On Punching Nazis
Swastikas and rainbow flags don’t usually go together. But at a Colorado Springs LGBTQ rights rally this past July, a swastika-sporting man almost flew under the radar. The man, in a green hat with a Reichsadler pin, was scribbling on a notepad and taking photos as transgender activists proudly took the stand at City Hall—he was “taking down names and descriptions,” said Gabe Palcic, Chair of the Colorado Springs Socialists, a group present at the rally. “And if it’s a person wearing a swastika, obviously that’s going to be [used for] something malevolent.” Suddenly a protestor approached the man, tore off his hat, and threw it on the street. He’d been “outed” as a Nazi, and the rally turned on him. Someone grabbed the notebook. People shoved him around and pushed him out of the main space, until the police showed up and calmly asked him to leave. According to Palcic, local socialists then chased him down the street and beat him with a metal pipe. Allegedly, he escaped to his Jeep and drove away, blasting the anthem of the Third Reich.
Some of the protesters who first cornered and harassed the man were part of an activist group called the Colorado Springs Anti-fascists, which takes its name and purpose from a rising wave of “loose activist networks” called Anti-fascist Action—Antifa for short. The protestors at the rally were fulfilling their self-assigned duty to protect themselves and others in case of physical threat from right-wing aggressors, using violence if necessary. “It’s okay to punch Nazis,” goes the classic Antifa quip. (In this case, beating them with metal pipes apparently worked, too.)
Antifa traces its “fight fire with fire” spirit back to leftists in the punk scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But Antifa has since moved far beyond its roots as an obscure countercultural movement. Since the election of Donald Trump and the accompanying rise of the far right, Antifa has been a tense topic for everyone from prominent liberals who stick their noses up at their radical strategies to Fox News commentators who decry their core principles.
Antifa was propelled into the national scene earlier this year through a series of widely publicized controversies. An Antifa activist was filmed punching white supremacist poster boy Richard Spencer on the streets of D.C. on Inauguration Day. An Antifa group in Berkeley, California rioted and threw Molotov cocktails to protest a campus speech by alt-right pundit Milo Yiannopoulos. In Portland—where the local Antifa group has been known to directly attack police officers—the Republican Party cancelled an annual parade in response to Antifa threats.
With each incident, Antifa has grown more controversial, sparking both ruthless interrogation and pure confusion. Is it okay to punch Nazis? Was that guy really a Nazi? Who are the members of Antifa, anyway—are they deluded leftist punks with an ill-informed, half-baked ideology that drives them to violent extremism? Or are they vanguards of the marginalized, who could play the necessary role of driving out abhorrent threats to democracy and equality?
The controversy came to a head in August, 2017, at the Charlottesville, VA “Unite the Right Rally,” a protest over the state-sanctioned removal of Confederate statues. Antifa and other leftists counter-protested, and the clash descended into chaos and violence. A man connected to white supremacist groups drove a car into a group of counter-protesters, killing leftist activist Heather Heyer and injuring several others. Trump famously avoided explicitly condemning the white supremacists at the rally, instead placing the blame on “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.” This has been interpreted as a jab at Antifa and other counter-protesters, and a failure to see that the right was at fault.
In their critiques of Trump, liberals often attempt to frame the issue into a neat narrative of the aggressive right attacking the peaceful counter-protesters. But this only paints half the picture. Although Antifa also blames the right for the violence, they have a different spin: the right is wrongfully aggressive towards innocent people, meaning violence as a defensive tactic is perfectly legitimate. Although they’re accused of being naïve idealists, Antifa challenges American liberal notions of pacifism and progress with a cynical practicality—the goal is to destroy fascist influence, and Antifa wants to get it done. The mainstream, meanwhile, has failed to settle on the “violence” question. Most liberals seem to defend the counter-protesters’ anti-fascist cause when it’s politically advantageous. But at other times, they’re back to the same line—Antifa is overreacting and exacerbating the conflict.
Rarely, though, do we hear about Antifa’s divisiveness from its own perspective. Rosa Luxemburg, a representative of the Colorado Springs Antifa, is well aware of this. “Anti-fascists are really like ‘Schrodinger’s leftists,’” she told me. “On the one hand we’re these easily triggered, fragile snowflakes, but on the other hand we’re these violent thugs who commit radical crimes. Antifa activism has this reputation for violence and aggression. But really it would be nice if it didn’t have to come to that. If people would just stop fucking being Nazis.”
