In late November 2016, white nationalists from around the country gathered in Washington for the annual conference of the National Policy Institute—the white nationalist think tank headed by alt-right figure Richard Spencer. It was to be a two day affair—on Friday night, guests were to meet up for a dinner where they would be joined by Spencer and former reality TV star Tila Tequila, who has taken up Nazism in her time out of the spotlight. Saturday would be conference day with a full slate of panel sessions and speakers, along with a high profile press conference at the federal Ronald Reagan Building. Spirits were sure to be high—against improbable odds, Spencer’s man, Donald Trump, had just won the election — and dampened only by the risk of protest. Spencer’s profile and interest in the activities of the alt-right had grown over the course of the race, making the usual precautions against protesters and the prying eyes of the media —anonymity and a secure registration process, secrecy about transportation and venues— all the more necessary.
On Friday, The Hamilton, the restaurant where the NPI’s guests had planned to dine, announced that it was cancelling the group’s reservation. Calls had poured in to alert the manager about the nature of the gathering. Conference organizers informed guests that they’d meet up outside the Trump International Hotel instead. Awaiting them there were colorfully dressed demonstrators who’d brought a soundsystem with them. After some dancing, organizer Lacey MacAuley addressed the group.
“These folks have come from all over the country in order to meet for their conference this weekend to discuss their policies,” she said through a megaphone, “We’re going to be there to tell the press and tell the world ‘No, this is not what we want in our city!’”
Apart from the main crowd about a half dozen demonstrators clad in black, with their faces covered by handkerchiefs idled. Police parked nearby eyed them steadily, as did a suited observer from the hotel.
The NPI’s guests didn’t show—they had been redirected to another location: an Italian restaurant on the north side of the city. The demonstrators soon found out. Video from that evening posted to YouTube shows antifa activists streaming into the establishment all at once and attempting to make their way upstairs to where the NPI had gathered. Bewildered waiters pushed them back on the stairway while the NPI’s guests took photos and raised their glasses in mockery. Beaten back outside, the protesters fired up their soundsystem and invited curious passersby to dance.
Eventually, the restaurant’s managers, who demonstrators insisted were warned and would later donate $10,000 of the night’s proceeds to the Anti-Defamation League, had the NPI’s diners exit out the back of the building. Alt-right journalist Matt Forney Periscoped the group’s exit. “Antifa’s got us under siege,” he told his followers. “I’m sick of these people.”
Over the past several months, anti-fascist activists, long a nuisance to far-right groups, have rattled the figures of the burgeoning alt-right with demonstrations that have captured wide media attention. It was an antifa protester who punched Richard Spencer to the bemusement of many in the mainstream press, it was antifa demonstrators at Berkeley who rioted in opposition to a planned speech by Milo Yiannopoulos in February to wide condemnation. The justification for both incidents and the range of nonviolent tactics also deployed by antifa’s activists—picketing, pressuring businesses, and, yes, dance—is the same: far right groups and figures that advance rhetoric and ideas that have historically inspired violence and, as the examples of Dylann Roof and James Jackson demonstrate, continue to—are to be countered aggressively—more so now than ever given the rise of an administration that has emboldened the far right with rhetoric and the promise of policy premised on bigotry.
“We’re taking it very seriously, the persecution that can be come down on our communities and our neighbors and people that we really care about,” Smash Racism DC’s Andrew Batcher, one of the organizers of the anti-NPI protests tells me. “And part of resisting that is not allowing the platform for fascists, for the people that support those kinds of programs, support those kinds of policies.”
The earliest significant date in the history of the anti-fascist movement is perhaps September 10, 1933. On that day, a few hundred black-shirted members of the British Union of Fascists, an organization headed by the infamous former Labour politician Oswald Mosley that was by then approaching 50,000 members, attempted to hold a meeting in the town of Stockton-on-Tees, which had been among the areas hard hit by the recession triggered by the American Great Depression. The town was thus prime ground for the recruitment of disaffected working class men Mosley hoped would back his efforts to bring fascism—already triumphant in Mussolini’s Italy and rising in Germany—to Britain.
Around 2,000 protesters organized by local communists and union organizers assembled in Stockton that day with different ideas. Armed with batons and rocks and met with a limited police presence, they fought the Blackshirts out of town. Meetings of the BUF would continue to be disrupted in similar fashion as fascist gatherings were throughout free Europe. A Mosley rally that drew 10,000 the following year in London was heckled and protested by around 3,000 anti-fascists who were fought by Mosley’s blackshirts in scuffles that tarnished the BUF’s image.
