Images of a light fixture swallowed by flames, smashed windows, battered ATMs and black-masked demonstrators throwing firecrackers at police officers were broadcast on TV screens across the US earlier this month when protests erupted at the University of California, Berkeley.
“Become ungovernable” read a banner carried by the anti-fascist demonstrators. “This is war” was scrawled across another.
Thousands of people protested that night against the university providing a platform for a far-right speaker known for his anti-immigrant rhetoric, but about 150 black-clad demonstrators decided to use force, tearing down rows of police barricades.
As fires burned outside the university, Milo Yiannopoulos, an ‘Alt-Right’ provocateur and editor at the far-right Breitbart news blog, was evacuated from the campus before he could deliver his lecture
A day before the incident, Breitbart announced that Yiannopoulos and the far-right David Horowitz Freedom Centre were using his talk at the university to launch a campaign against sanctuary campuses that protect undocumented students.
In a statement before the talk, university officials expressed concern that he would use the platform to publicly name undocumented students. Yiannopoulos called the statement “a total fabrication”.
A week earlier, a Yiannopoulos supporter shot an anti-fascist activist protesting against a lecture by the Breitbart editor at the University of Washington campus in Seattle.
By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), a left-wing civil rights organisation, was one of the militant anti-fascist groups involved in the protest.
“The movement effectively shut down Yiannopoulos because it was a mass action with thousands of people who were united in the immediate goal of preventing fascists from gaining a foothold at UC Berkeley,” Yvette Felarca, BAMN’s northern California coordinator, told Al Jazeera by email.
“BAMN, Black Bloc [protesters] and thousands of others found a way to protect each other and unite together because we shared the same political and tactical goal,” she said.
Black bloc is a tactic in which protesters – often anarchists – dress all in black and conceal their identities with hoodies, ski masks, sunglasses or scarves. Making it difficult to identify protesters serves to protect them from legal consequences.
Felarca added: “Our success at Berkeley, with thousands united together to shut him [Yiannopoulos] down by any means necessary, was a rebellion against Trump’s attempt to build a fascist movement in America and destroy the hard fought democratic gains that have been won here.”
What is Antifa?
The violence at Berkeley was just the latest in a series of events involving anti-fascist protesters and others who advocate the use of force against the far right.
Based on principles of anti-racism, anti-capitalism and anti-authoritarianism, anti-fascist groups – often known as Antifa – are loosely knit and generally made up of semi-autonomous individuals dedicated to preventing the spread of fascism.
On the day of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Antifa protesters also used black bloc tactics.
During those protests, a limousine was set on fire, and a masked Antifa activist punched white supremacist Richard Spencer as he was being interviewed on camera.
More than 200 protesters were charged over their involvement.
Earlier this month, about 100 anti-fascists protested at New York University, disrupting a lecture by far-right public figure Gavin McInnes. Local media reported that at least 11 people were arrested, and McInnes was pepper-sprayed by a protester during the tussle.
McInnes, who co-founded Vice Media and left the company in 2008, is a Trump supporter who has boasted of his anti-feminist views and defended racism, transphobia and other forms of discrimination. He also founded the Proud Boys, an online group whose motto is “West is best”.
A debate within the US left
In a statement released after the UC Berkeley protests, the university’s administration condemned the violence and argued that it violated the principles of free speech.
Writing on Twitter, Trump threatened to revoke federal funding for the university. But experts say the president is not legally permitted to withdraw funds from a university for prohibiting someone from speaking on campus.
Yet the violence also sparked a debate between factions of the US left.
In the Socialist Worker, a newspaper affiliated with the International Socialist Organisation, Mukund Rathi defended the protests against Yiannopoulos but condemned the use of black bloc tactics.
“These tactics endangered several thousand people who were not given an opportunity to say if they should be used or not,” wrote Rathi, who participated in the protest.
“Later in the night, anarchists tagged and smashed the windows of several off-campus banks and other businesses, a pointless exercise in property destruction that doesn’t politicise anyone.”
But BAMN’s Felarca argues that the rise in the number of racist attacks in the US demonstrates the need for a “mass and militant movement” that is capable of “defending ourselves”.
“Our side is growing and also prepared to be more politically militant and support more militant struggle,” she said.
“Mass, militant, direct action is essential to stopping neo-fascists and defeating their whole movement. Immigrant communities and all who are targeted by fascists are stronger for having a movement that is prepared to defend against the physical and political attacks of white supremacists,” Felarca added.
“If the movement continues building as large and as powerfully in this direction, we can defeat Trump, his entire racist agenda, and get him out without waiting for the next election.”
The rise of the far-right
The growth in the number and membership of anti-fascist groups comes as far-right organisations have been energised by Trump’s campaign and election.
Since the November 8 elections, the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) has recorded 1,372 incidents of harassment and intimidation, more than 25 percent of which were motivated by anti-immigrant sentiments. Nearly 19 percent of those incidents targeted African Americans, while another nine percent targeted Muslims.
The SPLC estimates that there are at least 917 US-based hate groups, including 130 Ku Klux Klan chapters, 100 white nationalist organisations and 99 neo Nazi groups.
McMaster University’s Henry Giroux, author of America at War with Itself and Dangerous Thinking in the Age of New Authoritarianism, describes the ideological worldview of Trump and his allies as “neo fascism”.
