On Saturday, August 12, white nationalists participated in the “Unite the Right” rally, protesting the removal of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. After the rally erupted in violence, white nationalist and supremacist protesters were met with opposition.
Members of Antifa, also known as Anti – Fascists, were among the counter-demonstrators at the rally. But what exactly is Antifa? The answer is more complex than a “left-leaning” or ultra-left movement.
Antifa originated in the 1940’s as a movement against Nazi Germany. Its main objective was to oppose fascism. Now the meaning of Antifa is changing, making the movement’s positions difficult to identify.
Antifa ideals, once thought to be radical by Democrats, are starting to be adopted by some liberals, who believe that peaceful protests have rarely worked against extremism and will continue to be ineffective in the face of today’s brazen racism. Accordingly, they often show up to protests with weapons such as pepper spray and sticks, and they often cover their faces.
CNN states, “…Antifa leaders admit they’re willing to physically attack anyone who employs violence against them or who condones racism–as long as force is used in the name of eradicating hatred.”
However, not everyone agrees with this philosophy.
In response to Antifa protesters at the Charlottesville rally, President Donald Trump stated, “ What about the alt-left? You know, they show up in helmets and the black masks, and they’ve got clubs and they’ve got everything.”
Similarly, after antifa caused violence at a rally in Berkeley on Aug. 27, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said in a statement, “Our democracy has no room for inciting violence or endangering the public, no matter the ideology of those who commit such acts. The violent actions of people calling themselves antifa in Berkeley this weekend deserve unequivocal condemnation, and the perpetrators should be arrested and prosecuted.”
While Antifa is categorized as a left-leaning movement, it isn’t quite “alt-left,” a phrase coined by Trump and one not generally accepted by liberals as accurate. According to the New York Times, “ In truth there is no symmetry between either…’alt-left’ or ‘antifa’… Antifa is the backlash to the backlash, a defense response to the growing presence of rightwing extremism.”
So, what exactly do these protesters “wearing helmets and black masks” stand for? According to CNN, Antifa activists are striving to achieve “peace and inclusivity,” as seen through their hostility towards Trump’s immigration policies, white nationalism, and even the capitalist economy.
But Antifa isn’t a unified movement. Rather, it is made up of diverse groups–immigrants, the LGBTQ community, anarchists, etc. In fact, the intentions of the movement are disputed even among its own members.
“It’s action and style, not doctrine, that unites them…in a world where racist movements form…Antifa fights back,” said the New York Times. And that’s what Antifa’s goal is – to take a stand against racism, using force if they must.
The difference between freedom fighters and terrorists is often in the eye of the beholder, so Antifa’s intentions of harming citizens who speak out against their ideals is sometimes characterized as an act of terrorism. While these “black masked” protesters claim to stand up for “peace,” their violent means of achieving it seem ironic to their critics.
However, their supporters would counter that fighting against racism, an issue that is universally recognized as immoral, clearly frames Antifa’s ideals as more similar to a freedom fighter’s than a terrorist’s.
Indeed, according to an Antifa activist present at the rally in Charlottesville, “I saw a thousand Nazis occupy a sizable American city. I fought them with the most persuasive instruments at hand, the way both my grandfathers did.”
At the core, these “black masked” protesters who are immigrants, blue-collar workers, white-collar workers, anarchists, and more, stand against exactly that–fascism.