The BUF would be confronted most famously in 1936’s “Battle of Cable Street”. On October 4, Mosley attempted to lead a march of 5,000 supporters through a section of East London heavily populated by immigrants and Jews. An estimated 100,000 Leftists, anarchists, and local protesters clashed with thousands of policemen guarding Mosley’s route and forced the Blackshirts to turn back. Mosley would travel to Germany just days later to be wedded at the home of Joseph Goebbels with Adolf Hitler himself in attendance.
The Battle of Cable Street has entered folklore as an unqualified success for the anti-fascists. Public Order Act 1936, a law that banned the public wearing of political uniforms and the use of abusive language capable of provoking a “breach of the peace,” was speedily passed that winter and later credited by many for spurring the BUF’s decline in prominence and popularity. But others, such as historian of fascism Daniel Tilles, have suggested financial troubles in the years leading up to the British government’s outlawing of the party in 1940 played a more significant role. The short term impact of the clashes was similarly ambiguous. Tilles, writing for History Today in 2011, noted that Cable Street was followed by a bump in BUF membership, sympathy for the group in the mainstream press, and violent reprisals against London Jews. “The very next weekend saw the most serious antisemitic violence of the interwar period,” he wrote, “as a gang of 200 youths, some armed with iron bars and hatchets, wrecked and looted Jewish shops, set alight a car and threw an elderly Jewish man and young child through a window.”
Militant opposition to fascism and anti-Semitism and racism more broadly would nevertheless continue in Britain and across Europe—naturally as resistance to fascist occupation during the Second World War and post-war with the rise of neo-Nazi, far-right, and fascist groups and parties. Anti-fascist groups in Europe today hold rallies, marches, and counter-demonstrations that draw thousands in opposition to surging European nationalism. Clashes between antifa activists and organized far right and nationalist groups like Germany’s PEGIDA and Greece’s Golden Dawn are frequent.
Anti-fascism’s rise in the United States has been more complicated. Although militant action against groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the organized defense of minorities have a long history in the United States, the movement that would become known as antifa began coalescing during the early 1980s around the punk rock music scene. In America, as in Europe, punk music had begun taking on overtly political themes. Some white working class punks gravitated easily to white supremacy, which was taken up by popular white power bands like the U.K.’s Skrewdriver. The expanding scene around such bands and rising interest in racist, white nationalist, and neo-Nazi themes and iconography reflected broader growth in white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups in the United States during the 1980s.
Racism in punk was met with loud opposition by most artists and fans, which was captured perhaps most famously in the 1981 Dead Kennedy’s song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off!” To the frequent confusion of outsiders, many young white supremacists and neo-Nazis and their anti-racist opponents both adopted the styles of punk’s skinhead subculture—an import from England whose adherents shaved or close-cropped their hair. To this day, the word skinhead in the popular consciousness conjures up the image of a young, violent racist—owing largely to a wave of hate crimes in the late 1980s that captured wide media attention.
Amidst the violence, racist skinheads and other prominent white supremacists were not infrequently invited onto talk shows to explicate their views. White Aryan Resistance Youth head John Metzger, son of White Aryan Resistance founder and former Klan wizard Tom Metzger was among the most media hungry. Unlike the skinheads that had captured the press’ attention, Metzger was clean-cut and articulate. His studiously normal appearance contrasted too with the uniforms adopted by the Klan, the American Nazi Party and other groups. He was to be one of the main vehicles for a message polished for broader appeal. In a 1988 appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Metzger insisted that charges of Nazism were unfounded. “Adolf Hitler is a buzzword,” he said. “Call us ‘white working class.’” Tom Metzger piped in from the audience. “We’ve put the system on notice and your bosses,’ he said pointing to two journalists on the show’s panel, “that they’d better start listening to white workers in the streets because we’re going after the system.”
Also making an appearance on the show, by phone from prison, was Clark Martell, leader of Chicago Area SkinHeads (CASH). Martell, who had accumulated multiple arrests for assaulting minorities and gays and had served five years in prison for attempting to burn down the home of a Hispanic family, was awaiting trial for assaulting a woman who had attempted to leave his organization. He had broken into her home, kicked her in the face with combat boots, and drawn a swastika on her wall with her blood. When asked by Winfrey about the case, Martell immediately changed the subject.
