As riots and looting consumed Philadelphia this week after a fatal police shooting, a radical left-wing group, the “Philly Socialists,” began monitoring police scanners and relaying information to help protesters evade arrest. At one point, the Philly Socialists tweeted out a clue as to their street allegiances: “Do humanity a favor and learn what antifa stands for.”
The scene in Philadelphia was similar to scores of violent protests around the country since May, which have often featured a common and shadowy element – black-masked men and women who seemed as intent on breaking windows and confronting the police as chanting social justice slogans.
The one thing most people can agree on is these people have a name – “antifa,” short for anti-fascists. But larger questions – who are they? where did they come from? what do they want? – have been lost in the battle of partisan politics.
President Trump has denounced antifa as an organized terror group, like the Ku Klux Klan. At the first presidential debate, Joe Biden disagreed, paraphrasing Trump’s own FBI director, Christopher Wray, as saying that “unlike white supremacists, antifa is an idea, not an organization, not a militia.”
While Wray did testify to that effect before a House panel in September, he also said antifa was a real threat and that the FBI had undertaken “any number of properly predicated investigations into what we would describe as violent anarchist extremists.” A U.S. attorney with the Justice Department told Congress in August the FBI had opened more than 300 domestic terrorism investigations related to the ongoing riots.
Antifa is, in fact, hard to pin down. It has no known leaders, no address, not even a Twitter account. A number of specific groups involved in street violence embrace the antifa label. Those groups, in turn, are highly secretive and loosely organized. Stanislav Vysotsky, a former antifa activist and author of “American Antifa: The Tactics, Culture, and Practice of Militant Antifascism” (2020), concedes that “for most people antifa is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wearing a black mask.”
This elusiveness, which appears to be by design, makes it difficult to define or even identify members of a movement that nevertheless has had an outsized impact on American society.
Yet, the black mask slips. Scholarly research and daily journalism shed light on antifa’s ideology and its long history in the United States. Its mixture of left-wing politics and anarchist nihilism can be traced back more than 100 years. Its modern incarnation, centered in the Pacific Northwest, features 1960s radicals, including former members of the Weather Underground, anti-racist skateboard punks who emerged in the 1980s, and younger radicals. Their racial and ethnic makeup is uncertain, but significant numbers are white. Arrest records and other publicly available information suggest many of those identifying as antifa are itinerant or marginally employed.
Scholars agree with Vysotsky that “antifascism is simultaneously a complex and simple political phenomenon.” It is simple in that it is an oppositional movement – it is defined by its resistance to “fascism.” Unlike leftists, its adherents are not seeking to gain the levers of power to build a utopia. They are skeptical of state power, hence their frequent clashes with the police, and are more intent on confronting those they see as enemies.
But antifascism is also complex because fascism itself “is often an extremely murky concept,” writes Mark Bray, a history lecturer at Rutgers, self-described political organizer and author of “The Antifa Handbook.” To clarify what fascism is, antifa sympathizers try to connect the American movement to a series of obscure 20th century left-wing groups that resisted the likes of Hitler, Mussolini and General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.The leftist slogan of that war, “No pasarán” (“They shall not pass”), is often invoked by American adherents. In general, antifa partisans show no embarrassment from associations with leftist totalitarians. Bray notes that an antifa-sympathizing self-defense group called the “Maoist Red Guards” is still active in Austin.
At the same time, antifa activists are intensely hostile to American historical traditions. In Portland, rioters recently smashed windows of the Oregon Historical Society, stealing and damaging a quilt made by black women to celebrate America’s bicentennial. That same night, rioters tore down statues of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt that had stood in Portland for more than a century.
While American antifa adherents explicitly reject the First Amendment and other classically liberal ideas about free speech and assembly, they see as their spiritual ancestors 19th century slavery abolitionists and others who fought slavery and later racism. Bray writes that John Brown, the white man who tried to spark a slave revolt by attacking a federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Va., in 1859, is a particular hero.
More recently, antifa in America have drawn power from punk-rock subcultures and post-1960s left-wing extremism. After white supremacists recruited disaffected youths as “skinheads” and racist “Oi” bands began to appear, counter-movements formed in response. In particular, a group of punk rockers known as the Minnesota Baldies in 1987 formed the Anti-Racist Action Network (ARA) to engage in “direct action” confrontations using spray paint, crowbars, and bricks against racists in the punk scene. Word of the group and its exploits, which sometimes involved violent skirmishes with racists, spread via underground punk publications known as “zines” and the organization spread across the country.
