Image: Mark Graves/The Oregonian

Antifa in the USA — The Acceptable Extremists

Jul 8 · 11 min read

On June 29th there was an attack on journalist Andy Ngo at a protest in Portland. In the aftermath there was a concerted effort by Antifa sympathisers to portray outrage over the attack as right-wing pearl-clutching while many who were shocked by the violence pointed to the silence of or downplaying of the incident by liberal media outlets. This kind of polarisation and spinning of events is, sadly, ubiquitous in the era of the so-called “culture wars”. To their credit, Andy Ngo did appear on CNN’s New Day show to speak about the attack shortly after being released from hospital. Jake Tapper received abuse from Antifa and their supporters who vehemently (and incorrectly) claim Ngo is far-right and from some on the right who claimed he didn’t go far enough in his denunciation. However, in all of this, a common theme emerged — positive coverage for Antifa in the press. As I pointed out in this Quillette article there is a concerning relationship between certain journalists and Antifa to help push their ideology into the mainstream, downplay their violence and legitimise them as a force in counter-extremism action.

But then there are those journalists, who unwittingly legitimise Antifa by reaching out to the likes of Mark Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook for a comment when scrambling for expert analysis — be it for lack of academic, unbiased or other quality sources, the pressures of a deadline or general ignorance concerning Antifa. The New York Times appears to be the latest victim of this with journalist Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs in the direct aftermath of the Ngo incident, dedicating the vast majority of his column What is Antifa? Explaining the Movement to Confront the Right to the pro-Militant Antifa ideas of Mark Bray. Having looked at Boroughs body of work it genuinely seems as though this was a case of a journalist simply not performing his due diligence rather than him making a conscious decision to push an Antifa narrative in the pages of the NYT. And Bogel-Boroughs is not the first to give Bray mass exposure. In August 2017 Bray was invited on to Meet the Press alongside then president of the SPLC Richard Cohen.

Relying on Bray as an independent or credible source to discuss Antifa, especially in the aftermath of the Ngo attack, is akin to having David Duke on to objectively discuss KKK violence.

Bray’s innocuously titled book on Antifa is not, as it is often mistaken for, an impartial analysis or academic overview of Antifa nor is he an unbiased narrator. In the introduction to Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook Bray states that it is not possible to be balanced when writing about fascism because there is nothing positive to be said about it and that he is wary of anyone who can be neutral in dealing with it. Bray’s premise reduces extremism studies to a black and white, with us or against us approach that supposes that Antifa are against Nazis therefore good (correct) so anyone who is against their methods and broader political ambitions is bad (incorrect). Antifa are not counter extremism experts. They are also extremists. A different kind of extremists but extremists none-the-less. More tellingly, Bray also writes in his introduction that he intends to donate at least 50% of the proceeds from the book to the International Anti-Fascist Defence Fund.

Essentially Mark Bray, the individual used by the NYT to explain what Antifa is in the aftermath of the Andy Ngo assault is a major benefactor for those Antifa who commit these very acts of violence. In fact, he Retweeted Rose City Antifa’s call for people to donate to the defence fund of Ngo’s attackers shortly after the attack. This is the man the NYT turned to for their analysis of Antifa.

Mark Bray RTing Rose City Antifa’s call for donations to help those arrested for assaulting Andy Ngo (and others) at June 29th Portland event.

A cursory glance at his book would tell anyone employing him as an analyst that he is an advocate of Militant Antifa. In Chapter Six of his book he states that “violence represents a small though vital sliver of anti-fascist activity.” He finishes his book by stating that “On its own, militant anti-fascism is necessary but not sufficient to build a new world in the shell of the old”. He is referring to the need for Antifa to be less a set of tactics, as academics and extremism experts have traditionally viewed Antifa, and more a combination of militant tactics and a fleshed out political vision to “promote a revolutionary socialist alternative” to our current liberal democratic system. Clearly Bray is not a useful source for explaining what Antifa is. Here instead are the key facts about Antifa in the USA that you most certainly will not hear from Bray or his associates in Antifa.

KEY FACTS ABOUT ANTIFA IN THE USA

  1. Antifa (short for Anti-Fascist action) is an international collection of autonomous groups who are connected by their total opposition to fascism, racism, and other far-right groups or individuals by peaceful or violent means. Most collectives, such as NYC Antifa extend their focus to those who are deemed to be allies with or give “alibis” to fascists, which is why Andy Ngo is a legitimate target in their eyes.
NYC Antifa gives extreme leeway to the definition of Fascist by including those “who give alibis” to them.