“What I wanted to talk about mainly is—first of all, I think the struggle we’re facing here in the United States and worldwide is not so much one against races, but is more or less one against nationalism versus internationalism.”
Christian Picciolini, a former skinhead who now runs an anti-extremism nonprofit called Life After Hate was one of the people Martell recruited into CASH. “People were out of work, there was crime, and people wanted to point the finger at the blacks, the Latinos, and immigrants, and say it was their fault,” he says. “I think everybody’s a target for extremists – extremist ideology, extremist violence – because everybody is going through something, and these savvy recruiters are very, very good at pinpointing what it is that makes you vulnerable.”
“Like most teenagers I had low self-esteem and low self-confidence and I was bullied quite a bit,” he adds. “But I was also very ambitious as well. So when I was first approached, I was pretty fascinated not by the politics of it, but by the belonging, the family atmosphere and also the notion that I was doing something that mattered.”
Heckling and jeering in the audience throughout that episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show was another group of skinheads Oprah approached for comment. “This is the city, Metzger—we do things a little different around here,” one said at one point. “We’ve taken it to the streets. We fight you on a regular basis. It’s not about talk anymore. It’s not a game. It’s pressed past that.”
By this point, anti-racist skinheads, had formed organizations dedicated to confronting white supremacists within the punk scene and more broadly. One of the most significant, Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (S.H.A.R.P.), had been formed in New York City in the late 1980s and was regularly involved in brawls there and in the Bay Area after the group’s move to California. In 1988, members of S.H.A.R.P. would attend a taping of Geraldo featuring John Metzger which spiraled into violence after Metzger called civil rights activist Roy Innis an “Uncle Tom”.
Picciolini says S.H.A.R.P. members in the Chicago area fought regularly with CASH. “They rented a house and all moved in a couple of blocks from where I lived just to show their presence,” he says. “ And there were a lot of them, and there were a lot of us, and every time we saw each other we clashed.”
Another group called Anti-Racist Action was formed in Minneapolis in 1987. According to a history posted to the website of the Torch network of antifa chapters, ARA emerged out of clashes between the anti-racist skinhead group The Baldies and the neo-Nazi skinhead group The White Knights. “If Baldies came across the Nazis,’ it says, “then the Nazis could expect to be attacked, or served some of what the Baldies called “Righteous Violence.”
The Baldies eventually decided to broaden their campaign against neo-Nazi and far right groups and set up ARA as a way to bring in activists from outside the skinhead community. A group called Anti-Fascist Action with similar aims had been formed in Britain two years before. Chapters of ARA quickly popped up across the West including in Portland, a city then reeling from the murder of 28-year-old Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw. Seraw and two friends had been attacked by three members of a group called East Side White Pride upon returning to Seraw’s home after a night out. Seraw was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat. The connections of Seraw’s attackers to WAR would lead to a $12.5 million civil judgement that bankrupted both the organization and the Metzgers. That year, Portland was the site of the first national gathering of ARA chapters. A similar conference held in 1994 for Midwest ARA chapters in the “Midwest Anti-Fascist Network” would provide further definition to the movement’s activities.
Antifa would confront and demonstrate against white supremacist and far right groups through the 90s. In keeping with antifa’s origins, some of these confrontations spiraled into violence. But antifa’s expansion in scope brought with it a new array of nonviolent tactics designed to undermine the organizing capabilities of racist groups. “I think what people think of when they think of anti-fascism is these glorious street battles, where it’s like we’re out there fighting the cops and fighting the Nazis,” “Heather” an activist with Portland’s Rose City Antifa told me. “That for sure is a component, but there’s a lot of other kinds of labor that are involved, that are at least as important as that, and they comprise the bulk of what we do.” Frequently, for instance, antifa’s organizers try to convince private establishments not to hold events for groups they oppose, as they did with the NPI in November. In 2010, the white supremacist publication American Renaissance’s biannual conference in Washington was cancelled after precisely such a campaign. When organizers scheduled a conference for the following year in Charlotte, North Carolina to avoid confrontations with activists heavy on the east coast, activists warned area hotels again, forcing American Renaissance to cancel once more. The publication now holds its conferences in Tennessee. Antifa has also long engaged in what became known with the rise of the internet as “doxxing”—publicly outing individuals secretly involved in racist groups. The group NYC Antifa, for instance, revealed the names, photos, social media profiles, and workplaces of a number of people active in alt-right circles in New York City last year on their website. “The first step in countering them is pulling off the sheets they are hiding under,” they write. “These people have jobs and hang out in neighborhood bars. We encourage everyone to get to know your local fascist.”
