What's antifa? Journalist Talia Lavin on the reality behind the media's "pernicious lies"

Confused about antifa? So is everyone. "Anti-fascists have a purpose," says Talia Lavin. "It's in the f**king name"

Published June 15, 2020 7:00PM (EDT)

A Man charges with an Anti-Fascist flag (Getty Images)
A Man charges with an Anti-Fascist flag (Getty Images)

Wherever political unrest flares up, the specter of antifa isn't far away. Sometimes it's because anti-fascist activists are actually there, as they were at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Sometimes right-wing groups show up to demonstrations pretending to be antifa agitators, in "false flag" actions intended to make it seem as if the far left is inclined toward indiscriminate violence, even though no one who could remotely be identified as antifa has ever killed anyone in the U.S. Sometimes — actually, quite often — antifa just signifies a bunch of young street activists dressed in black, who may or may not qualify as anti-fascist or anarchist or something else. 

But on May 31, President Donald Trump tweeted that he would declare antifa a "terrorist organization." 

Trump and others on the right invariably use an upper-case A, and treat "Antifa" as a proper noun. Salon and most other news publications don't do that, partly because the Associated Press style guide says not to — and also because antifa is not an "organization" in any normal sense of that word. There are no membership cards or clubs or chapters. There are no leaders or spokespeople or any centralized structure to speak of. Antifa is a movement, or perhaps a tendency, a loose affiliation of people around the world who share beliefs, tactics and targets.

(Even if antifa were an organization, by the way, there is no domestic terrorism law that would allow Trump to designate it a terrorist group. Our president was talking nonsense, which is not unusual.)

But antifa's facelessness and transmutability — valuable qualities for guerrilla or underground resistance groups who struggle asymmetrically within a system — also make it uniquely suited for the boogeyman role as a dark, dangerous myth that the president and his allies have eagerly embraced.

On Sunday, for instance, Trump tweeted that antifa had taken over an American city, which it has not done.

But to better understand the nature of antifa — to get some sense of what it is, as opposed to what it is not — as well as the role it has played in the weeks of peaceful protest and civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd's death in police custody, Salon recently spoke with Talia Lavin, a freelance writer who has published pieces in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New York Times Review of Books, the Washington Post and more.

For years Lavin has steeped herself in the internet crawlspaces of the "very online" far-right, writing at length about those groups as well as the counterpunching antifa movement, of which she considers herself an ally, and perhaps a member. (If it had members.) Lavin's forthcoming book "Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy," to be published in October by Hachette, is described as "a dive into white supremacy's explosive metastasis online," exploring how we got to where we are now, and how to fight back.

Lavin recently spoke to Salon about antifa in a phone interview. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you start by laying out a little history behind the antifa movement?

Sure, but I don't know if I'm exactly the right person to talk to about that. I think if you really want an understanding of the history you should speak with Mark Bray, a historian who has written extensively on that. But I can try to tell you what I understand of it, a lot of which comes through his work.

I think first there's this misconception or common misunderstanding of equating antifa with American soldiers fighting fascist regimes in World War II. You can't be an anti-fascist if you're fighting for the U.S. military. Anti-fascism as a movement works outside the state, which has too often protected fascists.

So antifa is not, per se, an organized movement. It's really just a set of tactics, a mindset and a way of life. I'll give you two examples I've heard recently that seemed apt: vegetarianism and birdwatching. Antifa is the same. It's a movement and a set of principles you can adopt in your life.

But if you go back — I mean, after World War II there were still a lot of fascists in Europe! In the U.K. there was [Oswald] Mosley, and he led a fascist movement, fascists hanging around, talking at people on street corners. They'd show up in Jewish neighborhoods, and this group called the 43 Group — which was formed by Jewish World War II vets in Britain — showed up to beat them and get them the fuck out of Jewish neighborhoods, stop them from spouting the ideas that had just led to the slaughter of six million Jews at the hands of Hitler.

