Constructing a Boogeyman: Myths and Realities of Antifa Activism

For many people in the United States, antifa activism is a relatively new phenomenon that they view with suspicion at best and derision at worst. Short for antifascist, antifa is a term used by activists who organize to oppose the political activity of far-right movements and their members. Because activists on the far right frequently deploy violence against their enemies, opposition work is especially dangerous, which necessitates anonymity and identity protection strategies by antifa activists. The diffuse nature of antifascist activism also means that there are few spokespeople and no official organizations that speak on behalf of the movement. All of this results in a movement that has been defined much more by its opponents than by its adherents creating a number of persistent myths about the antifascist movement and the activists who engage in it.

Myth #1: Antifascism is a relatively new phenomenon in the U.S.

For the casual observer, antifascist activism might seem like something that appeared in response to the campaign and election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States in 2016. Antifa activists seemingly materialized out of nowhere in 2017 beginning with the militant demonstrations against Trump’s inauguration and the infamous punching of Richard Spencer, the far-right gadfly who coined the term “alt-right,” that happened in the context of the protest. A series of high-profile clashes between antifascists and far-right activists defined much of that year culminating in the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. The night-time tiki torch march by far-right rally-goers on August 11th shocked much of the nation. The following day, militant antifascists clashed with far-right activists successfully defending pacifist protesters from violence and routing the assorted neo-Nazis, Klansmen, Proud Boys, and assorted alt-right trolls who came to ostensibly protest the removal of Confederate monuments from a city park. The day turned deadly when a neo-Nazi rally-goer drove his car at high speed into a march of people who were leaving the site of the day’s protests to celebrate their antifascist victory killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. The following week over 40,000 people mobilized in Boston to oppose a rally of fewer than 100 far-right activists. Images from that counter-protest showed many of the attendees praising antifa in signs and banners that demonstrated support for the movement and its role in opposing the far-right.

It is somewhat unsurprising that many people would only be familiar with the most recent incarnation of antifascist activism. Much of the antifa activism of the last 40 years has taken place in the sometimes literally subterranean world of subcultures where racist skinheads proliferated and antifascist participants self-organized to expel them. The lack of education about radical social movements in U.S. history either writes out or deradicalizes the long history of antifascist struggle. However, antifascism has a long and storied history that resonates with today’s activists who draw upon it for inspiration and iconography.

Contemporary antifascist activism is simply the latest manifestation of a history of resistance to reactionary movements and politics in the United States. One of the earliest historical inspirations for today’s antifa activists is the militant abolitionism of John Brown. Although Brown’s battle against slavery pre-dates the formation of fascism as an ideology and movement by over 60 years, his militant resistance to the racist institution of slavery is seen as an inspiration for the confrontational approach of the antifascist movement. Contemporary antifascists frequently use Brown’s image and struggle as a symbol of their resistance to the racist right in American society, and the network of armed leftist John Brown Gun Clubs is a direct homage to the man and the movement that he represents. In the post-abolition struggle against organized white supremacy, contemporary antifascism can be understood as the latest manifestation of the militant resistance to Ku Klux Klan violence that began during reconstruction and persisted through most of the 20th century.

Direct, and often violent, confrontation against fascism has its own storied history in the United States with a direct lineage to modern antifa activism. The earliest American fascist movements modeled after their Italian and German counterparts began in the 1920s and drew popular support throughout the 1930s. Chief among them was a German American Bund, which had direct connections with the German Nazi party. The Bund quickly drew the attention of American leftists and the Jewish community who saw it as a direct threat and organized to disrupt it by attacking meetings in cities such as New York, Newark, Chicago, and Milwaukee. This resistance culminated at the Bund’s 1939 rally at Madison Square Garden which drew 20,000 attendees and 100,000 antifascist counter-protesters. As protesters outside the venue clashes with police and fascist rally-goers, Isadore Greenbaum snuck into the venue and stormed the stage during the keynote address by Bund leader Fritz Kuhn briefly punching the Nazi leader before being attacked by Kuhn’s security and arrested by the police (Bernstein 2014). The Bund collapsed shortly after this rally when Kuhn was arrested for embezzling organizational funds, and American fascist movements were actively repressed during World War II as “antifascism from below” receded in the shadow of official state antifascism.