“We try to sit on information for as long as we can and then hit them with as much as we can at one time,” Heather says. “So that way, we’re getting the head of the organization fired and evicted, we’re getting his second in command fired and evicted, et cetera.”
“That gets old for people especially as they get older,” she says. “Their heart is not going to change from that, certainly, but they will get tired of doing political organizing that constantly targets them and their lives.”
Daryle Lamont Jenkins, a Philadelphia-based activist who runs a group called the One People’s Project, has been outing people for years and is a regular presence at public far right gatherings. Jenkins posts photos and videos of those he encounters on his trips online and curates a “Rogue’s Gallery” of the far-right’s leaders akin to a most wanted list. He says doxxing can be particularly dissuasive for younger people. “In the next 5, 10, 15 years from now, when these alternative right folks want to go on with their lives and want to be a part of something, and want to actually matter in politics, they’re gonna find the door closed to them because they were a part of this when they were younger, or are still a part of it,” he says.
“Anything that hurts them, enriches the rest of us,” he continues. “I think that’s the best way to put it. I mean, it may get ugly from time to time, something always has to be. But the bottom line is that we do not want them to function as they used to. ”
About four and a half years ago, 20 members of a group called the Illinois European Heritage Association gathered for a meeting at Ashford House, a restaurant in Tinley Park, Illinois. Little about the Association can be found online today beyond a February 2012 thread on the white supremacist forum Stormfront inviting Chicagoland users to attend the meeting. “The focus of this event is ECONOMIC NETWORKING, the user Sgathaich wrote. “Folks helping Folks. Work for Whites. It is time We took Our Jobs back. This event is an OPEN INVITE TO ALL [white nationalists].”
At around 1 o’ clock on the day of the meeting that May, the 20 that showed up to the Ashford House were joined by a group of uninvited guests. Security footage later obtained from Tinley Park officials by Kyle Bristow, a white nationalist writer and attorney, shows about eighteen people — many dressed in identical hoodies and wearing bandanas over their faces — streaming into the restaurant with considerably more force than Smash Racism DC’s demonstrators had, upending plates of food, throwing chairs, and fighting with bewildered patrons on their way in. As quickly and suddenly as they came in, the assailants stream out nearly in unison. The incident lasts no more than a minute. Around 10 people were injured with three requiring hospitalization.
About five minutes after the attack, local police caught up with a car containing five of the participants, a knife, and two batons. The five, Alex Stuck, John Tucker, and brothers Cody, Dylan, and Jason Sutherlin, all members of a group called the Hoosier Anti-Racist Movement, were collectively charged with 37 felony counts. Each faced a maximum of seven years in prison. In hearings, the Chicago Tribune reported, supporters “filled the courtroom”. Brian Barrido, the attorney for Dylan Sutherlin, told the paper that they included those who had written letters attesting to the work the five had done for local charities, including a domestic violence shelter . All five ultimately pled guilty in plea deals with prosecutors: Alex Stuck and John Tucker were given 3 ½ year sentences. Dylan and Cody Sutherlin was sentenced to 5 years. Jason Sutherlin was sentenced to 6.
When asked about the ethics of the incident today and the role of violence in the movement more broadly, Jason Sutherlin delved into his experiences growing up in the Midwest.
“The first thought that comes to mind is self-defense,” he says. “ I think a lot of people don’t really understand what it’s like living in like a small city or semi-rural communities. I grew up with being a white man but having a mixed race sister and a black stepfather. When I was with my sister, people would be like, ‘Look at his pet monkey,’ and shit like that to me when I was like a 12 or 13 year old kid. Just walking in the store with my sister to get a drink, you know. Things like that were really formative to me.”
Like many in the movement, Sutherlin was pulled into antifa during his days in the punk scene, when white supremacist groups like the Hammerskins were active in his area. ”That was when they were probably at their largest. These people would show up at shows and like, beat people up and stab them with screwdrivers.”
The vast majority of the activism he and others involved in the Tinley Park attack were involved in prior was non-confrontational. “We did a lot of worker and strike solidarity fundraising, he says. “We did prisoner solidarity specifically for Cece McDonald, a black trans woman who was attacked by a man with a swastika tattoo who she stabbed in self-defense.” Some of their work, like an effort to cover up the tattoos of former white supremacist gang members, brought them into contact with those from similar backgrounds who had been pulled into racist circles.
