There isn’t much use archiving videos, I’m afraid.
“Antifa” has been in the news a lot lately. It is a group or movement that has been around for a while, but made headlines recently in the United States since the end of the 2016 election. “Members” (you’ll see about the quotation marks in a minute) have come into the news for punching and otherwise assaulting various people, setting things on fire, denying commentators their platforms, marching around in uniformed formation complete with balaclavas, and most recently starting and then getting beat in various riots, notably at Berkeley. There’s one question that no one has really addressed, however: what exactly is Antifa?
I must admit, when I saw the footage of the explosives going off and the plethora of assaults they committed, I thought I was looking at some kind of domestic terror cell. The uniforms honestly reminded me of Mussolini’s Blackshirts. A lot of them are young, and the movement seems to have an anarchist stripe, or at least strain. But you also start to notice it goes back further, to the 1980s and 1970s and even beyond. Cast your eyes through time to the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, and it becomes clear that anti-fascism, as a political movement, has a long history. I mean, you could just ask them:
The inspiration, as far as I can tell, is Germany’s Antifaschistische Aktion, which was founded in 1933, soon crushed by the Nazis, and then revived in the political turmoil of the 1980s. It was they who inspired the flag, now adopted with slight variations pretty much universally as the anti-fascist logo. I don’t think we need to concern ourselves too much with Antifa’s whole story, beyond acknowledging it; let’s try to keep the discussion pertinent to the modern movement.
Because it is a movement. I don’t think “anti-fascism” qualifies as an ideology in its own right, and in practical terms the group seems to be a composite of several large organisations and their affiliates. It’s extremely loose, and I’m sure it’s only held together by the Internet. As I browsed I found a number of Facebook groups, Twitter accounts and blogs — many hosted on WordPress, actually — which all seem to be loosely affiliated and mutually-aware, if independent. The first good example is Britain’s own Anti-Fascist Network. In their own words:
The aim of the network is to support these local actions and to join together to counter regional and national far right events, ensuring maximum numbers on the streets as well as sharing resources and providing legal support.
The Anti-Fascist Network is not about telling people how to campaign in their areas, what type of anti-fascist activity they should undertake or what political analysis they should adopt. We simply want to cooperate to defeat fascism.
The Anti-Fascist Network is non-hierarchical, will never work with the police and is not affiliated to any political party.
Anti-Fascist Network co-ordinates and acts as a hub for all of its local and grassroots affiliates, and glorifies in the violence they get up to. They’ve written us all a handy guide to right-wing British political groups, and even conducted an interview with an Antifascist in Syria, fighting for the Kurds; but the bulk of their content is break-downs and analyses of counter-protests against various right-wing groups on the fringes of British politics, awash with phrases like “worried-looking Nazis could be seen huddled inside”, and “to general hilarity, the beleaguered guy running the shop eventually closed the metal shutters on the shop, trapping the Nazis inside and wandered off”, both of which I drew from this account, of when they shut down a march in Liverpool by National Action in 2015.
Let’s not beat around the bush: National Action is fucking racist. Not many respectable outlets reported on the event, but it was literally called the “white man march”, and, if the Huffington Post is to be believed (it isn’t), they were alleged to have sent a letter to the mayor saying that they will “start a race-riot if their protest was stopped by using three or four people to spark violence in three or four ‘ethnically enriched areas'”. Concerns were raised the day before because a cache of knives were found in the home of a National Action member who bragged on Instagram about his “not entirely legal pocketknife”.
I thought I was in for a rough ride working out exactly what happened, and exactly who instigated violence against whom, given these are skinheads we’re dealing with. It turns out, however, that Antifa are pretty proud of doing everything themselves:
They were lucky to escape without more injuries than they did and it was only by huddling behind a thin line of Liverpool cops that they were able to be finally evacuated and bundled into police vans and rushed out of the city.
They were forced to hide in a left luggage shop for their own protection as a huge crowd of anti-fascists jeered and heckled them and pelted them with water bottles, eggs, bananas, milk, orange juice and sundry other grocery products.
Note how inconvenienced the writer sounds by that “thin line of Liverpool cops”. It actually emerges that Antifa didn’t exactly do any protesting at all, since “the fascists bottled it and were a no-show”. The event, it seems, was cancelled twenty minutes before it began. Fortunately, however, they found something to do:
Very quickly lots of local people joined us until we were about 300 strong before we took to the streets and marched on the Wetherspoons in Lime Street Station which intelligence had indicated the Nazis were using as a gathering point. As we passed we got some cheers from locals waving an Irish tricolour outside McHale’s Irish American bar on Lime Street.
The growing crowd chanted and shouted as we surrounded the Wetherspoons where worried-looking Nazis could be seen huddled inside. Having blocked off the front entrance of the pub, the crowd went around the back and eventually inside Lime Street Station where we found about 20 Nazis out the back of the Wetherspoons surrounded by a small line of cops.
