Non-State Actors

What is Antifa?

June 17, 2020

Michael Ellmer

Photo was taken at the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) zone in Seattle (Courtesy of Michael Ellmer for Grey Dynamics)



Early History


To understand the modern strain of Antifa that has overtaken the public narrative in the United States, it is helpful to examine its early historical context, which contributes heavily to its current public expression. “Antifa” is a shorthand rendition of the German word “antifaschistisch” (anti-fascist in English). These groups started as grassroots organized paramilitary movements that opposed fascist uprisings using guerrilla-style tactics.


One of the earliest documented Antifa groups goes back to 1921 in Turin, Italy, where working-class citizens formed the Arditi del Popolo (ADP) which according to scholar Antonio Sonnessa aimed “to defend the persons and institutions of the working class from fascist squadrism by openly confronting fascism on the same terrain of violence chosen by Mussolini’s movement”. The ADP actively resisted the fascists with offensive confrontations and guerilla-style warfare until 1922, when Mussolini’s brand of fascism reached the national level and put an end to their resistance.


Another now-legendary account of early anti-fascism was the “Battle of Cable Street” taking place on October 4th, 1936, in East London. On that day, British politician Oswald Mosley led a march of black shirts from the British Union of Fascists (BUF) through the Whitechapel district of London. A police force of around 10,000 men guarded Mosley and the BUF. Thousands of communists, socialists, Jews, anarchists, and Irish dockworkers intercepted the rally. These proto-anti-fascists used tactics like the Arditi del Popolo to impede the movement of the march. Their resistance was a success, and the BUF was routed.


Around the same time, the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) formed the “Antifaschistische Aktion”, a paramilitary force held in opposition against the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) who they labelled as “social fascists”. After the dissolution of the Third Reich, the KPD and SPD set aside their historic differences to stand together and destroy the remnants of the defeated Nazi party. Various pockets of Antifa groups also operated in Latin America, Spain, Italy, France, and Britain. As mainstream fascism died out, however, Antifa groups faded into the shadows and remained relatively dormant for a little over half a century.



Modern Antifa


In the 1970s and 1980s, Antifa groups emerged that shared similar ideological beliefs to their European counterparts, but with a different enemy; the enemy of racism. Their ideology began to broaden, and their adversaries included neo-Nazis, skinheads, and anyone who inflicted hate or oppression towards society. These modern Antifa groups stayed in Western counter-cultural movements until the 2016 election of President Donald J. Trump where they entered the national conversation.


Donald Trump ran for office with a pro-nationalist and right-wing populist message that sparked hardline resistance from both his political opposition and elements of civilian society. President Trump’s rhetoric in favour of anti-immigration and pro-nationalism is roughly linked to an upsurge of activity with white-identity and right-wing extremist groups such as Identity Evropa, the Klu Klux Klan, Atomwaffen Division and the Traditionalist Workers Party (TWP). Some have viewed President Trump’s policies to have bolstered and empowered white supremacy groups who view him as an ally in the oval office. In response, Antifa activists started taking part in counter-protests across the country.   


Antifa in Syria?


A very underreported and rather abstract instance of recent Antifa activity took place within one of the most unlikely places one could imagine considering their current image: the war against the Islamic State in Syria. In 2018, Rolling Stone magazine published a piece about a platoon of 12 Antifa aligned private citizens who independently assisted the YPG, a Kurdish militia that was battling ISIS in war-torn Syria. Journalist Seth Harp painted a scene in his exposé that illustrated a platoon of international men who subscribed to far-left ideas of revolution, communism, and anarchy.


International Freedom Battalion in Syria


A Moroccan militant leftist named Karim Franceschi was instrumental in the platoon’s creation and led recruitment and training over a five-month period leading to their first combat operation in April 2017. Members of Franceschi’s platoon had varying backgrounds. Some possessed military experience, others worked at western retail stores. Those differences in the background were united under the collective goal of assisting the YPG and meeting ISIS on the battlefield. The platoon ended up fighting alongside coalition forces in Raqqa, and ultimately played a part in its liberation in 2017.   



Antifa Bursts on the Scene


Modern Antifa started being covered intensively by mass media after a skirmish between anti-fascist activists and white nationalists at the “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville, Virginia on the 12th of August 2017. The event was meant to protest the removal of a park statue of the confederate general Robert E. Lee and propagate a message in favour of the ethnocentric preservation of white European culture in the states. Things went south, however, when the white nationalists were outnumbered by Antifa and other counter-protesters. Tensions between the two groups ran high, and the rally resulted in widespread violence.


The most recent Antifa activity is aligned with the current social unrest in the United States following a series of police-related deaths within the black community. The death of George Floyd on the 25th of May 2020, was the watershed moment in an already tense environment due to the COVID pandemic. On the day following his death, protests reached every corner of the nation. Many protests turned into civil unrest and rioting against law enforcement and racial injustice; the perfect environment for Antifa to operate in.