“There were people coming out of prison who like, some of them we had personal relationships with, we grew up with, that took whatever path and went to prison and came home with white power tattoos,” Sutherlin says. “They didn’t want to be a part of that and denounced it, and needed to move on with their lives. And we covered them up just because we had a talented tattoo artist who was able to do that and loved making swastikas disappear.”
“But all anybody knows about what we were doing is that we ran into that restaurant,” he says. “That’s all we were—a pile of thugs.”
Sutherlin emphasizes that the white supremacists attacked in the incident were far from innocent. But he concedes that the attack had been poorly conceived. “Tactically I don’t think it was the best decision,” Michael says. “There were too many people, too many bystanders that were put it in a really scary situation, that had no idea what was going on.” Moreover, Sutherlin and John Tucker, Sutherlin’s cousin who was also involved in the attack, says that the aftermath of confrontational actions can be taxing on activists.
That’s where things go through sort of a rough area,” says Tucker. “It drains a lot from the local communities. It’s purely out of good will that people are sending us letters, money, spending time.” But Tucker has fewer regrets about what happened at the Ashford House that day. “We have to strike whenever they make themselves known,” he says. “It’s something we try to keep to a minimum, but ultimately something that is considered unfortunately acceptable.”
Last summer in Sacramento, an alt-right group called the Traditionalist Workers’ Party held a rally on the steps of California’s state capitol in Sacramento. They were met by local anti-fascist activists from a number of organizations including a group called By Any Means Necessary (BAMN). BAMN organizer and activist Yvette Felarca was captured on video yelling at and hitting a demonstrator.
“It was pretty incredible, it was horrifying, and it was also very, very enraging,” she says. “I am happy to say that that didn’t scare us, though. We did stick together, and we stood by each other and we looked after each other.”
Felarca, a middle school teacher, wound up with eleven stitches that day and returned home to death threats called in by those who had seen her in coverage of the clashes.
“I also received an amazing outpouring of support also within hours of the demonstration,” she says. “People contacting me because they saw the interview that I did on the news, people that didn’t go to the demonstration and probably may not ever got to an anti-fascist demonstration who expressed their concern and care about me and also their support for what we did.”
Felarca’s group BAMN is not exclusively involved in organizing anti-fascist demonstrations. It was founded in the mid-90s to oppose efforts to ban affirmative action in the University of California system and elsewhere. In recent years the group has figured largely in organizing against white supremacist and far-right activity in California. Yvette and BAMN were among those protesting Milo Yiannopoulos’ appearance at Berkeley in February and among the demonstrators that clashed with Trump supporters at Berkeley again in March.
“Our approach to fighting fascism isn’t simply about shutting them down when they rally,” she says. “It’s more comprehensive than that. It is about fighting for integration and standing up for public education too.”
“At the same time,” she continues, “when fascists are about to hold a rally where they’re gonna stand publicly, they aren’t doing it just to express some bad ideas. They’re doing it because they have a political objective that’s a real physical objective. It’s to recruit more people, and, if they get big enough, to attack people.”
Picciolini agrees that the alt-right poses more than an abstract threat, but is deeply wary about the use of violence against them. “I also do believe that to a certain degree antifa’s been effective in curbing these groups’ ability to speak out or congregate, but I also believe that when a protest gets violent,white supremacists use that,” he says. “They spotlight violence, and use it to recruit more. I’d been in millions of fights with anti-racists and minorities and not one of those changed me.”
One of the most common critiques of antifa violence is that confrontations with the far right perpetuate an interminable cycle of escalation. In his piece on antifa for the Atlantic, for example, Peter Beinart pointed to the cancellation of a Portland parade where a far right group planned to march as the impetus for a chain of events that led to Jeremy Christian’s murder of two men at a train station who defended two young women from his anti-Muslim slurs. “When antifascists forced the cancellation of the 82nd Avenue of Roses Parade, Trump supporters responded with a ‘March for Free Speech,’” he wrote. “Among those who attended was Jeremy Christian, a burly ex-con draped in an American flag, who uttered racial slurs and made Nazi salutes.” Beinart goes on to write that Christian, still presumably incensed by the parade’s cancellation, appeared in a video weeks later, in which he was seen calling antifa “punk bitches.” The killings, Beinart notes, happened the next day.
