Stepping between neo-Nazis and peaceful protesters, Antifa takes (and throws) punches while causing both sides to consider the place of violence in politics.
Thanks to Charlottesville, Berkeley, and other neo-Nazi protests, Antifa have been in the news. They’re the people who put their bodies between violent right wing extremists and nonviolent protesters on the other side, taking blows so that others remain (relatively) safe. The ease with which Antifa accepts – and dishes out – violence has become a philosophical sticking point for protesters on both sides. Let’s take a closer look at why they have chosen this path.
Heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, and their success in creating change without resorting to violence, have inspired countless others. For many, taking the moral high road means winning by convincing others, through application of facts, emotion, philosophical argument, or plain old social pressure, to change their ways.
There’s a great deal to be said for this approach, especially since it guards the right of free speech, avoids a plethora of legal problems, and can even be fun. For example, consider the anti-Nazi protesters who don clown makeup and funny costumes as a means of reducing racist messages to absurdity. Very Serious skinheads chanting “White Power!” have been met with cries of “White Flour!” (with tossed handfuls of baking flour) and “Wife Power!” (with women in wedding gowns lifting and carrying the male clowns). In some cases, unable to be heard over the frivolity, the neo-Nazis went home. If protests like these work, they’re definitely the way to go.
However, creeping fascism is not always repelled so easily. According to leaked screencaps and audio, the tiki torch-wielding marchers of Charlottesville planned to engage in violence. Prior to the event, they discussed strategies and weapon choices, and even the possibility of using cars to ram counterprotesters. Event organizers said that the leaked chats seemed legit.
When confronted by white supremacists who aren’t deterred by nonviolent tactics like “White Flour,” what options exist? One approach, taken by members of the clergy who faced down the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, is to remain nonviolent, holding the line as long as possible. Clergy who blocked the protesters from entering Emancipation Park were beaten back with homemade shields and determined bodies. Multiple sources credit Antifa for stepping in and protecting the faithful. Logan Rimel, a parish administrator who stood against the neo-Nazis, claimed that he “never felt safer than when he was near Antifa.” He went on to admit that it was only by outsourcing defensive violence to Antifa that he and others could remain nonviolent.
Throughout history, nonviolent protest has been made sustainable and successful through the existence of other groups willing to engage in violence. Dr. King, after all, was backed by the credible threat of violence from the Black Panthers. Gandhi would not have been as successful against the British without violent opposition to colonial rule happening alongside. We may eschew political violence, but we also fought WWII to rid the world of Nazis. Would they have gone away if we had asked nicely and chanted “Wife Power?”
What is Antifa? And How To Sound Smart About It, posted by ThinkTank.
Several violent groups have also become social welfare providers for the people they protect. The Black Panthers provided school breakfasts for children and directed traffic at a dangerous intersection. Hamas provides food and medical care in Palestine as well as muscle. Members of Antifa have contributed to relief efforts in Houston.
Therein lies the crux of the matter. We often depend on large, impersonal organizations to fill our needs, whether it’s businesses working through the Market, or governments using their legal monopoly on violence (via police departments and the military) to keep us safe. However, these methods don’t always work when we need them. The Market is an excellent way to connect people who have money with the things they want. It doesn’t provide nearly as well when you don’t have sufficient funds to compel business to cater to you. Likewise, what happens when your government is ideologically opposed to you and your safety? When the police stand aside, and when violent pro-fascists bring their own militias to events, it may fall to people like those in Antifa to step into the breach.
The use of violence against peaceful right wing protesters is one valid criticism of Antifa. This could backfire, turning public opinion (especially that of the right wing) against groups like Antifa and the Black Bloc (which are not necessarily the same). That said, does anyone really think that Antifa has a chance of earning the esteem of fascists? There’s a greater chance that peaceful left-leaning protesters could get hurt if they’re all tarred by Antifa’s image.
Whether or not right-wing protests are peaceful also depends upon your definition of “peaceful,” doesn’t it? If a crowd of pro-fascists isn’t beating anyone up at that exact moment, merely spouting violent ideology, can they be said to be peaceful? Can one simultaneously fight fascism while also leaving room for “thought crime” on the part of those who haven’t acted violently – yet? It’s a thorny question.
One thing is for sure, the threat of left wing political violence has sent the right wing into a tizzy. After years of preaching “Second Amendment” remedies and how the tree of liberty must be refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants, they seem shocked that someone outside of their echo chamber has taken their sermons to heart, stepping between the right and those they’ve threatened for years to destroy. The pearl-clutching of those on the right, who have recently discovered Dr. King’s collected quotations and have a sudden need for “safe spaces,” would be amusingly ironic if it weren’t tiresome. Perhaps it’s time for the political right to take some personal responsibility for reducing violence aimed at them by watching what they wear in public (avoiding swastikas, for example) and truly acting as if All Lives Matter.
Related: The Three Perspectives of the Battle