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What Is Antifa? Separating Fact From Fiction

Trump wants to designate antifa — short for "anti-fascists" — as a terrorist organization. Attorney General William Barr says they're to blame for looting in cities. (Oscar Del Pozo/AFP/Getty Images)
Trump wants to designate antifa — short for "anti-fascists" — as a terrorist organization. Attorney General William Barr says they're to blame for looting in cities. (Oscar Del Pozo/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump tweeted out a false claim this week that the elderly protester shoved by police in Buffalo, New York, was a member of the anti-fascist political movement antifa. He is not.

Last Sunday, the president once again said he would designate antifa as a terrorist organization. He made the same remarks last year after antifa followers rumbled with the far-right group, the Proud Boys.

Antifa has never been accused of killing anyone, unlike the white supremacist hate group Ku Klux Klan, which is not declared a terrorist organization.

Attorney General William Barr says antifa was responsible for the looting and violence that cities across the U.S. witnessed early on in protests against George Floyd’s murder and police brutality against Black Americans.

However, federal court records show out of the 51 people facing federal charges, no one is alleged to have ties to the antifa movement, according to an NPR review.

Over the years, activists on the left have debated whether to disavow antifa’s tactics.

Antifa, a loose organization of sorts, has its roots in Germany and the United Kingdom during the uprising fascist movements of the 1920s and ‘30s, NBC News investigative reporter Brandy Zadrozny says.

The modern movement came to the U.S. in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and they were known for fighting skinheads at punk rock concerts, she says.

Their ideology is based around a hate for fascism and a belief that people who are thought to be fascists are inherently violent, she says. Antifa believes violence is a useful tactic to combat violence from the alt-right.

“The idea is that if more people had brawled in the streets with actual Nazis then Hitler and the Nazi party would have never risen to power,” Zadrozny says. “So antifa has popped up again now with the election of Donald Trump, the rise of the alt-right and the rise of far-right extremists and white nationalist groups that have sort of come up all at the same time.”

Antifa has no leader and no clear organization. However, there are organized, localized groups who have followings on social media, such as the Rose City Antifa in Portland, Oregon.

Many became aware of antifa as a political movement in 2017 when they showed up at the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally that gathered Nazis and white supremacists. In the same year, they helped stop Milo Yiannopoulos, a far-right political commentator and Trump supporter, from speaking at the University of California, Berkeley by smashing windows and lighting fires on campus. Berkeley decided to cancel the event after the uproar.

Antifa’s goal is to deny fascists and far-right activist a platform, she says. Because of this, the right has long defined antifa as positioning themselves against free speech.

“And it’s not just violence in the streets,” she says. “It’s also coordinated campaigns to shame out [and] harass those on the far right.”

They’ve targeted far-right pundit Ann Coulter and conservative blogger Michelle Malkin, for example, and have doxxed people who are associated with alt-right groups. They’ve said their strategy is to “dehood Klansmen,” Zadrozny says.

Inciting street brawls, such as what Portland residents have experienced, is not part of their main activities, she says. However, that’s how antifa has largely been positioned by their critics.

High-profile politicians have claimed that antifa is showing up in small towns and wreaking havoc during anti-racism demonstrations. Zadrozny’s reporting for NBC News has found those claims are part of a “top-down disinformation campaign from the president and the president’s allies down to local law enforcement and then through social media.”

The result has been small groups of armed militias showing up to counterprotest Black Lives Matter demonstrations all over the country, she says, from Florida to Idaho and Oregon.

In Klamath Falls, Oregon, Zadrozny says hundreds of armed counterprotesters showed up ready to fight this “invisible monster” they heard about on social media. They believed antifa “was coming to their town to murder people, murder white people and take their guns and destroy their town. Of course, antifa never came,” she says.

Their presence did, however, “intimidate a large group of diverse people who came together to peacefully protest police brutality in their small town,” she says.

This doesn’t mean that antifa hasn’t shown up to protests against police brutality, she says. It would make sense they would be present because “a large factor in antifa ideology is anti-racism,” she explains.

There are concerns that at some point, some peaceful protesters might get accused of being antifa, like what happened to the elderly man in Buffalo. She says a “vigilante mob mentality” is taking over small towns.

For example, she says, a man armed with a chainsaw ran off protesters in McAllen, Texas. And in Forks, Washington, a multiracial family on a camping trip was harassed and trapped by locals who accused them of being with antifa.

“It just seems like a powder keg,” she says. “And people that I’ve spoken to, activists from small towns to larger groups on Black Lives Matter side, they’re very concerned for their safety.” 

Cassady Rosenblum produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.