The Rise of the Violent Left

Antifa’s activists say they’re battling burgeoning authoritarianism on the
American right. Are they fueling it instead?

Since 1907, Portland, Oregon, has hosted an annual Rose Festival. Since
2007, the festival had included a parade down 82nd Avenue. Since 2013, the
Republican Party of Multnomah County, which includes Portland, had taken
part. This April, all of that changed.

In the days leading up to the planned parade, a group called the Direct
Action Alliance declared, “Fascists plan to march through the streets,” and
warned, “Nazis will not march through Portland unopposed.” The alliance
said it didn’t object to the Multnomah GOP itself, but to “fascists” who
planned to infiltrate its ranks. Yet it also denounced marchers with “Trump
flags” and “red maga hats” who could “normalize support for an orange man
who bragged about sexually harassing women and who is waging a war of hate,
racism and prejudice.” A second group, Oregon Students Empowered, created a
Facebook page called “Shut down fascism! No nazis in Portland!”

Next, the parade’s organizers received an anonymous email warning that if
“Trump supporters” and others who promote “hateful rhetoric” marched, “we
will have two hundred or more people rush into the parade … and drag and
push those people out.” When Portland police said they lacked the resources
to provide adequate security, the organizers canceled the parade. It was a
sign of things to come.

For progressives, Donald Trump is not just another Republican president.
Seventy-six percent of Democrats, according to a Suffolk poll from last
September, consider him a racist. Last March, according to a YouGov survey,
71 percent of Democrats agreed that his campaign contained “fascist
undertones.” All of which raises a question that is likely to bedevil
progressives for years to come: If you believe the president of the United
States is leading a racist, fascist movement that threatens the rights, if
not the lives, of vulnerable minorities, how far are you willing to go to
stop it?

In Washington, D.C., the response to that question centers on how members
of Congress can oppose Trump’s agenda, on how Democrats can retake the
House of Representatives, and on how and when to push for impeachment. But
in the country at large, some militant leftists are offering a very
different answer. On Inauguration Day, a masked activist punched the
white-supremacist leader Richard Spencer. In February, protesters violently
disrupted UC Berkeley’s plans to host a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, a
former editor. In March, protesters pushed and shoved the
controversial conservative political scientist Charles Murray when he spoke
at Middlebury College, in Vermont.

As far-flung as these incidents were, they have something crucial in
common. Like the organizations that opposed the Multnomah County Republican
Party’s participation in the 82nd Avenue of Roses Parade, these activists
appear to be linked to a movement called “antifa,” which is short for
*antifascist* or *Anti-Fascist Action*. The movement’s secrecy makes
definitively cataloging its activities difficult, but this much is certain:
Antifa’s power is growing. And how the rest of the activist left responds
will help define its moral character in the Trump age.

Antifa traces its roots to the 1920s and ’30s, when militant leftists
battled fascists in the streets of Germany, Italy, and Spain. When fascism
withered after World War II, antifa did too. But in the ’70s and ’80s,
neo-Nazi skinheads began to infiltrate Britain’s punk scene. After the
Berlin Wall fell, neo-Nazism also gained prominence in Germany. In
response, a cadre of young leftists, including many anarchists and punk
fans, revived the tradition of street-level antifascism.

In the late ’80s, left-wing punk fans in the United States began following
suit, though they initially called their groups Anti-Racist Action, on the
theory that Americans would be more familiar with fighting racism than
fascism. According to Mark Bray, the author of the forthcoming *Antifa: The
Anti-Fascist Handbook*, these activists toured with popular alternative
bands in the ’90s, trying to ensure that neo-Nazis did not recruit their
fans. In 2002, they disrupted a speech by the head of the World Church of
the Creator, a white-supremacist group in Pennsylvania; 25 people were
arrested in the resulting brawl.

Antifa’s violent tactics have elicited substantial support from the
mainstream left.

By the 2000s, as the internet facilitated more transatlantic dialogue, some
American activists had adopted the name antifa. But even on the militant
left, the movement didn’t occupy the spotlight. To most left-wing activists
during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years, deregulated global capitalism
seemed like a greater threat than fascism.