ARA’s anarchist and hard-left sympathies became more overt in 2013 when it was reformed as the Torch Network, sometimes known more explicitly as the Torch Antifa Network. The Torch Network today is the closest thing to an antifa organization. According to Torch’s website, affiliated groups are “autonomous organizing bodies … they may call themselves whatever they want, and can organize the best way they see fit.” The groups that sign on to Torch do, however, agree to support the organization’s five “Points of Unity”:
The Torch Antifa Network today is the closest thing to an antifa organization.
1. We disrupt fascist and far right organizing and activity.
2. We don’t rely on the cops or courts to do our work for us.This doesn’t mean we never go to court, but the cops uphold white supremacy and the status quo. They attack us and everyone who resists oppression. We must rely on ourselves to protect ourselves and stop the fascists.
3. We oppose all forms of oppression and exploitation. We intend to do the hard work necessary to build a broad, strong movement of oppressed people centered on the working class against racism, sexism, nativism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and discrimination against the disabled, the oldest, the youngest, and the most oppressed people. We support abortion rights and reproductive freedom. We want a classless, free society. We intend to win!
4. We hold ourselves accountable personally and collectively to live up to our ideals and values.
5. We not only support each other within the network, but we also support people outside the network who we believe have similar aims or principles. An attack on one is an attack on all.
Ties to Terror
Beyond what is posted on the Torch Network’s website, not much is known about the organization and what, if any, material support it supplies to affiliates. Some insight came from written testimony supplied to the Senate Judiciary Committee in August by Kyle Shideler, director and senior analyst for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism at the Center for Security Policy. Shideler described Torch Antifa as “one of the largest regional networks of Antifa in the United States,” and identified a man named Michael Novick, ”the web registrar of the Torch Antifa website,” as a key figure in the movement.
Novick “establishes the historic relationship between the communist guerrilla and terrorist movements of the 1970s and Antifa of today,” Shideler reported. “Novick is former member of the Weather Underground terrorist group. He is a founding member of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and a founding member of Anti-Racist Action-Los Angeles.”
The business address associated with the national Anti-Racist Action organization is Novick’s home in Los Angeles. Attempts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful.
He appears to have kept up with his former domestic terrorist associates somewhat – he spoke at an ARA conference in 2011 alongside more notorious Weather Underground members Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, controversial associates of Barack Obama in his Chicago political rise. Novick’s affiliation with the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, founded by Weather Underground members in 1978 and active into the 1990s, is also notable because of that organization’s ties to violence. While the John Brown group did confront Klan groups and work for various anti-racist causes, it also fought for a much broader spectrum of radical causes ranging from Puerto Rican independence to defending leftist governments in Central America at the height of the Cold War.
Three members of the John Brown group were convicted for their roles in a string of bombings in Washington and New York between 1982 and 1985 -- including an explosion in the U.S. Capitol building in 1983, along with explosions at three military installations in the D.C. area, and four more bombings in New York City. Two of the three served long prison terms, but on his last day in office, President Clinton commuted the 40-year sentence of the third, Linda Evans, after 13 years. Evans had also been involved with both the Weather Underground, as well as the John Brown group.
Such cross-connections between groups appear to be characteristic of groups of that time, and of antifa’s loose organization today. In the book, “Extremist Groups in America,” published in 1990, author Susan Lang reported that the John Brown group “is thought to be a front for the May 19th Communist Organization.” That organization, which took its name from the shared birthday of Ho Chi Minh and Malcolm X, also had strong ties to the Weather Underground and was linked to the bombings. Its most notable figure today is Susan Rosenberg, 65, who went to prison on weapons and explosives charges and for her role in helping Assata Shakur (formerly JoAnne Chesimard) escape to Cuba after her conviction as an accomplice to the murder of a New Jersey state trooper. Rosenberg’s 58-year sentence was also commuted by President Clinton.
Rosenberg today has a prominent tie to Black Lives Matter, not antifa. She is vice chair of Thousand Island Currents, the fiscal sponsor of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, which received millions in corporate donations after George Floyd’s death while in custody of the Minneapolis police. The Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation itself was founded by self-described “trained Marxists” who established a relationship with Venezuela’s radical left-wing government.
Foreign actors may play a role enabling antifa’s domestic violence, Shideler says. “In 2019 Novick travelled to Cuba as part of the 50th Venceremos Brigade, showing the substantial continuity of these movements,” he notes in his Senate testimony. Rosenberg has also been a participant in the Cuban Venceremos Brigades, founded by leftist radicals in 1969 to forge ties with communist Cuba. It has often served as recruitment program for Cuban intelligence and fomented radicalism within the U.S.
Anarchy in the U.S.A.
While antifa can be placed in the tradition of left-wing extremist violence, is also influenced by anarchic political movements. Antifa’s imagery is red and black – red representing communist and syndicalist sympathies, while black symbolizes a commitment to anarchy. Loosely speaking, anarchists seek to dissolve governments and abolish all use of forced compliance, reorganizing society according to principles of mutual cooperation.