"Rosa Luxemburg,” of course, is not this person’s real name. For an Antifa activist, anonymity is crucial, so she didn’t even give me her identity when I met with her in mid-October. The original Rosa Luxemburg was a German socialist revolutionary hailed as an anti-fascist martyr after she was executed by the government in 1919. She was one of many Germans who fought street battles against Nazis in a desperate attempt to stop the rise of the Third Reich. Their philosophy of underground grassroots resistance inspires the present-day configuration of Antifa in the U.S. But though members generally identify with the roots of leftist anarchism, Rosa (the living one) was careful to draw a distinction.
“Generally, the only defining ideology [of Antifa] is that you hate Nazis, and you don’t want them to be making policy and organizing and marching through your streets,” Rosa said.
Colorado Springs Antifa does tend to ally with the Socialists and other local leftist groups. And their entire outlook implies a distrust of the state to suppress fascism on its own; an anarchist call for citizens to take justice into their own hands. But still, the lack of a common ideology makes it difficult to organize. Rosa thus characterized Antifa as a unifying term for various “friend groups” of like-minded comrades, rather than a political organization. The Colorado Springs Antifa group solidified almost a year ago, when Milo Yiannopoulos spoke at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs (UCCS). To give more weight to their protest, they used a tactic called “black block.” They dressed entirely in black and wore masks to protect their identities from law enforcement, preparing them to potentially confront right-wing agitators directly. Colorado Springs Antifa is bringing anti-Nazi backlash to one of the most conservative cities in America. So, with the emerging radicalism on both sides of the political spectrum, who are the fascists?
The problem is, the terms used to describe the ideologies Antifa fights against are used inconsistently, both by the media and by Antifa members themselves. There are fascists and Nazis, neo-fascists and neo-Nazis, white supremacists and white nationalists, and they all seem to get lumped into the catch-all term “alt-right.”
“I think that the word ‘fascist’ is attributed to far too many people in movements today,” Palcic said. “I think Antifa, and the anarchists in general, regularly fail to make the distinction between people who are basically douchebags and people who are actually fascist.”
Leftists are prone to call Trump himself a “fascist Nazi,” or otherwise point to figures like Steve Bannon as evidence that the U.S. government has been infiltrated by fascists. Rosa, too, often threw around these terms like pejoratives rather than stringent categories (“that guy’s such a Nazi”). The labels tend to obscure the real definition of fascism, which is a radically anti-democratic ideology far more coherent than Trump’s empty blabbering. Fascism employs a fervent nationalism that often idealizes a nation’s mythical ethnically-homogenous past in order to justify a military dictatorship that violently suppresses its opposition. It is both historically and ideologically inextricable from racial genocide.
The U.S. is not Nazi Germany. But what seems to be clear is that the U.S. government under Trump has increasingly displayed “proto-fascist” or “neo-fascist” tendencies: the suppression of the press’s access to information, the introduction of its own “alternative facts,” and fear-mongering tactics used to terrorize marginalized populations (to name a few.) On top of this, organized groups that define themselves explicitly as fascist or white supremacist have felt more comfortable coming out into the open.
“Fascists are kind of using mainstream conservatism to blend in,” Rosa told me. She relayed the most active fascist groups in southern Colorado. A simple Google search is enough to show that they are clearly dangerous. Vanguard Colorado, a group that has posted propaganda at UCCS, is an offshoot of National Vanguard, an explicitly racist group that has called for the white race to be put on the endangered species list. The Traditionalist Workers’ Party, billing itself as “America’s first political party created by and for working families,” promotes the creation of white ethno-states. The Three Percenters are a self-made militia that is arming itself in preparation to “defend the Constitution”—or act in place of a government that they perceive as doing so inadequately. According to Rosa, they show up to rallies and protests decked out with “body armor and rifle optics.” A defector from this group informed Antifa in an anonymous email that the Three Percenters frequently share information and collaborate with law enforcement to inform the police about leftist action.
Antifa doesn’t hesitate to engage in direct confrontation with these groups. On June 10, 2017, members of the Traditionalist Workers’ Party showed up to the “March Against Sharia” in Denver, curiously dressed in crusader outfits complete with shields. When the march organizers (“mainstream” Islamophobes who weren’t quite as militant) asked them to leave, Antifa counter-protesters chased them out of the rally area, repeatedly shouting, “Nazis!” The protest ended when police in riot gear separated the left and right—a telling image of the growing rift in the American political spectrum.
But the level of danger posed by other groups is more ambiguous. Another active local group that Antifa has targeted is the Proud Boys, who bill themselves simply as a club of dudes who like to drink beer together. Though they undoubtedly embrace a certain inflammatory anti-gay, racist, and misogynistic rhetoric, they fall closer to the “douchebag” side of Palcic’s distinction: they put up the veneer of bros having harmless fun by “triggering” liberals. But Rosa said, “the Proud Boys are kind of the stepping stones to these far right extremist groups... You have these crypto-fascist groups, that are obviously fascist but working really hard to pretend that they’re not. The Proud Boys kind of fit in that category. You could even argue that UCCS College Republicans fit in that category.”