Of course, the tidy causality established here relies a good deal on the assumption that Christian and others like him are primed to kill not primarily out of a commitment to a genocidal ideology or a record of instability, but by sincere and deep affront at the violation of liberal norms—affront that drove Christian to harass and kill individuals in an entirely unrelated party of individuals weeks later.
Even if one assumes that the cancellation of the Avenue of Roses parade was tied to the stabbings, it’s worth noting that the circumstances surrounding the decision to shut it down were more complicated than this rendering suggests. Local antifa activists had surmised, given postings on an event page for the parade, that a group of local street preachers that had screamed slurs at Hispanic churchgoers earlier in the year planned on infiltrating and marching with the Multnomah County Republican Party. But the violent threat attributed to local antifascists –which claimed that activists would “drag and push” the preachers out of the parade—was emailed anonymously, never actually attributed to a local antifa group, and denounced upon being made public by antifa activists who had planned their own demonstrations. Rose City Antifa called the emailed threat “absurd” in a statement. Jacob Bureros, an organizer with Direct Action Alliance, said that his group hadn’t sent the email and had never wanted to see the parade cancelled—they had planned to stand between the preachers in the passing parade and spectators—while expressing regret that they hadn’t worked more closely with the Republicans to prevent the preachers from marching. “We are disappointed that the parade was canceled,” he said. “We’re members of this community and this is an awesome parade.”
The claim that antifa had plotted chaos and violence in opposition to the Avenue of Roses parade nevertheless circulated widely across right-wing media, including white nationalist sites like Occidental Dissent and VDare. Christian’s Facebook commentary confirmed that he was indeed aware of the story, although he would only post one link about the matter to his wall: a piece in the Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf. “So long as threats of violence succeed in causing events to get shut down by their risk-averse organizers, more threats will be made,” Friedersdorf wrote. “One wonders who this faction on the left will next label a Nazi or a fascist in order to justify their own use of fascistic tactics.” “Yep,” Christian responded in his caption of the article. “Smash Antifa.”
The Avenue of Roses story illustrates the lack of control antifa as a movement has over the both the narrative surrounding it and the actions people take in its name. But to Beinart’s larger point, it does also genuinely raise questions about how far-right extremists—already liable to commit acts of violence without provocation of any kind—might respond to confrontational escalations. After all, it would be far easier to return fire by targeting the vulnerable— passengers on a train or people simply going about their business for instance—than it would be for them to hit against an amorphous and largely anonymous movement.
Of course, antifa operates on the premise that their work prevents the radicalization of would-be murderers by deterring the far right from organizing and spreading their ideology to the violent and unstable in the first place.
Jenkins argues that antifa has already demonstrated success breaking up large far right groups. “There are a lot of groups that were really strong 15 years ago that are nowhere near as strong now as they used to be,” he says. “National Alliance was huge for years and years. It took us staying on top of them, up to and including getting their membership list, to put everything in disarray after their founder William Pierce died. Once that happened, a lot of people fell out of the scene and the group fell apart.” For its part, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, credits Pierce’s death itself and chronic mismanagement for the group’s decline. The jailing or passing of leaders and organizational struggles, in fact, likely account for most of the weakening of far right groups from the mid-1990s through the late 2000s and the beginnings of the alt-right. “You don’t really see them coming out and standing in front of courthouse steps to get their point across,” Jenkins says. “That doesn’t get the point across for them anymore.”
The new crop of white supremacists that have emerged with the alt-right have instead turned to online activity as their primary means of developing, discussing, and sharing their ideas, which has challenged antifa’s theory of disruption. Whatever one thinks about the ethics of direct confrontation, there was a certain logic, in the 1990s, to the notion that local bands of antifa activists could, through the threat of force, prevent weak chapters of groups like National Alliance from disseminating recruitment leaflets or disorganized bands of white supremacists from harassing or attacking minorities within their communities. But the outcomes of those confrontations in 2017, in the age of the internet and a vast media infrastructure increasingly live to antifa’s activities, are substantively different than they would have been two decades ago. Antifa shutting down one of the public ground demonstrations white nationalist groups have been fond of would have made local news and garnered a sparse smattering of national coverage, if any, in the 90s. But after the Traditionalist Workers Party’s Sacramento rally, or when antifa demonstrated against the planned Yiannopoulos event at Berkeley, the fights that ensued between antifa and their opponents and the rioting of black blockers captured on video and made available online were picked up by the national press immediately and placed within a broader narrative, particularly within conservative media, about left-wing violence. TWP demonstrators and Milo fans who might, twenty years ago, have simply left town with their tails between their legs after being thwarted could turn to a vast network of white supremacists online for support and sympathy and to discuss potential responses.
