Fascism is rising. It doesn’t feel like this could be our reality, but right-wing extremists organizations in the United States continue to disseminate propaganda and misinformation from neo-nazis and white supremacists. These far-right groups have gained national attention because of clashes with counter-protesters, many of whom are members of antifa groups.
The term “antifa” — short for anti-fascism — refers to the political ideology held by a common group of people in the United States that are seeking to bring an end to fascism, or radical authoritarian nationalism, and are willing to use violent methods if they deem them necessary. Now, following the 2016 election, antifa is rising alongside its opponents, seeking to tackle issues such as racism, police brutality, and misogyny.
So where is antifa getting their increased membership? The political landscape left over from the 2016 presidential and congressional elections — a strong victory for Republicans — has left marginalized groups in particular feeling vulnerable to the threat of deportation, restriction of rights, imprisonment, and racial violence. The representation they receive from mainstream parties just doesn’t cut it anymore, so they’re turning to activism to voice their concerns.
Antifa has no central governance. Anti-fascists are not physically unified under a leader but rather under a common goal — opposing fascism. This means that anti-fascists are widespread, stretching across political ideologies. In other words, while people who identify with the “alt-right” (think white nationalists, neo-nazis, anti-feminists, etc.) are generally on the far right, people across the political spectrum might identify with anti-fascism, among other causes. In addition, it’s important to point out that anti-facism exists solely to counter fascism, while the “alt-right” is a full-blown political philosophy. Sometime, people refer to antifa as the “alt-left,” but this implies an equivalency between radicals of the right and left that isn’t there. While “alt-right” is a word that right radicals created to make their group more palatable to the general public, “alt-left” is a word that both the “alt-right” and centrist critics have imposed on anti-fascists. Because “alt-right” is a euphemism and “alt-left” suggests inaccurate comparison, we’ll be using quotes when using either term from here on out.
Most of what antifa members do is activism in their own communities. Any version of antifa will have its own strategies that range from peaceful endeavors, like organizing community projects and providing local support, to more violent action.
It’s violent action that usually makes the news. Although the far right and far left often clash, they have come to resent the traditional Republican and Democrats with perhaps equal animosity. Violent outbreaks across the country are causing the media to heavily report on both the “alt-left” and the “alt-right,” mostly from a negative standpoint.
On the weekend of Aug. 12, Americans nationwide saw the true colors of their fellow citizens through a series of white supremacist and anti-hate rallies that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. The violent tendencies of the “alt-right” came to a head at this event.
On the campus of the University of Virginia, white nationalists gathered for a rally to protest the potential removal of a statue of Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee. The protest concluded that night, but the following morning anti-hate groups stood, preparing to counter. It was at that time that one of the white nationalist rally participants drove a car through a crowd of counter protesters, injuring 19 and killing Heather Heyer, a Charlottesville resident.
Many clashes had already occurred between these groups, but the increasingly violent methods and language of the white nationalist had now culminated in the murder that occurred in Charlottesville.
With the “alt-right” recruiting in public spaces, like college campuses, there are an increasing number of protests in the news across the nation. Take Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who attacked a church in Charleston, South Carolina, primarily attended by African-Americans, in 2015. Shortly after Roof’s attack on the church, thousands grouped together and marched down to Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, demanding that the Confederate flag be removed from the front of the capitol building. On Jan. 11 — the date of Roof’s federal sentencing — many stood outside the courthouse awaiting his arrival and eventually the Justice Department’s announcement that he was was sentenced to death by lethal injection.
The progression of widespread, institutional racism throughout the United States has encouraged many people to join local organizations in order to protect and promote the rights of marginalized people. Radical groups such as Louisville’s chapter of the Anti-Racist Action (ARA) and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) focus on direct actions against white supremacy and fascism.
While the internet serves a crucial role for the spread of fascist propaganda, it also makes many “alt-right” sentiments visible and vulnerable to counter-protest and resistance. In fact, just last April, ARA disrupted a white supremacist meeting at the Irish Rover on Frankfort Ave. based on information they found on the neo-nazi website, The Daily Stormer. Also, upon finding that Kevin Caster’s art exhibit at the Tim Faulkner gallery included neo-nazi references, like swastikas, ARA demanded via Facebook that the gallery remove his exhibit. Shortly after the Tim Faulkner gallery posted on Facebook in favor of keeping Caster’s art up, it received backlash in the comments section and promptly made plans to remove Caster’s show.
Antifa has also extended its reach using social media, through which they display rally dates and times, recruitment, donations, and propaganda. No surprise, it is an effective strategy.
Social media is one of the reasons that so many counter-protesters showed up in Charlottesville. While these people were from different places and have had different backgrounds with antifa, they were centralized under a cause that they deemed worthy.
But you have take it back to before the rally at UVA, before Roof’s attack in Charleston, before social media. Radical anti-fascist groups did not start with Charlottesville — they’ve been around much longer than you might think.
Paul Jackson, a professor at North Hampton University who specializes in the history of anti-fascism, wrote an article for The Huffington Post on how the first anti-fascist group arose in response to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and “as fascism spread, so did anti-fascism.”