Regardless of whether the Proud Boys and their ilk are intrinsically threatening, the alt-right and the neo-fascists certainly influence each other. Michael Sawyer, professor of Race, Ethnicity and Migration Studies at Colorado College, explained, “They’re all dedicated to a category of thinking, which is to restrict access from particular groups and then grant that access to other groups.”
According to Sawyer, this is also what sets Antifa apart. Sawyer draws a parallel between Antifa and other radical protest movements like the Black Panther Party (BPP), which advocated for outright war against the state because of police violence oppressing black communities. Antifa and the BPP are also both often accused of overreacting and forsaking morality, using violence when nonviolent tactics might work. Sawyer’s view on this accusation is that “resistance that’s meant to broaden access is different from resistance meant to narrow access,” he said. “Violence that is dedicated towards increasing the egalitarian democratic project has not been, and never should be, conflated with violence committed to limiting access to democracy.”
This is how Rosa framed Antifa’s role: protecting targets of fascism by taking proactive steps that ideally prevent violence before it ever happens. One of Antifa’s favorite strategies is called “doxing.” Members scour social media and online forums to identify individuals connected to fascist movements and then post their information to their website, their Facebook page, and even on flyers throughout local neighborhoods.
“Obviously the first thing is to warn the community. When we put up flyers it’s to let people know: your neighbor is a Nazi; this person in your community has ties to these extremist groups,” Rosa said. But she neither ruled out nor condemned the possibility that a dox could provoke action against the targeted individuals—maybe an activist pulls a classic Nazi street punch, or maybe the target of the dox is fired from their job, defamed, and ousted from whatever public platform they may have. It happens on occasion.
Doxing as a strategy is met with mixed reactions. Rosa acknowledged that it might seem hypocritical, because Antifa is so intent on anonymity—they actively avoid getting doxed themselves. It’s in part for their own self-defense—many Antifa activists are transgender, putting them at an automatic risk of aggression from the right (interestingly, though, not many are people of color). Rosa argued that the nature of Antifa’s doxing is fundamentally different from the kind that targets them. “Their ideology is objectively bad,” she said. “All we’re doing is shining a light on it. We’re not reaching for stuff; we’re just posting a screenshot. Here, here’s a person being a racist. Here it is.”
In contrast, the right seems to revert to strange and often poorly-executed impersonation strategies to dox Antifa. In one recent development at UCCS, flyers were posted around campus that combined leftist sentiments with extreme anti-veteran rhetoric. The posters read, “Veterans should be banned from four-year universities” on the grounds that they are unsympathetic to LGBTQ communities. The story was picked up by national right-wing news sites that used it to demean the hypocrisy and insensitivity of the left. Later, three anonymous individuals, claiming to be veterans themselves, admitted to posting the flyers “as a test of free speech.” Antifa and Colorado Springs Socialists deny any involvement, blaming the ongoing “disinformation campaign” on the alt-right.
More directly, Antifa has been targeted with a fake Facebook page, “Colorado Springs Antifa” (the real page is titled “Colorado Springs Anti-fascists”), which mostly posts distasteful videos glorifying Nazi-punching. Though it only has 24 likes, the page seems to have fooled at least some people. It has received six reviews, all negative. Facebook user Joe Burman commented, “Bunch of brainwashed pussies. Try your stupid flag burning in the Springs and I guarantee one of the many military members here will fuck you up. The only reason you can spout your bullshit is because of the sacrifices made for this country. What a group of crybaby jokes.” Antifa hasn’t been known to advocate flag-burning, but Joe bought the phony posts without hesitation, and extended it to all he knew about “brainwashed pussies.”
All of this culminates in an ironic strategic twist: Antifa doxes the fascists, the fascists retaliate by impersonating Antifa online, and then when people fall for the trap and follow these accounts, the fascists’ dox those people, exposing their information even though they may not actually be involved with Antifa. Rosa dismissed it all as ineffective and “stupid,” but she did think it was significant. The fact that the far right reacted in any way indicates that Antifa is perceived as a real threat. Antifa takes the efforts at impersonation as a sign that the left is winning—at least in the underground battle raging on the internet. And as long as Antifa is doxing the right people, Rosa claimed, “It’s effective. Once we doxed the Proud Boys, they shut down their public Facebook group, and the membership that they had rapidly dried up.”
