Last Sunday violence broke out among protestors at the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Park in Berkeley, California. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Some anti-fascist protesters, wearing black and with their faces covered, chased or beat Trump supporters and organizers who had scheduled and then canceled the ‘anti-Marxist’ rally, citing concerns over safety.”
The “anti-fascist” protesters—known as Antifa—attacked several people, including a Samoan man and a biracial man who is half-Japanese.
Here is what you should know about Antifa:
Who is Antifa?
Antifa is a radical and often violent protest movement organized around “anti-fascism.”
The movement is modeled on militant leftists who, as Peter Beinart explains, brawled with fascists in Germany, Italy, and Spain in the 1920s and 1930s. The groups—and the name—were revived in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, when anti-racists within the punk rock subculture in Britain and Germany mobilized to defeat neo-Nazi skinheads infiltrating the music scene. “Via punk, groups calling themselves anti-racist action—and later, anti-fascist action or antifa—sprung up in the United States,” says Beinart.
What does “antifa” mean?
The term antifa is commonly considered an abbreviation of “anti-fascist” or “anti-fascist action.” But the term originally was an abbreviation for Antifaschistiske Aktion, a German communist movement from the 1930s.
What is an “anti-fascist”?
Fascism is a difficult ideology to define because it has historically contained elements from both extreme ends of the left-right political spectrum. For the purposes of “anti-fascism” the best definition of “fascism” is “a set of ideologies and practices that seeks to place the nation, defined in exclusive biological, cultural, and/or historical terms, above all other sources of loyalty, and to create a mobilized national community.”
This definition of fascism helps to explain why Antifa—as professed “anti-fascists”—have been particularly focused on clashing with white nationalist groups, such as the alt-right, the KKK, and neo-Nazis.
What does Antifa believe in?
The short-answer: opposing individuals or groups who they define as “fascist.”
This may seem like an overly simplistic answer because, when it comes to mass political movements, Americans assume activists organize around what they want to advance or support. We expect protest groups like the Tea Party or Black Lives Matter to a have an agenda, or at least to be organized around a set of unifying goals. That is why we have a difficult time understanding groups like Antifa that define themselves and their cause almost exclusively by what they oppose.
Almost all of those who align with Antifa are from the extreme political left, usually identifying as communists, socialists, or anarchists. But when they engage as Antifa activists they aren’t attempting to directly advance a positive political agenda. Instead, they are trying to shut down groups they consider fascists.
If there is a unifying theme in their efforts, it is that the mere existence of “fascists” poses a threat of violence, especially toward minority groups. They believe this gives them a right to preemptive self-defense that justifies using violence to prevent “fascist” groups or persons from exercising such rights as free speech or public assembly.
How is Antifa organized?
One of the strengths of Antifa—and what makes it a particularly dangerous movement—is that it is decentralized and has no official or formal organization. The internet and social media have made it possible for activists who align with Antifa’s agenda to share information about locations of protest and to coordinate attacks on individuals or groups without the need for leaders, spokespersons, or outside financing.
As Dartmouth historian Mark Bray explains, anti-fascism is less a political group and more of an organizing strategy, “a model of resistance” undergirded by an understanding of fascism’s history: “anti-fascists have concluded that since the future is unwritten, and fascism often emerges out of small, marginal groups, every fascist or white-supremacist group should be treated as if they could be Mussolini’s one hundred Fasci [the paramilitary wing of Benito Mussolini’s fascist organization].”
Because they are decentralized, Antifa relies on so-called “black bloc” methods and tactics as a coordination tool.
What is “black bloc”?
Black blocs, Francis Dupuis-Déri says, are “ad hoc assemblages of individuals or affinity groups that last for the duration of a march or rally in which members retain their anonymity via head-to-toe black clothing.” As Devon Douglas-Bowers explains, “the black bloc isn't a group, but rather a tactic to allow for radicals to engage in direct action without fear of arrest; while many black blockers are anarchist, not all of them are.” He adds:
Black bloc groups attempt to function in a horizontal manner, with each person having equal say in deliberating issues and where the goal is consensus rather than voting. In order to do this, black blockers form affinity groups, which are groups generally composed of between a half-dozen and several dozen individuals whose affinity results from ties that bind them, such as belonging to the same school, workplace, or political organization. By having previous ties to one another, members in affinity groups are able to coordinate much easier.
When Antifa protestors show up at a rally, they are not doing so as a single group under structured leadership, nor are they typically there as a lone individuals. Instead, they are part of multiple autonomous “affinity groups.” Often these are small groups of young men who are friends and acquaintances and that have their own internal, intragroup dominance and hierarchy dynamics.
The result is that if an influential person within an affinity group begins to engage in vandalism or violence, his associates will likely join him. This can have a cascading effect, inspiring other affinity groups to participate in violent protest.