Post-War antifascism in the U.S. was largely marked by resistance to the Klan discussed earlier; however, the direct antecedents of today’s antifascist movement became evident by the late 1970s with two disparate events – the Skokie affair and the Greensboro massacre. Beginning in 1976, the National Socialist Party of America challenged the denial of a permit to hold a rally in Skokie, IL, a city with a significant Jewish population many of whom were Holocaust survivors and WWII veterans. After a legal battle that involved the ACLU defending the neo-Nazi group’s first amendment right to assembly and Supreme Court intervention, a march was held in Chicago on June 24, 1976. A crowd of several thousand counter-protesters, some armed with baseball bats and other blunt objects, met the roughly 20 neo-Nazis who abandoned their march after about 10 minutes. In contrast to the victory in Illinois, the Greensboro massacre stands as a harsh lesson about the dangers of organized fascist violence. organizers with the Communist Worker’s Party (CWP) had experienced some success organizing workers in the textile mills of the North Carolina city. In July of 1979, they successfully disrupted a screening of the infamous racist film Birth of a Nation that was organized by local Klansmen. Based on this successful confrontation, the CWP organized a “Death to the Klan” march on November 3rd of that year. As marchers were preparing, several vehicles with members of the Klan and American Nazi Party who had formed a “United Racist Front” arrived and armed fascists began to shoot the antifascist marchers some of whom returned fire. When the shooting was over five antifascists were killed and another 10 were injured (Bray 2017). There is some evidence that the lack of police response may have been part of an intentional strategy to undermine the organizing efforts of the CWP and that members of the Klan may have colluded with federal and local law enforcement (Waller 2002). The Greensboro massacre is viewed as an important lesson for antifascists on the potential collusion between the far right and the state as well as the limits of militant language without the potential for action.

Contemporary antifa activism has its most direct roots in the 1980s. The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee (JBAKC), which formed in 1978, represents the transition from New Left and Civil Rights movement activism to the more subcultural antifascism of the 1990s. The JBAKC organized militant counterdemonstrations against Klan and neo-Nazi rallies and marches. Its newspaper, originally titled “Death to the Klan,” was renamed “No KKK – No Fascist U.S.A.” drawing inspiration from a lyric by the punk band MDC. They actively reached out to the American punk scene where racist skinheads began organizing in the early 1980s. Throughout the U.S., local punk scenes faced similar problems of racist skinhead infiltration, which was reflected in the lyrics of notable bands such as the aforementioned MDC, Dead Kennedys, and the Dicks. In 1987, a group and anti-racist skinheads in New York formed the first American chapter of Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice to confront their racist subcultural counterparts. Similarly oriented anti-racist skinhead groups were forming in the Midwest in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis that would band together in the Anti-Racist Action network (ARA) in 1989 with chapters established in Denver, Portland, and the Bay Area shortly after its foundation. ARA chapters quickly spread across the country throughout the 90s bolstered by traveling punks and skinheads, articles in fanzines with large and small circulations, and support from touring punk bands of varying levels of fame. This antifascist network successfully confronted racists within local punk and skinhead scenes driving them underground and mobilized to oppose marches and rallies by national neo-Nazi organizations like the Klan, the Aryan Nations, the National Alliance, and the Creativity Movement.

The first groups to formally use the antifa name in the United States formed in the early to mid 2000s. Beginning with Northeast Antifascists in Boston in 2002, then followed by Rose City Antifa in 2007, these groups were affiliated with the ARA network but chose to use the antifa name specifically because of criticisms levied against the network for its lack of focus on structural and systemic racism as well as an influence of European antifascist activism within these specific groups’ membership. These groups also formed as antifascist activism in the U.S. was on the decline in some part as a result of the success of ARA in the 1990s. The ARA network formally disbanded in the early 2010s and was replaced by the Torch Antifa network in 2013 with some overlap in membership. The Torch network continues to this day linking independent, local antifascist affinity groups throughout the U.S. However, it would be incorrect to assume that the network constitutes an “Antifa” organization.

Myth #2: Antifa is an Organization

Despite the claims of those who speak or write about “Antifa” or “ANTIFA” as if it were a formal organization, there is no centrally organized group that operates as such. While the Torch network has official points of unity and member affinity groups, it is a decentralized network of member collectives rather than a formal, hierarchical organization. There is no Antifa headquarters, there are no Antifa leaders, and there is no Antifa centralized organization. The antifascist movement in the U.S., similar to antifa movement globally, is a decentralized network of individuals and relatively small, local affinity groups linked by a common opposition to the far right or, for lack of another umbrella term, fascism. In my research with antifa activists, I found that antifascism exists on a scale of informal to formal with a category of independent in between.

Informal antifascist activism is relatively spontaneous, spatially as well as temporally limited, and performed by people who may or may not be affiliated with a formally organized antifa affinity group. Much of what constitutes informal antifascist activism is the “everyday antifascism” of spontaneous reaction to the presence of people who openly identify as far-right activists or movement members in the social spaces of daily life. This type of activism can range from public confrontation through verbal shaming to acts of physical confrontation. It occurs when a person who on some level opposes the politics of the far right chooses to stand up against their presence in a social space. Examples include the attendees of an underground music venue spontaneously ejecting people who indicate far right sympathies on their clothing or through their tattoos to people who confront someone expressing bigotry in a public space to a person being knocked out for wearing a swastika armband on public transit. What makes these actions forms of informal antifascism is that they are not being committed as part of an organized effort to oppose the far right but are simply actions that people take spurred by their conscience.

In contrast, formal antifascism is undertaken by groups of people who form affinity groups with theoretical and tactical agreement in order to engage in sustained activity against the far right. Formal antifascist groups have criteria for membership and some durability over time. These groups will engage in long-term campaigns against far-right activists and groups in their communities. A formal antifascist group may be relatively small, closed to outsiders, and secretive or seek to engage in mass organizing to counter fascist activity. The key distinguishing factor of formal antifascism is that it has a long-term strategy for opposing the far right that is carried out through sustained forms of activism.