Yet the far right’s own form of doxing and online retaliation may be more insidious than Rosa believes. The “disinformation” campaign, however ridiculous, mirrors the “fake news” phenomenon that propelled Trump to the White House. Trumpism crept into politics without anyone taking it seriously, even though it obviously resonated with a huge number of people. And it won. Could fascism do the same?
Antifa’s activism reaches a limit when it comes to the structural forces at play. “I don’t think we’re really going to swing public opinion [towards our side]. If anything, we will swing it more against us, at least in the way it’s spun on a national scale,” Rosa said. She insisted that changing the national conversation isn’t a part of Antifa’s mission, and so public opinion doesn’t matter. But Antifa’s goal of exposing fascists for what they are relies on a trust that the public is anti-fascist and anti-racist enough that the prevalence of fascism scares the them, and that right-wing extremists still fear being discovered as such. What if Rosa’s prediction about public opinion is all too true, and fascism takes a deeper hold?
This fear was reflected in a comment on the (real) Colorado Springs Anti-fascists Facebook page: “As a person of color and being undocumented as a child from Mexico, Antifa is putting people like myself in more danger. Violence only shows one’s lack of moral and intellectual fortitude. Violence is unjustifiable, and it’s only giving more power to right wing extremists by discrediting yourselves.”
Despite both sides’ proclivities for petty, uncouth insults, revolutionary socialists like Palcic insist that the polarization of American politics is significant. For Palcic, it’s a sign that Americans are not only dissatisfied with establishment politics but distrustful of the “whole system”—the state, capitalism itself. This primes the population to be radicalized, and Palcic hopes to steer them toward the left. But if history is any indicator, polarization also primes the escalation of violence. Charlottesville could be more than a one-time horror: it could be a foreshadowing of a tumultuous new America.
Sawyer, however, sees the existence of Antifa as a part of a much broader, long-term cycle of resistance that plays a key role in the development and assurance of equality. “We’re experiencing a type of wave that’s coming from the protests of 1968, that dates back to other types of radicalism prior to that.” Sawyer pointed out that Antifa is in its early stages, and they will change: “I think Antifa, and any kind of movement, radical or otherwise, always has to be prepared to have the terms and conditions of their existence redefined from external sources. That’s exactly the point. These movements learn a lot about themselves as they go through this process, so what seems like incoherence is actually the process of developing a particular type of radical politics.”
Within the larger scene of protest movements, Antifa plays multiple roles. It’s a familiar and widely-accepted argument that the civil rights movement wouldn’t have taken hold unless Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam had presented a violent, radical alternative that threatened the status quo even more than the peaceful protest movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Antifa has inadvertently taken on that “or else” role: to convince the establishment that they better suppress fascism, or Antifa will do it for them.
“I don’t think it’s going to get too much more confrontational,” Rosa said when I asked her about the potential for escalating violence. “Because we’ve kind of thrown it down; we’ve said, ‘We’re willing to stand up to you guys, so if you want to do this, let’s do this.’”
Despite the strong talk, Antifa still seems to be figuring out how, exactly, to fulfill that promise. Most recently, after the events in Charlottesville, Colorado Springs progressives staged a rally to honor Heather Heyer, the woman killed. Antifa showed up to the event in black block, much to the chagrin of local liberals. After some impassioned yelling, the event ended with Antifa “taking to the streets” in characteristic rebellious spirit as the bewildered crowd looked on. After the protest, leftist groups squabbled on Facebook with mainstream progressives, who were confused and worried by Antifa’s strange tactics and vague threats of violence.
“We kind of misread the tone of the event,” Rosa explained. “We thought, ‘Finally, people are waking up to the threat of far right extremism. We’re going to have this rally and honor this activist who was there at Charlottesville to fight Nazis. People are galvanized by this, and we’re going to come together…’ But as soon as we got there it was, ‘Why are you wearing masks?’ A lot of the more liberal groups took it as an opportunity to grandstand on their own ideas.” Rosa objected to the rally’s emphasis on patriotism and the inclusion of a prayer reading. “As anarchists, that’s not really our thing,” she said. Colorado Springs Antifa, Rosa explained, will take at least a temporary break from showing up to rallies in black block. “We’re starting to see the limits of that tactic.”
Perhaps mainstream liberals are right to hesitate to accept Antifa as the bearers of justice. Maybe Antifa doesn’t give enough credit to the potential for advancing equality by working through the system. But though the petty scuffles and the frequent alarmism make them easy targets for derision by both the left and the right, there is much more to Antifa. For now, you can wait and see what they become. But if that sounds too much like complacency, you could heed the call of the Colorado Springs Antifa itself: “Actions speak louder than words and fake graffiti. As always, we’ll see you on the streets.”
Part of the Four Letter Word issue