Antifa—political shorthand for the leftist anti-fascist movement—has had a consistent, if at times confusing, presence on the frontlines of movement politics and civic agitation during some of the most spectacular demonstrations held over the last few years. The movement has now burst out into the open after its participation in fighting white nationalists during the violence in Charlottesville, Va. last weekend.
It’s important to be clear that the violence of Nazism is historical record. The violence of American slavery that the Confederacy fought to preserve is a matter of historical record. And the vehicular attack that killed Heather Heyer and injured many more is now a matter of record too.
But it also must be acknowledged that Antifa played a part in the violence in Charlottesville. Antifa and the conservative media attention that it will continue to draw raises questions about the effectiveness of militant tactics in organized efforts to challenge the violence of fascism. To paraphrase an old parable: A witness watching two men fighting from a distance has no idea who started the conflict. Antifa activists would do well to consider that most Americans watch events unfold from afar and almost always through some sort of media.
That mediation can often confound any movement’s message. If Antifa is actually anti-fascist (and this ideology must be distinguished from those who are anarchists), then its goal is to defeat the autocratic, dictatorial, nationalistic, and racist forces that animate and infect certain aspects of the American body politic. Because fascism in America will often look militant and because the “Unite the Right” folks are often well-armed, those who would claim to be Antifa might need to embrace tactics that are actually antithetical to those used by their political opponents.
Non-violent resistance has a long and effective history in fighting racism and extremism in this country. The “both sides are to blame” argument shouldn’t carry much weight in thinking about all that happened in Charlottesville, but it has gained legitimacy because Antifa is deliberately not peaceful. If, when we look at the images of conflict between protesters and counter-protesters, we can rarely distinguish between the two, that presents a problem for anti-fascist activists.
But what should be more troubling to Antifa is that its strategy of participating in violence provides a unique opening for right-wing extremists. We are hearing more and more about Antifa not because its anti-fascist message is being disseminated more effectively. Instead we are hearing about it as the bogeyman of white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other far-right groups.
Antifa is, in this context, the violent provocateur of the alt-right. Unless and until the left acknowledges this political vulnerability, being able to distinguish Antifa from its ideological opponents will increasingly become a blurry enterprise.
James Braxton Peterson is professor of English and director of Africana studies at Lehigh University. He hosts The Remix podcast on WHYY and is an MSNBC contributor.