This loose structure makes it possible for some members and affinity groups to plan, prepare, and engage in more extreme actions under the guise of acting as Antifa. For instance, a handful of domestic terrorists may be able to gain more attention for their violence if they are seen as part of a larger movement rather than as a small, independent terrorist cell. (See the section below on domestic terrorism.)
Is Antifa an anarchist movement?
Anarchism is an extreme left-wing movement that believes the ideal of society is for all individuals to do whatever they choose, except interfere with the ability of other individuals to do what they choose. Anarchists oppose government and other authority structures because they interfere with the individual’s freedom of choice.
Many activists associated with Antifa are believed to be proponents of anarchism, viewing their anti-fascism protests as part of a larger action against authoritarianism. As Peter Beinart says,
Antifa believes it is pursuing the opposite of authoritarianism. Many of its activists oppose the very notion of a centralized state. But in the name of protecting the vulnerable, antifascists have granted themselves the authority to decide which Americans may publicly assemble and which may not. That authority rests on no democratic foundation. Unlike the politicians they revile, the men and women of antifa cannot be voted out of office. Generally, they don’t even disclose their names.
Antifa’s perceived legitimacy is inversely correlated with the government’s.
(While many in Antifa would identify with anarchism, some anarchists consider Antifa to be insufficiently political. As one anarchist website says, “Antifa is not a political project and has no real political content beyond ‘let’s beat up racists.’”)
Isn’t Antifa itself a fascist movement?
The term fascist is often used as a label to refer to any group that uses violence or political force to suppress individual freedoms. Using the term in this way, though, merely leads to confusion rather than clarification about political movements.
Antifa’s use of violence to suppress freedom of speech and assembly is reprehensible, and may mirror the use of violence by groups they oppose. But Antifa’s use of violence does not make the group “fascist” since it lacks other elements, such as ultranationalism, that are common to fascist movements.
Is Antifa the same as the “alt-left”?
In his speech after the violence at a protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month, President Trump asked, “What about the ‘alt-left’ that came charging at, as you say, the ‘alt-right’?”
The term “alt-right” is a label adopted by advocates of a host of disparate nationalists and populists groups associated with the white identity cause/movement. Unlike their enemies who identify as the alt-right, those who align with Antifa do not self-identify as the “alt-left.”
Is Antifa a domestic terrorist group?
The Department of Homeland Security formally classified Antifa’s activities as “domestic terrorist violence,” according to interviews and confidential law enforcement documents obtained by Politico. As Politico notes,
They claim to have no leader and no hierarchy, but authorities following them believe they are organized via decentralized networks of cells that coordinate with each other. Often, they spend weeks planning for violence at upcoming events, according to the April 2016 DHS and FBI report entitled “Baseline Comparison of U.S. and Foreign Anarchist Extremist Movements.”
Dozens of armed anti-fascist groups have emerged, including Redneck Revolt and the Red Guards, according to the reports and interviews. One report from New Jersey authorities said self-described antifa groups have been established in cities including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco.
Federal officials launched a global investigation with the help of the U.S. intelligence community, to determine whether Antifa activists might start committing terrorist bombings like their counterparts in “foreign anarchist extremist movements” in Greece, Italy, and Mexico, possibly at the Republican and Democratic conventions that summer.
How should Christians respond to Antifa?
Here are three ways Christians can respond to the threat posed by Antifa.
First, Christians are called to love our enemies and pray for those who would persecute us (Matt. 5:44). If Antifa considers Christians to be “fascists”—and therefore their enemy—or seeks to persecute us directly, we have a duty to love and pray for them. We should pray in particular that they will renounce violence and come to know Jesus, so they will discover the only true peace and freedom is to be found in Christ.
Second, while Christians may share Antifa’s opposition to such groups as the altt-right, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, or the KKK, we must not share their use of violence as “preemptive self-defense.” Christians sometimes disagree on when, if ever, the use of force in self-defense is biblically permissible. But no Christian should adopt Antifa’s view that it is an act of self-defense to preemptively use violence to shut down speech merely because we find the content to be repugnant. Nor it is a legitimate use of self-defense to physically attack people who are participating in a peaceful public assembly, however reprehensible their cause.
Third, Christians should oppose giving Antifa a heckler’s veto. This occurs when an individual’s right to speak or assemble is curtailed or restricted by the government in order to prevent a reacting party's behavior. For example, earlier this week the mayor of Berkeley urged the University of California, Berkeley, to cancel an upcoming appearance by a controversial right-wing speaker, citing his concerns that anti-fascists will “use large protests to create mayhem.”
The government has an obligation to protect the constitutional rights of all citizens, even those with unpopular views. We should not tolerate the government giving groups like Antifa a heckler’s veto, for we may soon find they use it to prevent Christians from exercising our rights to share the gospel.