These days I run a small business and no longer literally wear my politics on my sleeve, but in the late nineties I was a member of a chapter of Anti Racist Action in the Midwest. The politics of ARA members were eclectic, to say the least—a mixture of anarchists, libertarians, liberals, communists, and plenty of unique cranks. But what united us was a certain seriousness about protecting our community from neonazi gangs and stopping their recruitment. If neonazi boneheads tried to force their way into spaces, we’d run them off. If they tried to book shows, we’d get them cancelled. ARA emerged as a means of community self-defense in an era when neonazis would routinely beat bloody random strangers on the street. That such neonazi thuggery has been less prominent for years is the direct result of decades of serious work by antifascists to expose and resist them.
Today the media talking heads who have just discovered the term “antifa” read into it their own culture war narratives as a bunch of newly militant SJWs now out to brutally censor anyone with whom they disagree. Instead of “antifa” meaning one of the few members of an antifascist organization, it’s become a shorthand for the radical left, or hipsters, or whatever your personal boogeyman is. As one would expect, this weird media narrative has been something of a godsend to very the same neonazi meatheads who used to bust skulls.
It’s amazing how fast people forget, or perhaps want to forget, but the eighties and nineties were a bloody and brutal period in many American cities. The traditional story is that neonazis tried to infiltrate punk and then we ran them off, but to be honest a number of those in the scene were always drawn by violence and pseudo-transgressive reactionary politics. Neonazis offered them an excuse and a community. By the time we’d gotten our asses together and realized this wasn’t just a few random bad apples we could argue with, they’d effectively taken over the scene. Words like “punk” and “skinhead” became synonymous with “nazi” in a lot of people’s minds. You’d go to a show and find a half dozen neonazis intimidating people and demanding to know if they were jewish and you’d think, maybe this punk stuff isn’t for me. Never mind our ideals or who we actually were, that’s what people saw. By right-hook or by crook they’d find ways to dominate our spaces.
Today conservatives face a similar situation. The same old neonazi thugs with “white pride” tattoos have come to dominate conservative representation at rallies, even when they remain a minority. The rise of the fascistic alt-right online may seem different, they trade bad memes rather than bad records, but in many ways they’re the same scrawny poseurs I used to know all too well, just emerging from a different subculture.
Every young person has a need to belong and to feel powerful; this is how extremist groups like ISIS recruit. Take a total loser and feed them garbage, make them feel like everyone truly is out to get them, tell them that they belong with you and your buds, and they’ll do anything for you. Almost everyone in ARA had former friends who’d gotten sucked up in nazi shit. Few of us took it seriously at first, you just write your former friend off as a dumb-ass. You might try arguing with them a bit before you realize how futile reason is. But then inevitably something happens that makes it all the more real. For me it was a friend of mine getting hospitalized by a couple of boot boys. His crime? Waiting for the bus while black.
I wish people would understand that modern antifascist practice arose as self-defense. It was also fundamentally anarchist; we never thought of going to the cops, and we never supported state suppression of neonazis. On the one hand, we didn’t trust the cops and on the other hand there was a sense of personal responsibility; we’d let this happen, and it was our job to clean it up. People needed to know that not every punk was a neonazi. This is why I don’t have much sympathy for the MAGA folks these days. You can sit around whining about how not every Trump supporter is a white nationalist, how the neonazis out there don’t represent you, and how the media is unfair or you can get off your ass and do something about them.
In Samuel Edward Konkin’s theory of agorism, the state is replaced not by some political revolution but slowly, through people choosing to contract with one another outside the state’s control. People who seek to buy and sell peacefully on black or grey markets evolve ways to settle disputes, and they also develop means of collective self-defense. These organizations hold each other accountable and are held accountable by their members, stopping anyone from seizing power. Eventually the state itself is brought to justice, as if it was just another violent gang.