“Fascist ideologies and practices of the past can reappear in new forms,” he told Al Jazeera. “These forms take on a very specific distinction wrapped in new kinds of symbolism, practices and spectacles, but basically reinforce fascist ideologies, policies and practices.”
Giroux pointed to “the appeal to the past, the claim that the nation is in decline, the notion that you have to be xenophobic in order to support a new kind of nationalism, the call for walls and barriers … white supremacy and the racial privileging that informs Trump’s discourse”.
“These all have echoes of a Nazi past,” he said. “Instead of talking about Jews, he’s talking about Muslims… What you have in the United States is the death of democracy, even in its most fragile forms.”
Against the backdrop of increased vigilante violence towards groups already enduring state oppression or neglect – people of colour, undocumented immigrants, refugees and members of the LGBTQ community, among others – anti-fascist tactics have assumed a renewed relevance. Viewing the state as part of the oppressive apparatus that maintains white supremacy, anti-fascists reject a reliance on law enforcement to curb or hinder far-right violence and incitement.
The long history of anti-fascism
Anti-fascist movements date back to the emergence of European fascism in the 1920s. From their inception, these movements included a broad range of left-wing individuals: anarchists, socialists, communists and others ideologically opposed to fascism.
In 1924, the Red Front Fighters’ League, tied to the Communist Party of Germany, was one of the first organisations to engage in fights with Nazis in the streets. Its membership is estimated to have reached 130,000 within five years. After the Nazis took full control, many of its leaders were arrested, jailed, banished to camps and executed. Others fled and joined the fight against fascism in Spain and elsewhere.
The logic of direct confrontation persisted, however, through the writings of prominent leftists and in practice on the ground in the form of resistance to fascists.
In his 1934 book Whither France?, exiled Soviet revolutionary and Marxist ideologue Leon Trotsky tackled the question of how to confront the rise of fascism. Arguing for the creation of workers’ militias, he wrote: “But how to disarm the Fascists? Naturally, it is impossible to do so with newspaper articles alone. Fighting squads must be created.”
Two years later, Lithuanian anarchist activist and philosopher Emma Goldman visited the international anarchists fighting on the front line against General Francisco Franco’s fascist death squads during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).
In October 1936, a broad umbrella of communists, anarchists, Jewish and Irish groups clashed with British fascist Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts to block thousands of them from marching through Jewish and Irish communities in East London. Tens of thousands resisted the Blackshirts and the police protecting them with barricades, bottles, rocks, pipes and other improvised weapons. The events of that day are commemorated as the Battle of Cable Street and remembered as a people’s victory against fascism.
In the United States, a more recent manifestation of anti-fascism dates back to the explosive growth of racist groups, among them neo-Nazis, in the punk rock scene in the 1980s.
Largely made up of anarchists and, to a lesser extent, activists ascribing to various strands of Marxism, anti-fascist activists decided to adopt the tactic of physical confrontations against white supremacists from across the spectrum: from neo-Nazi punks to the resurgent Ku Klux Klan.
The Anti-Racist Action (ARA) was established in 1988 in Minneapolis as one of the first organised anti-fascist networks.
The ARA’s stated goal is “eliminating racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and discrimination against disabled people, the oldest, the youngest, and the most oppressed people” and the creation of “a free [and] classless society”.
The Torch Antifa Network, a successor to the ARA, is active across the country and advocates direct confrontation and the disruption of far-right events.
As happened at UC Berkeley, one of the primary tasks of Antifa groups is “no platforming” far-right speakers – or blocking them from being provided a venue to espouse racist or xenophobic views.
Eschewing the dominant liberal understanding of free speech, Torch argues that the right to freedom of expression shouldn’t translate into a guaranteed platform and “does not stop the public from opposing hateful ideas”.
‘Liberation that includes everyone’
Anti-fascists say media depictions of their tactics rest on several flawed premises, chief among them that Antifa groups and fascists are two sides of the same coin, as well as the assumption that property destruction is tantamount to physical violence against people.
Antifa DFW, a group based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas, argues that media depictions of anti-fascists as merely engaging in property destruction “reflects the class position and function of the media in upholding” a power structure that is “patriarchal, heteronormative and white supremacist”.
The tunnel-vision focus on broken windows and smashed ATMs, the group says, is “a tactic used to de-legitimise militant struggle and gloss over the violence inherent to these [far-fight] ideologies and the structural violence of capitalism and the state”.
New York City-based Antifa activist Miguel Angel, who spoke to Al Jazeera using a nom de guerre, explained that anti-fascist activities are much broader than no platforming and direct confrontation.
“We make sure that [the far-right] can’t hide their organsing in the shadows, so that their community, publishers and event venues know who nearby is planting the seeds of racist violence,” he said.
He said Antifa groups conduct research, try to educate their own communities, train for self-defence, disrupt far-right meetings and recruitment drives, carry out counter-recruitment drives and publicly expose police officers and people in power who have connections to white supremacist groups.
They also work with grassroots collectives and NGOs that organise to block immigration raids and offer sanctuary spaces for undocumented people in places of worship and people’s homes, as well as monitor police and advocate for prisoners’ rights.
“It also means organising our communities both for their own liberation and a more general liberation that includes everyone – and that includes poor white people who do, in fact, need an alternative to the politics of white reaction led by Trump,” Angel added.
“We are faced with the challenge of continuing to let them expand that space of exclusion and violence, or organising the outrage at the regime’s racist and authoritarian policies … to make racists afraid again in more and more parts of the country.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_
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