The case for confrontation was made and tested perhaps most prominently after Richard Spencer was punched on Inauguration Day. Afterwards, Spencer recorded a video in which he lamented potentially being unable to travel and speak about his ideas as freely as he once had. “I’m going to have to really think a lot more seriously about operational security,” he said. “This is where we are. We are in a new world right now. We need to take very seriously the notion that antifascists aren’t just going to scream at us—they’re going to physically attack us.” But little that has happened since the inauguration suggests that threat of potential violence has encouraged Spencer or other leading far right figures to back down. The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville was one of the largest far right gatherings in American history. There, as has been the case at alt-right gatherings across the country this year, demonstrators dressed themselves in helmets and goggles and bore painted makeshift shields in anticipation of a fight. They got one. Blows were exchanged. Pepper spray was deployed. And, as has also been the case with a number of these clashes, the police stood back. Large far right gatherings thus hold the prospect of largely consequence free melees with antifa, the highlights of which are now routinely posted to YouTube by alt-right users and garner hundreds of thousands of views. There are over a dozen videos seen collectively nearly one million times, for instance, of alt-right ralliers dramatically chasing antifa protesters down a particular street in Berkeley, with flags worn as capes flapping in the wind. If one assumes, reasonably, that the supply of racist meatheads in the United States is nearly inexhaustible, it seems plausible that the clashes could be helping the alt-right grow by luring brawlers otherwise uninterested in the rest of their activities to the movement.
Antifa’s activists seem, generally, aware of this and regularly stress, as they always have, the importance of utilizing a diversity of tactics. They emphasize, however, that confrontation has defensive utility, particularly when nonviolent protesters are at risk.
David Freeman was among the clergymen who gathered with the Congregate C’Ville effort to peacefully demonstrate against the Unite the Right ralliers in August. “I’m here in Charlottesville to re-enforce non-violent resistance to this invasion of Nazis,” he wrote in an August 11 Facebook post. “We cannot allow these evil forces to act without resistance and their violence must be met by an overwhelming nonviolent force. Violence [feeds] them!”
After the rally, Freeman took to Facebook to recount what he had experienced on the ground. At one point, a group of clergy stood before Unite the Right militiamen and recited prayers and statements. A group of them, including Freeman, broke off to peaceably obstruct other bands of ralliers from gathering in a park. When a throng of “Nazis” advanced toward the clergy, antifa demonstrators tried to step in. “[W]e asked them to step back and allow us to make our nonviolent stand,” Freeman wrote. “They respected our request and reluctantly backed off. We were actually surprised they complied. They said that they disagreed with our tactics but appreciated and respected us.”
But soon, a much larger group of ralliers—perhaps a hundred—charged them. Antifa demonstrators broke in and pushed the ralliers back. “We did not ask for them,” Freeman wrote. “We were prepared to be beaten. However, we all respected that they defended us in love despite our disagreement on tactics. They certainly saved 19 clergy and me from a brutal beating and likely even death. They did what the police would not do all day.”
“When this happens again, we will ask them to stand down again but I will not paint them all with a broad violent brush,” he continued. “I used to be a purist on nonviolence in protests. I still am but I’m not going to harshly judge people who may have saved my life out of love just because some were also itching for a fight with those who promote outright murder.”
Multiple other witnesses to and participants in the Charlottesville demonstrations also said after the rally that antifa had protected them from serious injury or worse. On Democracy Now, the philosopher Cornel West claimed antifa demonstrators had likely saved his life at one point. “I didn’t roll my eyes at that statement or see it as an exaggeration,” UVA fellow and protestor Brandy Daniels told Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick in response. “I saw it as a very reasonable hypothesis based on the facts we had.”
Boston’s alt-right backed “Free Speech Rally” a week after Charlottesville was a different scene. The roughly 50 ralliers who showed up were met by 40,000 protesters. Most in the crowd were run of the mill Bostonians — presumably not particularly willing to consider or defend violent confrontation. And yet, standing peacefully with antifa, they delivered the ralliers a humiliating defeat. Days later, the anti-Islam group ACT for America announced that they would be cancelling 67 events across the country. Would a victory against the alt-right won in scuffles between black blockers and ralliers that day have been more decisive?