Antifa, in my experience, functioned exactly like an agorist defense organization. In the face of an ultra-violent network of gangs that sought power, we came together to do three things:
1) Protect our spaces
2) Accurately expose their members
3) Disrupt their organizing
4) Defend one another with force
The first was pretty simple. Nazis love to intrude places where they’re not welcome to try to get new recruits, in part because they often can’t draw people on their own. They’re parasites, plain and simple. Just as nazis used to shove their way into punk shows, Richard Spencer intruded on the 2017 International Students For Liberty Conference uninvited with a small gaggle of wannabe thugs who tried to pick fights and ended up getting floored by an army veteran. A big part of what we used to do in response is function as glorified bouncers.
The second is more complicated. Modern antifascist groups are often more investigative journalists than anything else. The game these days is mostly about mapping their social networks, infiltrating their circles, documenting everything you can, and reading everything they write. It’s exhausting work, but some people are really good at it. Undercover work can get extreme and is often intensely stressful and dangerous, but it gets good results. Antifa groups build internal databases on fascist and fascist-adjacent movements. And when the time is right they release detailed and well-sourced reports to the public. While recent internet “activists” like Anonymous like to dump massive doxes, actual antifa groups have historically focused on 100% accuracy. This means antifascists are very careful about cross-checking their claims and not using loose language. Far from labeling every republican a “nazi,” antifa groups tend to be sticklers for ideological distinctions. While it’s fine for some civilian like me to casually dismiss a white nationalist or christian identity believer as a “nazi,” antifa themselves are actually far more precise. In fact, while liberal journalists and NGOs love to smear antifascists, they often rely on our reporting in writing stories. It’s an ethical or personal calling for most antifascists, especially after seeing how police forces often refuse to investigate or prosecute organized white supremacists that attack and invade our communities. Just as the state was never going to bring anyone at Goldman Sachs to justice, the state was never going to stop white nationalists; we have to do this for ourselves. Once antifa orgs have exposed their organizing efforts to the light, civil people can freely organize boycotts or engage in resistance.
The third thing antifascists do is the most controversial. Antifascists disrupt fascist organizing. It’s one thing to have an old friend start spouting racist conspiracy stories, it’s quite another when they build an organization explicitly dedicated to ethnic cleansing. When a murderous gang like the Hammerskins puts on a music festival, what they’re really doing isn’t merely peacefully listening to some music with objectionable views: they’re using the event to organize and recruit for their race war. In that sort of situation, a local antifa group might rally community support, inform the owner of the venue, picket the event, document attendees, pull fire alarms, throw smoke bombs, drown it out with sirens and chants — anything to get their recruitment shut down. In an agorist lens this is precisely what is supposed to happen to stop criminal gangs from growing into something like the state. You collaborate to stop any organization that wants to build too much power and certainly any organization that is openly working toward something as innately criminal as ethnic cleansing. Indeed, it’s almost requisite for community defense organizations to team up to suppress any such gang.
The fourth thing antifascists do is straightforward: we fight back. However this often looks a little more complicated than a lot of non-aggression principle people often imagine. When nazis have been attacking your neighbors for sport, ganging up on minorities or non-nazi punks whenever they have the numbers, it would be a mistake to sit around waiting for them to start a fight where you have the numbers. I mean sometimes they’ll be that dumb, but it’s not a good plan in general. When your friends and neighbors are getting jumped walking home from work or from a show and you know who’s doing it, you are effectively at war. It becomes valid to jump known neonazi gang members on sight. You can’t isolate and only respond to individual acts of violence the moment they happen. And let’s be clear: the far-right is overwhelmingly violent. White supremacist and white nationalist gangs are dismissed as not particularly concerning or politically relevant these day but that’s thanks to the work of antifascist groups that pushed them out of certain city cores. Sometimes this involved building community coalitions above ground, but other times this involved identifying and beating their members until they were afraid to go out hunting for victims.
