Antifa is not looked at fondly by a majority of Americans. And that’s ok — neither were the Freedom Riders. But both groups are patriots.
Following last weekend’s counter-protest of a neo-Nazi and white supremacist rally in Berkeley, California, establishment media outlets like Vox and the Washington Post condemned antifa for violently driving the hate groups out of their town. Marc Thiessen — the former head speechwriter for former President George W. Bush who helped sell the Iraq War to the American public — called antifa “the moral equivalent of neo-Nazis” in a Washington Post op-ed, railing against the ideological principles many antifa members espouse.
Vox.com’s German Lopez argued in his “case against antifa” that using violence on white supremacists would ultimately hurt the anti-fascist cause. George Washington University professor Jonathan Turley suggested that antifa’s actions made it hypocritical, arguing it is made up of “fascists in their use of fear and violence to silence others” in an op-ed he wrote for The Hill. Even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California), whose district includes Berkeley, condemned antifa in a public statement.
All of these negative sentiments expressed about antifa from the political establishment lead to an overflow of moral ambiguity. Ordinary Americans have now been led to come to the same conclusion expressed by President Trump in his August 15 press conference, in which he drew widespread condemnation from those very same media outlets for suggesting that antifa and neo-Nazis each shared an equal amount of blame for the violence that led to three fatalities and dozens more injuries in Charlottesville, Virginia. According to a SurveyMonkey poll conducted on August 17, 40 percent of all adult participants surveyed believed that both sides were responsible for the Charlottesville debacle.
While all of this negative sentiment toward antifa may be the mood of the current time, it’s worth going back in history to radical direct actions that are now almost unilaterally viewed as patriotic.
In the 1960s, the Freedom Riders movement inspired thousands of people to travel on interstate buses to Jackson, Mississippi to be arrested in protest of the state’s non-enforcement of two Supreme Court decisions that ruled segregated buses were unconstitutional. Around the same time, the lunch counter sit-in movement took off, in which black activists chose to sit at whites-only lunch counters, demanding to be served equally. Both actions involved willfully disobeying the law, and were both widely unpopular with a majority of Americans.
A particularly revealing Gallup Poll conducted between May 28 and June 2 of 1961 showed that while 71 percent of respondents agreed that Martin Luther King was moving at the right speed in organizing for civil rights, and that 72 percent would take part in a civil rights demonstration if given the opportunity, an almost equally large majority of Americans (61 percent) disagreed with the tactics used by the Freedom Riders. 57 percent of people who took part in the survey felt that the tactics used by activists participating in both the Freedom Rides and the lunch counter sit-ins would ultimately hurt the cause of civil rights.
Your regularly-scheduled reminder to not let public opinion dictate how we fight for liberation. pic.twitter.com/Bct7eyPeoJ
— Marx Hamill (@forstudentpower) August 30, 2017
The same pattern repeats itself even further back in history. Following the Boston Tea Party — in which vandals donned Native American garb and dumped the East India Tea Company’s product into the Boston Harbor to protest an unfair corporate tax break — George Washington derided the tactics of those involved in the destruction of the East India Tea Company’s private property. According to History.com, the man who would eventually become the first President of the United States said that while “the cause of Boston…ever will be considered as the cause of America,” he also condemned “their conduct in destroying the Tea,” adding that the vandals should pay the East India Tea Company for destroying their property.
Doesn’t all of this sound familiar? The same arguments are being made today. While all of the establishment pundits and politicians of today’s generation are eager to line up and condemn the neo-Nazi cause, they also unilaterally agree that antifa’s tactics are counter-productive to fighting fascism.
It’s fair to acknowledge that antifa’s tactics of defeating fascism, even with violence, are indeed controversial, but it could also be argued that antifa’s violence is actually protection for the disenfranchised groups that fascists seek to oppress. For example, when far-right provocateur (and defender of pedophilia) Milo Yiannopoulos attempted to give a talk at UC-Berkeley, a Berkeley PhD student tweeted that the former Breitbart editor planned to use the talk to publicly name undocumented Berkeley students and was going to livestream the event to teach other right-wing activists how to do the same.
Milo had planned to livestream the outing of undocumented students and show College Republican dickwads how to do it too. That was prevented
— Kumars Salehi (@KumarsSalehi) February 2, 2017
Antifa’s actions in shutting down Milo’s speech may have prevented the deportation of thousands of undocumented students across the country. As Neil Lawrence, a third-year Berkeley student and participant in the antifa action at Berkeley told Newsweek, “I, a transgender Jew, don’t have a problem with violence against fascists.”
Likewise, the violence that broke out in Charlottesville and Berkeley can be seen as a case study in the effectiveness of antifa in protecting protesters. Both are predominantly white college towns that neo-Nazis and white supremacists chose as locations for rallies. But while Charlottesville lacked a heavy antifa presence, antifa came out in droves to stop the hate rally in Berkeley.
In Charlottesville, police stood idly by while neo-Nazis like Christopher Cantwell pepper-sprayed nonviolent counter-protesters. 20-year-old Charlottesville resident DeAndre Harris was beaten with metal pipes by a roaming group of white supremacists. One white supremacist fired a handgun at a counter-protester while shouting a racial slur, with no immediate action from police. And of course, 32-year-old counter-protester Heather Heyer was run over and killed by 20-year-old white supremacist James Fields.
— Tariq Nasheed (@tariqnasheed) August 27, 2017
However, at the Berkeley hate rally, where antifa had a heavy presence, the largely peaceful counter-demonstration had healthy protection while a few hundred black-clad antifa chanted “Nazis go home,” chased down and punched and kick neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and didn’t stop until the hate groups fled the scene. While a few noses were bloodied, no neo-Nazis or counter-protesters lost their lives.
— Tariq Nasheed (@tariqnasheed) August 27, 2017
Even though the media likes to classify antifa as groups of anarchists in a black bloc assaulting neo-Nazis, antifa really just means “anti-fascist action.” It’s a tactic, not a group or an established organization. And there is more than one way to fight against fascism. One small town in Germany found a creative way to turn an annual neo-Nazi march into a fundraiser, where participants donate money to a group dedicated to getting people to leave neo-Nazi groups for each step the Nazis take. Antifa can also translate into compassion, as antifa is assisting with volunteer efforts in Houston following Hurricane Harvey.
In a nutshell, antifa is the hero America deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we hunt it. Because it can take it, because antifa is not a hero. It’s a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A dark knight.
Michael Boone is a freelance journalist and columnist writing about politics, government, race, and media. He graduated from Texas Southern University’s School of Communication, and lives in Houston’s Third Ward.