The category of independent antifascist activism bridges the gap between the informal and formal categories and can approximate one or the other. Independent activism is carried out by an individual or small group somewhere between the two categories in the continuum. It can range from short term, or one time, antifascist projects implemented by a handful of people to continuous work by an individual. The degree to which independent antifascism approximates informal or formal forms is based on whether the number of participants and the continuity of activism with some being one off, spur of the moment forms of activism typical of a formal group (e.g. doxing a fascist) to ongoing research on the far right conducted over an extended period of time.

Because there is no such thing as a large, centralized antifascist organization, the myth that antifa is a well-funded organization carries little weight. This narrative frequently dovetails with antisemitic conspiracies theories involving billionaire George Soros and the foundation that bears his name. To the degree that formal antifascist groups have access to monetary resources, it is the result of direct fundraising campaigns from supporters. Many formal groups will produce merchandise that they sell typically at subcultural events or through networks of ideological supporters on the left. These funds are used to pay for access to documents such as court records of suspected fascist movement members as well as intelligence gathering and verification projects. Some formal groups also raise money to support antifascists who are incarcerated for their political activity. The idea that antifa is a money-making operation that enriches participants is an absurd fiction.

The diffuse nature of contemporary antifascist activism also means that there are no direct ties between antifa activists and the Democratic Party, another common myth associated with organizational structure. Most contemporary antifa activists identify as anti-authoritarian or anarchist, so they are unlikely to work hand-in-hand with a mainstream political party, and certainly not a centrist one. There is no coordination between the Democratic Party and any antifa activism. In my research, I found that antifa activists frequently do have links to other activists typically on the radical left. In some cases, antifa activists were part of anarchist groups while others worked with left-oriented campaigns for economic, political, and social justice. Because of the network of links between activists, antifascists were frequently embedded in a wider milieu of leftist activism; however, they are not an arm of any political party in the United States.

Myth #3: Antifa Can Be Classified as a Gang

This myth represents the first attempt at a backlash against antifascist activism following the events at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. First articulated by the mayor of Berkeley, CA in response to militant action during a counterprotest of a far-right rally in late August 2017 (Porter 2017), this charge was given intellectual weight by criminologists and research experts David C. Pyrooz and Daniel A. Densley (2017; 2018) in a Wall Street Journaleditorial that was later expanded into a scholarly article published in the journal Society. In these pieces, they claim that antifa activists can classified as a street gang because they meet criteria in the California Penal code and the Eurogang program of research: illegal activity, a street orientation, group identity, and durability across time. Setting aside the fact that the defining criteria used by Pyrooz and Densley is so vague as to potentially apply to American police as much as antifascists, much of their argument is based on a superficial understanding of antifa activism constructed by sensationalist media reporting.

The first assumption that antifa activism is defined by illegal activity, namely violence, is itself a major myth regarding antifascism. It assumes that the primary activity of antifa activists is the violent clashes featured in media portrayals. Pyrooz and Delsey (2018, 233) argue that histories of antifascism frequently focus on the violent conflicts between antifa activists and the far right, “the history of antifa reads like a history of violence.” In my research on antifa activism, I point out that the focus on violent defeat of fascism serves primarily as a rallying cry; a “proof of life” of the antifascist movement and the myriad groups of people threatened by fascist violence and a “proof of death” of the far right and the threat that it poses (Vysotsky 2020). Antifascists glorify violence both in their histories and in their symbolism precisely because fascism is predicated on violence. For fascism, violence is both a means and an end in that it is both the way of achieving the society that they long to see and the primary organizing principle of that society. Fascists venerate violence as intrinsically good and the violent person as spiritually and physically superior. For the far right, the non-violent opponent is ineffectual, inferior, and easily suppressed. Antifascist violence is, therefore, both defensive and necessary to undermine one of the central principles of far-right ideology. My research also found that antifa activists had firsthand experience with fascist violence. All of the militant antifascists whom I interviewed experience verbal threats and direct physical from people on the far right. They were targeted because they were LGBTQ+, Jewish, people of color, or leftist and antifascist. These threats occurred because these interviewees were in the same social, primarily subcultural, spaces as far-right activists. For antifa activists, violence is a strategic defensive response to a violent far-right movement.

Beyond the lack of understanding of the rationale for antifascist militancy, the assumption that violence is the primary organizing principle of antifa activism, and that said violence occurs in the context of street protest (read: a street orientation), simply misses the vast majority of what constitutes is the routine, nonviolent stuff of most contemporary social movements. Even the majority of antifascist protest activity is nonviolent (Ellinas and Lamprianou 2021). Antifascists, like other activists hold meetings where they discuss strategy and plan actions. The vast majority of action committed by antifa activists involves intelligence and information gathering, education and public shaming campaigns, and cultural activity. Information gathering consists of learning about far-right movements and activists through everything from reading scholarly and journalistic accounts to open-source intelligence gathering to infiltration of fascist organizations and groupuscules. This information informs education and public shaming campaigns which are designed to either enlighten the public about the far-right activity in their midst or to leverage the stigma against open expressions of fascism in contemporary society. The latter is also designed to increase the cost of participation in far-right movements by threatening activists’ access to education, employment, and even housing. This may seem harsh to some, but as the slogan for the antifascist group One People’s Project states, “hate has consequences.” Finally, like so many other contemporary social movements, a great deal of antifascist activity is social. In my description of the sites of ethnographic research, I stated that I attended “a variety of social events such as Punk, Oi!, and Hardcore shows, DJ nights, film screenings, house parties, and informal gatherings in bars and other social spaces associated with punk and skinhead subculture” (Vysotsky 2020, 20). While most social movements have cultural and social aspects, the volume of these in antifa activism is in part strategic. Because far-right activists target certain subcultures for recruitment, antifa activists seek to build robust antifascist cultures to defend against such encroachment.