Yes, they are the violent scum who need to be stopped, clearly. Antifa also show us how wonderfully well they work with the police, and with freedom of expression:
At this point the police tried to persuade the anti-fascist crowd that although the Nazi march would not now be happening, they would have a static demo outside the station. They were swiftly disabused of this notion. The crowd were very obviously having none of it. It became obvious that it was going to be as much as the cops could do just to get the Nazis out of Liverpool in one piece.
Meanwhile an unsuspecting group of 4 or 5 aging NF skinheads had just popped up out of the underground into the middle of Lime Street Station. They were swiftly engaged by the crowd and one of them, Ade Brooks, was relieved of his ‘White Power’ flag, which was later burnt. This group were also swiftly hustled out of the station by the cops, but not before receiving a few more blows for good measure.
Blows were exchanged the whole time this was going on, by the way (their caption):
Browse their website; there are many such examples. This is the sort of thing they like to get up to. Aren’t they charming?
Of course, this is a British demonstration and counter-demonstration, so it was never going to be as violent or even interesting as anything we’ve seen recently in America. I just wanted to dwell on it for a while to make the point that this sort of thing happens worldwide, and Antifa hooligans have been shutting down free speech and attacking people — and enjoying it — under many of our noses to only slight media attention.
What does Anti-Fascist Network actually look like? Well, I think it’s actually a conglomeration of Facebook groups. On their contact page they make it quite clear that they are highly informal, they do not have an official membership, and almost everything is handled by simple email. It’s all kept ticking over by the simple fact that the activists all use the same label and are “like-minded”. There’s a huge number of links on the site front to various Antifa Facebook groups around the country, both proper Anti-Fascist Network groups and just random ones, as well as some other things. I guess all you have to do is read some Lenin, print out your stickers, send a few emails and you’re on your way, off to go and bash some fash.
There’s Malatesta’s Blog, which has an about page as full as the writer’s mind and research standards equalled only by his beautiful prose:
And then finally there’s Fashwatch, the name of which I laughed at, and the website of which I gasped at:
This is certainly one of the more seedy blogging communities I’ve come across, If I do say so. It’s good to use writing as an emotional outlet, and it’s good to get out and do stuff with your friends, but I’m not sure this is entirely what they mean when they talk about “grassroots activism”.
That’s the British flavour of Antifa done and dusted I think, at least for now — they’re worth keeping an eye on in the future, I dare say. Let’s move on to the American variety. It’s first of all important to note that American Antifa is even less coherent than British, and also has a very definite anarchist leaning. It wasn’t hard for me to find the @NYCAntifa account, which at the time of writing is roughly comparable in size to @AntiFascistNetw. The two haven’t had many interactions, but they know each other:
So what has New York City Antifa doing? They’ve got a website as well, first off. It isn’t as extensive, or updated as often, and it’s a .wordpress.com (like mine), but there’s still plenty of content on there worth taking a look at. It also has an even more extensive set of links than Anti-Fascist Network, connecting you up with your fellow N.E.E.T.S. from Australia to Central America. They have such posts as “Alt Right Bonus Dox: New York’s Racist Heathens“, “NYC: Tuesday, July 19th — Letter-Writing for the Day of Solidarity With Anti-Fascist Prisoners“, and — my favourite — “Women and Queer convergence called against Trump in Manhattan“. Fortunately, besides doxing some poor musician and getting him dropped from his tarot reading classes, they haven’t been up to too much. The only work I could find they’ve done similar to what we’ve seen above is a couple of successful attempts to shut down music shows and ruin the fun of people whose politics they don’t like.
I’m leaving the Black Bloc and the presidential inauguration events at this stage, but of course we’ve yet to even touch on the shocking scenes at Berkeley in 2017. There have been three incidents so far, on February 1, March 4 and April 15. On February 1, Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at U.C. Berkeley. According to a local paper, students began assembling three hours before he was due to turn up, and as he entered the building he was decried as a fascist. “Staying home would be complicit in perpetuating hate speech”, says one interviewed student.
This is all ordinary enough; Milo is a controversial man and I would say rightly so. But soon enough something happened that definitely was not normal:
Around 5:50 p.m., about 150 men and women in black clothing marched toward the plaza. Many were carrying heavy sticks with black and Communist-themed flags, their faces obscured with bandana masks and hats pulled low on their foreheads.
It was the beginning of a long evening.
The protestors dressed in black, some of who called themselves “Black Bloc,” or “Antifa” or who were members of BAMN – By Any Means Necessary, started to throw rocks at the police gathered near the student union. They set off what UC Berkeley Police Chief Margo Bennett called “commercial grade fireworks,” and threw Molotov cocktails. They tore apart the metal barricades and threw them into the windows of the Amazon store on the first floor of the student union, shattering the windows.
Most dramatically, the anarchists set fire to a set of portable lights. At times the flames leaped more than 6 feet into the air, prompting cheers and shouts from many bystanders. Blow horns and drums could be heard echoing through a vast horizon of students fleeing the scene.