Yet white supremacist gangs remain in control of much of our country’s red market. (That is to say, as Konkin put it, the portion of the economy prohibited by the state that’s criminal not just in the sense of the state’s law, but criminal in the sense of natural law.) These gangs are still incredibly powerful, The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas has more than two thousand members. Many of these gangs are deeply tied to “purely political” white nationalist organizations and their membership crosses over constantly. Many of the streetfighting rank and file of the alt-right, who now pretend to be all about free speech, are felons with nasty histories of violence and white supremacist tattoos.
Despite attempts to equivocate between left and right, the far-right is overwhelmingly responsible for the lion’s share of violence. Even just this partial list of recent terrorist acts by white nationalists is chilling, and that doesn’t include the countless jumpings and other acts of street brutality, or even killings, that are considered merely “criminal” rather than terroristic.
Of the 85 violent extremist incidents that resulted in death since September 12, 2001, far-right wing violent extremist groups were responsible for 62 (73 percent) while radical Islamist violent extremists were responsible for 23 (27 percent).1
And, of course, radical islamists are just another variant of fascism, which is why antifa activists have put their lives on the line to fight ISIS in Syria.
Antifa is almost precisely the sort of project libertarians have long called for: a network of non-partisan organizations formed from the grassroots and operating in the grey or black market to combat organized crime. Unlike paramiltary organizations like the Oath Keepers that work with and reinforce the police state while collaborating with white nationalists and other racists, antifa groups realize that the state is an engine of murder and destruction that cannot be trusted, not even against even worse would-be tyrants. Antifascists have tended to have better and more accurate reporting than liberal NGOs, like the Southern Poverty Law Center, which collaborate with the state and call for hate crimes laws that are just expansions of government censorship.
Do I agree with everything done in the name of “antifa” since the rise of Trump? No, of course not. Just as conservative commentators have only now discovered antifa, many leftists have likewise only just discovered it or decided that they’re interested. As a libertarian I’m not okay with the unethical black bloc habit of breaking random storefront windows, and I’m certainly no fan of the communist regimes some new members are soft on. I have my critiques, but I recognize that white nationalist organizations are a far greater danger. No amount of juvenile vandalism or annoying SJW behavior online will ever match the threat of actual terrorists and thugs calling for ethnic cleansing. It frightens me that in our polarized political conflict people are focusing so much on blue state versus red state narratives that they’ve forgotten what a danger neonazis still pose.
The alt-right has encouraged this at all points, trying to teach a younger generation (and older conservatives who never noticed anything before) that “nazis don’t exist” or that “the Klan is a psyop”. This only works because they’re able to push a narrative that when antifa talk about nazis they mean Trump voters or someone white wearing dreads or doing something problematic. Then tribal fears take over and Republicans are happy to believe anyone telling them that neonazis are a myth.
The use of Trump voters by white nationalists as a shield has become a complicated situation that requires new tactics. Antifa in Minneapolis have perhaps shown the way: when alt-right advocates of race war tried to infiltrate a pro-Trump rally the organizers worked with local antifa groups to help keep them out.
While my days in the streets are far behind me, it’s hard to watch decades of work by antifascists come undone as conservatives lap up the stories told to them by nazis who can’t even manage to consistently hide their politics. There’s not much I can do these days without risking my family, but I can try to correct the stories being told.
Demagogues on the right want to have their cake and eat it too on this story. They want to paint antifa as a greater violent threat than fascists, but they also want to paint antifa as weak “hipster college activists.” Given the sheer quantity of fascist violence, those two stories can’t both be true.
In reality antifa are brave people of varying ages and politics, who are sometimes wrong and sometimes make mistakes but are usually far more in the right than their detractors. Antifa is a set of community self-defense organizations that have been around for decades and aren’t a response to Trump.
Here are some actual antifascist groups in case you’re interested in actually reading what they have to say:
Some of the most famous, well-organized and venerable local organizations are NYC Antifa, Southside ARA, Champagne Urbana SHARP, Rose City Antifa and the Twin Cities General Defense Committee.