The final criteria for defining antifa activism as a gang, group identity is true, but presented completely out of context. Since the mid-to-late 1980s, scholars of social movements have noted that in post-WWII era, most forms of organizing are based on group identity (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, age, etc.). As indicated above, antifa activist group identity is primarily defined by a shared perception of threat from the far right. Activists find commonality in their understanding that far-right activity poses a physical, political or spatial threat. Physical threat consists of “a fear of direct physical harm or danger at the hands of fascist activists that stems from the individual being a member of a category of people targeted for fascist violence” (Vysotsky 2020, 129). The political threat posed by the far right is both ideological in that it represents the polar opposite to the anti-authoritarian beliefs of antifascists and pragmatic because fascists frequently recruit from a similar base. Spatial threat occurs when far-right activists seek to control social spaces and impose their ideology upon the people who frequent them. In my research, I found that antifa activists experienced all of these forms of threat, sometimes simultaneously as part of their day-to-day activities. While most people are unlikely to come face-to-face with a far-right activist outside of a counter-protest setting, the antifa activists whom I interviewed had personal experiences of threat from the far-right. These experiences of threat motivated them to become involved in antifascist activism as a form of self-defense as well as an extension of their political activity.

Pyrooz and Densley are correct when they indicate that antifa activists express their group identity in easily recognizable forms; however, they mis-identify that expression and the context in which it occurs. To classify antifa activism as a gang, they claim that “members” may be identified through a common clothing and symbols, “Bloods wear red; Crips wear blue; antifa wear black” (Pyrooz and Densley 2018, 234). This argument mistakes the “black bloc” tactic of groups of militant protesters wearing all black and covering their faces with some sort of movement uniform. There is significant debate within the antifascist movement regarding the utility of this tactic in antifascist counterprotest with many making the case that it has more negative than positive value. The assumption that black bloc dress is an antifa uniform also makes an incorrect association that anyone dressed in that style in a protest context is an antifa activist, a myth that I will discuss later in this article. Pyrooz and Densley’s assertion that antifa activists display similar symbols is entirely correct but makes a bold assumption about the function of those symbols as indicators of criminal identity rather than a political one. Antifa collective identity is expressed through a variety of cultural markers such as music, art, clothing, and even tattoos that serve as a means of expressing a person’s position in opposition to fascism, not as an expression of collective gang identity. Unlike gang members who must “earn” their right to wear certain symbols or colors, antifascist identity expression is open to anyone who takes an ideological position against the far right. Formal groups and individual sympathizers sell clothing, patches, and buttons with antifascist symbols and slogans to anyone who is willing to buy them as part of a strategy to build a culture of resistance. These displays not only serve as a way of expressing a political belief no different from any other social movement but also as a way of marking certain subcultures and social spaces as unwelcoming to far right recruitment. Antifa group identity serves as a means of creating bonds and cohesion among movement members and a form of resistance to the far right.

The final argument that antifa activism is durable across time is also true on its face, but similarly ignores context and social movement scholarship. Pyrooz and Densley point out that although individual participation may change over time, there is a persistence of antifascist activity across time. This is, of course, true of any social movement. Scholars of social movements point to “cycles of protest” where movements mobilize and demobilize as well as “abeyance structures” that sustain movements during periods of demobilization or low levels of public support (Tarrow 1998; Taylor 1989). Antifa activism is persistent across time because it is a countermovement against the far right. Antifascist movements continue to mobilize because far-right movements continue to organize and agitate. The cycle of protest for antifascists is entirely tied to that of the far right. When such movements are prominent, so are antifascists. When they go into abeyance, so does antifascism. One unique feature of antifascism is that it may continue to be active in the abeyance structures, the spaces and practices that sustain a movement when it isn’t actively mobilizing (Taylor 1989), because in recent history these have become subcultural spaces where fascists organize. The key feature here is that antifascism is persistent across time because of political activity rather than criminality.

The attempt to criminalize and discredit antifa activism as a gang activity largely faltered because of the thin premises upon which it was built. Chief among these was the key fact that antifascism is a politically motivated form of activism rather than the use of criminal violence for short-term gain typical of gangs. As a countermovement, antifa activists mobilize in opposition to another social movement rather than define themselves as a criminal enterprise that competes with rivals for criminalized markets and control of territory to monopolize said markets. Simply put, antifascism is political activism that is militant at times, not a gang.

