Sunday Commentary: Does Antifa Serve a Legitimate Purpose?

In the past I have generally taken on two key positions – one is an absolute right to free speech and the other is an opposition to violence.  However, in the last few weeks with the events at Charlottesville, the rise of the alt-right and neo-Nazis, and the confrontation between those forces and antifa, I have spent considerable time reconsidering my views.

As I have explained on these pages many times, while I tend to be situated somewhere on the left portion of the spectrum, my thinking on specific issues is constantly re-evaluated and often shifts and even changes over time.

I will often use social media to help me vet my thinking; one advantage I have is that my friends on social media are actually quite diverse, ranging from the far left and even radical parts of the spectrum to hard-core Trump supporters – much perhaps to the chagrin of unsuspecting Facebook friends.

My concern is this: the rise of the alt-right to levers of power backed by the official state is real.  That has given even more fringe groups like the KKK and neo-Nazis the belief that they have an ally in the presidency (see the comments by David Duke following Trump’s various iterations of his Charlottesville speech).

In the weeks that have followed Charlottesville, we have now seen, in both Boston and San Francisco, successful strategies for thwarting the forces of hate.

The left will argue that engaging the forces of hate with violence plays into the narrative of “extremists on both sides,” with the fear that it will simply alienate moderates and create more chaos and violence.

The other problem we face when talking about antifa is that antifa itself really does not exist as a cohesive entity.  Instead, it refers to what you might consider to be a loose network of left-wing and militant activists, sometimes anarchists, who seek to physically engage against the far right and attempt to prevent them from speaking.

They are sometimes considered synonymous with black bloc anarchists, but, while the movements overlap, they’re not identical.

Many on the right, and even some of the left, have attempted to paint antifa as the moral equivalent of the violent white supremacists.  As an article in Slate Magazine points out, the left “don’t like antifa much more.”  They tend to see the activists’ “tactics as counterproductive at best, and worry that they’re ceding the moral high ground to the right.”

Indeed, In “The Rise of the Violent Left,” a recent Atlantic piece, Peter Beinart related the actions of antifa in Portland, which ended up causing an annual parade to be shut down because it included Trump supporters.

“The people preventing Republicans from safely assembling on the streets of Portland may consider themselves fierce opponents of the authoritarianism growing on the American right,” wrote Mr. Beinart. “In truth, however, they are its unlikeliest allies.”

Critics are right to point out, “antifa refuses to eschew violence.”

The question I pondered this week is whether violence has a place in the current battle.

The ACLU’s position on free speech has generally been very consistent.  However, they drew heavy criticism from the far left for litigating on behalf of the neo-Nazis to be able to protest in Charlottesville.  As a result of this pressure, we see, for the first time, the ACLU retreat slightly.

In a statement they point out, “If white supremacists march into our towns armed to the teeth and with the intent to harm people, they are not engaging in activity protected by the United States Constitution. The First Amendment should never be used as a shield or sword to justify violence.”

This has drawn heavy criticism from those such as Eugene Volokh, a more right-leaning and libertarian-leaning civil liberties advocate.  In a piece a week ago, Mr. Volokh argued, “[A]s I understand the traditional position of the ACLU, it is that speech and assembly must be allowed, even if violence and unprotected incitement (or threats) at the event are punished.”

All of this suggests perhaps the need to re-think prior stances that I have taken, where the lines of free speech need to be drawn.

For some liberals, however, antifa’s willingness to attempt to use violence in order to shut down right-wing speech appears to go too far, with many considering it “both morally wrong and strategically obtuse.”  Some worry that the tactics of antifa play into their enemies’ hands.

Slate cites the Southern Poverty Law Center, which released a guide for college students “about how to deal with alt-right figures on campus. It urges students to avoid confrontation with visiting right-wing speakers, and to instead hold separate, alternative events.