So the movement has always sort of had this ethos of fighting fascism in the street. Over the second half of the 20th century, it moved to young radicals. A lot of it was in the music scene — in the '60s, '70s and '80s, with the skinhead punks, as a backlash to those bands. Anti-fascist groups would interrupt these concerts — these rallies, really — so people wouldn't hurt punks who were Jewish or punks of color.

But as we see, no government takes kindly to anyone who challenges their monopoly on violence. Anti-fascism has always been a series of non-state actors who organize to fight far-right groups and protect their own communities.

A tremendous amount of antifa work — work I've engaged in exclusively — is monitoring the activities of racists, in many cases online, infiltrating groups so their movements can be predicted, revealing these people to their communities, tactics like that. You know, "This guy who works at Buzzy's restaurant is a member of the KKK," or, "This member of the armed forces is also in Identity Evropa." [A neofascist group that recently rebranded itself as American Identity Movement.]

The idea of nonviolent action seems to be too easily dismissed or overlooked these days. How do these groups reconcile nonviolent resistance with that other element, in the streets?

I mean, I think you're asking the wrong question. Anti-fascism is not necessarily anti-violence in the sense of being pacifist. Anti-fascists are willing to employ any means necessary, up to and including violence, to prevent far-right organizing in their communities, and to defend the people they care about.

But I think the reason they've been painted so demonically has to do with how easily mainstream media is gulled — how easy it is to see people dressed all in black and see that as a prima facie sign of malintent without even stopping to think, "Huh, facial recognition technology is employed by law enforcement. Huh, people who showed up at the front lines of protests keep winding up dead."

The black bloc was designed as a form of self-defense against that. Far-right figures like Andy Ngo — who is truly a piece of shit, fascism-adjacent dickwad — regularly use mugshots of protesters to sic harassment and doxing on them. So I think of the black bloc as a self-defense tactic, just as I think of anti-fascism in general as a defense and a community defense tactic.

But the other thing that I think right now, certainly in this moment, is the media reckoning with free speech. Like, so it's free speech to let Tom Cotton have prime real estate in the New York Times op-ed page. It's free speech that reactionary white people get in the pages of every major publication in the United States.

I never forget that the group that truly enabled the deadly Unite the Right rally in 2017 was actually the ACLU. Jason Kessler, the organizer of that rally, was denied a permit by the city of Charlottesville, and the ACLU of Virginia sued on his behalf. So the anti-fascists said, "We do not want these people in our town. We do not want Nazis marching openly in our streets. This is a danger to our community." And they were right, and the ACLU was wrong.

All this bullshit about free speech, but there have been maybe 30 car attacks on protesters in the past two weeks, who have been protesting for black lives. A lot of these have been far-right car attacks, and anti-fascists are just the people out there saying, "We need their license plate number. We need to know who this person is."

Look, a protester was run over and killed in Bakersfield, California, a week ago by a man with tattoos on his shoulders that said, "14-88." His name is Timothy Keith Moore. He has 14 on one shoulder, 88 on the other. That's a white supremacist code: "14" are the "14 words," which is a white supremacist slogan: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children." And "88" stands for "Heil Hitler," because H is the eighth letter of the alphabet. And the cops didn't charge him. There's video of the cops protecting him, letting him smoke a cigarette. They called it an innocent traffic stop, but when a man with Hitler tattoos runs over a black protester and kills him, it's hard for me to see that as an innocent traffic accident. 

So I mean, what we've seen that has been documented really, really well, is that not only is law enforcement in the United States saturated with white supremacy as an institution, and not only do law enforcement and the armed forces in the United States contain white supremacist members, but the law enforcement apparatus in the United States is neither suited, equipped nor willing to curtail far-right organizing in any way.

Mainstream liberalism, however, is completely hostage to this marketplace-of-ideas attitude that says, "My right to feel smug about how tolerant I am of Nazis matters more than the right of black people or Muslims or trans or Jewish or gay people to live without the threat of Nazi violence. "

In essence, to me, the ACLU attitude, the liberal attitude, of giving Nazis a pedestal at will is to say, "We don't care who we radicalize. Our smugness is more important than your life." I find it a despicable attitude that has led directly to where we are now, with a fascist president willing to use, even raring to use the army on citizens, and reveling in the Confederacy.