A few people were hurt and the event was very quickly cancelled. The masked agitators quickly divided with the student protestors, and eventually left. They caused a little destruction, but the main part of the night’s violence came as they headed downtown:
Just before 9 p.m., some of the crowd headed toward downtown Berkeley. When they reached Center Street, some of the anarchists got violent. They smashed the windows of Starbucks and ransacked its interior. They smashed the doors and windows of numerous banks, including the Bank of America, Chase, Wells Fargo and Mechanics Bank, and set fire and vandalized a number of ATM machines. A number of phone stores also had windows smashed. But the spurt of violence in downtown Berkeley – where they were not confronted by police – was the ending action of the night.
We are not without footage (god bless the Internet):
Chilling. These are the anti-fascists, by the way.
The faculty understands that this is not a question of abstract free speech; it is a question of the right of immigrant, minority, and women students to attend Berkeley free to live and learn in a safe environment. Dirks’ failure to recognize that warrants the faculty to call for his immediate removal now, and not wait until his scheduled departure in June. Students and the Bay Area community must also stand up against the proliferation of hate and the prospect of a lynch-mob, race-riot mentality spreading across campus.
It also seems the mayor is a member (link removed — see comments). Perhaps this explains the hands-off approach taken by the police.
On March 4, a pro-Trump rally at Berkeley was interrupted by counter-protestors and violence ensued. Metal pipes, baseball bats, two-by-four blocks of wood and bricks were confiscated and there were ten arrests:
By 3 p.m., the self-proclaimed anarchists were dominating the crowd. Dressed all in black and wearing cloth bandannas over their faces, they stopped traffic as they marched from the park through downtown with the smaller mix of Trump supporters and counter-protesters. In the park, people opposed to Trump threw eggs and burned both American flags and the red “Make America Great Again” Trump campaign hats.
Kiki Valenzuela, a sophomore at Berkeley High School, was at the rally to protest Trump. She wore a short-sleeved shirt reading “liberal elite” and said she was excited for her first taste of activism. But when the crowds became violent, with people beating each other until they bled, the 16-year-old became scared and ran to the perimeter.
The worst of the rioting, however, came on April 15. Trump supporters had scheduled a rally at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. Violence broke out with counter-protestors and twenty arrests were made, according to the San Fransisco Chronicle, while the Los Angeles Times reports twenty-one. Fireworks and smoke bombs were thrown into the crowd, and a few demonstrators were doused with pepper spray.
As the protest kicked off, most of the anti-Trump activists emptied onto Allston Way, bordering the park. The pro-Trump demonstrators stayed in the park, where people in the opposing groups threw soda cans, fruit, shoes, bottles and what appeared to be fireworks at each other. Minutes later, the makeshift barrier dividing the sides snapped, and a huge brawl broke out as both sides began punching and kicking each other.
How does this concern us? Because Antifa was heavily involved. I mean, they make it pretty clear themselves:
And they made their entrance rather dramatic:
To be fair, they did have some genuine fascists to fight — but that’s besides the point:
You can probably guess what ensued:
The smoke bomb signalled a kind of turning point:
So there we have it. I think the clash was summed up rather well by Natasha Lennard at Esquire:
But as firsthand testimonies, numerous images and videos shared on social media can attest, explicitly racist groups and individuals were present in force, some having traveled from out of state to attend. Equally, the masked, black clad anti-fascist protesters did not amass in Berkeley to confront a gathering of people who just happened to vote for Trump. Their presence followed calls to action, which had named the specific far right and neo-Nazi alliances that were planning to attend, and indeed helped organize, the “Patriots Day” rally. The violence from both the far left and far right rested on a fulcrum that, while emphasized in the Trump era, far predates his presidency; anti-fascists have long met white supremacists with force in the streets.
There were some severe injuries:
So that’s Antifa — a lot about it, at least. What conclusions can we draw from this?
To start with, we can conclude “Antifa” is largely a self-descriptive label, and it would be folly to try to impress it upon anyone who isn’t already using it. We can conclude that there is very little organization to Antifa, and that it is a loose if large movement held together by ideological unity alone. It’s difficult to say what a “proper” member would look like, or how they would brand, or what evidence they would have to show for their membership. It is pretty much entirely grassroots with a few central hubs.
We can also draw conclusions about the character of your average member. It will be a highly partisan, highly ideological, morally self-righteous bully with a low tolerance for other ideas — or at least certain ideas. It will be an activist quite comfortable with vigilantism and with helping the group take the law into its own hands, and stop certain kinds of people from meeting and organizing. I think itself to say it will be a person quite alright with escalation and with violence, who sees the authorities as little more than an inconvenience.
The people they oppose tend to be the flipside of the same bigoted coin; we should not forget that. This is not to claim even a large number of Trump supporters at Berkeley were personally racist, but the hard-right and antisemitism were not uncommon. As to who instigated violence, or revelled in it the most, it is difficult to say. Personally I am repulsed by modern America descending to the level of communists and fascists duking it out in the street like in Weimar Germany, but those involved seemed to be enjoying themselves. The lady who was punched was a member of Antifa, while the man was identified as a white nationalist.
Even so, it was not the white nationalists who moved to disrupt an anarchist demonstration, it was not the anti-semities who ruined Milo’s speaking event, and, the next time I see Nazis in the hundreds marching down the street hurting people they don’t like, I’ll let you know.