“When an alt-right personality is scheduled to speak on campus, the most effective course of action is to deprive the speaker of the thing he or she wants most—a spectacle,” says the guide. “Alt-right personalities know their cause is helped by news footage of large jeering crowds, heated confrontations and outright violence at their events.”

But, if that’s the case, even the so-called non-violent solutions in Boston and San Francisco ultimately resulted in the neo-Nazis backing down from their demonstrations.

On the other hand, for antifa, Charlottesville proves that confrontational tactics are necessary.

But the situation becomes more ambiguous when you look at what happened on the ground.  As Slate reports, “On Saturday in Charlottesville, when antifa did turn out, many of the peaceful progressive protesters credit it with defending them.”

Cornel West credited antifa: “[W]e would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and the anti-fascists.”

But it wasn’t just Cornel West, but also Charlottesville Pastor Seth Wispelwey.  He told Slate that “at one point the clergy were charged by a ‘battalion’ of armed white supremacists, with the police nowhere to be seen. The clergy regrouped, linking arms and preparing to risk being assaulted, but more than 200 antifa activists massed between them and 100 or so Nazis.”

Seth Wispelwey told Slate, that, without antifa, “[w]e would have just been trampled and beaten.”

Mr. Wispelwey is committed to nonviolence and civil disobedience and thus has philosophical and strategic differences with antifa, “but he doesn’t condemn it.”

“I have different tactics, but overall I say, as a clergy person, it’s dangerous to wait for the perfect at the expense of the good when actual bodily safety is on the line,” he said.

In Peter Beinart’s piece on antifa, he writes, “Trump is right that, in Charlottesville and beyond, the violence of some leftist activists constitutes a real problem. Where he’s wrong is in suggesting that it’s a problem in any way comparable to white supremacism.”

Mr. Beinart continues, “Antifa is not a figment of the conservative imagination. It’s a moral problem that liberals need to confront.”

But I think his position is probably too unequivocal.  Certainly there are times when antifa – again, not a real organized group to begin with – has caused more problems than it has solved, but, as the stories out of Charlottesville attest, there are times when it can be useful.

The world has seemingly changed, in even the last six months.  Last year, for the most part antifa was dealing with theoretical neo-Nazis and fascists.  Even early this year, we were talking about Milo and Ann Coulter, not people carrying actual swastikas, guns and waving torches.

If that world continues to evolve, there may become more of a place for a group willing to physically confront the alt-right.  I worry in particular that one of the lessons of Nazi Germany was that the left basically backed down in the face of physical threats of violence and ceded the stage to the Nazis.

The events out of Charlottesville paint a much more nuanced picture than some wish to acknowledge.  There are those who believe that the police literally ceded the scene to the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and, in that absence, the present of antifa might have prevented more innocent people from being overrun.

After a lot of pondering this week I have decided I cannot embrace a fully violent response to the alt-right, as that does play into the conservative playbook and allows for moral equivalency comparisons to come into play.

—David M. Greenwald reporting



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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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41 Comments

  1. Tia Will

    even the so-called non-violent solutions in Boston and San Francisco ultimately resulted in the neo-Nazis backing down from their demonstrations.”

    I perhaps lack understanding about why this is issue should be so fraught. I am a firm believer in free, non violence inciting speech. I am a firm believer in the right to assemble. And I am a firm believer in the right of all sides to gather peacefully. My confusion comes in about why it is so controversial to allow “speech” while not allowing armed groups to confront each other or to allow one armed group to attach another unarmed group. Our society handles these kinds of potentially violent events all the time. The are called campaign rallies, sporting events, concerts at which people are allowed to enter, but not with certain clearly defined items such as guns, clubs, pepper spray, helmets, shields, selfie sticks.

    If we can and do bar these items from the types of events listed, why can we not adopt this as standard policy for political events as well ? Obviously this is no panacea as it will not stop people from driving cars into crowds, but then having shields and clubs will not stop that either.

