The resistance to the Trump Administration’s assault on civil and human rights includes the emergence of a controversial group known as ‘Antifa,’ whose participants have made it clear that they have no objection to using physical violence to challenge hate groups. Most recently, Antifa was highly-visible at the Charlottesville protests, in which a young woman was killed by an auto driven by a right-wing terrorist.
“Antifa is short for anti-fascists,” writes Jessica Suerth at cnn.com. “The term is used to define a broad group of people whose political beliefs lean toward the left — often the far left — but do not conform with the Democratic Party platform. The group doesn’t have an official leader or headquarters, although groups in certain states hold regular meetings.” There is a longer tradition of ani-fascist resistance groups in Europe and elsewhere.
As Peter Beinart notes at The Atlantic,
The movement traces its roots to the militant leftists who in the 1920s and 1930s brawled with fascists on the streets of Germany, Italy, and Spain. It revived in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, when anti-racist punks in Britain and Germany mobilized to defeat Neo-Nazi skinheads who were 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. They have seen explosive growth in the Trump era for an obvious reason: There’s more open white supremacism to mobilize against.
As members of a largely anarchist movement, antifa activists generally combat white supremacism not by trying to change government policy but through direct action. They try to publicly identify white supremacists and get them fired from their jobs and evicted from their apartments. And they disrupt white-supremacist rallies, including by force.
Antifa in the U.S. is really more of a loose aggregation of resistance groups, most of whom share a general belief that progressives should not shrink from returning the violence committed by Klan, neo-nazis or other Alt-right groups. Judging by news videos, the Antifa does appear to be growing in size, which is understandable, given the uptick in hate group activity. Brenna Cammeron reports at bbc.com that the closest thing Antifa has to a web page, the “It’s Going Down” website received around 300 hits daily in 2015, now garners between 10-20,000 hits a day.”
They’re troubling tactically because conservatives use antifa’s violence to justify—or at least distract from—the violence of white supremacists, as Trump did in his press conference. They’re troubling strategically because they allow white supremacists to depict themselves as victims being denied the right to freely assemble. And they’re troubling morally because antifa activists really do infringe upon that right. By using violence, they reject the moral legacy of the civil-rights movement’s fight against white supremacy.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, Beinart writes, “right-wing extremists committed 74 percent of the 372 politically motivated murders recorded in the United States between 2007 and 2016. Left-wing extremists committed less than 2 percent.” Few rational swing voters are likely to be convinced that violence from the political left is as pervasive as that from the right.
Suerth reports that “White nationalists and other members of the so-called alt-right have denounced members of Antifa, sometimes calling them the “alt-left,” which Trump repeatedly referred to in his widely-criticized remarks yesterday at Trump Tower.
Antifa supporters might argue that a little physical confrontation of the Brooks Brothers Rioters back in 2000 might have prevented a lot of human misery. They also believe that, when a neo-fascist knows that they can easily be on the receiving end of violence, they will temper their behavior.
But opening the door to violent resistence is a more dangerous strategy in that there are millions more guns circulating today than back in the mid-late 1960s, when progressives debated the choice between violent and nonviolent methods for social change. Despite the mass shooting in Alexandria, what is remarkable is how few incidents have occurred in which the perpetrator of violence can be accurately identified as a left-progressive of any sort. How long can this last in a society increasingly poisoned by social anger and the unrestricted proliferation of assault weapons?
Going forward, it seems a sure bet that Trump and the Republicans, particularly their alt-right flank, will make broad-brush characterizations of the American left as violent. Trump’s Tuesday rant is a signal that this strategy, which appears to have Bannon’s fingerprints, is already being implemented. They will hold up the example of the mass shooting in Alexandria, VA that wounded U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise as corroborating evidence that the left is as violent as the right, and they will have the bully pulpit and GOP echo chamber to parrot this false equivalence meme. Many will believe them and many others will take the bait just because it fits their comfort zone with their families and friends.
I imagine that many of the Antifa protesters are admirers of Martin Luther King, Jr. But those who would follow Dr. King should remember his insistence that “means and ends must cohere.” Had Dr. King at any juncture legitimated violent resistance to injustice, his credibility would have been squandered, and we would be living in a very different nation. It’s an impressive tribute to his leadership and the dedication of his S.C.L.C. staff and coworkers in the Civil Rights Movement that this principle was never compromised, even when they were being brutalized and murdered by racists.
Adhering to an exclusively nonviolent strategy is not about basking in the glories of ideological purity. It is every bit a strategic consideration. As King often pointed out, nonviolence confers a unique credibility and dignity on its practitioners. When an individual is assaulted and refuses to return the violence as a matter of principled self-discipline, witnesses of the incident, which today could be many millions of television and internet viewers, will be moved toward a profound emotional sympathy with the victim and antipathy towards the perpetrator.
Thus far Antifa has not been very violent, at least in comparison to the alt-right. But they should take care not to project an overly violent spirit, which is easilly captured on video and in photos and can be amplified and exaggerated in different media formats. It wouldn’t hurt to give more thought to the optics of yelling threats and brandishing sticks. They can be made to look more violent than they are in reality.
Regardless of the direction the Antifa chooses, now would be a good time for progressive groups who espouse exclusively nonviolent means to proclaim and amplify their uncompromising commitment to their principles. Enduring credibility is more likely to come from consistent nonviolence than physical retaliation.