2. Antifa have been exempt from classification as an extremist organisation because, as JM Berger explains in his recent book Extremism, Antifa has traditionally been defined as more a single issue movement, what others have defined as more of a set of tactics and less a fleshed-out ideology.

3. However, Antifa do satisfy the basic criteria for recognition as an extremist group when, as Bray advocates, Antifa collectives and individuals will further identify somewhere on the left revolutionary spectrum — anarchist, communist etc. This is true for nearly every case. In the case of Militant Antifa (invariably anarchist), violence against out-groups is prioritised making them violent extremists by any definition.

4. Therefore, Antifa desire conflict with those deemed fascist or protective of fascists and hold a desire to fundamentally change or bring down liberal democratic societies.

5. According to M. Tiesta, author of Militant Antifascism: A Hundred Years of Resistance there are three main types of Antifa:

Militant — prioritises the use of violence to achieve their goals.

Liberal — prioritises making political connections, good media coverage and aims to legitimise Antifa in the eyes of the public.

State Legislative — urges the state to ban fascist groups but widely rejected in US because it is seen as a pretext to banning far-left groups also.

6. In the USA, Militant (violent) and Liberal (PR) Antifa collectives and individuals are preferred.

MILITANT ANTIFA

Militant Antifa are pro-actively violent. Mark Bray, an advocate for Militant Antifa, frequently refers to “self-defence” in his public appearances. However, his definition of self-defence, as laid out in Chapter 6 of his book differs greatly from legal and commonly held definitions. He argues that for Antifa “self-defence” allows for pre-emptive violence against fascists by “legitimising offensive tactics in order to forestall the potential need for literal self-defence down the line”. In other words, punch them before they punch you.

Militant Antifa groups who mobilise in public in “self-defence” or in “community defence” prioritise the use of violence to achieve their goals. When violence is initiated by Militant Antifa individuals, all other members present at a demonstration are required to support them, vouch for their actions and be non-engaging with law enforcement. The recent attack on Andy Ngo makes an ideal example of how this works.

Rose City Antifa (Portland) belong to Torch Antifa, a federation of Militant collectives across the USA. Other branches of the Torch Network include Rocky Mountain Antifa, Atlanta Antifascists, Antifa Seven Hills, Antifa Sacramento, Western North Carolina Antifa, Pacific Northwest Antifascist Workers Collective, Northern California ARA and Central Texas ARA. Members of this group “pay their respects to” or pinpoint their origin to the 1980s Minnesota skinhead punk scene which produced the violent Anti-Racist Action (ARA) anti-fascist organisation. Members of the Torch Network prioritise violence as their primary means of “direct action”.

Still from Torch Antifa’s about section of their homepage. Highlighting their commitment to Militant Antifa action

On June 13th, 2019, Rose City Antifa posted an article on their official website titled Call to Defend Portland against Proud Boy Attack. In this article, Rose City Antifa called Andy Ngo a “far-right Islamophobic journalist…who participated in the Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys attack on Cider Riot (local Antifa bar in Portland) on May 1, 2019.” The article goes on to heavily target Ngo before stating that on June 29th, the day Ngo was attacked, Antifa would employ “St. Paul Principles”. This forbids any Antifa members who do not prioritise the use of proactive violence to not cooperate with law enforcement or openly criticise the use of illegal means by fellow Antifascists. Rose City put a target on Andy Ngo’s head, they incited violence against him and they landed him in the hospital. Rose City Antifa, who are an openly Militant . collective, have been remarkably successful in getting away with violent action on the streets of Portland for some time. That is because of their successful use of Liberal Antifa individuals and methods.

LIBERAL ANTIFA

In the 1980s Militant Antifa groups such as the ARA didn’t care for Liberal Antifa. They were skinheads, they were punk and they believed that fists were more powerful than a PR campaign. Modern Antifa has become more savvy. As pointed out in my Quillette article modern Antifa have learned how to cultivate important connections with sympathetic journalists in local and national-level media outlets. These journalists in turn minimise the violence and radical ideologies of Antifa.

Aside from cultivating sympathetic coverage in national-level media, Antifa in the USA have several key sources for news, organising and propagandising.

It’s Going Down News (IGDN) is the most popular online hub for Antifa news, ideas and resources in the USA. Their website claims to provide “News and analysis on revolutionary anarchist, anti-fascist and autonomous anti-capitalist movements in so-called North America.” Reporting the news from an anarchist and Antifa perspective is their primary focus and several of the journalists mentioned in my Quillette piece and who work for national-level outlets have featured on their podcast and written articles for the site. These same journalists have used IGDN as a valid source in their bylines. IGDN also provides a platform for Antifa collectives and individuals to contribute.

Rose City Antifa is a regular contributor and currently has 21 posts on the website. In their most recent article, they state of the attack on Andy Ngo “On June 29, 2019, Andy Ngo tried a repeat of his actions on May 1, 2019– to film the actions of armed men on a mission to attack activists, to be used for propaganda purposes. As on May Day, this past weekend he and the far-right mob were stopped, physically. The events of this weekend are what we mean by community defense” (my emphasis). IGD’s strategy of blurring the lines between activism, mission-driven reporting and traditional journalism on their website while cultivating relationships with journalists in the mainstream is effective.

Rose City Antifa justify the assault of journalist Andy Ngo in an article on It’s Going Down News

Like IGDN, Unicorn Riot is a collective of journalists and activists from a revolutionary left perspective. They publish news and analysis and they are closely linked to IGDN. For example, Unicorn Riot has 45 posts on IGDN’s website and this cross pollination of articles and resources ensures that their shared anarchist and Militant Antifa and activist ideologies reach the largest possible audience.

As already mentioned, the Torch Network is a network of Militant Anti-fascists across the United States. While their primary focus is on organising and coordinating joint actions between Militant Antifa groups they also share resources for Antifa organising on their website. Both them and IGDN have published remarkably similar how-to guides and resources for setting up Antifa groups with in-depth tips for weapons and “self-defence” training.

IGDN in particular acts as an important resource for Antifa’s academic face. Mark Bray (Antifa: The Antifascist Handbook), Shane Burley (Fascism Today) and Alexander Reid Ross (Against the Fascist Creep) have all received extensive coverage for their work on the website and have appeared on the IGD podcast and in interviews to promote their publications. Both Burley and Ross’s books were published by AK Press whose mission states “AK Press is a worker-run collective that publishes and distributes radical books, visual and audio media, and other mind-altering material…Our goal is supplying radical words and images to as many people as possible.” Essentially, these individuals are able to pad out their academic credentials with publications from radical anarchist publishers with unassuming, academic-looking titles and then present themselves as experts in the field of the far-right in media outlets. While Bray has received the most attention, both Ross and Burley have published op-eds with The Independent in the UK.

ACCEPTABLE EXTREMISTS

Modern Antifa in the USA is born out of the 80s skinhead punk scene. Accordingly, Militant Antifa is the preferred approach for most of the more established collectives. These collectives prioritise the use of pre-emptive violence (what they refer to as “self-defence”). While not every individual Antifa or Antifa collective is militant, the leading collectives in the USA are. As in the case of Rose City Antifa on July 29th, Militant organisers will let it be known that “St. Paul Principles” (there are different names) apply so that any Antifa showing up to a demonstration are forewarned that there will be pre-emptive violence and all of those in attendance, even if they do not personally prioritise the use of violence, are expected to be complicit by not cooperating with the police or otherwise obstructing the course of justice.

Militant Antifa in the USA have long departed from brute force in their approaches to anti-fascism and instead have recognised the need to cultivate links and positive PR in the media so as to make their tactics and ideologies palatable to the wider public. In the aftermath of the 2016 election they were able to exploit the anger and disillusionment of large swathes of the population, particularly those in “The Resistance”, fuelling the notion that the election of Trump signalled the institutionalisation of white supremacy in the White House. This political crisis narrowed the gap between Antifa and mainstream liberals providing a shared enemy and a sense of existential dread. It opened the door to Militant Antifa to use Liberal Antifa methods and promote publications such as Mark Bray’s. Their subsequent acceptance into the mainstream media landscape has led, in turn, to the mainstreaming of Militant Antifa ideology as an acceptable part of modern political discourse. The problem with this marriage of convenience between disillusioned voters on the left and Antifa is that Antifa cannot and will not be mainstreamed. They are happy to show up at various demonstrations and lend their backing to a wide array of social justice issues but when push comes to shove, they will not be shaken from their core aim which is to bring down the perceived cause of fascism and white supremacy — the liberal democratic state. And as in the case of Portland on June 29th, despite the spin of their friends in the media, they again showed that they will always resort to violence to achieve that end.

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