    I do not believe in the morality of imposition of one’s will upon another by force ( unless purely defensive). But coming armed for battle clearly signals one’s intent to do battle regardless of which side of the political spectrum one is on and should not be allowed. I see Charlottesville as a failure of officials and police to exert appropriate regulation and enforcement. Now that we have seen it, surely our officials can act to prevent such circumstances from developing in the future. I believe that the events surrounding the withdrawal from the assembly at Crissy Field demonstrate that this can be done.

  2. Eric Gelber

    I do not condone the violent tactics of those identified as antifa. However, in light of recent events and circumstances, I understand its rise and find it harder to argue that it serves no legitimate purpose.

    In the past–at least since the civil rights era of the ’50s and ’60s–the federal government, including the judicial branch, has pretty much had the backs of those confronted by militant white supremacists and other hate groups. That is not so much the case now. We have a president who, at a minimum, encourages racists and other hate groups. He spearheaded the racist birtherism movement; included the alt-right in his inner circle; and most recently made a point of saying that white supremacist demonstrators included some good people. The pardoning of Joe Arpaio, who ignored a federal court injunction to cease violating constitutional rights, is a not so subtle signal of his intent to undermine the judiciary’s ability to enjoin civil rights violations if they serve his draconian immigration policies.

    So, I can understand how some who are opposed to hate-mongering ideologies feel compelled to resort to more confrontational tactics. The federal government–particularly the executive branch–can no longer be relied on as an ally.

  3. Mike Hart

    I am curious who you think the #1 supporter of the KKK and the Nazis is?  Not Trump.  No, it is Antifa.

    Antifa has managed to take a pair of completely dying organizations (Southern Poverty Center estimates KKK down to 5-8,000 members nationally) and put them on the front page again.  In Saramento, in Charlottesville and in SF, they are helping them every single day.  The media LOVES violence, “if it bleeds it leads” is the motto.

    Do you think the KKK/Nazi douchebags are stupid?  Do you think they hold these rallys to come up with new secret handshakes or to plan a bake sale?  They do it to invite the morons from Antifa to show up- which they reliably will do- to make a media event out of it.  And then they can take their hateful message and get them on the front page. Anyone who thinks that Antifa thugs are a deterence is incapable of understanding what the goal is.  The goal is ATTENTION.  Big thugs in sheets or with swatstikas are not afraid of some hipsters with sticks- they love the idea of fighting them.  No, they crave Antifa’s participation so they can get media- which rings their cashbox.

    Images of black-clad thugs battering elderly women or attacking unarmed people who disagree with them are the key element in all of their fundraising and recruiting efforts.  Antifa is what is driving all of this hatred.  A few hundred jerks chanting can be dealt with by the police and gets no news.  Add violence and confrontation and they get money.

    Just like their involvement at UCD made Milo rich, they are the biggest supporter of the KKK and the Nazis in America by their actions.

    No I DO NOT CARE what their stated intentions might be- the road to hell (and anarchy) are paved with “good” intentions.  Just like the KKK, the Nazis and ISIS, they are a domestic terror organization and should be dealt with by law enforcement as appropriate.

    Of course none of this matters, even if the libs reading this comprehend the truth of what I am saying… there is no flaming bag of poop on their porch that can go un-stomped… they just don’t get it.

    1. Eric Gelber

      The KKK’s numbers may be low, but white supremacists are not just the KKK, and it is the current administration that emboldens racists and other bigots to be more vocal and visible. Your arguments about drawing attention by showing up at their rallies would apply to massive peaceful protests as well. This is not something that can be ignored and hope it just goes away; particularly not with the encouragement their agenda is getting from the current administration.

      1. Mike Hart

        Yup- you are pretty much describing exactly what is causing the spread of these organizations.  Keep giving them attention and they will keep growing.  Honestly- do you really think showing up and chanting or waving sticks is reducing their numbers or changing their minds?

        It does accomplish two things:

        1.  It makes the KKK and Nazis more relevant and drives their recruitment and revenue.

        2.  It drives more recruits to Antifa a terrorist organization of largely communist-leaning thugs.

        So if your goals are to help the Nazis, the KKK or the thugs, keep it up!