Myth #4: Antifa Activism Can Be Classified as Terrorism

The relative failure to criminalize and delegitimize antifa activism by labeling it as gang activity resulted in a strategic shift on the right that framed militant antifascism as terrorist activity. This framing was driven by the ideological component of antifa activism coupled with the misrepresentations of antifascism as inherently violent and focused on the beliefs of people on the right. The argument put forward was that antifa activists were engaging in politically motivated intimidation through violence, which constitutes terrorism. Bolstered by several local, state, and federal law enforcement assessments, the antifa as terrorists frame was publicly repeated by then President Trump and inspired the introduction of a resolution by Senator Ted Cruz to investigate antifascist activism under RICO statutes (Sunshine 2019). While the antifa as terrorist organization frame has been more successful than the antifa as a gang frame, it is still predicated on an intentional misunderstanding of antifascist activism; namely that the primary form of antifascist activity is violence that meets the threshold of terrorism and antifascist militancy is a form of political intimidation.

The first premise of the terrorism argument is based on an exaggeration of the scale and scope of violent acts committed by antifa activists. As discussed in the previous section, the vast majority of antifa activity is non-violent; however, this does not necessarily preclude a terrorism designation. The context of antifascist violent acts indicates that they are not terroristic in nature. First, as indicated above, antifa activists are frequently the targets of far-right violence. Antifascist use of force is defensive against a far-right movement that seeks to at best intimidate people through violence and commit genocidal acts at worst. Second, antifascist violence is primarily enacted in very specific political and social contexts. Most people are only familiar with the violent acts committed by antifa activists in a protest context. In these cases, these are actions that fall well within the dynamics of opposing social movements; specifically, the strategy to damage and destroy the opposing movement by raising the cost of participation (Zald and Useem 1987). Violent clashes between antifascists and far-right activists in part contribute to some activists disengaging from fascist movements (Bowen 2008; Linden and Klandermans 2006). Antifascist violence also occurs in subcultural and social spaces that far-right activists target for recruitment or ideological control. In these cases, acts of antifascist violence occur as part of the process of ejecting fascists from these spaces and ensuring the safety of other people. “Put simply, they do not leave when they are made to feel unwelcome or asked politely to do so; therefore, it becomes incumbent on the anti-fascists to motivate them to leave a space where they are unwelcome and/or pose a threat” (Vysotsky 2015, 248). This violence is no different than what one might face from a bouncer or law enforcement officer when being ejected from a space. Finally, the acts themselves simply do not meet the threshold of terrorist violence and are not included in databases of terrorist activity (LaFree 2018). Antifa activists strategically employ restrain in their use of force in order to maintain a defensive position (Merrill and Copsey 2022). Fist fights with far-right activists in protest and social settings are simply not the equivalent of murders, bombings, and arson attacks that are typical of terrorism.

The framing strategy by the far right to label antifascist acts terrorism is a false equivalence that that engages in projection and obfuscation of right-wing terrorist violence. The occasional clashes between antifa and far-right activists pale in comparison to the gruesome bias crimes, mass shootings, bombings, and arson attacks committed by the far right. Year after year, research by the Anti-Defamation League indicates that far-right activists are responsible for the vast majority of terrorist violence in the United States. By proclaiming that antifascists are terrorists, activists on the far right, right-wing politicians, and credulous journalists consistently minimize fascist violence.

The final argument used by those who would label antifa activists terrorists is that their violent acts are a form of political intimidation. This claim is based in part on the reality of antifascism as a political stance against the far right. Proponents of this position argue that antifa activists target people for their right-wing beliefs and that anyone who holds such beliefs may be a target of antifascist violence; the latter being a distinct myth that will be addressed later in this article. This assumption misses the key aspect of antifascist activism; that it is focused on the deeds of far-right activists rather than their beliefs. The context of antifascist violence described above clearly indicates that it is that act of being a far-right activist that engenders an antifa response. Antifa activists do not wish to engage in a “battle of ideas” with the far right nor do they prioritize changing the minds of individual believers in right-wing ideology. Instead, they focus their activism on known far-right activists and obvious fascist events such as rallies and recruitment efforts. Antifascist violence is meant to disrupt the activity of the far right, not to engage in a debate of ideas. As such, it is again, the routine stuff of countermovement activism.

There are some who argue that antifascism constitutes terrorism because of clashes between antifa activists and police or acts of property destruction. This is an error of context that ignores the role of police in repression of antifascist movements and association with the far right. Antifascists are typically critical of the state from an anti-authoritarian perspective and understand their actions as part of a “three-way fight” against it and the far right. However, clashes between antifa activists and police frequently occur in a specific protest context where the latter actively protect far right activists or engage in repression of antifascist counter-protest under the guise of crowd control or the restoration of order. Police routinely mobilize in a manner that provides protection to far-right rallygoers focusing their attention of antifascist counter-protesters. This dynamic places them in conflict with antifascists while also literally turning their back to far-right acts of intimidation and violence. In other cases, police have taken a “soft” approach to dealing with far-right violence and even engaged in outright collusion such as in Portland, OR where officers told right-wing activists to remove a sniper nest trained on antifascists without detaining them, stood by as activists attacked antifascists, warned activists of potential arrests on warrants, and even exchanged supportive text messages with a far-right leader (Knox 2019; Shepherd 2019). In this type of context, the antifascist position of opposition to the state and the far right seems clear.

