An essay on anti-fascism in Europe and the United States, for perspective on a Trump-era panic.
IN 2005, I covered a raucous political rally in the German town of Gera, near Weimar, featuring neo-Nazis who wanted to field a candidate for chancellor during the national election that brought Angela Merkel to power. Their man was a belligerent politician with a mustache named Udo Voigt. Skinheads and more conventional-looking Germans — including Birkenstock-wearing young families — gathered in the dappled sunlight of an enclosed park for speeches and music. Local police had surrounded the park’s perimeter to keep counterprotesters marching against the rally in Gera’s cobblestoned streets from clashing with the skinheads. Police turn up whenever neo-Nazis march in postwar Germany — without them there would be riots.
A far-right band in the park had just finished a set of racist thrash music while tech workers arranged the stage for a speech by Voigt. Behind them a banner for the NPD, Germany’s most significant neo-Nazi party at the time, fluttered in the wind. I happened to ask a pregnant woman pushing a stroller across the grass why she voted NPD. Familie und Vaterland, she said. Policies favoring German families, German priorities. She felt alienated by Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats and Merkel’s more conservative CDU/CSU — the major parties — and although she cast herself as a simple dissident against the German mainstream, the racist fog of the rally was hard to ignore.
She gave me a gentle smile as she explained her problem with Germany’s conventional parties. “They put up with too much corruption,” she said.
I took notes, which a lot of people regarded with suspicion. Udo Voigt mounted the stage between black columns of amplifiers and spoke with his sleeves rolled up, like a man with work to do. He gave the usual populist far-right line: anti-immigrant, anti-establishment, anti-journalist, pro-German blood and soil. The next time I saw a similar event was 10 years later, when US networks started to televise Donald Trump’s campaign rallies.
A journalist from the anti-fascist scene called Andrea Röpke had turned up at the park, and someone drew a makeshift cardboard sign to point her out by name. A dragon’s tail of neo-Nazi thugs then followed her around the park, at a walking pace, until she left. It felt like a menacing roil of already hot water, but Röpke disappeared before there was violence.
I didn’t know Röpke, though I had traveled to Gera from Berlin with a busload of Antifa activists. “Antifa,” which stands for anti-fascist, was a loose affiliation of people who had chartered buses from different cities to bring a show of resistance to the skinheads. It was my first up-close encounter with the movement. I’d lived in Europe only a few months; in the United States back then, “Antifa” was all but unknown. It was notorious in Berlin for causing predictable, almost ritualistic trouble on May 1 with the so-called “Black Bloc,” a gathering of anarchists who used May Day as a reason to march and shout and throw things at cops.
But it was also an accepted fact of German life, a recognized resistance movement to the ongoing problem of neofascism. Antifa is a network for organizing among different left-wing groups, not a group in itself. Its adherents and fellow travelers come together for spontaneously organized events and then scatter. To board the Gera bus in Berlin I had to dial a phone number, which I found on a lamppost flyer. I talked to a nameless person who gave instructions: go to a left-wing bookstore on Kastanienallee, buy a ticket from the cashier for five euros, then meet the bus at a certain time and place.
It worked well. I had no other way to reach Gera on so little money, or on such short notice. The Antifa kids were hoodie-wearing, post-punk activists, gentle but intense, the kind of people you met at squats and tenement parties and live shows around Berlin. Many of them knew each other. But everyone had a different reason for being on the bus, and no one questioned my presence. When we arrived on the outskirts of Gera there were instructions on where to assemble, how not to get arrested, and so on. I mingled for a while and slipped off to infiltrate the NPD rally.
The neo-Nazi and Antifa groups would never meet in Gera, if the cops had anything to say. German police tried to maintain a wall of green uniforms between the far left and far right whenever one group announced a demonstration. If fists or cobblestones flew, they shut things down. That was one reason the NPD had holed up in a barricaded park.
“Antifa” has built coalitions to challenge fascist street fighters since the 1920s, but it has never built a leadership structure or a set of figureheads, like the Black Panthers, or even the decentralized Occupy Wall Street. According to Mark Bray, in his 2017 history Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, the movement is “a method of politics, a locus of individual and group self-identification, and a transnational movement that adapted preexisting socialist, anarchist, and communist currents to a sudden need to react to the fascist menace.” It exists because left-wing outfits can be so fractured and ineffectual on their own. The earliest grouping was a cooperation between communists and social democrats in Italy, who met in the streets to fight Mussolini’s fascisti.
Nevertheless, Donald Trump tweeted on May 31 that the federal government would be “designating ANTIFA as a terrorist organization.” To the extent that some Americans might organize a protest using Antifa’s methods and networks, Trump’s idea is illegal, since only foreign groups can be so named by the State Department. The first wave of arrest records from the George Floyd protests showed no Antifa involvement and very few professional troublemakers.
