When was the first time you heard about antifa? Maybe it was in the viral footage in which a black-clad, masked figure delivered a flying punch to neo-Nazi Richard Spencer’s jaw on the afternoon of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. Or, perhaps, it was after the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, when white supremacists chanted “Jews will not replace us” and beat a black man with metal poles, and when a neo-Nazi murdered a young woman when he plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. After this intolerable event, Trump blamed the carnage on “both sides” and railed against “anteeefa!”
That same summer, viral videos spread of antifa activists setting fire to trash cans in protest of the far-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos giving a racist, anti-trans speech at the University of California, Berkeley. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, condemned the “violent actions of people calling themselves antifa.”
For a lot of people, their first introduction to “antifa” has been through Trump’s ever-escalating obsession with it as his favorite boogeyman. In recent weeks, the United States has seen one of the most powerful Black-led uprisings in a generation. According to the president, his Justice Department, and Fox News, antifa is a well-organized terror group, responsible for all the most militant aspects of recent protests, driven only by a senseless desire for destruction.
“The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization,” wrote Trump in an early June tweet.
A Fox News report echoed that antifa was “allegedly driving the ongoing violent turmoil.”
It would not be surprising if a lot of peoples’ relatives and loved ones have absorbed the notion that “antifa” is a terrifying, masked force, intent on senseless destruction, which hinders rather than helps the social justice cause. Many well-meaning people fear or condemn antifa—also while supporting the movement for Black lives and strongly opposing Trump.
If your family members and friends are in this category, there are a few reasons why it’s important to correct false antifa narratives. First: Trump’s line on antifa is being used to discredit the ongoing Black-led movement and to distract from racist police violence, while further criminalizing a whole range of protest activities. Second: If we’re going to talk to each other seriously about which sort of actions bring about the social, political changes we want to see in the world, it’s important that we understand the reason certain people choose and support certain tactics, including militant ones, like aggressive, physical confrontation with members of the far-right.
Here are some questions you might come up against in talking to your loved ones about what antifa is, and what their approach to pushing back against white supremacy is really all about. Hopefully, it helps clear some things up.
So: What even is antifa?
“Antifa” is short for “anti-fascist.” But that can create some confusion: After all, aside from some avowed white nationalists and neo-Nazis, many people would feel comfortable describing themselves as “anti-fascist,” but don’t necessarily participate in activities associated with antifa. But “antifa” is not just shorthand for anti-fascist: The antifa approach is a militant one, taken up in the opposition of groups, individuals and institutions that perpetuate fascistic acts and ideologies.
By “militant,” I mean that antifa participants are committed to using a whole range of tactics, some of which are often deemed violent, like fighting white supremacist groups in the streets and damaging the property of institutions willing to host fascist speakers and groups. For antifa, the use of physical violence is always what we might call “counter-violence”: They understand that there is an inherent violence to the ideology of white supremacy, and they are willing to counter it with physical force: like punching a neo-Nazi! An antifa participant might throw the first punch in a fight with a far-right gang, but the white supremacists, by virtue of their beliefs, introduce violence to the scene in the first place.
Antifa is not an organization. There are no official “antifa leaders;” there are no official members. There is no centralized leadership board or committee. Antifa is best understood as a practice, or a set of tactics, which groups can take up and deploy; and sometimes certain collectives use the label “antifa” to describe themselves—to signal that they participate in these tactics and practices, which include, but are not limited to, physical street confrontations with the far right. So groups or individuals who identify as “antifa” in different parts of the country, the world, or even in one city, are not usually in contact with each other, but they share a common commitment to using a similar, no-tolerance approach when confronting far right racists organizing in their midst.
The historian Mark Bray, who wrote the excellent Antifa: An Anti-fascist Handbook, offers a great analogy: To call antifa an organization, he wrote, is “like calling bird-watching an organization. Yes, there are bird-watching organizations as there are antifa organizations, but neither bird-watching nor antifa is an organization.”
Leftists of all stripes—anarchists, communists, Democratic Socialists, even liberals—have participated in antifa practices. In practical terms: The antifa action that gets the most mainstream attention—fighting white supremacists in the streets, or shutting down rallies and campus speeches with physical force—is a small but important part of antifa work. Physical force is just one string in the antifa bow. The whole bow is focused on doing whatever is necessary to render racist extremists unable to gather, organize, and spread hateful ideologies.