While the myth that antifa activists are terrorists is persistent, it doesn’t accurately reflect the reality of antifascist activism. Clashes between antifascists and far right activists almost never reach a level of violence beyond that of a street fight. This type of violence pales in comparison to actual acts of terrorism committed by the far right and is meant to obscure and obfuscate that reality. Even though antifascist violence may be political in its orientation, it is part of a movement-countermovement dynamic or in response to acts of repression on the part of the state.

Myth #5: Antifa = Black Bloc = Black Lives Matter

As mentioned in the previous section, there is persistent rhetoric that equates antifa activism with the black bloc tactic and blames this for the militancy of racial justice protests in the summer of 2020 in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. This framing assumes that the black bloc tactic is inherently an antifascist one and that all militant protest is therefore committed by antifa activists. This myth is persistent to such a degree that criminologists Michael K. Logan and Gina S. Ligon (2021) used arrests during racial justice protests in the summer of 2020 in Portland, OR to analyze demographics of “anti-fascists.” Their logic presents the most benign version of this strange equivalence – antifascists oppose racism and Portland is notorious for its militant antifascist movement, so anyone arrested in that city during a racial justice protest would likely be an antifascist. Contortions of logic aside, the black bloc tactic is not proprietary to antifa activists nor is protest militancy. The myth that antifa, black bloc, and Black Lives Matter are essentially the same thing is meant to distort and discredit all three.

The black bloc tactic was developed by European autonomist movements in the 1980s. These movements were primarily anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, feminist, anti-racist, and antifascist. The tactical innovation of the black bloc, where protesters dress in non-descript black clothing and march together in a disciplined group, was developed to allow protesters to engage in militant tactics with relative anonymity that would protect them from repression at the protest or investigation after. This tactic was imported to North America in the 1990s via radical magazines and anarchist punk fanzines that covered global protest movements. It was deployed at demonstrations against the Gulf War in the early 1990s and anti-globalization protests in the late 1990s and early 2000s primarily by anarchists and anti-authoritarians. The black bloc served as a means of bringing together people with similar tactical approaches to engage in militant protest (Dupuis-Déri 2013). Because of its association with militant protest and its deployment at some antifascist demonstrations, the black bloc was labeled as a key component of antifa activism as indicated by Pyrooz and Densley’s misrepresentation discussed earlier in this article. As we can see, the tactic, however, is not inherently antifascist and is not even the preferred tactic of many antifa activists. Because of its association with militant protest, the black bloc draws heavier police attention in protest settings and can hinder confrontational tactics. Many antifa activists now prefer a strategy of attending demonstrations in normative, non-descript clothing to better fit into a crowd rather than standing out in all black. This allows them to engage in confrontational tactics while still being able to be part of the protest. And while it might be safe to assume that everyone participating in a black bloc in the U.S. identifies on some level as an antifascist, they may not necessarily be a formal or even independent antifascist as described earlier in this article. One cannot even assume that the black bloc is an inherently anti-authoritarian or antifascist tactic because it has been appropriated by far-right factions in Europe and North America. The association of the black bloc with antifa is, therefore, largely a construction of right-wing media in an attempt to stoke fear in its audience.

When racial justice protests flared up across the country and globally in the summer of 2020 in response to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers and the continued violence against people of color by police, right-wing media had a field day of fearmongering. The thousands of protests across the country and solidarity globally combined with the righteous anger that led to the burning of the 3rd district police station in Minneapolis, property destruction in some major cities, the abandonment of the Capitol Hill police station in Seattle and establishment of an autonomous zone in that area, as well as the over 100 days of protests and rioting in Portland provided fodder for the right-ring media machine and online conspiracists. The association of militant protest with antifa activism that had been commonplace in right-wing media and online spaces for at least 3 years prior created a narrative designed to discredit the protests and sow dissention among racial justice activists. The narrative equated militant protest with antifa, which in the context of the racial justice protests was equated with the movement for Black lives. In a variation of the great replacement conspiracy theory that claims that Jewish elites seek to displace white people by encouraging non-white immigration and civil rights for people of color, a narrative developed that the movement for Black lives was an antifa front to sow dissent in American society and destroy the nation. A related conspiracy developed that claimed that antifa militants were being paid to travel across the country by the busload to cause chaos and destruction. This narrative became so pervasive on social media that law enforcement officials with right-wing sympathies opened investigations and groups of vigilantes organized to “defend” their communities from the antifa threat.

