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What is Antifa?

Far-left Antifa groups use radical means to protest against the alt-right.

Antifa protestors face off with opponents from the far-right Patriot Prayer group on December 9, 2017. (Image Credit: Old White Truck/Wikimedia Commons)
Antifa protestors face off with opponents from the far-right Patriot Prayer group on December 9, 2017. (Image Credit: Old White Truck/Wikimedia Commons)

Antifa, short for anti-fascists, is a far-left movement in the United States that often uses radical measures to push back against alt-right and white nationalist groups.

Antifa groups believe in using direct action and have engaged in violence. They trace their origins to the anti-Nazi Antifaschistische Aktion group founded in Germany in the 1930s and the Anti-Fascist Action, a militant group found in the 1980s in the United Kingdom. The Antifa ideology is rooted in the assumption that “the Nazi party would never have been able to come to power in Germany if people had more aggressively fought them in the streets in the 1920s and 30s,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.

In the United States, Antifa is not a united group but is rather made up of a loose collection of local and regional groups and individuals. There is no central leadership. Activism comes through informal local or regional collaboration. As Salon politics writer Chauncey DeVega puts it, Antifa is an organizing strategy, not a group of people.

Antifa activists feel the need to participate in violent actions because “they believe that elites are controlling the government and the media. So they need to make a statement head-on against the people who they regard as racist,” says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at the California State University.

The movement has grown since the 2016 U.S. presidential election. According to historian and political organizer Mark Bray, it’s been estimated that a couple of hundred Antifa chapters, of varying sizes, exist in the U.S. currently.

Antifa groups protested the 2016 election of Donald Trump. They were also involved in the Berkley protests against alt-right speaker Milo Yiannopoulus. And the movement gained national media attention when they counter-protested against the 2017 alt-right rally in Charlottesville where they famously chanted that counter-protesters should “punch a Nazi in the mouth.”

Last month, Antifa protestors clashed with a far-right group in Portland which resulted in an attack on alt-right provacateur Andy Ngo, sending him to the hospital. Conservative media outlets including Fox News have used the attack on Ngo as evidence that the U.S. has a left-wing violence problem. More recently, the Dayton shooter was also uncovered to be a radical left-winger who encouraged violence against capitalists and tweeted “kill every fascist.”

However, it is not just the conservatives who have criticized Antifa. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi condemned the violence of Antifa activists in Berkeley. And historian Noam Chomsky has described them as “a major gift to the right.”

Most recently, Trump said he is considering designating Antifa as a terrorist organization.

Some, however, believe the rise of white nationalism may justify Antifa activism. Bray has said “Given the historical and current threat that white supremacist and fascist groups pose, it’s clear to me that organized, collective self-defense is not only a legitimate response but lamentably an all-too-necessary response to this threat on too many occasions.”

Last week Antifa protestors faced off against a far-right rally in Portland, which prompted the tweet by Trump. A huge police operation in the city kept both protestors separate though small clashes were reported. Portland is considered to be an Antifa stronghold. Other areas in the country where the movement is active include Philadelphia and the Bay Area California.

To equate Antifa activists to the those on the alt-right would be a mistake, however, as Peter Beinart notes. White supremacy in the U.S. has killed far more people. Antifa also does not yield the same political power that white supremacists do. While the tactics employed by Antifa activists are troubling, they mobilize against the far-right. And to address their violence means also taking action against the rise of white supremacists in the country.

Rahima Sohail is a contributor to Globely News, writing on U.S. politics and the geopolitics of Asia. She was previously a sub-editor and producer at The Express Tribune, a Pakistani English-language daily. She spends most of her time reading and ranting about politics and football.

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