Even those who despise neo-Nazis are worried about the rise of the “antifa,” the masked protesters whose stock rose after they took on white supremacists at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The antifa, which stands for “anti-fascists,” may be the sworn enemies of Nazism and racism, but the radical left-wing protesters also aren’t fans of the First Amendment, having shut down scheduled speeches by conservatives Milo Yiannapoulos and Ann Coulter earlier this year in Berkeley, California.
That’s by design. The guiding principle behind the movement, which has its roots in prewar Europe, is to defeat “fascists” before they can gain a foothold in government and society in order to avoid another Nazi Germany.
If that means using threats, intimidation and even violence to muzzle so-called “fascists,” then so be it, said Mark Bray, author of “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook,” which is scheduled for release Sept. 12.
“Antifa are anarchists and communists and socialists who are revolutionaries and don’t have any inherent regard for the law,” said Mr. Bray, a visiting scholar at the Gender Research Institute at Dartmouth College. “To try to put it within that framework is kind of missing the fact that they don’t really care.”
He pointed to the “millions of deaths” throughout history from fascist groups, saying that members of antifa consider their efforts to be “self-defense” against Nazis.
Critics of antifa describe the movement as fascist in its own right given its disregard for the First Amendment and willingness to use mobs and the “heckler’s veto” to shush dissenting voices.
“It is important for the public to understand that the so-called antifa are not well-intentioned bystanders engaged in civil discourse, but armed thugs intent on silencing their opponents,” said Mark Pulliam, a lawyer and contributor to conservative publications. “The First Amendment was intended to protect debate and the ‘free market of ideas,’ not to give a weapon to one side to suppress the other.”
Even Richard Cohen, president of the liberal Southern Poverty Law Center, which routinely lists mainstream conservative groups alongside the Ku Klux Klan on its “hate map,” has raised alarm about the antifa.
“I think it’s a spectacularly bad idea to give one group of people the right to silence another group of people,” Mr. Cohen said Sunday on “Meet the Press.” “It’s contrary to our values embodied in the First Amendment. It’s likely to drive the people they are trying to censor underground, where they may resort to illegal means to express themselves like bombs.”
In the wake of World War II, however, Mr. Bray said one of the lessons was that fascists could have been stopped if more people had resisted them early on.
“The anti-fascist side is to look at how it was that fascist and Nazi groups gained power back in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and one of the lessons they’ve taken out of it is that a lot of people weren’t sufficiently alarmed early enough — they weren’t taken seriously enough until it was too late,” Mr. Bray said. “And so the argument [is] that you don’t let them take that first step toward being normalized.”
You also don’t have to be a card-carrying Nazi to be considered a fascist. Anyone who falls to the right of the political spectrum is apparently fair game, including the Multnomah County Republican Party, which was threatened by antifa rioting that ultimately forced the cancellation of the annual rose parade in April.
“Anti-fascists aren’t only against fascists,” Mr. Bray said. “They’re basically against the far right in general.”
Does the antifa consider President Trump a fascist? “Some would say yes and some would say no, but there is a sort of broad agreement that he enables them [fascists], and that he has fascistic qualities,” Mr. Bray said.
“And he definitely does, from my perspective, have fascistic qualities, even though I wouldn’t consider him a fascist in the full sense,” he said.
What about Hillary Clinton?
“They’re opposed to her, too. But it’s not like they apply the same tactics to a Democratic Party event as they would to a Traditionalist Worker Party event, which is a fascist group,” Mr. Bray said.
A former Occupy Wall Street organizer, Mr. Bray said he isn’t part of the antifa movement, but he was able to conduct extensive interviews with anonymous antifa activists by agreeing to speak to them by phone or on encrypted message boards.
“The only reason I managed to get any interviews is I have a lot of connections through doing left-radical work for 15 years, and even with that, there are groups where no one would talk to me because there’s a high level of paranoia about law enforcement and fascist backlash,” he said. “They just don’t want information out there that can be used against them or [to uncover] their identity.”
Antifa protesters resist being interviewed during protests, avoiding or ignoring reporters who try to interview them. One antifa activist was accused of punching Taylor Lorenz, a reporter for The Hill newspaper, during the Charlottesville melee after she refused to stop recording the event.
David Horowitz, conservative author and expert on left-wing movements, said one problem with the reasoning behind antifa is that actual American fascists such as neo-Nazis are negligible, irrelevant groups on the political scene whose membership has been in decline for years.
In Charlottesville more than 1,000 protesters, including the antifa, turned out to counter a Unite the Right crowd estimated at 250 to 500.
The antifa “is a real threat. This alt-right crap — at a national gathering they had 500 people. That’s nothing. It’s laughable,” Mr. Horowitz said. “It’s a bogeyman invented by the left to justify its anti-democratic agenda. … And people are too intimidated.”
The problem, Mr. Bray said, is that sometimes fascists don’t always disappear. “Certainly you can ignore them, and sometimes they go away, but the fact that sometimes they don’t is the concern,” he said, citing the recent rise of fascism in Greece.
Certainly the antifa won the public relations battle in Charlottesville. Not only was an alleged neo-Nazi arrested for driving into a crowd, killing a woman and injuring at least 19, but prominent left-wing academic Cornel West later credited the antifa with saving him and others.
“The police, for the most part, pulled back,” Mr. West told Democracy Now! “The next day, for example, those 20 of us who were standing, many of them clergy, we would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and the anti-fascists who approached over 300, 350 anti-fascists. We just had 20.”
After Charlottesville, Mr. Bray said, “the threat that fascists and neo-Nazis pose is a lot more evident to people than it was previously, albeit for tragic reasons.
“I think people are really mad and frustrated and more sympathetic toward these confrontational tactics and dealing with them [fascists],” Mr. Bray said, “so I think, in that sense, it’s opened more space for people to consider it or at least understand it.”
Mr. Horowitz warned people to beware the antifa movement. “They are the fascists. What other group in America is running around trying to shut down people from speaking by violent methods and defaming them at the same time?” he asked. “That’s what fascism is.”