Antifa–short for “anti-fascist” or “Anti-Fascist action”–is a left-wing extremist movement that violently opposes groups it considers “fascist,” including democratic, center-right conservatives. Antifa lacks a known organizational structure or an official leader or headquarters, though individual groups in certain states reportedly hold regular meetings. Anyone can claim the title and set up a local branch.
The term Antifa is currently used to define a broad group of people whose political beliefs lean toward the left, often the extreme left, who engage in aggressive protests against right-wing and center-right political groups. Antifa’s protest methods are often violent, and local leaders admit they’re willing to physically attack anyone who employs violence against them or who “condones racism,” as the Antifa demonstrators define it.
Antifa has reportedly grown rapidly and has become more active in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaign. This surge of activity has been markedly more violent than traditional political protest movements. Though some decry their use of violence as a means of protest, Antifa’s tactics have recently “elicited substantial support from the mainstream left.”
The Origin of Antifa
Antifa claim inspiration from 1930s-era extreme-left-wing German street protesters opposed to the rising Nazi regime. Modern “black bloc” Antifa resurfaced in the 1980s, again allegedly to oppose neo-fascist skinhead movements.
The movement first entered the American stage as Anti-Racist Action, a network that originated in 1987 with the “Baldies,” an organization in Minneapolis, leading to the creation of other groups across the country to fight neo-Nazis. After a relatively dormant period, large numbers of Antifa activists appeared in the United States at anti-World Trade Organization protests in 1999 in Seattle, and then more recently during the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Donald Trump’s success in the 2016 campaign and resulting Presidency has seen “explosive growth” in Antifa membership and a surge in violent activity.
Antifa’s lack of centralized structure make it difficult to calculate the movement’s size and membership. While interest has spiked since the 2016 presidential election, it remains virtually impossible to quantify how many people are active members or supporters of Antifa. The chapters of Antifa are loosely connected and highly secretive, and organize mostly on message boards such as Reddit and over social networks like Twitter and Facebook. Liberal commentator Peter Beinart reported, “According to NYC Antifa, the group’s Twitter following nearly quadrupled in the first three weeks of January alone. (By summer, it exceeded 15,000.)” The BBC reported that “It’s Going Down,” an Antifa-aligned website, “which received around 300 hits daily in 2015, now garners between 10-20,000 hits a day.”
Similarly, Antifa’s decentralized character makes it difficult to pin down what exactly it is they oppose.  Moreover, this lack of national organization, combined with the group’s secrecy and cloak of anonymity, make the group effectively “impossible to track.”
Activities and Expectations
While the decentralized nature of Antifa makes it difficult to identify how they operate, an excerpt from a widely disseminated guide for new Antifa organizations published by It’s Going Down describes Antifa operations and expectations Antifa members are obliged to meet.
Antifa’s “obligations” include:
- “Track white nationalist, Far Right, and fascist activity. Your group will be expected to document fascist groups and organizing in your area. This means gathering information on who is doing what, and knowing the makeup and key players of the various groups that are active. Once information is verified, Antifa groups periodically release this information in a publicly available format. It is also crucial to alert any intended targets about specific threats you [encounter] while doing research.”
- “Oppose public Far Right organizing. If the Klan or the National Socialist Movement hold a public rally, if Alt Right speakers come to town, or if the Daily Stormer holds a meet up, you will be expected to organize a counter-demonstration. If they hold postering or sticker campaigns, you should not only take down their materials but also put up your own; public outreach campaigns should likewise be countered.”
- “Support other anti-fascists who are targeted by fascists or arrested for Antifa-related activities. This could include supporting regional groups, or organizing benefits and fundraisers for prisoners and injured comrades.”
- “Build a culture of non-cooperation with law enforcement. If you have any intention of working with the police, FBI, or other agencies; or if you publicly condemn anti-fascists who break the law: don’t call yourself an anti-fascist. The cops will be Trump supporters; do not collaborate with them.”
Additionally the Antifa guide lays out a number of other suggestions/best practices including:
- “We strongly recommend against Antifa groups being organized using the open, public model of most contemporary activism because of the risk of infiltration… a traditional mass organizing activist model… should be kept separate from the long-term group structure.”
- “Take photos with Antifa banners, blur the faces, and put them on social media.”
- “Carefully manage your online presence” using only Twitter; new members are urged to “leave social media,” … “Individual members, when possible, should get off social media, especially Facebook, altogether. Where they don’t, they should maintain strictly separate personal and political accounts.”
- “Websites imply that your group is more legitimate, and should be used especially if you want to doxx local fascists”
- “Consider using a cell model… in which one member meets with others when required” and where “one person is designated as the semi-public face, even if they never admit they are a group member.” Thus limiting the overall group’s exposure.
- Doxx identified opponents and make their personal contact information widely available in order to encourage harassment.
- “Regular marshal [sic] arts’ training” is recommended.
- “Find out what the laws are in your city and state about a variety of self-defense weapons and make sure to practice with, and carry, everything that is legal.”
- Pressure venues to cancel racist or fascist events.
Ideology and Collaboration
The anti-fascist movement has come from multiple theoretical currents; Antifa is based on an agreement on tactics — not ideological uniformity. In the U.S., most activists are anarchist, although a few are Maoist or anti-state Marxists. (In other countries, the movement is predominately Marxist.)