But even though anti-fascism has existed almost as long as fascism, that doesn’t mean the two sides are equivalent. This is where a lot of people — including our own President — get confused.
After Charlottesville, national media blasted President Trump for failing to immediately condemn the actions of white supremacist and neo-nazis.
“What about the ‘alt-left’?” Trump said about Charlottesville. “They came charging at the ‘alt-right,’ do they have any semblance of guilt?”
Many people took what President Trump said as justification for the white supremacists’ actions, equating the counter-protesters with those participating in the rally.
Despite the surface-level comparisons between antifa and their opposition, framing reactionary or fascist hate groups as the same as leftist groups is misleading. There are two main differences between the radical subgroups: uniformity and amount of violence. Like we noted earlier, the “alt-left” is generally much more decentralized than the “alt-right,” which might explain why the “alt-right” is responsible for more organized violence. According to Snopes, an online fact-checking website, and Marilyn Mayo, senior research fellow for the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, extremists over the past ten years have killed 372 Americans. Right wing extremists were responsible for 74 percent of those killings; left wing extremists were responsible for only two percent.
So, if not violence, what exactly should we look for when identifying these leftist groups? Let’s look at a few of the most well-known “alt-left” organizations. Some of those who participate with antifa groups, including Heather Heyer, are often affiliated with more centralized leftist organizations, like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
The IWW refers to itself as “one big union.” It was created by progressives and socialists in 1905 and has been primarily involved in organizing strikes and other demonstrations for workers’ rights.
Members of the IWW were given the nickname “Wobblies” — attributed to numerous sources — because of the W’s in IWW. They’ve been involved in many left activist movements throughout America. Currently, they have been working to form unions at international corporations like Starbucks and Jimmy Johns. The IWW is one of a myriad of left-wing groups that aren’t directly affiliated with the Democratic Party, along with Socialist Alternative (SAlt) and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
The DSA has been involved with multiple legislative and anti-hate campaigns in recent years, including its endorsement of Senator Bernie Sanders during the 2016 presidential election. It is committed to the implementation of socialism in democracy as a solution to discrimination and hegemony, or the dominance of one group in society.
Organizations like the DSA view themselves as larger scale efforts of anti-fascism and practice different methods than those of smaller, localized antifa groups. While many branches of antifa are open to violence if there is a just cause, the DSA views it as a last resort.
“My view, and the view I think of DSA is that the best way to stop fascism is to pull it out by the root. I think that you do that by building working class solidarity,” said Jake Bush, chairman of the Louisville DSA chapter. “Even over a hundred years ago, when there were people alive who were slaves just a few decades before that, they were organizing workers of all colors, genders, nationalities, immigration status. It didn’t matter to them.”
The DSA has continued to grow over the past year, especially considering the controversial outcome of the election, which Bush believes to be misunderstood at times.
“I think a lot of people have this very surface level understanding of what people’s objections to Donald Trump’s administration are or should be,” Bush said. “I know that I was one of these people who was a bit naive… when I saw Donald Trump I thought ‘this is absurd, we have never seen anything like this.’ Then you go back through history and the Obama administration, the Bush administration, Clinton, H.W. Bush, Reagan, and all the way back, it’s always been this way. It’s just that Donald Trump says the loud part quiet and the quiet part loud.”
Donald Trump has continuously made inciting statements on Twitter, on television, and over the radio that has provoked ordinary citizens all the way to world leaders. He has a consistent approval rating only around 40 percent, very low for this point in his tenure compared to former presidents. However, as president, he should still be held to the same standards as his predecessors, and his critics do not always acknowledge this. As Bush said, many of Trump’s “outrageous” sentiments would be totally acceptable coming from the mouths of those with greater tact. Many have attributed the origin of the word “alt-left” to President Trump, but he is not alone in equating the far-left and far-right.
“I was a bit surprised,” Bush said. “We had really only seen that term really used by sort of centrist, liberal, kind of Democrats who were trying to bring some sort of equivalence from the ‘alt-right’ to the ‘alt-left.’”
Centrists and moderates within the media have equated the strategies of Bernie Sanders supporters, self-avowed socialists, and anarchists to those white supremacists and Trump supporters. According to Bush, the “alt-right” and “alt-left” labels are meant to mark people as refusing to align themselves with the established norms of American political discourse.
“Applying the ‘alt-’ prefix is really just indicating that these are people that don’t believe in our current political system,” Bush said. “[They] don’t believe in the establishment and don’t fall in that little Overton window from Obama to George W. Bush. If there is anything at all that I share with the ‘alt-right,’ it’s that I don’t believe the current political system is going to work. I think it’s failing very quickly, and I think that it needs to be replaced with something better.”
This year has thrust many of us into a political situation of high anxiety, pulling us toward and away from numerous sides. It seems like we must choose who we are with and who we are against. It is true, our political environment is divisive, but what we must remember is that change is best effected through unity. And whichever direction our country is headed in, left or right, right or wrong, we are all still heading there together. If citizens of the U.S. continue to polarize towards the extremes of both the left and the right, further escalation of violent political clashes will almost certainly ensue.