“Rather than outside agitators, more than 85% of those arrested by police were local residents,” Time reported. “Of those charged with such offenses as curfew violations, rioting and failure to obey law enforcement, only a handful appeared to have any affiliation with organized groups.”
Cops from New York to Los Angeles, meanwhile, exposed themselves as instigators of some protest violence, especially when it came to enforcing arbitrary curfews. But Trump and his enablers have hyped the fantasy of nationwide threat from “Antifa.” Attorney General William Barr issued a statement on the Floyd protests, insisting, “The violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.”
The actual lack of Antifa violence during the George Floyd protests didn’t prevent some right-wing vigilantes from appearing on the streets of a few small towns, armed, in search of left-wingers to kill. In Sequim, Washington, as well as Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, panic on far-right websites brought self-organized militias into the streets toting assault rifles. Trevor Treller, in Idaho, told the The Washington Post that he’d mobilized “after hearing from trusted voices that ‘antifa types’ were on the move.” A similar small panic in Ohio led residents in one town to complain about a strange, orange, almost chemical-looking “Antifa dust” settling on their sidewalks, driveways, and cars. It was a rust fungus from pear trees.
This fresh hysteria — promoted by the White House — doesn’t excuse some Antifa activists for their extreme behavior. Protests in Portland, Oregon, started as Black Lives Matter demonstrations but splintered and morphed beyond their original purpose, until some local African Americans weren’t sure how to react. (“White people being extra,” one friend of mine reported on Facebook.) The White House exaggerated these protests in July and August and used them as an excuse to put paramilitary-style federal agents in the streets. Against the will and advice of Oregon’s governor and Portland’s mayor, these agents kidnapped a handful of demonstrators after dark in unmarked SUVs, performing what might be recognized in any other country as a fascist ritual, which jacked up tensions even further.
Three weeks later Michael Forest Reinoehl — who labeled himself “100% ANTIFA all the way!” on Instagram — shot Aaron Danielson dead on a Portland street. Danielson belonged to a right-wing group called Patriot Prayer, and he’d joined a caravan of vigilante-minded fighters who had rolled into Portland in SUVs. Danielson and Reinoehl were both out to cause trouble that night, and Nancy Rommelmann wrote afterward in Reason that the murder also killed Antifa’s social-justice veneer. “You cannot celebrate the shooting of one man by another,” she wrote, “no matter how much you claim the killing conforms to your sense of justice, and expect to achieve justice.”
Reinoehl was shot dead five nights later by US marshals who closed in to arrest him for the Danielson killing. Some witnesses claim Reinoehl never resisted arrest; others say he reached for a gun.
Antifa activists, as a group, are not calm or liberal-minded people. They believe in disrupting fascists before they get a chance to speak. They’re an intolerant street-fighting wing, and some of them don’t like my own tribe of journalists and writers.
But Antifa does tend to assemble, like a cluster of antibodies, wherever fascism becomes a threat. Far-right parties have been organized and established in Europe for decades; their equivalents in the United States have received a serious boost only since President Trump.
The American hysteria first gathered steam last summer, during an incident that yanked the name “Antifa” from the fringes of domestic politics onto the soundstages of Fox News and CNN. Andy Ngo, an online provocateur, tweeted about a planned far-left counterdemonstration against a “Proud Boys” march in Portland, Oregon (“Unknown if Antifa will show up to fight again,” he wrote, since the event was a repeat performance in Portland). The Proud Boys are a bunch of far-right bullies who call themselves “Western chauvinists,” and sometimes they show up as masked fighters, holding bats and shields. Ngo aligned himself with the right-wing groups.
By the time he appeared at the event in person, he was a figure of hate — much like Andrea Röpke in Germany — and he predictably found himself in a street rumble with some black-dressed Antifa agitators wielding raw eggs, milk shakes, one bare fist, and silly string. He ran from this fight slimed like a Ghostbuster. He made a big deal about it online, managing to raise money for far-right causes and garnering some high-octane Republican support in the process — as well as an indignant editorial in the The Wall Street Journal. (“Our friends on the left keep warning about the rise of political violence on the right,” it began, as if a neo-Nazi in a car had not recently killed one person and injured 19, in broad daylight, in Charlottesville). “I pray for full and speedy recovery for journalist Andy Ngo,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted later. “The hate and violence perpetrated by Antifa must be condemned in the strongest possible way by all Americans.”
Condemn it, fine. But don’t embarrass the United States by defining Antifa activists as “terrorists.” In the past few months— in direct imitation of Charlottesville — plowing cars into groups of Black Lives Matter protesters has become a horrifying habit of far-right groups across the nation. Blaming the increase in violence this summer solely on “Antifa” does a favor to the far right, which puts the Trump government in a questionable historical category, alongside autocrats like Hitler and Mussolini. The coincidence is still a bad look, even for Republicans who long ago quit caring what the rest of the world might think.
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