Some of the most important antifa activity has nothing to do with street brawling and militant protests. It involves research: scouring white supremacist forums to discover which voices and groups are gaining traction and planning events. The purpose is exposing the identities of fascists who operate otherwise anonymously and reporting racist content on social media platforms in order to take platforms from fascist voices. In the best-case scenarios, extremists are removed from platforms like YouTube, which has removed the accounts of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and Canadian white nationalist Stefan Molyneux, among others. It’s on these platforms that the far right is able to gather huge followings of vulnerable, confused young people. It is antifa activity par excellence to cut off the oxygen supply that allows fascistic organizing to breathe and expand.
When you highlight this aspect of antifa work, it can help skeptical relatives begin to understand the purpose of antifa activity more generally. Even people more nervous about physical confrontations might appreciate that people are spending tireless hours to expose the identities of violent white supremacist who might live in our neighborhoods, be organizing on our campuses, and, as is too often the case, working in police departments.
Most antifa activists I know are committed to a whole range of other anti-capitalist, social justice organizing activities. When someone puts on their antifa hat (metaphorically—there are, of course, no official antifa hats), it is to expose and shut down the activities of white supremacist, racist, nationalist misogynist, and anti-LGBTQ voices and groups in their midst.
Where did antifa come from?
The origins of antifa can be found in the fighting squads who battled against the street thug supporters of Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler last century. Collectives like the 43 Group in Britain: These were Jewish British servicemen who, following World War II, formed gangs to shut down gatherings of anti-Semitic fascists in London and elsewhere. They did not use the term “antifa” to describe themselves. But they deployed tactics we now associate with antifa: They researched, located and exposed fascist organizers, and they confronted them in the street, including in bloody fights. I find the 43 Group a useful historical example because they have been celebrated as heroes for beating down post-War fascists in Britain. But: They engaged in extremely militant confrontations, and they beat the crap out of fascists.
The question might come up about how antifa groups today choose the targets for their militant opposition. These are decisions that communities have to decide as they go. That’s not a bad thing: It means taking seriously the threats we face as they arise. I don’t think it’s useful to have to devise in advance a totally clear list of who is or is not a fascist. Fascism doesn’t work that way today—a lot of the time, supporters of fascistic policies, like closing borders, don’t call themselves fascists. So we might understand fascism, and fascism(s) today as those policies and ideologies that bring together racist, nationalist, patriarchal exclusions. Antifa does not wait for a group to have every single feature of a traditional, 20th century fascist political party to name it as an enemy. In recent decades, under the “antifa” banner all around the world, collectives have taken aggressive action against white supremacist gangs, militias, politicians, and academics.
Why would an anti-fascist group not want to protest peacefully?
The thorniest aspect of antifa action is [the question of] violence. Debates about violence and non-violence within protest movements have continued, without agreement of resolution, for decades. Typically, proponents of strictly non-violent protest argue that resorting to violence discredits a movement, rendering the protesters no better than the violent forces they claim to oppose. But those of us who are willing to entertain political violence tend to also appreciate the importance and successes of principled non-violent protest tactics, but also believe that there are occasions where physical force is necessary and beneficial: where it is necessary to appear as a real threat to the existing power structures, or, in the case of most antifa actions, to create intolerable consequences for fascists trying to build movements.
I think it’s necessary, when we’re having these debates, to think about what we mean when we call something “violence” and condemn it as such. Any discussion about violence and antifa must note that, since 1990, there have been over 450 deaths caused by white supremacist violence, compared to only one believed to be related to far-left activity in the U.S. Over 70 percent of extremist murders between 2008 and 2018 were carried out by the far right. This is worth stressing to a relative who is following Trump’s line by naming “the radical left” as the most violent extremist force in this country.
As I mentioned above, those of us who are sympathetic with antifa tactics see the group’s approach as a form of radical self-defense: a pre-emptive act to protect the community from the violence inherent to fascist organizing. The Black philosopher and activist Cornel West, who marched with local clergy in a counter-protest to the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville said of antifa: “They saved our lives, actually. We would have been completely crushed.” He said of the white supremacists, “I’ve never seen that kind of hatred in my life.”
