The Proud Boys and its band of merry alt-right racists are headed to Portland, Oregon, on Saturday. On their heels will reportedly be members of a veritable smorgasbord of hate groups, including Patriot Prayer, Neo-Nazi Daily Stormers and the white nationalist American Guard. And once again, Antifa (i.e., “anti-fascist”) supporters will be meeting them on the front lines of the counter-protest, ready to strike.
City officials have their fingers crossed that the public protest will remain free of violence. Portland police, meanwhile, are mobilizing in huge numbers. Clashes between black-clad, bandana-donning Antifa supporters and alt-right groups have turned physical in the past. It’s happened in Charlottesville, Berkeley and especially Portland, home of Rose City Antifa, considered to be the longest operating active Antifa collective in the country.
It’s not just a tense stage for a contentious rally either. The nation’s eyes have turned toward Antifa, and each maneuver by a black-clad supporter will add to an already skewed understanding of why, and how, this group has come to the attention of mainstream America.
Politicians and law enforcement officials aren’t shy about labeling Antifa as the equally deranged sibling of far-right extremism. It’s been happening for years, but most recently, the debate hit a fever pitch with the beating of right-wing media celebrity Andy Ngo at the hands of leftist protesters. It’s a stretch to call him much more than an opinionated provocateur, but the unprovoked assault transformed him into a living, breathing Exhibit A for the argument that Antifa Just Goes Too Far® — a threat equal and opposite to modern American white nationalist violence.
Conservative media swarmed on the story, plastering front pages with the image of a battered-looking Ngo blinking through the remnants of a milkshake someone had launched in his face. More mainstream news outlets like CNN jumped into the fray, often decrying Antifa while glossing over the fact that the decentralized, leaderless movement had never been responsible for fatal violence in its American history. And just a month ago, senators Ted Cruz (of Texas) and Bill Cassidy (of Louisiana) introduced a resolution to designate Antifa groups as domestic terrorism and crack down on any group who “act under the banner of Antifa.” This wasn’t just an odd framing — anti-fascist work doesn’t always identify itself with a name and a distinctive two-flag logo — but one rife with the hyper-charged language familiar to anyone who’s sat through a Fox News op-ed.
“Antifa are terrorists, violent masked bullies who ‘fight fascism’ with actual fascism, protected by Liberal privilege,” Cassidy wrote on Twitter. “Bullies get their way until someone says no. Elected officials must have courage, not cowardice, to prevent terror.”
Those scare quotes around “fight fascism” are key to understanding the rhetorical battle behind the one happening in the streets. A lot of people in 2019 have heard of Antifa. Less are clear on the mission behind the name and what constitutes the bulk of Antifa’s work around the country. A fear of stoking flames has led Major League Soccer to ban the distinctive anti-fascist “Iron Front” symbol and other forms of political speech from its stands. Meanwhile, Instagram and other platforms are deleting Antifa-related content as hate speech, including a cartoonist’s satirical take on the Antifa milkshake hoax.
Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw proposed a law that would fine protesters from covering their faces with masks or bandanas — a move considered by Antifa supporters as being vital for personal security. Even worse, a Manhattan district attorney demanded data from Google in order to hunt down Antifa members on the Upper East Side, rather than focusing on assaults and organizing from members of the Proud Boys, a group with a violent and hateful history and ties to white supremacy.
More recently, the media and conservative pols have been spreading word that the Dayton shooter was a fan of Antifa and leftist politics, leading to shaky conclusions about the danger of leftist violence. Conveniently, this ignores the fact that there hasn’t been an established pattern of far-left terrorism since about the 1980s, nor any sort of infrastructure that compares to the web of white supremacist and other right-wing groups that stretches from coast to coast. Leftist rhetoric has fueled a pair of significant incidents: The shooting of Republican Rep. Steve Scalise and others at a congressional baseball game, and the lone-wolf assault on an immigration detention center in July. But two incidents hardly make a trend.
“The FBI director pointed out in a congressional hearing that right-wing white nationalist terrorism is the domestic terror threat, responsible for an overwhelming amount of violence and virtually all deaths with a demonstrable motive. The fact is, [Ted] Cruz is spreading fear of a dangerous, militant left because that’s exactly what’s emerged in the conspiracy fever swamps of the right,” says Josh Goodman, a political consultant in L.A. who has worked with progressive groups.
Antifa supporters are keenly aware of the public debate, and have much to say about the idea that they exist solely to punch disagreeing mouths. Physical disruption of white supremacists at street rallies will continue to be an important tactic in the future, says “David,” a mid-30s member of Rose City Antifa (RCA) who agreed to talk to me under the condition of anonymity. “But that’s definitely not the majority of what we do,” he maintains. “I think a lot of the misconceptions about Antifa and anti-fascist work stem from that, where people think that our only motivation for going out there is that we like to fight people in streets. We’d prefer it if the white supremacists never organized a rally to begin with, and we didn’t have to go out in the streets. That would be far, far better than having to go out there.”
RCA’s primary work, David tells me, is twofold: It aims to uncover gatherings of white supremacists and other hate groups in order to disrupt them, and also investigates individuals in order to reveal their ties to white supremacy. At its heart, the labor is research — using social media sites, public records, photos and videos in order to identify who’s involved in alt-right organizing. Critics say that the publishing of this info is unethical “doxxing.” David and other Antifa supporters I spoke with, however, argue that the public deserves to know who is a threat to their security in any given community, pointing to a long string of racist and sexist attacks on innocent people around the U.S.