These narratives and conspiracies were, of course, completely unfounded. While it is safe to say that people involved in formal and independent antifascism were sympathetic to the protests and certainly attended them, they did so not as “ANTIFA” but as sympathizers to the cause of racial justice. There are no formal connections between organized antifa affinity groups and the Black Lives Matter organizational network or any other formal organization for racial justice. To the extent that antifa activists may be involved in racial justice activism the relationship is inverse; they became involved with antifascism as an extension of their racial justice activism, not the other way around. However, that relationship should not imply that antifa activism is a front for Black Lives Matter or other racial justice organizations either. There is also absolutely no evidence that the militant protests that occurred were organized by antifa activists or that antifascists were responsible for property destruction and clashes with police. In fact, investigations by the Justice Department under William Barr found that none of the people arrested during the racial justice protests had direct ties to formal antifascist groups (Lucas 2020). Furthermore, an analysis of racial justice protests by Shane Burley and Alexander Reid Ross (2020) using data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project database found that over 90% of protest events were non-violent, and that much of the violence that occurred was instigated by agent provocateurs such as the “umbrella man” in Minneapolis, right-wing vigilantes like Kyle Rittenhouse who killed two protesters and injured a third in Kenosha, WI, or police repression. If anyone is to blame for the “violence” of racial justice protest in 2020, it’s not antifa activists but far-right activists and police.

The attempt to equate antifa activism with the black bloc tactic and with the movement for Black lives is clearly unfounded. While it has been successful because of the combination of right-wing media messaging and online-based conspiracy theories, there is little evidence of the kinds of relationships that have been constructed. The black bloc is a tactic that is used by a variety of different activists, including increasingly appropriation by the far right. Antifa activists certainly are in support of racial justice protest and movements; however, they are not directly involved as antifascists in these movements or protests. There is also no evidence that antifa activists were responsible for any of the property destruction that accompanied the minority of protests for racial justice that were militant, and much of the violence that occurred at these protests was instigated by right-wing provocateurs, far-right vigilantes, and law enforcement.

Myth #6: Antifa Activists Target People for Their Beliefs

A narrative that is popular with the mainstream right, centrists, and even among some liberals is that antifa activists target people for their beliefs. This framing is based on the correct notion that antifascists are opposed to fascism, which is an ideology; and therefore, a belief. A related argument made in mainstream right-wing media is that if antifa activists are successful in repressing the far right, they will then turn to run-of-the-will conservatives, which puts anyone who holds right-wing beliefs a potential target for antifascist violence. These arguments are based on a misunderstanding of antifascist strategy and hyperbolic presentations of antifa activism.

As discussed previously in this article, the beliefs of people on the far right are a second order issue for antifa activists. Militant antifascists are more concerned with the actions of people on the right, particularly the imperative toward violence inherent in right-wing ideology. Antifa activists focus on far-right activists because they advocate for violence against historically marginalized people. They do so through actions such as rallies or recruitment campaigns. The antifa strategy focuses on stopping these actions through direct action rather than debate that might change the beliefs of right-wing activists. Part of that focus on action is the “no platform” strategy that argues that far-right activists should not be given a forum to spread their ideology. This position rests on the assertion that far-right ideology has already been thoroughly discredited through debate, research, and even war which means that far-right activists are merely using public debate, discourse, and media representation as a recruitment tactic. Platforming fascists only discredits them in the eyes of those who already disagree with them, but it also provides exposure for those who might be sympathetic to their ideology and an avenue to become involved in their movement. The only way to curtail this far-right recruitment strategy is to limit their exposure as much as possible. The pathway to far-right activism is effectively hindered by making access to their ideology harder.

The “slippery slope” argument that antifa activists will eventually target people with mainstream conservative views rests on the assumptions that antifascists do not have a clear definition of what constitutes fascism and that they engage in indiscriminate attacks. The first assumption comes from a lack of understanding of how antifascists develop their position and make decisions about actions that they will take. In part, the assumption that antifa activists don’t have a clear definition of fascism rests on the devaluing of the term in American society. For decades, fascism was used as a pejorative against any type of perceived authoritarianism in colloquial discourse. It is assumed that antifa activists simple label anyone with whom they disagree a fascist. However, people who become involved in formal antifascist activism frequently go through processes of political education either as part of the process of becoming involved in an affinity group or out of personal interest in the subject of fascism. Antifa activists’ knowledge of fascist history and ideology may rival that of a graduate student because they consume a great deal of scholarly and popular writing on the subject of fascism. Statements that accompany antifascist activity from doxing to counter-protest explicitly indicate the ideological position and activities that are indicative of the fascist activism of the target. Antifascists are extremely specific about whom they are targeting and why. The idea that there are roving gangs of antifa activists looking to assault conservatives for their beliefs and invade “red state” America is the stuff of conspiracy theories discussed in the previous section.

If there is any worry that antifascists might turn their attention to conservatives, it is a failure of the mainstream right to distance itself from the far right since the Reagan era. American conservatism has drifted into the territory of fascism to such a degree that outright white nationalist groups attend mainstream conferences like CPAC and right-wing media celebrities routinely repeat anti-Semitic dog whistles and conspiracy theories on cable television and popular YouTube channels. To the extent that antifascists might respond to conservatives of any sort, it is because their ideology is indistinguishable from that of the fascists.

