By Alaina Perdon
Elm Staff Writer
The Merriam-Webster dictionary cites the first use of “antifa” in 1946, borrowed from German slang denoting opposition to the Nazi party. The word has been increasingly used and scrutinized since the 2016 election of President Donald Trump.
Antifa, short for “anti-fascism,” is a movement to dismantle oppressive structures. Supporters advocate for issues like racial justice and gender equality while also actively seeking to stop far-right groups from promoting their causes. According to a New York Times profile, supporters generally have leftist views, but the movement itself is not formally aligned with a particular political party or candidate.
Antifa is, in essence, an idea rather than an organization with a leader, structure, or defined membership roles. Regardless, Trump called for its designation as a terrorist group in a tweet on May 31 of this year. Ever since, the president has denounced antifa followers both on social media and at speaking engagements.
Supporters of Trump and many other right-leaning individuals share and spread the notion that antifa is comprised of violent individuals. Chris Talgo, editor and research fellow at the Heartland Institute, paints the image of antifa as dangerous, claiming followers are “hellbent on destroying people’s businesses, federal property, and the like.”
Those who study, follow, and support antifa, however, argue the movement is a largely nonviolent one.
“Despite the media portrayal of a deranged, bloodthirsty antifa…the vast majority of anti-fascist tactics involve no physical violence whatsoever,” Rutgers University history lecturer and author of the book “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook” Mark Bray said. “Anti-fascists conduct research on the far right online, in person, and sometimes through infiltrations; they dox them, push central milieu to disown them, pressure bosses to fire them.”
Still, individuals have been documented engaging in violent behavior in the name of antifa. Perhaps most notable was an attack on a well-known far-right activist, Richard B. Spencer, immediately following Trump’s inauguration.
Spencer was punched in the head while explaining the intricacies of the alt-right movement to a team of journalists, sparking the controversial and ongoing internet debate: “Is it Okay to Punch a Nazi?” Supporters came to his defense on Twitter, claiming the attack was unwarranted given that he was behaving aggressively at the time.
While the physical violence committed by antifa seems unprovoked, it is reasonable to deem it inappropriate. Antifa supporters, however, justify these incidents by saying they are orchestrated only in response to the systemic violence evident in government systems.
“The argument is that militant anti-fascism is inherently self-defense because of the historically documented violence that fascists pose, especially to marginalized people,” Bray said.
In recent years, protests by antifa followers have ended in violence and destruction. In 2017, speaking engagements with Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter at University of California, Berkeley were cancelled after students identifying with the anti-fascist movement held demonstrations in opposition. According to reports by UC Berkeley’s campus safety officers, “a large number of fights broke out, smoke bombs and fireworks were thrown into the melee, and pepper spray was used in the crowd.”
In 2017, Berkeley had more than 500 undocumented students enrolled. Protesters interviewed by The Guardianclaimed the presence of these influential conservative figures was a threat to their undocumented peers’ safety.
Regardless of the motivation, are these isolated violent acts enough to constitute declaring antifa a terrorist group?
The first concern on this matter, raised by Trump’s advisors following his May 2020 tweet, is that antifa is simply not a group. According to TheNew York Times, followers of antifa recognize no official leader, and the only form of organization present is in the form of small, autonomous local cells.
Moreover, antifa is a movement based in the United States, but the country has no policies in place dictating a formal designation of domestic terrorism.
“Antifa’s designation [as a terrorist organization] could raise broader questions about U.S. counterterrorism laws. The United States has no list of domestic terrorist organizations, only a Foreign Terrorist Organizations list. Antifa does not clearly meet the definition of the F, the T, or the O,” Heather J. Williams, senior policy researcher for the Rand Corporation, said.
Because the federal government has no means by which to take action against antifa as a terrorist organization, they seek to prosecute individuals instead. A 2018 Congressional Review Service Report declared the FBI will henceforth “investigate antifa followers suspected of criminal activity as domestic terrorists, categorizing them as a type of anarchist extremist.”
The response to the antifa movement brings into question the way the current administration and its supporters view organized movements in the U.S.
In Aug. 2017, at least 30 injuries were reported by the University of Virginia Medical Center directly related to violence at a Unite the Right rally organized by leaders of the Proud Boys in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The Proud Boys are an organized group with a clear leader, known to intentionally commit violent acts in the name of the far-right movement. Antifa is a term referring to a movement to stop the spread of fascism, lacking the internal structures to even orchestrate organized violent acts.
Yet, the former has been told by the leader of the free nation to “stand by,” while the other may soon be designated as terroristic.
The call to label antifa a terrorist organization is not made out of concern for national security. If the Trump administration was concerned about the safety of the American people, they would not hesitate to condemn known white supremacist groups that publicly seek to cause harm to their opponents.
The current administration is hoping to silence anyone who openly opposes them. To attempt to stop the anti-fascist movement by declaring it an act of terror is a form of oppression indicative of the very fascism antifa followers wish to bring an end to.
Featured Photo caption: The antifa symbol was based on the German antifa movement logo, featuring a black flag to represent anarchism and a red flag to represent autonomism, according to “Antifa: The Antifascist Handbook.” Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.