“We’re not just young white teens out there for the thrill of it, contrary to some opinions. The people I see doing the hardest work are people who are queer, people of color, religious minorities and others who have a real stake in the game,” David says. “We’re people who want to put ourselves at risk to protect the people we love.”
Direct action, including the kind influenced by anarchist theory, has a rich 20th-century history in the U.S. and Europe. Mark Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, observes that the most recent variant stems from the late 1980s organization Anti-Racist Action, which bloomed in response to a Neo-Nazi movement that was taking root in Minnesota. Anti-fascist attention also grew in the wake of the 1988 murder of Ethiopian man Mulugeta Seraw, who was beaten to death outside of his Portland apartment by three Nazis with a baseball bat. Indeed, there’s a good reason why RCA is so old — Portland has been a flashpoint for white supremacy, growing into its moniker as the “Skinhead City” through the 1990s and early 2000s.
Over that time, RCA and other Antifa groups around the country have developed ways to contain and outwit their white supremacist foes. Our collective love affair of nonviolent protest, however, leaves many with a bitter taste when they consider how Antifa uses violence as a means to an end. The Anti-Defamation League notes with concern that Antifa supporters have harassed “many conservatives and supporters of President Trump” with “no known extremist conditions”; others have pointed to the harassment of bystanders and reporters at protests. This is partly the side effect of a movement that largely rejects hierarchy — Antifa has no spokesman and no leadership in the traditional sense, operating as a nebulous network of like-minded organizers. Despite that — or perhaps because of that — David says that RCA and other groups remain cognizant that sloppy work could ruin the reputation of anti-fascist organizing in the U.S.
“Something you hear a lot in the media is that anybody that we don’t like politically gets labeled a fascist, but that isn’t true. We want to make sure that we’re specifically identifying what people’s politics are, and that we can point to evidence to show that they have the politics that we say that they have,” David tells me. “So that research element is huge, and we wouldn’t be able to do all the other forms of direct action, like counter-protesting, without that being the bedrock of everything that we do.”
Meanwhile, Antifa supporters (and people incorrectly suspected of being with Antifa) face threats of more serious violence than a punch in a public rally. Death threats and doxxing are common, which is a big reason why supporters on the street cover their faces, says “James,” editor of the anti-fascist and anarchist news site It’s Going Down (also using a pseudonym). Antifa supporters often also harbor suspicions about law enforcement, leading to criticisms about their anti-cop antagonism, but James points to instances where police have failed to remain neutral in action.
Case in point: Portland PD came under fire when leaked text messages showed friendly communication between a police lieutenant and Patriot Prayer head Joey Gibson, calling into question whether members of the force were giving preferential treatment to alt-right protesters. In particular, the texts appeared to show the officer tipping Gibson off to leftist protest activities and offering guidance about a Patriot Prayer member with an arrest warrant. Combined with criticism over the use of force against anti-fascist counter-protesters, the incident led Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty to publicly state that “there are members of the Portland police force who work in collusion with right-wing extremists.”
Portland isn’t isolated either. Even the FBI has reportedly been tracking the rise of white-supremacist behavior within police forces around the country, with startling admissions and evidence coming out of everywhere from L.A. to St. Louis to Manhattan. “If they were pro-police, they’d be more inclined to say, ‘Hey, police, why don’t you take care of this.’ But as anti-capitalist with a sort of police-abolitionist lens, they view the police as problems, as defenders of the capitalist order, and also all too often as sympathizers with the far right,” Bray has told NBC News.
The irony, James says, is that the far right has been responsible for countless police killings in modern history. “So it’s strange to see that in many ways the criminalization of leftist protest is happening. It’s not just Antifa being affected, but groups like Black Lives Matter. And we see this scary merger between far-right extremists and mainstream Republicans,” he adds. “It’s things like Republican protesters joining with Proud Boys to surround a DNC event, chanting ‘communist’ at Nancy Pelosi. It’s a normalization.”
There is evidence that violent protest can hurt movements in the public eye, but Antifa continue to operate with the belief that physical confrontation discourages white supremacists from taking their actions more and more public. And Goodman, the political consultant, notes that the “slippery slope” argument about freedom of speech made by disapproving critics is the wrong way to understand the impact of anti-fascist work. “Activists who oppose fascism are working to stop the terror that’s being coddled by people who claim we have a problem on ‘both sides.’ More broadly, I also think what [Ted] Cruz is doing is part of a larger trend on the right to look for threats that don’t exist,” Goodman says. “Think about the Minnesota voter who famously worried that the migrant caravan would steal her lake house, or the panic about the made-up ‘knockout game.’”
Bray’s key takeaway is that historically, Antifa movements rise in the wake of increasing fascist thought and action, and fade into the background during times of less volatile right-wing politics. In other words, those black-clad fighters end up sticking to labor organizing, environmentalism and other forms of activism when things like Patriot Prayer fizzle out. “I don’t know of any Democratic party events that have been ‘no platformed’ (shut down) by anti-fascists,” he concludes. “So there is a political lens, people will quibble about what the lens is, who designs the lens, but I don’t think the slippery slope is actually, in practice, nearly as much of a concern as people imagine it would be.”