On June 12, 2017, New Jersey’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness (OHSP) added a new name to its list of “domestic terrorist” threats: Antifa.
The report characterises “Antifa” as a group of “anarchist extremists” who “focus on issues involving racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism, as well as other perceived injustices,” a half-baked definition, while technically accurate, is far from comprehensive. Unlike the other American entities that have earned this dubious distinction (and despite what hysterical FOX News hosts like to shrill), Antifa isn’t an organised group, a gang, or even a society.
Antifa – shorthand for anti-fascist – isn’t an organisation at all; it’s an idea, one that’s been knocking around since the 1930s and that has found newfound relevance on our shores since the rise of Trumpism and the current administration’s sharp pivot towards the far right. It’s also one of the few bulwarks left against the rapid growth of America’s white supremacist movement, a development that seems to leave the state, the authorities, and the police wholly unconcerned.
Given the simmering threat of violence, police are a constant fixture at the now routine public clashes where the far left meets alt-right in the drawn-out battle for the soul of Trump’s America. During these rowdy protests and counterprotests, there’s often nothing but a thin blue line in riot gear separating the twain, armed to the teeth and bearing pepper spray, sound cannons, and L-RADs alongside their firearms.
That line holds when it’s escorting Ku Klux Klan members or acting as a barrier between alt-right attention-seekers and black-clad Antifa protesters, but becomes awfully porous when it wants to be. I’ve witnessed many instances in which non-violent, masked protesters find themselves beaten or behind bars while Trump devotees and white nationalists brandishing Confederate flags and wearing flag bandanas (do those masks not count?) are herded into safe spaces and given police protection at protests.
While both sides have been known to employ violent tactics, there’s a double standard at work; for example, critics of the black bloc have been oddly silent about the gun-toting Klansmen in Charlottesville and the National Rifle Association’s bloodthirsty threats masquerading as advertisements. The police seem to know who they want to target, and somehow it’s never the old white men wrapped in American flags or spotty teenagers in Roman warrior cosplay.
One of the more interesting tidbits in an accompanying NJ OHSP report, titled The Face of White Supremacy in 2017, noted that, “NJ OHSP assesses white supremacist extremists remain a moderate threat to New Jersey. Since January, white supremacist extremists conducted four attacks, one plot, and three stockpiling incidents across the United States”. The write-up mentions several white supremacist groups like Identity Evropa and Vanguard America, noting their campaigns to intimidate and recruit at New Jersey universities; curiously, militia groups like the Oathkeepers, 3 Percenters, and Patriot Prayer and gangs like 211 and the Proud Boys are not mentioned, despite their violent track records and penchant for harassment.
With all of this tension and violence percolating throughout the country, placing Antifa in the same category as hatemongers like ISIS, the KKK, and Identity Evropa is not only disingenuous, it's patently absurd.
In the report on Antifa, though, there are no such warnings; instead, the report seems to grasp at straws to justify its own existence. It cites out-of-state incidents in Berkeley and Sacramento to illustrate the perceived threat, while a “small fight” on March 28 serves as the sole example of Antifa allegedly causing problems in New Jersey.
If anything, the OHSP’s efforts show that Antifa’s more disruptive tactics are a direct response to the danger posed by white supremacists, et al: “Violent confrontations between Antifa members and white supremacists – as well as militia groups – will likely continue because of ideological differences and Antifa’s ability to organise on social media. In the past year, Antifa groups have become active across the United States, employing a variety of methods to disrupt demonstrations.”
Why, then, has Governor Chris Christie and his cohorts decided to brand a loose group of anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-Trump protesters as “domestic terrorists”? As he’s made quite clear over the course of his fitful eight-year term, Christie is not overly concerned with the well-being of the people of New Jersey, and certainly doesn’t give a fig about how the state’s marginalised communities are coping under the Trump administration’s draconian policies.
He does, however, care about currying favour with the boss, glumly playing lapdog to the petty tyrant who inadvertently launched one of 2017’s most delightful oxymorons by whining about “professional anarchists” ruining his paltry inauguration party. Demonising resistance wins Christie a few of those coveted “law and order” points, and makes him look like he’s actually doing something besides wasting taxpayer money and worming his way into the sports radio circuit.