This was a question three members of the Industrial Workers of the World’s Atlanta General Defense Committee posed in an essay about protests against Richard Spencer’s appearance at Auburn in April. There, hundreds of students marched and chased Spencer’s supporters off campus after his talk. They did so on their own—according to the essay, the antifa black blockers who showed up to oppose Spencer were too alienating to meaningfully work with the students. “The bloc consistently reinserted itself into the crowd and made itself the object of spectatorship, rather than something the crowd could engage with, or at the very least, accept and act [alongside],” it reads. “We have to wonder at this point whether the presence of the black bloc had any positive impact.”
As at Boston, the bulk of those who turned out were non-activists, including many who, as the essay admits, antifa demonstrators initially wrote off as less serious about the threat Spencer posed. The lesson, the essay’s authors wrote, was that antifa should be as broad in its conception of potential allies and tactics as Spencer and the alt-right are. “Many of us are still defaulting to squad-vs-squad skirmishes, but the fascists are not,” they wrote. “The speaking events of Milo or Spencer are about recruiting and building a mass base for fascism. We think the most promising way to prevent the development of mass fascism is through mass anti-fascism. The worst thing we can do right now is to keep insisting on the black bloc as the default tactic.”
Beyond the question of their actual efficacy on the ground, black bloc tactics and recklessness can additionally impose often gendered costs on organizers. “Everybody gets arrested immediately,” Heather says. It’s this classic stuff —men, all they’re doing is raising money for legal fees and doing like jail support, like all the time.”
“Some of them are really like the caricature of what people complain about,” she says of newer members. “White anarchists, just being bros.” Indeed, one of the things discernible even to outsiders about antifa—made obvious by what peeks out from the dark bandanas and hoodies the movement’s activists often wear during demonstrations—is that it is a predominantly white and probably predominantly male movement. Antifa’s makeup is partially a product of its origins in activist circles and music scenes themselves dominated by white and often working class men. Heather says that antifa’s whiteness is the product, too, of ideological and strategic concerns.
“We think that white people should be on the front lines against white supremacy,” she says. “It should not be like, ‘Oh we have to get some more people of color who aren’t already being murdered by the police to go to do this dangerous weird hobby. So white people have more of an onus.”
“Another issue is the privilege that goes along with white or white passing,” Tucker adds. “Law enforcement tends to be kinder.with two groups of white people fighting. To them, that’s an old-fashioned brawl. That’s fine and dandy. Now if you saw a group of minorities attacking a group of white citizens, we all know how that goes.”
Heather also says that many antifa activists have roots specifically in largely-white communities that have been targeted for recruitment by the far right and argues anti-racist work offers a compelling alternative to the rootless and alienated.
“There are poor white people that nobody’s trying to appeal to because we’ve written them off as morons or as part of the problem,” she says, “and they’re being recruited by the far right, which has a violent capacity that we don’t have.”
Sutherlin agrees. “I know that there are people I love that voted for Donald Trump,” he says. “They think he’s a human molotov cocktail, they think he’s gonna just start basically dismantling lobbyists and career politicians and things like that. That’s what people wanted. You can’t fight right-wing populism with the status quo. He was talking about the economy, and talking about bringing back the middle class—Hillary Clinton didn’t have an answer to that, and Bernie Sanders did. And I’m not super into electoral politics, but I’m all about resistance in every form, from a ballot to a barricade.”
That broadly describes the mindset of many in the movement on the question of how to fight against the Trump administration itself. Many activists are engaged in other kinds of advocacy work and union organizing. Some groups offer self-defense training aimed at protecting both activists and the marginalized. There is talk of sheltering undocumented immigrants should the Trump administration’s deportation efforts intensify. Activists are both encouraged by and wary of the newfound attention and energy Trump has brought to the movement.
“There’s exciting projects people have been talking about in terms of community self-organizing and community self-defense,” Heather says of Rose City Antifa. “There are these public meetings happening that are like ‘Hey everybody come, we’ll talk about what we’ll do as a community to deal with Trump,’ but the thing is that for us, we see ourselves as the underground. There are a million security problems with going to a public meeting, being like, ‘Hi I’m with antifa; I do crime.’”
Rose City Antifa will continue, of course, to participate in direct confrontation as well, although Heather is mindful of its limitations.
“It’s really important to build up a better left in this country,” she continues. “But antifa is basically a survival mechanism. It’s a defense against fascism taking hold. Because if you don’t have that in place, nothing else matters.”