So I think the question is not why anti-fascists are willing to throw hands to protect their communities against the far right. The question is: Why aren't you?

I think that's apt. I've always been a little dubious about this "sunlight is the best disinfectant" approach. If anything, we've learned over the past four or five years that the opposite seems to have been proved more true.

I mean, sometimes sunlight is a good disinfectant. That's why doxing works. But the key to why doxing works is because there is a social cost to organized racism, and as organized racism has made its way into the Oval Office, that social cost has eroded more and more. And so, primarily anti-fascists are a nonviolent group who are willing to engage in violence when it is necessary.

In fact, this has been a critique of anti-fascists from the left, that they organize in response to far-right organizing. And when far-right organizing retreats from a peak, so does antifa.

There's often this mendacious, slippery-slope argument of, "Well, and then once they've finished beating down the Nazis, maybe they'll turn around and torch the Republican headquarters."

And it's like, well, no, they're going to beat up the Nazis, because that's what they're there to do. 

Right. It's like, the fire department isn't going to take its hoses and go flood your basement after it puts out the fire next door.

Exactly. The hoses have a purpose. Anti-fascists have a purpose. It's in the fucking name. As to why they're so easily demonized, I think it's because they have an exotic European name. Right? Antifa is short for Antifaschistische Aktion. It's German.

I think that the biggest bias in the media that is most pertinent here is institutionalism. I think there certainly is an anti-left-wing bias in the media, this inherent suspicion from the media of anyone who isn't affiliated with an institution. That's why they'll trust law enforcement. They'll trust figures from political parties. They'll trust city government. But antifa are non-state actors. Many are anarchists. They are not affiliated with larger organizations. They are like autonomous radical actors, and that is something that the press can't comprehend, and is deeply suspicious of.

I mean, this cuts any number of ways, right? A group like the police is a public-facing institution. They're supposed to be: "This is the chief of police. Here is his name. He's a public citizen." And you have a group like antifa, which is not a publicly traded commodity. That's not necessarily a criticism, but I think it lends shape to this narrative where we have a shadowy cabal, the black bloc. They wear masks, and at least in imagination, they can be anything. Then we have a well-defined institution on the other side, where at least supposedly we can see faces and badge numbers and all that.

I think these distinctions require critical thinking that a lot of journalists are not capable of. I think we've seen, over and over and over again — it's been particularly stark in the last few weeks — journalism at every level willing to take the law enforcement line even when it's transparently false from the get. We have seen, over and over again, the police department lie for their own benefit, and they do so with the cooperation of willing press.

I'd also add that the way the president has capitalized on this demonization, the way the right wing has capitalized on this demonization, that comes from a long history of red-baiting in the United States.

I mean, we have a president tweeting that the "S.S." is taking down anarchists. If you look at the way anarchists have been portrayed in U.S. history, there's a pretty direct line to talking about anarchists and communists as "outside agitators." This was a common tactic in the civil rights movement: saying that civil rights protests were sparked by communist outside agitators. That served two purposes. One, it precludes any reckoning with American racism, and two, it served to delegitimize the authentic voice of black rage.

I think there's something here about being institutional versus being fundamentally anti-institutional. Antifa, because it's faceless, seems to me uniquely suited as a "what-about" vehicle. It's fundamentally difficult for a group that isn't a "group" to speak up for itself if that's not even its ideology.

Take the Proud Boys, with Gavin McInnes, who will come up and say, "Well, no, this is what the Proud Boys are really about," and whatever bullshit he says. But he's a real face, with a real name, talking to a reporter. But when you have this group —

I would say the problem is not with antifa but with people who are so easily gulled about its tactics, as a threat that it really isn't. So yeah, antifa might look scary because they dress in black, but they have never killed anyone — no one, never, not one time in the United States, where there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths attributed to right-wing terror.

