It's pronounced AN-ti-fa — short for anti-fascists — and it is arguably either a violent far-left militia or a group of human rights activists so dedicated they will risk life and limb to protect democracy.
Their participation in the Charlottesville protest last Saturday may have been behind President Donald Trump's assertion that “many sides” contributed to the violence that left three people dead.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides,” Trump said at a press conference hours after the violence occurred. “On many sides,” he repeated.
Visibility has grown
The antifa in the United States have grown more visible over the past year, coinciding with the rise in visibility of the white nationalist movement, or alt-right. Experts say antifa groups are not centrally organized, and their members may espouse a number of different causes, from politics to race relations to gay rights. But the principle that binds them — along with an unofficial uniform of black clothing and face masks — is the willingness to use violence to fight against white supremacists.
The antifa have their fans among some peace-loving activists. The prominent writer, academic and activist Cornel West attended the Charlottesville events and praised the antifa for protecting nonviolent activists.
“If it hadn't been for the anti-fascists protecting us from the neo-fascists,” he told the Washington Post, “we would have been crushed like cockroaches.”
Open to violence
Mark Bray, lecturer at Dartmouth College and author of the upcoming Antifa: the Anti-Fascist Handbook, writes, “Anti-fascists argue that after the horrors of chattel slavery and the Holocaust, physical violence against white supremacists is both ethically justifiable and strategically effective. ... They put forth an ethically consistent, historically informed argument for fighting Nazis before it's too late.”
But the antifa's openness to violent tactics has also left them vulnerable to criticism from both left and right, in particular from President Donald Trump.
“You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” Trump said Tuesday during a news conference. “What about the alt-left? They came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right. Do they have any semblance of guilt?”
Group's use of violence rejected
The Anti-Defamation League, which describes its mission as fighting “the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment to all,” has spoken out against antifa actions. Oren Segal, director of the League's Center on Extremism, told CNN that his organization opposes antifa's use of violence.
“It helps the white supremacists’ narrative of victimization become a more effective talking point,” he said.
The conservative National Review magazine labeled antifa “a vague and dangerous ideology” in a June 2017 article about the movement. But Segal argued on CNN, “there's extremist ideology and then there's extremist tactics.”
Threat puts stop to parade
While debate continues over antifa tactics, antifa protesters are a dependable presence at conservative events. They protested last year at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio; at a Washington, D.C. “alt-right” conference in November 2016; at the Trump inauguration in January; at a string of protests in Berkeley, California, in February, March and April; at a conservative rally in Portland, Oregon, in June; and at the Charlottesville event last weekend.
A Portland, Oregon, parade was canceled in April after two antifa groups announced their intention to protest the participation of the local Republican Party in the festivities. Following those announcements, the business association sponsoring the parade received an anonymous email threatening that 200 people would rush into the parade to attack local Republicans.
Explaining the parade cancellation, Rich Jarvis, spokesman for the Rose Festival Foundation, told The Oregonian newspaper: “If we can't provide safety for our fans, there's no use in trying,” he said. “Our official position is, we're extremely sad about this.”