Anarchy also helps explain why antifa is so prevalent in Portland and the Pacific Northwest generally. The area has strong historical ties to anarchists. An anarchist community in Washington state around the turn of the 20th century briefly gained infamy after President McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist. More recently, anarchist philosophy was foundational to the eco-terrorist movement that’s been active in Oregon since the 1970s.
According to Portland State University history professor Marc Rodriguez, contemporary antifa grew out of the 1999 riots at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, when a subset of black-masked protesters used the cover of a larger protest to engage in violent destruction. Though the antifa label was not in wide use – the first American group calling itself antifa would emerge in Boston in 2002 – the anarchist influence was well-understood at the time.
There is little doubt that over several decades an anarchist “scene” in the Pacific Northwest has been fertile ground for left-wing radicalism, and that helps explain why Portland and Seattle are the locus of so much antifa activity.
Antifa groups make most major tactical decisions by democratic vote, while tolerating individual decisions to engage in action presumably consistent with the group ethos. “Militant antifascist practices … are frequently spontaneous, decentralized, and directly democratic,” notes Vysotsky.
There’s also quite a lot of overlap between anarchism and communist ideologies.
“For the most part, you're looking at an ideology of autonomism, which is bottom-up Marxist organizing rather than a top- down Leninist vanguard organizing. This was an ideology that came out of came out of Italy and Germany in the late60s, early 70s,” Shideler says. “It was influential with the Red Brigades and the Red Army Faction, and you still see this in their language. When they talk about autonomous action or setting up an autonomous zone, that's what they're referring to."
A dramatic example of this approach was evident this summer when protestors established an autonomous zone in downtown Seattle after the mayor forced police to abandon a precinct. The lawless zone quickly became a hub for violence and two African American men were slain inside its boundaries.
The lack of formal hierarchy inside antifa affinity groups and their model of “leaderless resistance” may have Marxist and anarchic ideological origins, but this same phantom cell structure makes it similar to how more commonly understood terrorist groups such as al Qaeda commonly operate.
At protests, antifa stalwarts carry weapons and coordinate their actions on the ground in order to evade law enforcement and do maximum damage. “They communicate in large Signal chat rooms, an encrypted peer-to-peer app,” said Andy Ngo, a Portland-based journalist who has been covering antifa for several years. “They also use hand signals, they have walkie-talkie devices, and scouts who watch where the police are and provide real time updates.” Antifa openly and broadly share strategic and tactical intelligence. After a precinct in Minneapolis was overrun in the riots earlier this year, the antifa-friendly website Crimethinc published a detailed after-action report where anonymous “participants in the uprising in Minneapolis in response to the murder of George Floyd explore how a combination of different tactics compelled the police to abandon the Third Precinct.”
Antifa groups may operate and make decisions according to unusual principles, but they are organized and can coordinate quite effectively.
Defining Fascism Down
Antifa’s exceedingly broad definition of fascism (in Portland it includes the Republican Party), combined with left-wing and anarchist ideology that regards basic law enforcement illegitimate, serves to justify some especially radical beliefs. For one, antifa adherents believe their opponents have no right to speech or assembly and must be confronted and shut down wherever they appear.
“The Antifa Handbook” has an entire chapter offering up a series of defenses for “no platforming” antifa opponents. “Militant antifascism refuses to engage in terms of debate that developed out of the precepts of classical liberalism that undergird both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ positions in the United States,” Bray writes. “Instead of privileging allegedly ‘neutral’ universal rights, anti-fascists prioritize the political project of destroying fascism and protecting the vulnerable regardless of whether their actions are considered violations of the free speech of fascists or not.”
Other rationales for rejecting free speech rest on embracing anarchy: “The false assumption that the United States maximizes free speech rests on the unstated fact that this right only applies to non-incarcerated citizens,” he adds. “In contrast, antiauthoritarians seek to abolish prisons, states, and the very notion of citizenship—thereby eliminating this black hole of rightlessness.”
Bray justifies this position by arguing that broad denial of free speech rights is necessary to prevent latter-day Hitlers from arising. “At the heart of the anti-fascist outlook is a rejection of the classical liberal phrase incorrectly ascribed to Voltaire that ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’” he writes. “After Auschwitz and Treblinka, anti-fascists committed themselves to fighting to the death the ability of organized Nazis to say anything.”
As a result of this purported vigilance, Bray observes, the ARA and antifa have been a “victim of their own success” in that the last 20 years have seen a marked decline in once sizable and influential white supremacist organizations. He even quotes a New Jersey antifa member saying, “At a certain point the biggest group was the National Socialist Movement, with just 80 dudes doing reenactments.”
