Standing up to a racist fascist movement when it is still small enough to start seems to make sense. Antifa is an umbrella term uniting people who commit to doing so aggressively, as (at right) in Berkeley in April. Of course, figuring out who’s a fascist and how to stand up to them effectively is at least a little more complicated.
A strong moral stance against racism and/or fascism doesn’t immediately justify any and all tactics of resistance. Here I’m less concerned with the moral debates about the nature of evil or the ethics of violence than in the political effects of different movement tactics.
Determined to keep the Bay Area safe from offensive conservative provocation, like speeches by Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter, antifa activists have worked to attack their hosts and command the streets. Because visits to Berkeley might generate confrontation, photos, and attention, the Bay Area has become the indispensable spot on the book tour of any conservative. I’d code Yiannopoulos and Coutler as offensive and opportunistic, and advocates of policies that would hurt many people–but they were unarmed.
That’s not the case with the Nazis and Klansmen who have been turning up at white nationalist events. When the Unite the Right rally came to Charlottesville, providing a jamboree for the racist right, antifa activists appeared as well, determined to do more than exercise moral suasion. Carrying sticks and deploying pepper spray or mace, antifa worked to meet the threat aggressively, and to protect nonviolent marchers. Several ministers credit the antifa with saving their lives during the demonstrations (e.g.). Antifa protest gives the young and committed something to do to stand up against what’s wrong.
Let me acknowledge all this before explaining why I think that violent confrontation of the racist right is a poor strategy, and one that is likely to be counterproductive.
First, control of the streets in the United States will not be decided by the strength of the battle between committed (and mostly poorly trained) paramilitary forces. Police and (if they fail) National Guard are far better armed and trained than activist forces on the left or right. Streetfighting invites their intervention. At best, this means active repression that will always advantage those in power. But it could be much worse; cautionary tales abound. Think, for example, of the militarized suppression of protests against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri. Putting young committed people, perhaps masked, in the sites of scared or angry police forces–or the judicial system for that matter, hardly represents a risk worth taking lightly. Moreover, armed protesters effectively invite that repression for even the unarmed and nonviolent around them.
Obviously, this makes growing a movement tougher.
Second, battle ready and aggressive protesters will always command the most public attention, no matter how large their presence at an event. Oppositional media will focus on the images most offensive and terrifying to their audiences. Mainstream media will focus on the most dramatic story. Street fighting and injury will trump other tactics every time. Ultimately, this kind of coverage exaggerates both the size of the antifa and the power of the racist right they are confronting.
Third, antiracist violence offers both journalists and political opponents easy access to a fake judgment of moral equivalence. Trump supporters saw thin masked men carrying sticks when listening to their president’s assessment of violence on “many sides.” Of course, this is distorted and dishonest, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real.
Fourth, aggressive and virtually automatic response to the radical right puts a small and mostly marginal assemblage in the driver’s seat. The enemy effectively sets the agenda for antifa, again crowding out room for an affirmative agenda.
Fifth, antifa responses give white nationalists exactly the response they seek. The racist right mobilizes around a story of a country that is no longer safe for them, promising young men the chance to fight for their country or their race. Confronting those aspiring fighters with force confirms their story and provides the intense emotional experience they want. It creates drama and produces heroes for the right. (See, for example, the story of “Based Stickman,” who became a meme and a racist folk hero by battling with the antifa in Berkeley.) Violence in the streets invites rather than deters the racist right.
Plotting effective strategy means more than making a persuasive moral case against your enemy; it means considering the likely consequences of your actions. If antifa has made a political case for its approach, I haven’t yet seen it.