The sight of burned police stations and looted corporate shopping centers sent right-wing media into a tailspin as protests escalated the weekend of May 29. Those media and right-wing politicians quickly concocted a narrative that deemed anti-fascists (or “antifa”) the enemy of choice. The aggressive protest tactics were said to be the work of “outside agitators,” a common theme used to delegitimize protests. Instead of understanding that the vast majority of protesters were taking up aggressive protests in their own communities out of a legitimate anger over police killings of Black people, the method for explaining away the civil unrest was to blame it on anti-fascist activists.
This climate helped to put pressure on Donald Trump to act, which he did in the form of tweeting that antifa was to be designated a terrorist organization. This is not a new threat; Trump, Ted Cruz and others issued a similar one back in July 2019, after right-wing provocateur and media performer Andy Ngo was assaulted at an anti-fascist demonstration. Trump’s comments were followed up by a statement from Attorney General William Barr suggesting that FBI resources were going to be used to single out anti-fascist organizations and those that officials feel are escalating the protests. “With the rioting that is occurring in many of our cities around the country, the voices of peaceful and legitimate protests have been hijacked by violent radical elements. Groups of outside radicals and agitators are exploiting the situation to pursue their own separate, violent, and extremist agenda,” said Barr in a public statement.
The conspiracy theory that the protests are orchestrated by anti-fascists and outside agitators ignores the autonomous action of those communities. Anti-fascists have started speaking out to set the record straight.
“At this moment, the people are a real threat to [official] power and [leaders are] desperate to discredit the movement because it’s growing and spreading so rapidly they can’t contain it,” said Effie Baum, an organizer with the Portland, Oregon-based anti-fascist group Pop Mob. “Given the public perception and stigma that already exists against anti-fascists, we are an easy scapegoat.”
“Antifa,” a label which many right-wing commentators tend to apply to anything vaguely left-wing, has become a boogeyman in recent years as large anti-fascist demonstrations have confronted white nationalists and Trump allies. Because of the virulent anger “antifa” inspires on conservative social media, Trump is able to score points with his base by erroneously blaming anti-fascists and escalating the language he uses to describe them.
Yet “‘antifa’ isn’t an actual organization. It’s a set of shared ethics and tactics used by activists to describe the work we do to protect our communities,” says an anti-fascist activist who goes by the moniker “AntiFash Gordon,” and is known for exposing neo-Nazis online. “Anti-fascists aren’t terrorists. We’re the people protecting our communities from the far right because the cops are too busy enacting a systemic campaign of racialized violence.”
“Antifa” often refers to the militant variety of anti-fascism, but again, this is a general descriptor of a loose movement and not a formal organization. This means that the terrorist label could have broad implications, and indict everyone from pastors to street activists to professors to mutual aid organizers.
“Trump is trying to distract the public from the deep crisis this country is facing, pandering to his base, by recycling meaningless accusations,” says David Rose, an organizer with Rose City Antifa in Portland, Oregon. “Anyone who has been out in the streets or watched [protests] on television have seen that these protests are a spontaneous expression of anger, and demand for a change. At this time, anti-fascists should not be the center of attention.”
While anti-fascist organizations have been present at many of these protests, they have largely been just one of the many groups that support the movement against police violence. The subtext to these allegations is that the protests are illegitimate in nature and a part of a political ploy, or that anti-fascists are at the root of these situations.
“We see this move by Trump as an attempt to discredit the mass George Floyd rebellion as the work of small numbers of ‘antifa’ conspirators and outside agitators,” says “Doug,” an organizer with Atlanta Antifascists, an anti-fascist organization in Georgia. “Nothing could be further from the truth. To the degree that there are organized anti-fascist groups, their members have no privileged role in the rebellion. It’s a genuine uprising against white supremacy and policing. No small group of organizers could control it, even if they wanted.”
The terrorist labeling has little legal mechanism, but can have a dramatic effect on how existing laws can be enforced. This designation can shift policing tactics to become more aggressive, increase surveillance, inspire increased sentences, and generally raise the stakes when it comes to legal consequences for protesters. The function of this for Trump is likely to show conservatives that he is addressing their concerns before the election, but this is going to have real world consequences for activists.
“Trump is labeling antifa ‘terrorists’ to provide his base a boogeyman to direct their hatred,” said one organizer (who wished to remain anonymous for safety) with Corvallis Antifa, an anti-fascist organization in Corvallis, Oregon. “We are not terrorists. We are simply people who love our communities and want to protect them from racism and bigotry.”
Trump is raising the specter of military intervention in domestic uprisings, but protests are continuing to grow around the country. While anti-fascists have been an easy scare target for conservatives to build credibility around, the demonstrations taking place against police violence are coming out of a sincere anger sparked by generations of anti-Black police violence and systemic racism.