Antifa’s profile is rising so quickly that it even got name-checked at last week’s presidential debate.
As the movement enters the mainstream, its sympathizers are escalating the violence from throwing rocks and blocking doors to physical assaults and, for the first time, killing.
The rising level of violence from the group marks a sinister evolution from minor street crime to guerrilla tactics usually reserved for revolutionaries.
“The fear is that we are witnessing the beginning of something that could be more violent over time,” said Michael Kenney, a University of Pittsburgh professor who has interviewed Antifa sympathizers.
The November presidential election likely will be a seminal moment for the movement. Although its activists don’t like President Trump, they share no love for his political rival, Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden, according to academics.
Indeed, Mr. Biden is too much of a centrist for their tastes.
“They hate Biden and the Democratic Party, which they view as part of the problem, but they also don’t see Biden as an existential threat to America’s pluralist democracy the way they see Trump,” Mr. Kenney said.
The shadowy, loosely organized movement doesn’t subscribe to any one political ideology but serves as an umbrella group for hard-left activists who aggressively oppose what they deem fascism and who advocate for positions that are often far left of the Democratic Party platform.
Antifa’s murky origins date to the late 1980s or early 1990s, although the Antifa moniker — short for “anti-fascist” — wasn’t adopted until the mid-2000s.
At first, Antifa activists largely restricted their activities to online rabble-rousing. Supporters spent their free time outing neo-Nazis to cost them their jobs.
But with the election of Mr. Trump in 2016, Antifa’s activity started to surge. It became more aggressive in pushing an expanding agenda.
“A watershed for Antifa in the United States was 2017, beginning with the inauguration protests of President Trump. There were a series of large protests, including some which became violent because, as Antifa sees it, we have a fascist president,” Mr. Kenney said.
In 2017 alone, an Antifa activist punched white supremacist Richard Spencer on Inauguration Day; sympathizers threw bricks at police and started fires while violently protesting a speech by former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos; and pushed and shoved conservative speaker Charles Murray at Middlebury College.
Two years later, the first Antifa domestic terrorism incident was reported when 69-year-old Willem Van Spronsen attacked an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Tacoma, Washington. Armed with a rifle and incendiary devices, Spronsen was killed by police.
Before his death, Spronsen emailed a manifesto to friends vowing to be a “martyr” for Antifa.
The group Seattle Antifascist Action hailed Spronsen as a brave man who “gave his life to the struggle against fascism.”
Concerns about Antifa were further heightened last month after a self-described supporter, Michael Forest Reinoehl, killed a Trump supporter during a violent skirmish on the streets of Portland, Oregon. It is the first killing linked to an Antifa activist.
“When you look at the early period of Antifa activity in the United States in 2017, it was like bricks, pipes and hammers, but Spronsen was attempting to light a 500-pound propane tank and Reinoehl was armed with a semi-automatic weapon,” said Seth Jones, who analyzes international threats at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There does appear to be a graduated use of more serious instruments.”
Mr. Trump seized on the uptick in violent activity, accusing the movement of hijacking peaceful protests against police brutality and racial injustice to sow chaos in cities.
In tweets, fundraising emails and public appearances, Mr. Trump blamed Antifa for the civil unrest that has spread across the country this summer. He has even vowed to officially label Antifa a terrorist organization, elevating it to the same level as al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray recently contradicted Mr. Trump’s characterization of Antifa as a single group. While acknowledging that Antifa is a “real thing,” Mr. Wray said it is not “a group or an organization. It’s a movement or an ideology.”
The president pushed back in a tweet, calling Antifa “a bunch of well-funded anarchists and thugs.”
Republican lawmakers have demanded the Justice Department open an investigation into the funding sources for Antifa’s activities. Last week, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf told Fox News such an investigation is under way.
Those who track Antifa say its unorganized structure doesn’t require much funding because it consists of people showing up at protests and connecting via social media. The little fund-raising that is done is largely crowd-sourced.
Some conservatives have suggested the group is bankrolled by billionaire liberal activist George Soros, but there is scant evidence linking him to the movement.
Domestic terrorism experts warn that Mr. Trump’s rhetoric could backfire by making the movement appear much larger than it is, drawing increased interest.
“The fact that he’s threatened to designate it a terrorist organization certainly elevates its profile,” said Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, a nonpartisan think tank focused on global security issues. “My sense is that it will draw interest and financial resources will flow to these groups.”
It is not clear if Mr. Trump’s elevation of Antifa’s profile will help swell its ranks. Antifa activists are so paranoid about their privacy, even those who study the movement say it’s hard to tell if the movement is gaining steam.
“It’s not like Antifa keeps membership lists,” Mr. Kenney said. “I don’t think we could measure support. I’ve interviewed a number of them, and they are among the hardest respondents I’ve ever interviewed in my life. I’ve had an easier time interviewing people on the State Department’s list of known terrorists.”
Trying to measure support for the movement through online activity is even more challenging. While several of the groups have Twitter handles, researchers have uncovered many fake accounts and some Antifa supporters have bragged about having 10 Twitter accounts.
“There are a lot of people who call themselves Antifa because they are anti-racist and concerned about what they see in the country,” Mr. Kenney said. “But that doesn’t mean they engage in violence or even go to a protest.”
Mr. Kenney estimates the total number of Antifa activists across the country is roughly a few thousand people. He said the media coverage and the Trump administration have made Antifa appear larger than it is.
Still, some wonder if the increased media profile could transform Antifa into a more organized movement like Black Lives Matter, which also started as a decentralized advocacy movement.
“I think our notion of Antifa is evolving as we speak,” Mr. Clarke said. “In three to six months, it may look very different than it does now.”
One way in which the movement could change is the addition of people who are part of mainstream society as opposed to those living on the fringes, including minimum-wage workers, immigrants and others who count themselves as activists.
“There is a stereotype that an Antifa person is tattooed and has blue hair. I don’t know much that really applies anymore. You see some pretty wealthy kids involved and they are very passionate and fervent,” Mr. Clarke said.
At its core, Antifa opposes politics and organization.
“I don’t see the attention pushing Antifa in a more centralized direction,” Mr. Kenney said. “They would hate to belong to any group that would be centralized.”