When I saw that Guy Page had republished some of my reporting in The Commons on Northeast Antifa (NEA) and the antifa movement in general, I offered to do a piece for him, since I recognize that there is a lot of mystery about the movement and it can seem threatening to people who believe in law and order and hold centrist or conservative views.
I’m a journalist, not an activist, so this is not an opinion piece. I will share some facts.
On December 21, when someone from NEA sent The Commons an email that said they were organizing in the town where I have lived for the past 15 years and “doxxing” someone with whom I happened to be friends with on Facebook, I said I would take the story.
After that, I did what reporters do, which is to follow the story somewhat in the way a hound dog follows the trail of a rabbit. Since then, I have spent about 15 hours in interviews with three sources within the antifa movement and countless more hours talking to other people and doing my research.
This is what I know.
Antifa is an international movement that traces its lineage to movements against the fascist governments in Italy and Germany that American troops defeated in World War II. Within the United States, the movement is decentralized across various regions—if you go on Facebook or Twitter you can find pages for groups in a range of cities or areas, from the Rose City group in Portland to DC Antifa.
There is no discernable central organizational structure at the national level, although the internet certainly allows communication across groups in different regions. The level of organization within specific regional groups varies, and NEA is organized in a structural way, according to my reporting.
The group does not have a core political ideology, and is probably evenly divided between Marxists and Anarchists. The main purpose it states is to fight fascism and extremist right-wing violence, and the group is explicit about its intention to counter violence with violence.
Antifa is best known for its “blackblock” activities, where activists show up at rallies where there are counter-protests. Their goal at these kinds of events, as several antifa sources stated, is to protect non-violent protestors on the left from the violence that may come from counter-protestors on the right.
The movement is careful to emphasize the defensive nature of its willingness to use force, which is different from the kind of violence we have seen from the extreme right in recent years, and especially in the right-wing riot in DC on January 6.
At the same time, the group has been accused of property damage and also in some cases of culpability in street brawls that often break out, particularly in Portland, Ore., which saw what amounted to a running street war for weeks last summer.
The acronym ACAB is commonly used by the group—the letters stand for “All Cops Are Bastards.” After looking at hours of video footage from various street battles in different cities, it is easy to see why the group may represent a sense of threat to people who believe in law and order and the idea that political differences should be settled in non-violent ways.
The antifa movement has been demonized by the right to some degree, and there were a lot of false claims after January 6 about antifa’s involvement in the right-wing attempted insurrection at the Capitol building. There were onlookers from antifa, according to my sources, but that had to do with their work of capturing the faces of protestors.
I looked at about three hours of tape from various news sources during and after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and nothing in it suggested that antifa was involved in any instigation of violence.
Antifa does not work with law enforcement directly, but it is certain that the Secret Service, FBI, and other law enforcement groups will use visual information from antifa social media sites as they identify people who committed crimes at the Capitol. Intelligence gathering against extremist right-wing groups is at least as large an element within antifa as the blackblock.
Although it can seem like a scary group with their all-black outfits and body armor, helmets and masks, and so on, to my knowledge antifa does not bring fire-arms to protests. There is no credible report that they bring weapons en masse. I have studied extremist groups for more than three decades, and there is nothing about antifa that could be seen as parallel to the Weathermen or Symbionese Liberation Army in the period of the Vietnam War.
There is no known instance of any sort of bombing or killing, no aggressive action apart from street brawls with the police or right-wing protestors and some broken windows and graffitti, that can be tied to the antifa movement.
The reality is that seeing antifa as a threat is like turning a house-cat into a tiger, and it’s not true. The movement is real, and it is organized to some degree. Its politics are far left, and its willingness to meet violence with violence is also real.
But it was not involved in the insurrection in the Capitol on January 6, and while it may present a threat to civil order in protests, so do a lot of other groups, and the armed extreme-right militias, some of which come from Aryan prison gangs, are certainly the greatest threat we face right now in the view of people who care about law and order and a civil society.
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