Myth #7: Antifa Activists Are Extremists No Different from The People They Oppose

The “horseshoe” of “fishhook” theory of politics that asserts that the far left and far right are more similar than they are different is popular among centrist liberals who are overly concerned with civility and disingenuous conservatives who provide cover for the far right. This theory asserts that at their extremes, both the left and right are intolerant and violent. This assertion is frequently used to draw false equivalence between antifa activists and the far right as a way of mostly discrediting the antifascist activists by using opposition to the far right as a rhetorical shield. As anti-authoritarians, antifa activists represent a polar opposition to the far right rather than a mirror image of it.

The assertion that antifascists are as authoritarian as the fascists they oppose is based on a misinterpretation of the strategic dynamics described in the previous section. For credulous liberals like Peter Beinart (2017), the surface-level understanding of antifa activism limits it to violent street confrontations and staunch opposition to the free speech of far-right activists. Antifa activism is painted by such people as a kind of intolerance of contradictory ideas rather than a recognition of the violent outcomes of far-right ideology. Antifa activists express a rationale for their actions similar to that of the “paradox of tolerance” posited by Karl Popper (1945) and Marcuse’s (1969) “repressive tolerance” that acceptance of the free speech and free assembly rights of the far right represents a threat to a free and egalitarian society that must be stopped by any means necessary. It is crucial here to understand the importance of power in the dynamics being discussed. As authoritarians, the far right seek to supress the speech, expression, and assembly of people whom they deem to subordinate. The far right seeks to engage in domination through that subordination and uses violence to ensure it. As an opposing movement to the far right, antifascists seek to curtail those attempts at domination and suppression using a strategy that employs the use of force and deplatforming. For antifascists, these are tactics deployed in specific circumstances against specific activists rather than an end in themselves. In contrast, far right ideology seeks violence and repression as an end in itself in a world defined by hierarchy and domination. Antifascists seek to eliminate hierarchy and domination by opposing the far right.

It is precisely in these future visions that demonstrate the fundamental difference between antifascists and the far right. As anti-authoritarians, antifa activists seek to create a world based on principles of equality. In their activism, antifascist or otherwise, they work to create a world free of the hierarchies of class, ethnicity, gender, nationality, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other form of domination. For these activists, the far right represents not just an opposing ideology in the “marketplace of ideas” but an actual threat as discussed earlier in this article. The far right, by contrast, seeks to assert a world of domination where upper class, straight, white men dominate and everyone else is subordinated in a strict hierarchy that is enforced through violence. The two ideologies are inherently in opposition to one another. To assert that there is any similarity between them requires fundamentally misrepresenting both.

A Way Forward: Challenging Myths and Asserting Realities

This article presented some of the more persistent myths and realities regarding antifascism. It is by no means an exhaustive accounting of them; however, it can serve as a starting point to address these claims whenever they arise. As I have indicated throughout this piece, the myths propagated against antifa activists are central to a strategy of discrediting both antifascism and the left in general. They are part of a concerted effort on the part of the far right to shift the Overton window to include their ideology and activism in mainstream politics and they are winning.

In order to challenge the far right, it is crucial to take a stand in support of antifascism, and I hope this article serves as a means to address the false claims made about antifa activists. One need not agree completely with all of the tactics used by antifascists in order to support them, but understanding the strategy is fundamental. Strong social movements engage in a constant process of debate and discussion of tactics that leads to consistent innovation and adaptation. The history of fascism and antifascism demonstrates that when the opposition is fractured, the far right wins. By challenging the myths and asserting the realities of antifa activism, we can stand in solidarity against fascism.

Stanislav Vysotsky is Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at University of the Fraser Valley. He is the author of numerous articles and of the book, American Antifa: The Tactics, Culture, and Practice of Militant Antifascism.

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Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Toyin Falola , Olajumoke Yacob-Haliso: Environmental Degradation and Forced Displacement in Africa

By Francis Mading Deng: Sudan’s Wars of Identity: The Creeping Quest For A New Sudan

By Karen Lee Ashcraft: The Global Grievance Network: How Viral Masculinity Endangers Everyone

By Fred Camper: Our Flattening Culture

By Stanislav Vysotsky: Constructing a Boogeyman: Myths and Realities of Antifa Activism

By James Kent , Michael Lazarus: What We Owe the Past: William MacAskill, Effective Altruism and the Wrong Life

By Sergei Erofeev: The War in Ukraine and Putin’s Vlast: a sociological perspective

By Rohini Hensman: Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev, the Pioneering Bolshevik Theorist of Imperialism, National Liberation and Socialism

By P. Adams Sitney: On Ken Kelman and His Theory of Cinema

By Ken Kelman: On Kenneth Anger, Christopher MacLane, and Isidore Isou

By Ralph Bakshi: Art: The Covid Series

By Joseph Chuman: Review Essay: Magda Teter’s Christian Supremacy: Reckoning with the Roots of Antisemitism and Racism

By Ian Williams: Book Review: Lerone A. Martin’s The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover: How the FBI Aided and Abetted the Rise of White Christian Nationalism

By Ian H. Angus: Book Review: Andrew Feenberg’s The Ruthless Critique of Everything Existing

By Maor Levitin: Book Review: Joan Braune and Kieran Durkin’s Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory: Hope, Humanism, and the Future

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