If the numbers of actual fascists are waning, why has antifa violence exploded this year? One answer is that antifa portrays the Trump presidency as a threat. “No Trump—No KKK—No Fascist USA!” has become “the most popular anti-Trump chant” at protests, Bray writes.
More problematic is the way this anti-Trump sentiment has resulted in attacks on ordinary voters and local political organizations. In 2017, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler canceled an annual parade in the city after “antifascists” threatened violence because the Multnomah County GOP was marching in the parade. “You have seen how much power we have downtown and that the police cannot stop us from shutting down roads so please consider your decision wisely,” read the threat sent to the city.
The larger goal of antifa is an end to negotiated politics where political dissent is met with intimidation and punishment. “Our goal should be that in twenty years those who voted for Trump are too uncomfortable to share that fact in public,” writes Bray. “We may not always be able to change someone’s beliefs, but we sure as hell can make it politically, socially, economically, and sometimes physically costly to articulate them.”
Antifa members fetishize and celebrate their violence. “One of the more shocking aspects of militant antifascist culture for observers outside of the movement is the consumption and trade of violent images,” Vysotsky notes. “Pictures of being beaten or bloodied in addition to memes that extol the virtue of antifascist violence or mock injured fascists are a common element of antifa culture.” Such pictures are known as “riot porn.”
In addition to actual violence, threats are another key part of antifa’s toolbox. The group is a proponent of “doxing” – Internet slang for exposing someone’s name and/or personal information in order to shame and intimidate them.
The results of such vigilantism are predictable. After left-wing activists in Portland solicited the names of “non-friendly” businesses that didn’t support the Black Lives Matter movement online, an antifa-affiliated twitter account alleged that Heroes American Café in Portland, which has American flag décor and pictures of various American heroes on the wall, supported local police. The owner of Heroes Café, an African American veteran, soon got a threatening phone call. A few days after that, his windows were smashed and bullets were fired into his restaurant during a protest billed as a “Day of Rage.”
In broader ways, antifa’s embrace of violence makes adherents remarkably similar to the violent racist extremists and alt-right groups they claim to oppose. Both groups use self-justifications for violence that vastly overstate a threat from within broader society. They both rely on tribal identitarian politics to enforce a purity of ideology that is incompatible with the existing cultural and political order that they hope to overthrow.
Antifa’s beliefs regarding violence appear to plainly meet the definition of domestic terrorism in federal law, defined as activities done “to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.”
Downplaying the Threat
Observers sympathetic to social justice goals express concern that antifa violence is counterproductive. “I think [antifa] also need to understand how difficult they may be making the situation for the promotion of Black Lives Matter in this time where Black people are really trying to make some headway,” Portland State University sociologist and Black studies professor Shirley Jackson told a local television station last month. Public opinion seems to bolster Jackson’s worries that violence at protests is impeding the larger goals of racial justice. Last month, Pew reported support for Black Lives Matter had dropped significantly since June, and the “findings come as confrontations between protesters and police have escalated.”
Despite this, political leadership is often afraid or unwilling to crackdown on antifa. Major police departments across the country have been hamstrung and asked to stand down in the face of ongoing violent riots. Antifa may consider Portland Mayor Wheeler a tyrant, but the city dropped 90% of charges against rioters in September. Despite the city tolerating violent riots, Wheeler is up for reelection in November and is currently tied in the polls with challenger Sarah Iannarone, who has publicly declared, “I am antifa.” In 2016, when Iannarone previously ran for mayor, she tweeted out a photo of a ballot of a constituent who had voted for her but had elsewhere written in Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, Che Guevarra, Ho Chi Minh, Angela Davis and other violent Marxists for city offices. Iannarone remarked the ballot was, “Quite possibly my favorite ‘I voted this way’ photo.”
Far from creating pressure to achieve specific political reforms related to racial injustice or police violence, antifa appears to be using this moment to further press its radical political agenda on a national stage. A group called Shutdown DC has been distributing a 38-page guide called “Stopping the Coup” that offers specific guidance on how to disrupt the national election in November, should it be contested, in order to stop Trump, “who is energized by the forces of white supremacy and brutal capitalism.” The “Stopping the Coup” document disavows violence, but Shutdown DC has not shied away from working closely with affinity groups such as All Out DC, a “collective of DC antifascist activists” who want to “burn down the American plantation” when organizing major protests in the nation’s capital.
In the meantime, two high profile election simulations done by mainstream political groups – the Transition Integrity Project on the left, and the Texas Public Policy Center in conjunction with the Claremont Institute on the right – both found a high likelihood of antifa violence following November’s election. Regardless of whether antifa is most accurately described as broad ideology or a unified movement, the threat it presents to disrupting the democratic elections and enforcing basic law and order is tangible.