Fighting violence with violence


On May 31st 2020, Donald Trump tweeted that The United States will designate Antifa as a “terrorist organisation”, which thrusted the movement into the limelight of the media and political journalists worldwide. This tweet – which was a knee jerk reaction to the sightings of Antifa flags within the Black Lives Matter protests – has led the public to ask who exactly Antifa are, and why Donald Trump would consider categorising them as a terrorist organisation.

Antifa – a contraction of “anti-fascist” – is a loose collection of far left activists who share one common goal: the elimination of fascism and any other philosophies they deem to be authoritarian and far-right, such as racism, xenophobia, and homophobia, to name a few. Antifa as a movement has its roots in 1930’s Germany, created to oppose the rise of German fascism, but the modern Antifa first rose to prominence in 2017, where they counter-protested a “Unite the Right” rally –  a far-right march taking place in Charlottesville, Virginia organised by the prominent alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer. This rally was attended by neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and Klansmen, amongst others, who were openly heard chanting racist slogans whilst proudly holding signs of swastikas and other far-right symbols. These actions were enough to make far left activists organise under the Antifa banner, and as they arrived, the scenes turned violent. Numerous brawls started, which escalated to the point where both sides saw major injuries and a counter-protestor was killed by a hit and run.

Antifa is a leaderless organisation, where members unite under a banner, rather than an official organisation

This served as the catalyst for Antifa to continue their activism, combating what they view as authoritarianism across the globe. Even before the Unite the Right rally, they were active in their protests. They interrupted Milo Yiannopolous’ planned speech at Berkeley, California in February 2017 causing $100,000 in property damage, then in June 2018, members doxxed around 1,600 US ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) employees, releasing their personal information into the public domain. Since 2017 in fact, Antifa has been active as a movement, seemingly garnering the media’s attention when things turn violent.

So, why did Donald Trump say he wanted to designate them as a terrorist organisation? Terrorism is defined as “unlawful use of violence, particularly against people, in pursuit of political aims”. It would be fair to argue, then, that Trump’s labelling of Antifa as a terrorist organisation seems to tick all the boxes. As previously mentioned, Antifa is not always a peaceful movement. Whilst the bulk of their activism is physically peaceful, Anti-fascist organiser Mark Bray writes that ‘anti-fascists don’t wait for a fascist threat to become violent before acting to shut it down, physically if necessary’ in his book Antifa, the Anti-Fascist Handbook(3).

The problem? Antifa is not an official organisation. They have no offices, no employees, nothing. It is a leaderless organisation, where members unite under a banner rather than an official organisation. Even if it were, the United States has no mechanism for designating domestic terrorist organisations, which means that in any case, Donald Trump does not have the power to do what his tweet claims. Ethical arguments could also be raised: is violence justified in order to protest against abhorrent views such as fascism? Fascism has plagued the globe for centuries – first through colonialism, then through Mussolini and Hitler. We have seen how violent the past has been, and these sorts of people simply cannot be “talked out” of their ideology. It would be sensible to assume, therefore, that physical action, or even violence, is the only way to effectively combat fascism. Whether this is terrorism or not depends on the classification of fascism; for “terrorism” also implies a moral condemnation that many would say is undeserved.

Image: Hossam el-Hamalawy via Flickr

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