Antifa - The Anti-Fascist Movement: All You Need To Know

We look at the characteristics of the movement, and question whether it can be considered a terrorist organisation.

As protests against the custodial death of George Floyd spread across the United States, Donald Trump pointed his fingers at Antifa - a far-left anti-fascist movement - as the big enemy. "The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization." he said in a tweet.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) stated on that very day that there was no evidence linking the violence that happened in the US, to the antifa. However, this was hardly the first time Trump made such a statement - in June 2019, he had made a similar threat after violence broke out in Portland between left-wing and right-wing groups.

Trump's recent tweet immediately flared-up debates on social media, with hashtags like #AntifaTerrorist trending over the last few days. While antifa has, time and again, received harsh criticism for taking part in violent protests, some others pointed out that it is only a movement, with no formal organisation or leadership, and thus cannot be classified as a terrorist organisation.

This article shall look at the origins and characteristics of this left-wing militant movement, and refer to past studies to answer the question, "Can antifa be considered a terrorist organisation?"

The Origins - Antifa And The Rise Of Fascism

The word antifa comes from anti-fascism or anti-fascist action, and it denotes a movement that started during the birth of fascism in Italy and Nazi Germany. As the word suggests, it started off as a response to fascist ideologies, in order to defend against fascist oppression, especially of the minorities.

Historian Michael Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook traces Antifa activity to a group called Arditi del Popolo in 1920's Italy. An anti-fascist militant group, Arditi del Popolo - or The People's Daring Ones - took up arms to launch a violent struggle against the fascist forces of Mussolini.

In Germany, the 1920's and 1930's saw a series of violent clashes between the left and the right, as the Nazi party rose to prominence. Several left-wing organisations were united in what they called an Anti-Fascist Action. While the antifa movement was crushed by Hitler's administration, it nearly died out after the end of fascism in Germany, during the early ears of Cold War.

Anti-fascist forces also showed up in the United Kingdom in 1936 in an event known as the Battle of Cable Street, where they opposed a march by the members of the British Union of Fascists led by Oswald Mosley.

Oswald Mosley and his wife, Diana Mitford, marches with his Black Shirts (representatives of the British Union of Fascists) to the East End of London, in October 4, 1936. Source: Flickr

However, even after the Second World War ended and the Cold War ensued, fascism was hardly gone from history - and neither was the antifa movement. In an article for The Atlantic, journalist Peter Beinart wrote:

"Antifa traces its roots to the 1920s and '30s, when militant leftists battled fascists in the streets of Germany, Italy, and Spain. When fascism withered after World War II, antifa did too. But in the '70s and '80s, neo-Nazi skinheads began to infiltrate Britain's punk scene. After the Berlin Wall fell, neo-Nazism also gained prominence in Germany. In response, a cadre of young leftists, including many anarchists and punk fans, revived the tradition of street-level antifascism."

Antifa - though itself cannot be called an ideology - draws its followers from a vast range of left-wing ideologies.

Antifa In The 21st Century

In modern times, antifa is symbolised by street-level activities, such as black bloc protesting (protesting in black clothes and masks, with protective gear to defend against riot police and counter-protesters), taking either an aggressive approach (which includes vandalism and violent confrontation) or a peaceful one (marches, parades). While the movement is spread across the world, with Europe being a major hub, there are no leaders or a formal organisation behind it, neither is there any official membership.

In European countries such as France, Germany and Spain, growing inequalities and a rising wave of right-wing nationalism saw an emergence of the antifa in the 21st century. In July 2017, during the G20 Summit in Hamburg, major protests broke out across the city, led by antifa groups, which was met with a crackdown by the German riot police.

On January 20, 2017, as Donald Trump swore into office, American white-supremacist icon Richard Spencer was punched in the face by a masked individual clad in black, while some others - similarly dressed - vandalised properties near the Capitol building where Trump's inauguration was underway.

On a symbolic note, this denoted the emergence of antifa in 21st Century United States, in concurrence with far-right fascist ideologies represented by the likes of Spencer.

Few weeks later, Milo Yannopoulos - a far-right commentator and former editor of Breitbart was due to appear at UC Berkeley for a speech, which was disrupted by violent protests led by members of the antifa.

The Unite the Right rally, carried out by white-supremacists and neo-Nazis in August 2017 saw counter-protests by many representatives of Anti-Racist Action, Black Lives Matter and the antifa, among many others. The protests made headlines around the world after it turned violent, with the death of a counter-protester Heather Heyer, when a white-supremacist drove a car into a rally of counter-protesters.

Like in the 20th century, 21st century antifa activities have been marked with opposition to fascist ideologies - with many of their processions focusing on disrupting far-right events with the view that such ideologies will go on to oppress minorities and affect the freedom of individuals.

A Terrorist Group?

What differentiates the antifa from other left-wing groups is its frequent use of violence - something that has attracted strong criticism from both the left and the right. In 2017, prominent libertarian socialist intellectual Noam Chomsky criticised thee movement and called it a "major gift to the right" - comment that drew highly polarised opinions from the public.

However, is the use of violence in protest - such as those carried out by antifa groups - enough for it to be considered as a terrorist organisation?

Legally, there is little or no grounds for the Trump administration to do so. National security experts told PolitiFact that there is no legal process to designate a domestic group as a terrorist organisation. The article states that while domestic terrorism has a legal definition in federal law, it is not listed as a federal crime. PolitiFact also notes that Antifa can hardly be called an organisation without any official leadership or membership.

Gary LaFree, the director of National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, explored this question in 2018, in a research paper titled, "Is Antifa a Terrorist Group?" LaFree applied the six different criteria presented by the Global Terrorism Database (GDT) to the 2017 Charlottesville protests, to see if Antifa activities would fit into such a list.

The three mandatory criteria of the GDT are:

  1. The incident must be intention
  2. It must include some level of violence or immediate threat of violence
  3. The perpetrators of the incident must be sub-national actors

In addition, three other follow-up criteria are also included, out of which at least two must match the scenario:

  1. The act must be aimed at attaining a political, economic, religious or social goal
  2. There must be evidence of an intention to coerce, intimidate, or convey some other message to a large audience than the immediate victims
  3. The action must be outside the context of legitimate warfare activities
LaFree found that while most of the criteria matched with the scenarios where violence could be linked to antifa activities, one of the mandatory ingredient was missing - the intentionality of the act. LaFree noted that followers of the antifa counter-protesters were responding to the activities of the far-right.

Taking in case the example of the Charlottesville protests, LaFree wrote, "Some counter protesters at Charlottesville were antifa supporters and some of those supporters used violent methods, were sub-national actors, had political motives, were playing to a larger audience and were not part of a wartime confrontation. But despite these similarities to other events that we treat as terrorism, GTD classification rules will likely exclude antifa in the Charlottesville case because it is not clear that antifa supporters went to the alt-right rally with the intention of committing an act of politically motivated violence."

Updated On: 2020-06-05T09:40:29+05:30
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