Common Causes for Mobilization
Antifa groups have one unifying feature, “tracking and countering fascists and white supremacists.”  Otherwise, the lack of hierarchy means that each local Antifa chapter decides what causes they choose to fight against.  These include, but are by no means limited to:
- “Other Radical right-wing forces”
- Anti-immigrant movements
- The Patriot movement
- The militia movement
- Men’s Rights Activists
The Antifa organizing guide states, “Antifascism is not a stand-alone ideology; it is a piece of a whole.” Antifa operations are therefore seen as “a certain set of practices within the broader radical movement against white supremacy… hierarchy and oppression in general.” As such, Antifa members are encouraged to organize mass demonstrations against opponents with allied groups who are willing to work with them or to join demonstrations by other groups such as Black Lives Matter or for immigrants and refugees, all the while carrying antifa flags and banners.
Yet again the decentralized nature of Antifa allows each individual chapter to decide what other “radical movements” they choose to align themselves with. These include, but are by no means limited to:
- Black Lives Matter – this is the group Antifa collaborates with the most frequently 
- Immigrant movements
- Refugee movements
- Work with prisoners
- Rojava solidarity work
- Anti-Racist Action
- Showing Up for Racial Justice
Antifa groups directly advocate violence and “don’t apologize” when violence breaks out at their rallies. “Their methods are often violent and Antifa leaders admit they’re willing to physically attack anyone who employs violence against them or who condones racism – as long as force is used in the name of eradicating hatred.” As one Antifa leader explained, “You have to put your body in the way… and you have to make it speak in the language that they understand. And sometimes that is violence.”
Antifascists rationalize their violent actions as “defensive.” They argue, “Hate speech against vulnerable minorities… leads to violence against vulnerable minorities.”
Milo Yiannopoulos Event, Berkeley, CA February 1, 2017
Far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at the University of California Berkeley’s campus at a university-approved event. More than 1,000 protesters were outside the UC Berkeley venue where Yiannopoulos planned to speak when a group of “about 150” black-clad, masked Antifa stormed the police barricades that kept protesters away from the entrances. The university said that the “150 masked agitators” responsible for the unrest “had come to campus to disturb an otherwise peaceful protest.”
These black-clad protesters wearing masks threw Molotov cocktails and smashed windows at the Martin Luther King, Jr. student union center where the Yiannopoulos event was to be held, which caused several fires to break out. They smashed windows of local banks. They set fires near the campus bookstore and damaged the construction site of a new dorm. Violent Antifa even pepper-sprayed a woman while she was being interviewed on live television – just because she was wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat.
Ultimately six people had to be treated for injuries suffered during the riot. Administrators decided to cancel the event about two hours before Yiannopoulos was to speak. UC Berkeley said it removed him from campus “amid the violence and destruction of property and out of concern for public safety.”
Inauguration of President Donald Trump, Washington, D.C., January 20, 2017
On January 20, 2017, the day of President Trump’s inauguration, more than 200 protestors formed a “black bloc” in which members wearing black or dark clothes and other riot gear armed with hammers, crowbars, wooden sticks, and other weapons marched through downtown Washington, D.C., and “within minutes” began vandalizing public and private property. They smashed storefront windows, trashed the streets, confronted peaceful inauguration and parade attendees, lit a limousine on fire, and set several other fires across the downtown area.
At one point the group of more than 200 participants charged at a police line and approximately 50 individuals broke through, some of whom continued to engage in violence. In one detailed court account, Dane Powell admitted that he and others threw approximately 16 bricks, rocks, or pieces of concrete at uniformed officers, one of whom was knocked unconscious.
More than 230 people were arrested in the aftermath of the incidents on January 20, 2017, with 21 of those arrested pleading guilty to charges of violent protest.  Powell was the first to plead guilty to felony charges, including rioting and assaulting a police officer.  He was among 212 defendants named in a superseding indictment, all charged with felonies. Powell was sentenced to 4 months imprisonment and was subsequently released in October 2017. 
Despite wielding weapons, damaging property, and lighting a limousine on fire, some members of the group thought that there was not enough violence. “I think there should have been more violence yesterday … there were some rocks thrown … the police stopped me,” said Tom Massey of Philadelphia.
In January 2018, federal prosecutors dismissed the cases of over 100 defendants arrested the previous year, with at least 10 additional cases being dropped in May 2018 when District of Columbia Superior Court ruled that prosecutors had withheld evidence.  By July 2018, the remaining charges against 38 defendants awaiting trial were dropped, with then-U.S Attorney for the District of Columbia Jessie K. Liu announcing “after further review, the United States, in the exercise of its discretion, has determined that these matters should be dismissed without prejudice.”  Freelance journalist Aaron Cantú, one of the 38 defendants, was the last of nine journalists arrested in January 2017 to have charges dropped. 
In Portland, Oregon, Antifa has been involved in at least 10 recent protests ending in violence.  In May 2017, 25 anarchists were arrested in Portland for rioting, random acts of vandalism to public and private property, and for throwing incendiary devices, including fireworks and Molotov cocktails, at police.
Then in August, police in Portland again geared up for the tenth protest since Election Day involving extremist nationalist and extreme-left street demonstrators. In the days leading up to the planned protests, the Portland police said they “saw on social media that there was a lot of threats being put back and forth” that caused “concern about physical violence.” The police created a human barricade, with officers standing shoulder to shoulder between two city squares — one filled with extremist nationalist groups, the other with Antifa activists. That strategy worked for a few hours, but police caught word that Antifa members were planning to push past police into the opposing extremists’ rally square.
Police gathered the masked Antifa activists and detained them. In the process, they seized a large number of weapons from Antifa protestors that day. “Everything from knives to brass knuckles to poles and sticks and bricks and bottles and road flares and chains.” According to Portland’s Police Spokesmen, “One hundred percent, they came geared up to fight if it would be allowed.”