        And by the way, these organizations actually were dying out until the violent thugs came out.  And no, you can’t blame Trump for that, they showed up under Obama.  Were you paying attention to the blood-bath last year in Sacramento?

  4. Leanna Sweha

    David, I am happy to know that you do not support offensive action by Antifa or any other anti-fascist groups.  I share Mike’s concerns above.  I believe there is a group of “usual suspects” on both sides who turn peaceful demonstrations into physical confrontations.  Ones from both the left and right showed up at the Capitol in 2016.  Ones on the left showed up at the Milo UCD event.

    I found the following by a scholar of the Nazi era to be very insightful on the topic:

    http://theconversation.com/how-should-we-protest-neo-nazis-lessons-from-german-history-82645

  5. Tia Will

    Mike Hart

    Images of black-clad thugs battering elderly women or attacking unarmed people who disagree with them are the key element in all of their fundraising and recruiting efforts.  Antifa is what is driving all of this hatred.”

    While I agree as stated that violence by Antifa is no more positive than violence perpetrated by the far right, I take exception to your statement. Anita is far from the driver. The far right is not deterred by lack of pictures of skirmishes on US soil. They are not deterred by a lack of current images. They are not deterred from false portrayals of the far left. A recent photo circulating on Twitter portrayed what the poster was claiming was a person being beaten by a member of Antifa in the US in the present. An astute poster realized that this was actually a beating from several years ago, in Greece, which had been photoshopped to appear to be an Antifa member.

    This kind of propaganda is entirely on the right.

  6. Michael Bisch

    One cannot learn from the past if one only has a partial or superficial knowledge of history. Political violence, agitation and protests during the German Weimar Republic came from across the political spectrum. There were leftists as well as rightist thugs and from lot of other parties in between. We only associate it with the Nazis because they came out on top.

    The similarities to what is occurring here and now is striking. All that’s missing is economic turmoil. I shudder to think  what will happen when we experience the next deep recession. Social and political strife paired with economic hardship are the ingredients for upheaval. And demagoguery is the accelerant that creates the conflagration.

  7. Howard P

    KKK, Nazis, Antifa are slightly different flavors of the same poison dish…

    BLM should not be used in the same sentence as any of those… different, big time…

    1. Todd Edelman

      Please describe in detail how Antifa is slightly diff. than the KKK or Nazis. Make sure to include details like attacking people of color, threatening or burning churches and mosques.

        1. David Greenwald

          I often use Facebook posts as a sounding board for my thinking. It’s akin to playing devil’s advocate in an effort to elicit people’s responses. The article here is more reflective of my current thinking on antifa.

        2. Keith O

          I don’t know about that, I read your Facebook post much differently.

          Woke up this morning thinking about Antifa. There are actual neo-Nazis marching through the streets. Even the ACLU has had to re-think its policy on hate speech when armed. Those who condemn antifa, what are you expecting? You can persuade the Nazis to see the light? Come on. We’ll just hide our heads in the sand and hope that these dark forces go back into hiding? Unfortunately, the time has come to discard the white liberal obedience to non-violence and embrace the approach of antifa to counter-the Neo-Nazi incursion. Just some thoughts.

           

           

          1. David Greenwald

            I often use Facebook posts as a sounding board for my thinking. It’s akin to playing devil’s advocate in an effort to elicit people’s responses. The article here is more reflective of my current thinking on antifa.

        3. Keith O

          You’re saying you will make statements on Facebook that aren’t your true thoughts in order to elicit people’s responses.   So if that’s the case when are people to believe what you write and when are they to think that was just David playing devil’s advocate?

           

        4. David Greenwald

          There is a reason why that was a Facebook post, not the Vanguard.

          As I conclude in this article, After a lot of pondering this week I have decided I cannot embrace a fully violent response to the alt-right, as that does play into the conservative playbook and allows for moral equivalency comparisons to come into play.

