Appearing before the House Homeland Security Committee on Thursday, FBI Director Christopher Wray was asked a number of questions relating to Antifa-related violence and Russian interference in America’s federal elections.
Describing Antifa, Director Wray called it “a movement or an ideology.” Pressed further, Director Wray said that Antifa “is a real thing” that lacked a coherent structure or organization. The FBI director also confirmed that there were a number of active cases that the FBI was investigating relating to individuals who were described as “violent anarchist extremists”, some of which have self-identified as members of Antifa.
Despite attempts by President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr to designate Antifa as a domestic terrorist organization, not much has come out of it. The fact that Antifa is a decentralized group makes it difficult for law enforcement to track, with the best that the FBI can do is track individuals rather than the entire movement.
But, what exactly is Antifa?
Historian Mark Bray of Rutgers University (who also has authored a book on Antifa), compares the group to “private investigators”, describing them as “radical anti-racists who want to take matters into their own hands to try to stop white supremacy.” Antifa is highly suspicious of government (the police in particular), believing that government, police, and capitalism support and uphold white supremacy and fascism. This suspicion can lead to a belief in violence as a vehicle of change. According to Brian Levin of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, Antifa members vary in their acceptance of violence, with “there being a large number of folks who, while tolerating violence as a weapon, many of them believe it should be a weapon of last resort.” However, there is a “ragged and cacophonous core [that] believe[s] that violence should be the first thing used.”
Antifa members spend much of their time focusing on white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and fascists, lumping these groups into one “far right” category. According to The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips, the majority of the work that members of Antifa do includes “tracking what neo-Nazis in their communities are doing and outing them to employees and neighbors.” Since there is no organized structure, members tend to communicate through online chat rooms about what they are doing and white supremacist events they tend to infiltrate. Berkeley, California and Portland, Oregon are the two main cities where Antifa members operate.
Antifa members tend to not travel very far to engage in protests, preferring to use social media as the primary method of communication for gatherings in their hometowns. An investigation of many of the summer’s protests over racial injustice by the Associated Press found that over 85% of those arrested were local residents, with only a small handful of those arrested being a member of some sort of group. However, many members of Antifa traveled to Charlottesville during the 2017 confrontation that ended with three people dead.
Even though not much is still known about Antifa, it is still possible that the organization is much more violent than they have let on or what the people who study the group believe. Violence anywhere, no matter from what side or what the intentions are, should never be tolerated. Yes, pushing back against white supremacy is good, but to “fight fire with fire” is hardly ever a successful strategy.