Trump has changed that. For antifa, the result has been explosive growth.
According to NYC Antifa, the group’s Twitter following nearly quadrupled in
the first three weeks of January alone. (By summer, it exceeded 15,000.)
Trump’s rise has also bred a new sympathy for antifa among some on the
mainstream left. “Suddenly,” noted the antifa-aligned journal *It’s Going
Down*, “anarchists and antifa, who have been demonized and sidelined by the
wider Left have been hearing from liberals and Leftists, ‘you’ve been right
all along.’ ” An article in *The Nation *argued that “to call Trumpism
fascist” is to realize that it is “not well combated or contained by
standard liberal appeals to reason.” The radical left, it said, offers
“practical and serious responses in this political moment.”

Those responses sometimes spill blood. Since antifa is heavily composed of
anarchists, its activists place little faith in the state, which they
consider complicit in fascism and racism. They prefer direct action: They
pressure venues to deny white supremacists space to meet. They pressure
employers to fire them and landlords to evict them. And when people they
deem racists and fascists manage to assemble, antifa’s partisans try to
break up their gatherings, including by force.

Such tactics have elicited substantial support from the mainstream left.
When the masked antifa activist was filmed assaulting Spencer on
Inauguration Day, another piece in *The Nation *described his punch as an
act of “kinetic beauty.” *Slate* ran an approving article about a humorous
piano ballad that glorified the assault. Twitter was inundated with viral
versions of the video set to different songs, prompting the former Obama
speechwriter Jon Favreau to tweet, “I don’t care how many different songs
you set Richard Spencer being punched to, I’ll laugh at every one.”

The violence is not directed only at avowed racists like Spencer: In June
of last year, demonstrators—at least some of whom were associated with
antifa—punched and threw eggs at people exiting a Trump rally in San Jose,
California. An article in *It’s Going Down *celebrated the “righteous

[image: Description:
antifascist demonstrator burns a Blue Lives Matter flag during a protest in
Portland, Oregon, in June. (Scott Olson / Getty)

Antifascists call such actions defensive. Hate speech against vulnerable
minorities, they argue, leads to violence against vulnerable minorities.
But Trump supporters and white nationalists see antifa’s attacks as an
assault on their right to freely assemble, which they in turn seek to
reassert. The result is a level of sustained political street warfare not
seen in the U.S. since the 1960s. A few weeks after the attacks in San
Jose, for instance, a white-supremacist leader announced that he would host
a march in Sacramento to protest the attacks at Trump rallies. Anti-Fascist
Action Sacramento called for a counterdemonstration; in the end, at least
10 people were stabbed.

A similar cycle has played out at UC Berkeley. In February, masked
antifascists broke store windows and hurled Molotov cocktails and rocks at
police during a rally against the planned speech by Yiannopoulos. After the
university canceled the speech out of what it called “concern for public
safety,” white nationalists announced a “March on Berkeley” in support of
“free speech.” At that rally, a 41-year-old man named Kyle Chapman, who was
wearing a baseball helmet, ski goggles, shin guards, and a mask, smashed an
antifa activist over the head with a wooden post. Suddenly, Trump
supporters had a viral video of their own. A far-right crowdfunding site
soon raised more than $80,000 for Chapman’s legal defense. (In January, the
same site had offered a substantial reward for the identity of the
antifascist who had punched Spencer.) A politicized fight culture is
emerging, fueled by cheerleaders on both sides. As James Anderson, an
editor at *It’s Going Down*, told *Vice*, “This shit is fun.”

Portland offers perhaps the clearest glimpse of where all of this can lead.
The Pacific Northwest has long attracted white supremacists, who have seen
it as a haven from America’s multiracial East and South. In 1857, Oregon
(then a federal territory) banned African Americans from living there. By
the 1920s, it boasted the highest Ku Klux Klan membership rate of any state.