      1. Howard P

        Probably wouldn’t have mattered…  question is, were the ‘conservatives’ belligerent before the Anitifa ‘reaction’?  or, during/after?  Are you ‘people on the ground’ unbiased?

  8. Jim Hoch

    I think The Who understands antifa best

     

    Well, you know in the old days

    When a young man was a strong man

    All the people, they’d step back

    When a young man walked by

    “Young Man” by The Who.

     

     

    It’s a little known fact that you can be a skinny stoner but when you put on “the black” you transform into Conan the Barbarian. It’s like a superpower.

     

  9. Keith O

    Okay, since my posted picture was on topic and since you aren’t supplying a reason for why it was removed I’ll look for all posted pics on every thread to also be removed in the future.

     

    [moderator] Sorry, didn’t have time to respond at that moment. I was asked a long time ago to remove pictures unless they had direct context (i.e., maps, diagrams, etc.). The concern then was bandwidth. That was about three servers ago, so it may no longer pertain. I’ll ask about it. But what we really don’t want is discussion threads just full of competing editorial cartoons and the like. And we really don’t want memes. I’d rather you just say what you’re trying to say in words.
    Here’s your picture:
    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/DHkMgrRXUAAOzF3.jpg

  10. Ron

    Keith (to David):  “So if that’s the case when are people to believe what you write and when are they to think that was just David playing devil’s advocate?”

    Hmm.  🙂

    On a separate note, I see that the cartoon Keith posted is back. Good decision. (Cartoons sometimes encapsulate an argument better than words.)

  11. David Greenwald

    “So if that’s the case when are people to believe what you write and when are they to think that was just David playing devil’s advocate?”

    Just want to point out that Keith has pulled something off my personal Facebook account that was not intended for publication.  As I tried to explain to him at the time and I have explained here, I often use the medium as a sounding board to think through things that I have not sorted out in my mind.

    1. Ron

      David:  Actually, playing “Devils Advocate” is a legitimate debate/discussion tool, as long as the reason is made clear (e.g., “some might argue that . . .”).  There’s also nothing wrong with presenting ideas for honest/open debate.  Unfortunately, it’s sometimes difficult to do so via these online forums.  Doing so almost requires one to use a qualifier, such as “An honest question . . .” (As if all other questions are “dishonest”.)

      1. Keith O

        Doing so almost requires one to use a qualifier, such as “An honest question . . .” (As if all other questions are “dishonest”.)

         

        Exactly.  When I read David’s Facebook post I never took it to be a devil’s advocate type of question, on my part I saw it as a statement.  Read the comments on FB, there’s over 100 of them.  Many others didn’t take it that way either.

         

        That said I’m willing to take David’s word that “The article here is more reflective of my current thinking on antifa.”

      2. David Greenwald

        Ron: That was actually the purpose of the “just some thoughts” last sentence, but yes, I learned some lessons in that that I will avoid in the future.

  12. Jerry Waszczuk

    Why California Highway Patrol chief is headed for a much smaller department?
    California Highway Commissioner Joe Farrow will step down from one of the most high profile jobs in law enforcement to become police chief of UC Davis.
    He acknowledges that there have been missteps. Last summer a rally by a group of neo-Nazi demonstrators at the state Capitol erupted into a violent clash with ‘anti-fascist’ protesters that left at least 14 people injured   – five of them stabbed – and closed down streets.

     

     

  13. Keith O

    Tacoma I-5 train wreck this morning, was Antifa or some other leftist anarchist group responsible?

    The anarchist group “It’s Going Down” last April bragged online about sabotaging railroad tracks in the Pacific Northwest to block fracking equipment from getting to its destination. The group has since deleted the post, possibly in reaction to today’s Amtrak disaster.

    https://pjmedia.com/trending/anarchists-bragged-april-sabotaging-railroad-tracks-block-fracking/
     

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