Who exactly are Antifa?

No one is better placed to answer than historian Mark Bray, who wrote the book on anti-fascism

Following the initial bouts of street violence sparked by the murder of George Floyd in May, Donald Trump tweeted that his government would be “designating Antifa as a terrorist organisation”. Rather than focusing on the outrage felt by predominantly black community groups at the latest incidents of police racism, the president was choosing to focus on the activities of left-wing activists. But who exactly are Antifa? Many believe they don’t even exist as a coherent entity. Rather, it is widely thought to be a loose affiliation of far-left and anarchist groups united only by their fierce opposition to the alt-right. Trump’s tweet seemed to be another distraction technique: creating a make-believe enemy of the American people in order to deflect from the accusations of racism flying at the police, the government and himself. 

It is difficult to pin down any reliable definition of Antifa’s identity, agenda or structure. Nobody claims to represent it in any official sense. There are groups who dress in black and attend far-right rallies in order to disrupt and oppose. Sometimes they use violence, sometimes they don’t. Many leftist groups operating online to expose and condemn the far-right have the Antifa label attached to them by others but rarely use it themselves. One of the few people willing and able to speak about it with credible insight, if not a declared affiliation, is Mark Bray, lecturer in history at Rutgers University in New Jersey and author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook. He has, in the past, been accused of justifying the use of violence in the name of fighting the far-right. A few days after Trump’s Antifa tweet, we spoke to him down the line from the US.

The Big Issue: What is your personal connection to Antifa?

Mark Bray: I have never been part of an Antifa group. I am a long-term activist myself and a historian of radical politics in Europe, so I wrote the book tapping into my knowledge and that of people who had done this work. So I am on the outside looking in, but perhaps with a bit more access than someone without my political background would have. What may confuse some people is that I am an academic writing about it but I am also a political person and I support the anti-fascist struggle. But considering that Antifa is something that happens outside of the light of mainstream politics people obviously look for someone to say something, and that someone often ends up being me.

Is it stressful to be closely linked to the group? 

It’s hectic and its rather befuddling because this really shouldn’t be the story. If Trump hadn’t said anything [about Antifa] this wouldn’t be what people were talking about. I think this is a distraction from the real story. 

What is the real story?

Essentially this is the biggest rebellion that the US has seen in 50 years, sparked by the murder of George Floyd, largely led by black social movements across the country. That’s what’s going on. We have this long legacy of white supremacy and police murder that sparked the formation of Black Lives Matter six years ago [the use of the hashtag actually dates back to 2013 but the organisation became nationally recognised after the 2014 deaths of African-Americans Michael Brown and Eric Garner], and there has been a building sequence of protest over the past few years. Given this context the latest protests have gone further than the other ones. But Trump is trying to distract from that and deflect from any association between the grievances behind the protest and the destruction, because the notion that there are people who are so fed up that they would burn a police car and support those that do is unimaginable for the right wing of the country.

Might Trump benefit from a race war at the upcoming election?

He may. So many other factors will play a part in the election as the months go by. The polarisation between Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter [the pro-police campaign established in opposition] has grown wider, and Trump has made very clear what side of that fight he is on. At a time when the police rightfully feel under attack, he is putting his ducks in a line to present himself as the law-and-order candidate. I am not sure if he is doing it well though – as time goes on, I think much of the political centre might say ‘This is too much chaos, let’s go back to normal.’ And [Democrat presidential candidate] Joe Biden very much represents the normal.

Will a new president be able to change the deep-rooted causes of racism in America? How do you think real change comes about?

It never comes about as a result of one thing. If we want to restrict the conversation to protest movements influencing change, most of them in history have contained a wide variety of actions inside and outside of politics. It’s very clear that America is still grappling with how to deal with the deep-seated white supremacy in its institutions and the view of criminality in the US and how that plays out in what would seemingly be a routine police call. And those factors are awfully hard to turn around. It usually happens over a period of decades or centuries, not months or years. This moment might in retrospect be seen as a turning point, but it’s hard to say because this is an institutional problem that will take more than just changing a few regulations and slapping a band aid on.

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Do you think that violent protest is an essential part of that mix?

If by essential you mean that this is what usually happens when you have mass outrage spilling on to the streets in most parts of the world, then yes. The model for how this plays out in most parts of the world is pretty clear: you have your civil society outrage marches, you have looting, you have burning, you have conflicts with the police; you have moments where the normal social fabric of society gets pulled about and unusual political possibilities seem realistic for the first time. The thing is Americans think that they are unique and that those sorts of things don’t happen here. But the truth is that, from a global and historical perspective, Americans have a narrow view of how these things play out.

Some people who see themselves on the centre ground are terrified of being labelled as fascists by the likes of Antifa. How do you define who is far right?

First of all it has always been very difficult to define fascism. That said, if you look at the historical genesis of these anti-fascist groups around the world, they are responding to fairly tangible far-right organising. They oppose what most scholars of right-wing politics would largely concur as the far right of the spectrum, if not necessarily agreeing that you could lump them all into a textbook definition of fascism.

Politics is messy and conflictual. For example: who is a racist and what is racism? That is not an easy conversation to have and there are not always clear answers. But of course racism exists and dealing with it is important. People often ask: ‘What do we do if Antifa groups are targeting people we don’t think should be targeted?’ But an important question that is asked less often is: ‘What do we do if Antifa isn’t targeting groups that are threatening minorities such as blacks, LGBT or immigrants?’ That question is less often asked because usually people who are concerned about this sort of thing from a centrist perspective are less likely to be threatened by far-right groups. 

Would a Trump supporter at a rally be a legitimate target for Antifa activists?

The Antifa organisers I interviewed for my book made a distinction between far-right organisers and individuals. It is easy to differentiate between organisations like the KKK or the [North American alt-right male activist group] Proud Boys, who are looking to mobilise and organise people in their community behind fascist causes and, say, a co-worker who might make occasional racist comments and wear a MAGA cap. With an individual like that you can appeal to their better nature or speak to their better sensibilities. So it is very important to draw a distinction between groups and individuals. Having said that, I think people who support Donald Trump do so because of, or despite, his pretty clear racism so I wouldn’t hesitate to be critical of people in that vein.

Is it fair that some people in government and the media equate anti-fascist violence with other violence that is racist?

I think when we look at any political tactic we have to connect it to why that tactic is being carried out, by whom and in what context. What the far right and far left have in common is that they both practise illiberal politics and in that sense don’t feel constrained by polite centrist sensibilities. But beyond that, on just about every other political issue, they are worlds apart. It’s a one-dimensional characterisation that ignores the reasons behind why people do what they do. And more importantly, Antifa haven’t killed anyone, which is more than can be said for the far right. 

How do you think this will all unfold?

Right now I am focusing on what is happening in the streets. I am concerned that the police or right-wing militia are going to kill someone. I hope that doesn’t happen.

Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook by Mark Bray is out now (Melville House, £12.99)