But you're right that anti-fascism is not a group. It doesn't have a spokesperson. If there were a person's face and a name behind antifa, that person would be dead or in prison. So, yeah, antifa's not suited to counter propaganda, but that's not its job. Its job is to counter far-right organizing, and it's doing a pretty good job at that.

What have you seen that antifa has actually done in the past couple of weeks?

I mean, I'm not a spokesperson, but what I can tell you is that my own activity as an antifascist around these protests has been to monitor far-right militias as an infiltrator, and monitor far-right chatrooms focused on the "boogaloo" — the race war that they want to foment — to keep an eye out for specific people saying they're going to specific places, and to try to warn people in those places.

And I'm not the only one, so that kind of activity is happening around the country. Wherever there is community uprising, there will be anti-fascists seeking to protect their communities. So in that sense, yes, there's been antifa activity recently.

What would you say to readers who have watched the news, where you see grainy shots of kids in black, running through the streets and throwing bricks through high-end boutique windows and whatever else. And the background noise is like, "Well, this is the boogeyman, the anarchists. This is the antifa left."

I mean, I would ask the reader to exercise their capacity for critical thought, particularly around cable news coverage, which is sensationalized at best. Just not to believe what they're being told, because it's a lie, and it's a pernicious lie. And it's a pernicious lie that's being used to sell racism and extremism as a both-sides issue, when it's not. I'd ask them to keep in mind that there's never been a murder attributed to anti-fascists, ever in the history of the United States.

You remember the @Antifa_US twitter account, right? That put out all this misinformation, and it turned out to be — surprise, surprise — Identity Evropa, the white nationalist group. Can you speak to that: Why would neo-Nazi groups want to co-opt antifa to spread misinformation?

I mean, I think it speaks to the vulnerability that you identified, not having a face, not being an institution. Those fake tweets, those fake social media posts, they have this super-long afterlife after they get posted. Even after they get taken down or debunked, screenshots live on and keep getting spread.

You have these wild rumors about antifa airplanes, which law enforcement hears about from far-right sources, and then repeats them uncritically. And you get this vigilante activity and law enforcement mobilization against the specter of antifa. It stems from people's deep desire to have a boogeyman that they can blame for everything and that they can attribute superpowers to. It also speaks to the conspiratorial nature of the American right wing. It speaks to the violence of the American right and the violence of law enforcement. And I think it also speaks to a very deep desire not to reckon with systemic forces.

It is much easier in some ways to believe, for instance, that antifa, paid by the Jews, is busing thousands of people in to New York City, or is going to invade your nice, white home in your Podunk town, than it is to believe that thousands and thousands of your fellow citizens are willing to brave the streets during a pandemic to fight against injustice. If you would rather believe that injustice doesn't exist in the first place.

The idea that this would be a terrorist "organization" is laughable. But especially now, given there's this emergent yearning for authority in Americans, a proclivity to gravitate towards institutional forces, fascistic forces — could that yearning for authority seep into this group too? Is there any drive within the movement to amalgamate, to become something that is more institutional?

Right. Like, why isn't there a PETA of antifa? Sure. But there's not even a poseur version of it. You know what I mean? There's not even a poseur antifa.

I think it's admirable, and it speaks to the nature of the anti-fascist project. Anyone can be an anti-fascist, just as anyone can be a vegetarian or a birder. You don't need the permission of any central authority to become an anti-fascist. You can become an anti-fascist just by looking up racist groups in your town.

Like, if a teacher in your local school is starting to post increasingly racist things, and you look into it and you find that they're part of some racist group, and you out them. That's an anti-fascist thing you did. Or someone who goes and brings water to protesters, that's an anti-fascist thing to do. 

But there's no central organization, because you can become an anti-fascist, anyone can, just by standing up and saying, "No." And saying, "Fuck you." And saying, "Get out of my town." Saying, "I deserve to be safe. My friends deserve to be safe, and the right of the people, the far-right targets, to live in freedom and safety is more important than the right of a Nazi to get up and talk." All it takes is to buck that consensus and to start the work. 

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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