protestors wear black clothes and masks to create a more intimidating presence and make it harder for the police to identify individuals for arrest and prosecution.
In the United States, anti-racists have organized under the Antifa banner for over a decade. The oldest existing American anti-racist group, Rose City Antifa, was founded in Portland in 2007 after local anti-racists shut down Hammerfest, the skinhead music festival. However, the larger movement traces its lineage — and name — back to anti-fascist groups that battled Adolf Hitler’s Brownshirts in Germany, Benito Mussolini’s Blackshirts in Italy, and fascist groups in other European countries in the 1930s. Fifty years later, the movement experienced a resurgence as punk music fans and other anti-racists fought to counter the neo-Nazi skinhead movement in Europe and the United States.
An important feature of the anti-fascist movement’s history remains relevant today. Antifa exists in symbiosis with the neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other racists it confronts. The movement’s presence and level of activism tend to rise and fall with the fortunes of its far-right opponents. The rise of the white nationalist “alt-right” movement and the election of Trump in 2016 energized anti-fascists in the United States.
In the year after Trump’s election, Antifa’s activism spiked.
First came the violent demonstrations immediately before and during Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017. Alongside larger, mostly peaceful protests, an anti-fascist black bloc smashed storefront windows, vandalized ATMs, and set a limousine on fire. The following month, Antifa activists and other protesters spray-painted graffiti, broke windows, and threw Molotov cocktails during a demonstration at the University of California, Berkeley, to prevent the alt-right provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos, from speaking. Then, in August 2017, anti-fascists fought white supremacists and neo-Nazis at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which ended in tragedy when a white supremacist drove his car into a group of anti-racist protesters, killing one and injuring more than 30 others.
The intensity of these “direct actions” reflects many Antifa supporters’ belief that Trump is a fascist demagogue who threatens the existence of America’s pluralistic, multi-racial democracy. This factor helps explain why such Antifa supporters are so quick to label the president’s “Make America Great Again” supporters as fascists — and why Trump is so quick to label Antifa as a terrorist organization.
Antifa’s Views on Violence
Much of Antifa’s activism relies on non-violent tactics such as community organizing, letter-writing campaigns, and doxxing. But, some supporters — especially those who hold anarchist views — also engage in physical violence. This approach includes spontaneous violence against property and the physical assault of people, like “punching a Nazi in the face,” which happened to another alt-right figure, Richard Spencer, during the Trump inauguration protests.
Antifa activists believe that violence and confrontation are necessary to prevent white supremacists and other “fash” from organizing public events where they could spread their beliefs and recruit new supporters. They also believe it works, citing examples like Spencer’s announcement that “Antifa is winning” after activists fought his supporters during a speech he gave in March 2018 at Michigan State University. Lamenting anti-fascists’ willingness “to go further than anyone else … [with] violence, intimidating, and general nastiness,” Spencer announced that he was suspending his public speaking engagements at public universities.
Anti-fascists celebrate such announcements as proof that they are taking the “fun out of fascism.” And, they dismiss critics’ concerns that they are blocking Spencer’s and other opponents’ right to free speech by countering that neo-Nazis and white supremacists are not interested in free speech. Instead, they are interested in accumulating power in order to build a white ethno-state. The only way to prevent the rise of fascism, anti-fascists insist, is to stop white supremacists from spreading their views — by force if necessary. “The point … is not to give them a platform,” explains another Antifa activist. “You don’t give fascism a platform because once you give it a platform, it becomes normalized … Sometimes you have to use direct action to stop it because protesting, signs, yelling is not going to do anything. You have to make them afraid.”
Is Antifa a Terrorist Organization?
Given its use of violent tactics and desire to scare white nationalists, should Antifa be labeled a terrorist organization? Consistent with the U.S. State Department’s definition of terrorism, does Antifa engage in premeditated violence against specific targets in order to coerce or terrorize a wider audience, typically a government or society, in pursuit of some political goal?
The short answer is “No.” As we have discussed, Antifa is not a single organization. If Antifa is not an organization, then it cannot be a terrorist organization — nor would designating it as one have much effect. In accordance with the movement’s lack of centralized authority, there is no single Antifa position regarding political violence. For every Antifa activist or group that supports violence, others do not, seeing it as counter-productive and even illegitimate. “Not all Antifa groups are pro-violence,” explains an Antifa activist we interviewed. He elaborated:
A lot of times these groups get labeled as gangs or terrorists. Terrorism. It’s so easy to throw that word around. Say that word and then all of a sudden that person, that group, that movement is now demonized in the public’s eyes because they are supposedly creating terror.
Of course, individuals and groups that lack centralization and formal organization can and do carry out terrorist attacks. One historical example is particularly relevant to our discussion. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, violent anarchists, acting alone and in small groups, carried out terrorist bombings and assassinations in Europe and the United States. While most activists in the larger anarchist movement did not engage in political violence — and some of the terrorists labelled “anarchists” were not, in fact, anarchists — this “first wave” of modern terrorism sealed anarchism’s association with terrorism in the public mind. One legacy of this association concerns facile attempts to demonize anarchists and anti-fascists as terrorists without considering the facts involved in specific incidents. Rather than simply labeling Antifa as a “terrorist organization” to score points with certain constituencies, a better approach might be to consider whether individuals and small groups have conducted terrorism in the name of Antifa.
Contemporary anti-fascists clearly seek to intimidate their “fascist” adversaries by doxxing them and physically confronting them at protests. However, shoving white nationalists to the ground, punching them in the face, or hitting them with sticks does not constitute the level of violence typically associated with terrorism. If it does, then we must ask whether the targets of these efforts, who often give as violently as they get, are also engaged in terrorism.