Out of all the protests, the city of Seattle in Washington State is central in Antifas recent activity. Increased rioting in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighbourhood led to increased law enforcement and military presence to defend the local police precinct. The riot control detachment used methods like tear gas and rubber bullets to control the unruly crowd which led to higher levels of tension with the protestors. On the 8th of June 2020, the precinct was deserted by the Seattle Police department. Following that, activists secured a six-block radius around the precinct and declared it to be the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” (Also known as the “Capitol Hill Occupied Protest”). This zone has been the cornerstone of political controversy in the U.S. with Antifa being labelled by some media sources as a dangerous adversary to the Seattle public.


CHOP map provided by the City of Seatle 


Various media outlets have reported Antifa being an armed occupying force within Seattle leading a de facto government with its own demands and autonomy from the states. At this time, however, although armed guards associated with Antifa have been spotted providing security, the zone itself has more similarities to the Occupy Wall Street movement than a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Graffiti and posters with anti-police, anti-fascist, and pro-anarchist propaganda can be found in nearly every corner, but the zone has, for the most part, policed its own inhabitants in alliance with its communal style system.


That is not to say that Antifa does not have a presence there, but the scope and magnitude of it is currently up for debate. Local Antifa aligned Twitter accounts have been active with posts advocating for violence against police and far-right activists who try and interfere. A source of mine within federal law enforcement also informed me that there has been chatter from local anti-fascist groups discussing conspiratorial plots involving violence.



Organization Nomenclature


The Anti-defamation League labels the current Antifa movement in the United States as “a loose collection of local/regional groups and individuals”. They usually operate as a conglomerate of non-connected chapters located across the United States but without any sort of centralized command structure or official leader. The oldest U.S. chapter is the Rose City Antifa, who were founded in 2007 and have a publicly accessible website. While some are similar in nature with transparency, the majority prefer to work in a clandestine fashion to keep their operational plans secret.


Author and historian Mark Bray recently published “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook”, an unofficial account of their history and an overview of their political alliances, goals and tactics. According to Bray, Antifa is traditionally affiliated with far left-wing political groups, such as anarchists, communists, and socialists, just like their historical counterparts. Bray also makes a claim that “Antifa is not itself an interconnected organization, any more than an ideology like socialism or a tactic like a picket line is a specific group”.



Tactics, Techniques & Procedures


The most alarming aspect of Antifa is their acceptance and promotion of violence against what they label as fascism and oppression. In their eyes, by the time fascism comes into power, it is too late for the citizenry to react. So, any means necessary to prevent it, including the shutting down of fascist or oppressive rhetoric and use of direct force, is justifiable. The catchphrase “punch a Nazi in the face” is associated with Antifa’s image and rhetoric and symbolic of their ideology.


Antifa’s modus operandi is the utilization of “Black Bloc” tactics (which are described in great detail here). Activists dress with anonymity in mind during protests and conceal their faces to mask from tear gas and other riot control methods. Facial concealing also prevents law enforcement identification and likewise their opponents, a key indicator of their potential actions during a protest. Activists do not have a standard uniform outside of protests and blend into their local population when inactive (unless an activist chooses to wear clothing affiliating them with the Antifa movement). Physical gatherings are generally not in official spaces and date and time schedules are kept internal to the groups properly vetted members.


Offensively speaking, commonly used weapons during protests are projectiles, Molotov cocktails, makeshift hand to hand weapons, bricks, brass knuckles, pepper spray, knives, and slingshots. There is a strong anarchist undercurrent within Antifas ideology that promotes vandalism and destruction of property which is a common occurrence at protests they participate in. The most direct action they preform is hand to hand combat with counter-protesters. Defensively speaking, shields, face masks, and other forms of homemade body armour are common. 


Tech-savvy activists have dipped their toes into offensive digital vigilantism as well using the strategy of “doxing” anyone who supports views of fascism or oppression. Doxing is the revealing of an individual’s personal information into the public sphere including items like full name, home address, phone number, and employer. Doxing can lead to physical retaliation or harassment of the target recipient and endanger them or their families.


 Communications are overall kept minimal to outsiders. Group internal communication is through encrypted messaging applications like Signal. Some local chapters have an online presence that includes contact information like email addresses and social media links. ProtonMail is their most referenced email service followed closely by, an independent project that “provides online communication tools for people and groups working on liberatory social change”. Some chapters also have public Tor links and PGP keys which implies that they have a presence on the dark web in unison with other fringe activist communities.    


As far as unit composition goes, the exact number of active Antifa chapters and members is not officially known. They have an international reach, but in the United States, they are still considered to be on the fringes in comparison to other left-wing activist groups. Their loose organization and lack of public records make it difficult to get an accurate assessment of chapters.



Closing Judgement


The lack of centralized leadership and informal structure of Antifa does not negate their dangerous capabilities. Although there have not been any reported deaths from their actions, they have inflicted injuries, sometimes very serious, towards citizens nationwide as a result of their signature approach to activism. Due to their ideology being aligned with the promotion of violence and embracement of a “by any means” mentality towards their opponents, Antifa has the potential to inflict serious harm to those who get in their way. Civil unrest in the United States is at an all-time high, especially with the recent movement for systematic racial justice and institutional reform. With an upcoming presidential election at hand, an insurgence of openly active white supremacist and far-right groups, and a socially and politically divided nation, conditions are currently set for Antifa to continue their activist operations into the unforeseen future.

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