In 1988, neo-Nazis in Portland killed an Ethiopian immigrant with a
baseball bat. Shortly thereafter, notes Alex Reid Ross, a lecturer at
Portland State University and the author of *Against the Fascist Creep*,
anti-Nazi skinheads formed a chapter of Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice.
Before long, the city also had an Anti-Racist Action group.

Now, in the Trump era, Portland has become a bastion of antifascist
militancy. Masked protesters smashed store windows during multiday
demonstrations following Trump’s election. In early April, antifa activists
threw smoke bombs into a “Rally for Trump and Freedom” in the Portland
suburb of Vancouver, Washington. A local paper said the ensuing melee
resembled a mosh pit.

When antifascists forced the cancellation of the 82nd Avenue of Roses
Parade, Trump supporters responded with a “March for Free Speech.” Among
those who attended was Jeremy Christian, a burly ex-con draped in an
American flag, who uttered racial slurs and made Nazi salutes. A few weeks
later, on May 25, a man believed to be Christian was filmed calling antifa
“a bunch of punk bitches.”

The next day, Christian boarded a light-rail train and began yelling that
“colored people” were ruining the city. He fixed his attention on two
teenage girls, one African American and the other wearing a hijab, and told
them “to go back to Saudi Arabia” or “kill themselves.” As the girls
retreated to the back of the train, three men interposed themselves between
Christian and his targets. “Please,” one said, “get off this train.”
Christian stabbed all three. One bled to death on the train. One was
declared dead at a local hospital. One survived.

The cycle continued. Nine days after the attack, on June 4, Trump
supporters hosted another Portland rally, this one featuring Chapman, who
had gained fame with his assault on the antifascist in Berkeley. Antifa
activists threw bricks until the police dispersed them with stun grenades
and tear gas.

What’s eroding in Portland is the quality Max Weber considered essential to
a functioning state: a monopoly on legitimate violence. As members of a
largely anarchist movement, antifascists don’t want the government to stop
white supremacists from gathering. They want to do so themselves, rendering
the government impotent. With help from other left-wing activists, they’re
already having some success at disrupting government. Demonstrators have
interrupted so many city-council meetings that in February, the council met
behind locked doors. In February and March, activists protesting police
violence and the city’s investments in the Dakota Access Pipeline hounded
Mayor Ted Wheeler so persistently at his home that he took refuge in a
hotel. The fateful email to parade organizers warned, “The police cannot
stop us from shutting down roads.”

All of this fuels the fears of Trump supporters, who suspect that liberal
bastions are refusing to protect their right to free speech. Joey Gibson, a
Trump supporter who organized the June 4 Portland rally, told me that his
“biggest pet peeve is when mayors have police stand down … They don’t want
conservatives to be coming together and speaking.” To provide security at
the rally, Gibson brought in a far-right militia called the Oath Keepers.
In late June, James Buchal, the chair of the Multnomah County Republican
Party, announced that it too would use militia members for security,
because “volunteers don’t feel safe on the streets of Portland.”

Antifa believes it is pursuing the opposite of authoritarianism. Many of
its activists oppose the very notion of a centralized state. But in the
name of protecting the vulnerable, antifascists have granted themselves the
authority to decide which Americans may publicly assemble and which may
not. That authority rests on no democratic foundation. Unlike the
politicians they revile, the men and women of antifa cannot be voted out of
office. Generally, they don’t even disclose their names.

Antifa’s perceived legitimacy is inversely correlated with the
government’s. Which is why, in the Trump era, the movement is growing like
never before. As the president derides and subverts liberal-democratic
norms, progressives face a choice. They can recommit to the rules of fair
play, and try to limit the president’s corrosive effect, though they will
often fail. Or they can, in revulsion or fear or righteous rage, try to
deny racists and Trump supporters their political rights. From Middlebury
to Berkeley to Portland, the latter approach is on the rise, especially
among young people.

Revulsion, fear, and rage are understandable. But one thing is clear. The
people preventing Republicans from safely assembling on the streets of
Portland may consider themselves fierce opponents of the authoritarianism
growing on the American right. In truth, however, they are its unlikeliest


Posted by: "Beowulf" <>

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