These physical confrontations are better understood as spontaneous clashes between Antifa supporters and their white supremacist rivals, including the Proud Boys and the Boogaloo Bois. When they spiral out of control, these brawls can quickly deteriorate into melees or riots. But, these incidents are not pre-planned terrorist attacks instigated by one actor against another. Nor do these clashes spark fear and dread in a wider audience beyond the immediate victims of the violence. Trump and his supporters do not likely feel “terrorized” by these street clashes. In fact, the president has willingly exploited this low-level violence to rally his supporters and raise funds for his re-election campaign.
However, not all anti-fascist violence is limited to batons and fisticuffs. On occasion, Antifa supporters have escalated their violence — particularly in Europe, where anarchists and anti-fascists tend to be more aggressive. In Greece, supporters from the local anti-fascist movement shot and killed two members from the far-right Golden Dawn party in retaliation against the murder of a popular anti-fascist rapper.
Fortunately, the Antifa movement in the United States has been less violent than its European counterpart. Yet, there are examples of American anti-fascists escalating their violence beyond shoving and fistfights. Last July, Willem Van Spronsen attacked an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Tacoma, Washington, with a rifle and incendiary devices. Before he could cause much damage, the 68-year-old man was shot and killed by the police. After his death, a manifesto was posted in Van Spronsen’s name on It’s Going Down and other anarchist websites. In his manifesto, Van Spronsen identified himself as an Antifa supporter (“I am antifa”), railed against the Trump administration’s policy of detaining illegal immigrants (“fascist hooligans preying on vulnerable people in our streets”), and called for violent resistance against the government (“I strongly encourage comrades and incoming comrades to arm themselves. We are now responsible for defending people from the predatory state”).
These examples illustrate how Antifa’s violence could escalate to terrorism or guerrilla warfare if it is channeled into a more organized, sustained, and bloody campaign. If anti-fascists started bombing buildings with explosives or gunning down Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees and white supremacists in the streets, it would make sense to consider such incidents terrorism. But that’s not what we are seeing — at least so far. Though sucker-punching someone in the face is certainly violent, it’s not terrorism.
Interestingly, any push to terrorism among Antifa supporters would likely be met by opposition from within the movement. Many activists who accept the moral necessity of violence against what they see as an inherently violent “fascist” state balk at the prospect of indiscriminate violence against innocent civilians. A veteran anarchist and Antifa supporter, whom we interviewed, drew a sharp distinction between legitimate and illegitimate violence:
There’s extremists that think, “Okay, if I go bomb something, that’s legitimate.” That to me is insane because it doesn’t accomplish anything and it always harms innocent people … You want to use violence to push back against violence being perpetrated against you. So the more the state pushes against you, you have the right to push back.
When asked to clarify what sort of extremists he had in mind, he mentioned the so-called “Cleveland Five,” who reportedly plotted to blow up a bridge in Detroit during the Occupy movement. While noting that the plot itself was “pushed” along by the FBI’s use of a confidential informant, our interviewee stressed that, had the bombing succeeded, the resulting violence would have been unacceptable: “That’s not legitimate. That’s not smart. That’s not valid … wanting violence for violence’s sake is evil.”
It is hard to imagine this and other activists remaining enthusiastic anti-fascists if the movement were to engage in widespread, indiscriminate violence against their fellow citizens. Escalating to such violence would likely weaken Antifa as erstwhile supporters decide the movement has gone too far. Yet, short of this violent trajectory, it is hard to imagine classifying Antifa — with any degree of accuracy — as a terrorist organization.
Why Does It Matter?
Few believe that Trump will actually move forward with designating Antifa as a domestic terrorist organization. For starters, there have been few recorded incidents of actual violence linked to the movement aside from vandalism and fistfights. By that metric, any neighborhood gang would similarly qualify as a domestic terrorism threat. Though the United States does not have a domestic terrorism law, there is an underlying statute that the president could use to sanction Antifa. Trump could conceivably create a new executive order to designate Antifa as a domestic terrorist group, which has never happened before in the history of the country. However, if Trump is serious about designating a domestic terrorist group for the first time, there is a litany of groups, as previously mentioned, that would make more sense than Antifa.
In all likelihood, just as he did after threatening to designate Mexican drug-trafficking cartels as terrorist organizations in November 2019, Trump will relent on Antifa as the protests ebb and the movement becomes a less controversial issue for his base ahead of the November 2020 presidential election.
Meanwhile, Trump’s suggestion that Martin Gugino, the Catholic social justice advocate from Buffalo, is an Antifa activist has been linked to Russian disinformation. Yet even more concerning than the president tweeting conspiracy theories that could have their origins in Russian disinformation campaigns is his continued politicization of terrorism.
Trump damages the legitimacy of American democracy when he insists that his political opponents are terrorists when they are not. However distasteful Antifa’s activism is, spontaneous street brawls are not the same as terrorism. Today the president willingly applies this label to Antifa. What is to prevent him from doing the same in the future to other activist groups that protest against him and his supporters, such as Black Lives Matter?
Policymakers must decide which terrorism threats are the most serious and, carefully prioritize them for designation based on facts — not politics. In the case of Antifa, the facts suggest that anti-fascism is not a clear and present terrorist threat in the United States, no matter how much the president may wish otherwise.
Michael Kenney is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. Colin P. Clarke is a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center and an associate fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague.