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Antifa Is Real. And It’s Violent.
The greatest threat to American democracy comes from the right. But the left must reckon with its own radicalization.
Demonstrators had gathered for a rally at Berkeley, shouting at their foes through bullhorns—on one side, a small group of “No to Marxism in America!” marchers; on the other side, thousands of “Rally Against Hate” counterprotesters.
Suddenly, the shrieks turned to action, when about 100 people clad in black launched themselves over the barriers at the right-wing demonstrators, hurling a Trump supporter to the ground and beating another. The police had to break it up, and arrested 13 people.
What had happened?
Most of the protesters in that August 2017 standoff were peaceful. But not all. A group of loosely organized violent “anti-fascists”—known as Antifa—had set off the mayhem. Condemnation was swift from politicians on the left, including from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who represents a nearby California district. The perpetrators should be “arrested and prosecuted,” she declared.
But the question of responsibility soon grew murkier, clouded by the polarized American political debate. Ivy League academics openly justified the tactics, and a claim spread that Antifa barely existed—it was just a convenient enemy for the right. Articles popped up deriding “Antifa panic” and “Antifa hysteria.” The message was this: nothing to see here.
But Antifa is real. We must view this phenomenon honestly, and condemn it. To be clear, right-wing and left-wing violence are not threats of equal magnitude. Far-right political terrorism is one of the greatest dangers to American democracy. Our response, however, should not be to overlook dangers from the left.
Antifa’s rise is related to a growing propensity among some on the left to excuse, even celebrate, violence.
This summer, as right-wing demonstrators argued with Black Lives Matter supporters in downtown Denver, a grizzled military veteran from the Patriot Rally stepped from his crew and discharged pepper spray at an armed younger man. The armed man—a security guard unaffiliated with Antifa—pulled the trigger, killing the 49-year-old. Strutting past the scene, someone hollered: “One less white f***ing supremacist! F*** yeah!” Others tweeted declarations that the far-right had it coming.
Similar online approval followed the murder in Portland last summer of a Trump-supporting protester. The rhetoric that began with ironic debate on the merits of “punching Nazis” alongside talk of self-defense had mutated into apologism for brutality.
This is more than just a problem in the Twittersphere. When Democrats and Republicans were asked in December 2019 whether their side would be justified in using violence to advance their goals, the overwhelmingly majority said no. Yet a sizable minority—16% of the Democrats questioned and 15% of the Republicans—did consider violence justified. According to the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, the proportion of Americans who felt this way had doubled in just two years.
Downplaying violence on the left is a mistake. After the first Trump-Biden debate, news stories lamented the president’s horrifying refusal to come out against far-right violence. But on the same occasion, Biden—who has repeatedly condemned violence during protests—cited the FBI’s suggestion that “Antifa is an idea, not an organization.”
Antifa is not a centralized organization—yet it is more than an idea. Antifa is a loose grouping of anti-fascist activists, some of whom act as self-defense squads during rallies, while others are more ready to escalate clashes, even to initiate them. “Their presence at a protest is intended to intimidate and dissuade racists, but the use of violent measures by some Antifa against their adversaries can create a vicious, self-defeating cycle of attacks, counter-attacks and blame,” the Anti-Defamation League says. “This is why most established civil rights organizations criticize Antifa tactics as dangerous and counterproductive.”
Antifa is part of a wider story about radicalization on the left during the Trump years that threatens to undermine the coalition of progressive, moderate and center-right voters that ousted him—a coalition that remains vital to stabilizing American democracy beyond this election.
Democrats must accept that racial justice cannot be achieved through violent destruction by (mainly white) rioters. In her 2018 book, In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action, Vicky Osterweil scorns the civil-rights movement’s tradition of nonviolence as “bankrupt,” and writes that looters pillaging American cities “rip, tear, burn, and destroy to give birth to a new world.”
For nonwhite small-business owners whose livelihoods have been destroyed by looters, violent left-wing protests have not produced a just new world. One of the most tragic acts amid the political violence of this past year came during the utopian left-wing project to create an “Autonomous Zone” in Seattle, which activists advocated as a protest against racist police brutality. By the time this project collapsed, the zone had fallen into anarchy, witnessing the fatal shootings of two black teenagers.
Any strategy for de-radicalizing American politics must recognize the alienation that has led so many young people to embrace violent ideologies. A generation has been raised amid pitiless social pressures online; soaring inequality and the economic malaise that followed the 2008 financial crash; an opioid epidemic; a worsening climate crisis; the acidification of political discourse during the Trump era; and now the pandemic. Smashing the system is understandably attractive.
But for American moderates to counteract this impulse, they must stop pretending that left-wing brutality is just a figment of the right’s propaganda machine. For Biden to become the president who brings the country back together, he must acknowledge that groups like Antifa are more than an idea, and he must be forthright in denouncing its militancy.
American democracy depends on the repudiation of anyone—right or left—who thinks that violence has a place in politics.
Angus Brown is a graduate student in political thought and intellectual history at Cambridge University.