The Antifa Boogeyman
So about two months ago, I got an email notification from Nextdoor, which is a national platform for neighbors to locally communicate on all things relative to good ole American suburbia. Normal posts involve a lost dog notice, a block party being planned, or a local school fundraiser. However, this notification was an urgent warning to everyone, from a concerned neighbor, about an impending “invasion of Antifa rioters” who were headed to our little corner of paradise to “burn down all the stores AND our homes.”
The person making the post reported that large numbers of riot police were being mobilized and deployed to protect our area. Based on the responses to the thread, it was clear many people were shitting their pants. Me? Well I knew better, and laughed at the hysteria while sipping on my happy hour Double IPA.
How did I know this whole warning was fake? In part because I had read many articles about a viral information operations campaign being spread by far right organizations, which was successfully creating an Antifa Army where none existed. But I also knew that the “sky is falling” Chicken Little campaign against Antifa was missing some basic truths about the movement; specifically, that Antifa has no money, is highly decentralized and unorganized, and lacks any leadership structure to mobilize a suburban invasion force. Fact is, the only way many Antifa supporters can get to the suburbs is on their skateboard, which last time I checked has a seating capacity of one. So while the hoax proclaimed “bus loads of Antifa were on the way,” the reality was no one was coming to disturb the ‘burbs.
Not to be outdone, in the coming weeks, the purveyors of this fantasy PSYOPS campaign upgraded Antifa from buses to first class airline tickets. The nation was subjected to stories about mysterious plane loads of Antifa activists, dressed in black, traversing the country to sow their seeds of chaos. POTUS got in on this one, and helped amplify the fake talking point via his Twitter feed and interviews with Hannity.
The most recent manifestation of Antifa hoaxism were claims made in Oregon and California that “Antifa members” were starting the forest fires raging across the region. Even Joe Rogan repeated this tall tale on his popular podcast, but later apologized for spreading false information.
Despite the fact that these warnings all proved false, the repetition of the lie of the Antifa boogeyman is slowly, and successfully, being baked into the American political zeitgeist. Like Joseph Goebbels said back in the heyday of Fascism, “if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
One thing about Antifa that isn’t a hoax, is that most Americans know nothing about the movement. The fact is that the Antifa (which is the shortened version of “anti-fascist”) ideology has an interesting and honorable past, a complex and confused modern expression, and is worthy of both critique and praise. Given the heightened interest in Antifa today, it seems worth dusting off some history books for a quick look at the origins and expressions of Antifa over the last 100 years, and sorting out fact from fiction.
The first thing to know about Antifa is that Antifa is NOT an organization. You can’t join it. There are no membership fees. There is no structure. You can’t call a 1-800 number to talk to the Portland Antifa Chapter to express your dislike of them lighting trash cans on fire. Antifa is just short hand for “anti-fascist”, and encompasses anyone and anything that hates Nazis. Perhaps this point was best made recently during Congressional testimony by the man President Trump appointed as FBI Director, Chris Wray.
The second thing is that Antifa is not new, nor is it an American phenomenon. The origins of the movement come from pre-WWII Europe. The Antifa “Iron Front” symbol of the three spears originated in 1931 from the German Social Democratic Party, which fought against the Nazis, Communists, and Monarchists.
Each spear in the symbol represents rejection of what is seen as a tyrannical ideology. My research on the symbol describes the first spear as anti-monarchist. The second spear is anti-fascist. And the third spear is anti-communist. Last time I checked, that symbol pretty much embodies some core things that Americans of all political stripes should agree on. We did, after all, have a revolution against a despot King, and we spent lots of blood and treasure fighting against totalitarian fascists and commies in the 20th century.
As the threat of fascism spread through Europe in the 1930s, Antifa sentiments became more popular in the USA. In the 1930s, many American “pre-mature fascists,” as they were deridingly called by isolationist politicians, were ringing alarm bells at every level of society about the risk Hitler posed to the world.
While the US Government maintained a policy of non-intervention in Europe during the rise of fascism, Antifa citizens from all walks of US life volunteered to go fight the Nazis in the first battleground of World War II: Spain.
Renowned author Ernest Hemingway was among those who went to Spain to fight fascism. If you haven’t read his award winning story about the war, I highly recommend his offering For Whom the Bell Tolls.
History would eventually show there was nothing “premature” about the Antifa analysis of the threat posed by Hitler and Fascism. Fortunately Uncle Sam eventually got the memo and joined the fight.
The tradition of Antifa inclined individuals picking up arms and fighting against totalitarian movements didn’t end with the fall of Berlin in 1945. Over the years, Antifa activists have volunteered across the globe fighting against extremist organizations and governments, sometimes in support of US foreign policy, and sometimes siding against US allies.
The most recent example of Antifa inspired Americans and Europeans volunteering to fight in a foreign conflict is the war against ISIS, and other religiously affiliated totalitarian movements. In the photo below, American Antifa activists, fighting alongside the Y.P.G. in Rojava (Syria), pose with their battle flags, and express their support for Heather Heyer, who was murdered during counter-protests against Alt-right activists in Charlottesville, VA in 2018.
Chances are many people don’t know this history of Antifa activists fighting against US enemies across decades and continents. Instead, most are familiar with a different expression of Antifa in the USA, and that would be the annoying punk rock kid dressed in black who you went to high school with, who was great at voicing overly dramatic political prognostications of the threats to our freedoms posed by totalitarian politicians.
In the spirit of full disclosure, the last part of that last paragraph description pretty much sums up my youth. I was a high school kid rocking a Dead Kennedys t-shirt, leather jacket with a “Circle A” on it and basically being a contrarian to the angst of my parents and teachers. That is in large part why I get such a chuckle about the fear-mongering about anti-fascists happening today. The anti-fascist people I knew then and today frankly spent more time getting drunk and talking politics than pursuing a revolution. I can say that the jocks in my high school were much more violent, prone to vandalism, and better organized than my dressed in black band of trouble makers. I can also say I have seen more wanton destruction and violence at various sporting events than I have ever seen at any protest where Antifa was involved.
In closing, Antifa, like any political movement or ideology, has its heroes, its wingnuts, its contradictions, excesses, victories, and failures. As with many things political, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. But because Antifa has no organization, and no spokesperson, it is hard to get supporters to follow an agreed upon code of conduct, or follow an organized plan. And as such, critics make valid arguments about how actions in the name of anti-fascism can quickly devolve into Anarchy (pun intended). Equally problematic is that enemies of Antifa activism (specifically various alt-right groups) have learned that it is very easy to do “false flag” actions, in the name of Antifa, which further besmirches the movement. A great example of this is the actions this summer of “Umbrella Man ,” dressed in all black and pretending to be an Antifa supporter, who police discovered was actually a member of a white supremacist group aiming to incite violence during a protest in Minneapolis this summer.
So next time you see on social media (or hear a national politician cry) that Antifa hordes are headed your way, chances are someone is just stirring up dust in the hopes of inflaming an already stressed out American public for political gain. My advice is to just take a deep breath, sit back, and enjoy a Double IPA. Our grandfathers who went to Europe and kicked Nazi asses in World War II were anti-fascists. Don’t let that annoying punk rock kid in black make you forget that our Constitution, our Republic, and our Democracy share the same core tenets of rejecting totalitarianism.
October 20, 2020