Here, Christie is indulging in a perverse kind of “virtue signalling”, that favourite alt-right insult. By taking a specific stand against “Antifa” and using state resources to do it, Christie and his pals are saying, “Any enemy of Trump’s is an enemy of mine” and working to tamp down any signs of rebellion against their guy – even if it means tacitly turning a blind eye to the white supremacist organising that bears a far, far greater threat to the American people than the actions of ultimately utopian anarchist anti-fascists.
A win for the right wing
It’s telling that right-wing conspiracy theory site InfoWars and other alt-right blogs celebrated the NJ OHSP report; it was a definite win for them since they view any effort to delegitimise those they oppose as an endorsement for their own rancid ideologies.
It’s no surprise that conservative politicians are pulling out all the stops to quash dissent. They benefit the most from America’s ingrained white supremacist heteropatriarchy, and any challenge to their place at the top of the totem pole isn’t going to be met with open arms. Silence against the white supremacist threat signals complicity and is especially dangerous given the power that racist white nationalists like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller wield in the White House and the explosion of hate crimes that have rocked marginalised communities since Trump came to power.
In May, the Trump administration slashed funding for 30 organisations – including six police departments – that work to counter white supremacist extremism; anti-Muslim hate crimes have risen 91 percent since he took office, while anti-Semitic hate crimes have surged 86 percent; this year has seen the murders of 15 trans women of colour, while 54 unarmed black people have been killed by police since January 2017.
With all of this tension and violence percolating throughout the country, placing Antifa in the same category as hatemongers like ISIL, the KKK, and Identity Evropa is not only disingenuous, it’s patently absurd. The whole situation sounds like a rejected Sean Hannity bit, and yet, here we are.
An ongoing pattern
This cockamamie “domestic terrorist” ploy is part of an ongoing pattern. The mass arrests that took centre stage at Trump’s inauguration have set a worrisome precedent for his administration’s treatment of dissenters, as does the fact that over 200 protesters are still facing a bevy of felony charges that could land some in prison for 70 to 80 years.
In a throwback to the way lawmakers attempted to hobble labour organising in the 19th and 20th centuries, Republican politicians in 18 states have introduced legislation aimed at curtailing the ability to protest, and the president himself often lashes out publicly at anyone who dares to question him or his policies.
Even worse is the growing sense that, despite the expectation of impartiality that the adage “protect and serve” might inspire, as agents of the state – especially this incarnation of the state – the police cannot be trusted to protect protesters on both the left and the right.
Whether they’re turning a blind eye to violence (as I saw first-hand at a recent “March Against Sharia” counterprotest and myriad other protests in New York City), treating neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and the KKK with kid gloves, arresting Antifa and left-wing protesters on trumped-up charges, or reacting with seemingly arbitrary excessive force, it’s become exceedingly apparent to those on the left that the cops do not have our best interests in mind. Whether that’s because they’re following orders from up top or acting on their own prejudices remains to be seen, but it paints an ugly picture no matter what the impetus.
“Cops and Klan go hand in hand,” goes the sing-songy old protest chant that’s long been a staple at political demonstrations and protests – a battle cry that aims to infuriate its targets while galvanising those who stand in opposition.
Like any good slogan, it boils down a complicated belief system into a short, sharp shock of verbal ammunition that neatly encapsulates the anarchist viewpoint that the police are a jackbooted instrument of state repression, equating the men and women in blue with Klansman’s white hoods.
While this viewpoint may be difficult for many to stomach in a world where “Blue Lives Matter” is a popular T-shirt design, I implore you: watch the footage of Charlottesville police officers forming a protective phalanx around a small group of unapologetically sieg-heiling Klansmen to keep them away from crowds of angry protesters, and tell me just who the cops – and their bosses – are really trying to protect and serve.
Kim Kelly’s writings on music, culture, and politics have appeared in the Guardian, NPR, the Atlantic, Rolling Stone, VICE, and Pitchfork, among others. She’s currently an editor at Noisey, VICE’s music and culture channel, and is based in New York City.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.