When questions do come up about antifa’s role in the current wave of Black-led uprisings, you can explain that, despite Trump’s baseless insistence, explicitly antifa-identified groups have hardly played a role. And, while certainly not all self-identifying antifa participants in the U.S. are white, I believe that the majority are—although this is hard to verify, as much of antifa work is anonymous! There are white individuals I know in New York and in other cities, who have previously engaged in antifa actions and protests, and who have taken part in recent protests but in no sort of leadership roles, and only in solidarity with Black struggle.
In this historic moment of antiracist protest, we all have to remember that it is not only groups who self-identify as “antifa” who act in radical resistance to fascistic, white supremacist structures. This is the very legacy of the Black radical tradition. In an excellent essay by Willian C. Anderson and Zoé Samudzi—whose work I recommend on better understanding Black anti-fascism—they note, “Black radical formations are themselves fundamentally anti-fascist despite functioning outside of ‘conventional’ antifa spaces, and Black people have engaged in anarchistic resistances since our very arrival in the Americas.” The authors make a crucial demand of those who would criticize militant action taken against racist fascism and the white supremacy so foundational to America: “At the very least,” they write, “a conversation on self-defense that does not mistreat our survival as a form of violence is deeply needed.”
Is antifa effective?
If I’m talking to someone who’s squeamish about the idea of resorting to physical confrontation when interacting with racist extremism or police violence, I remind them that they don’t need to like the use of counter-violence. But they must remember where the real violence in this situation lies: with the groups who are organizing in support of the murderous ideology of white supremacy.
Antifa tactics have their limitations, as those who engage in them know: We will not, for example, topple the entrenched and unbroken history of white supremacy in this country by simply breaking up far-right rallies and deplatforming white supremacists. These figures and groups are merely the tip of the racist iceberg, but they are deadly, and emboldened under Trump.
Antifa tactics continue to prove successful in deterring racist organizing in the streets, on campuses and online. When the neo-Nazi Spencer cancelled his college tour, for example, he explicitly blamed antifa. I call that a success. And when, last summer, the fascistic, misogynist Proud Boys rallied in Portland but were dwarfed by a crowd of over 1,000 antifascist counter-protesters, it was a largely peaceful intervention. It was also an example of antifa relying on their numbers to humiliate their racist targets.
What about free speech? Shouldn’t anti-fascists respect and believe in other people’s rights to express their points of view?
In my experience, this question has been the hardest aspect of antifa to explain to liberal relatives. A family member could ask whether antifa should bring their disagreements with right-wingers into the so-called “marketplace of ideas,” or raise issues of hate speech through the legal system. They might wonder why antifa participants feel they should or are allowed to take things into their own hands.
The notion that anyone, even the most vile racist, should be permitted to enjoy the right to spew their ideas in public is a central tenet of U.S. liberalism. There is a view that sees tactical and moral value in allowing even neo-Nazis to publicly speak and rally, believing that the fallacies of their hateful views are best made visible.
There are a few ways to address this. First and foremost, we can assert that Black and immigrant lives matter—which fascists would deny—and that’s not up for debate. This is not an academic question. It is a threat to the lives of people of color.
Antifa activists take direct, community-based action precisely because they understand the state (especially under Trump), the police, and the legal system to be racist, often fascistic, institutions.
For me, I’ve always found the aspect of antifa I most want relatives to understand is that it is reasonable, not senseless; it is a reasoned response to the nature of fascist organizing. Antifa practices understand that the desire for fascism is not something based on reason, so it is not something to be reasoned out of. The point at the very heart of antifa action is to make unpleasant, real-life consequences for those people who would engage in fascist organizing. If the sense of power, domination and belonging is what makes fascism appealing—why young white men are jumping on board—militant anti-fascist action is about shutting down that appeal.
Antifa action is not senseless fighting and destruction for destruction’s sake. It is based on an understanding of how fascism functions, how the desire for it spreads, and how to best intervene with that. People can disagree about how and when certain tactics are effective, but antifa practices are based on a studied understanding of fascism, and the need for fascist practices to be, quite simply, ended.
I would challenge any relative or acquaintance who demands that anti-racists respond politely to those who are committed to upholding and strengthening the status quo of white supremacy, which is deadly for Black and brown people. If your relative remains so troubled by a broken window at a Black Lives Matter protest, your disagreement might not, in fact, be about tactics that antifa participants might use, but about whose lives and safety get to matter. And it might, in the spirit of antifa, be time to shut that conversation down.
Natasha Lennard is the author of Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life. Follow her on Twitter.