Antifa Activists Vow to Keep Fighting—Even as 'Terrorists'

Anti-fascist—or "Antifa"—chapters around the U.S. are concerned about the push for new domestic terrorism legislation that may include them, but say they remain committed to violent opposition to far-right groups and police regardless.

Antifa activists are determined to continue their activities even if the threat of a terror designation becomes reality, and predict more upheaval and violence this year amid America's divided social landscape and fears of rising extremism.

The recent political violence has prompted lawmakers to propose domestic terrorism laws targeting those involved. Though the main drivers of this looming crackdown are groups on the far right, it may also sweep up leftists routinely engaging in violence.

Newsweek spoke with members of three Antifa chapters—one in Atlanta, Georgia; one in Corvallis, Oregon; and one in Portland, Oregon—who were worried about being branded terrorists if new legislation is introduced.

But all were clear they would continue their activities—with or without a terror designation. None wished to be named, citing concerns about their security.

"We're going to continue doing what we're doing," the Corvallis member told Newsweek. "Whenever the state affords more powers to law enforcement and police, it almost always comes down the hardest on Black and Brown people."

They continued: "The biggest misconception is that we're hyper-militant, well-funded, super-soldiers who want to kill every god-fearing white American. This is the perspective a lot of mainstream right-wing journalism seeks to perpetuate and it's patently false."

One Atlanta activist said: "The left, in general, has plenty of experience in organizing despite repression." Another added: "There are anti-fascists who are already in prison simply for defending themselves and their communities."

Newsweek spoke with two members of the Atlanta Antifascists, a group operating since 2016. Neither wished to be named publicly and declined to say how large their group was.

Videos and pictures posted on the group's social media accounts show between 10 and 15 people arranged behind anti-fascist banners. The chapter has more than 21,000 Twitter followers.

Newsweek also spoke with a representative of the Corvallis Against Fascism group from Oregon, which formed in 2018, and a member of Portland's Rose City Antifa, which has been operating since 2007 and has less than 50 dedicated members.

The former group has more than 4,600 followers on Twitter, and the latter more than 46,000.

The three chapters claimed leftist groups are already more harshly treated under existing legislation than far-right actors. "It seems possible that 'anti-terror' legislation could build upon the repression anti-fascists and the left already face," one Atlanta activist said.

One Portland activist said: "Anybody who spent any amount of time dealing with state repression on radical groups knows that when laws like that are passed, it's really a matter of time" before it is turned on leftists more broadly.

"If their priority is still quashing left organizing, they're going to use whatever laws you make to crush left organizing," they added.

What Is Antifa?

Contrary to suggestions by leading figures on the right, including former President Donald Trump, Antifa is not a coherent, centralized organization.

It is made up of loosely connected local chapters that share information and coordinate with one another. There is no central authority nor set guiding ideology aside from confrontation—often violent—of groups and individuals considered fascists. Anarchism is prevalent, as are various strains of socialism and communism.

Antifa groups have always openly used violence and property damage, arguing that these are necessary tools to quell dangerous fascist groups that seek the repression and extermination of minorities and political opponents.

But Antifa's critics cite the violence as proof of wanton criminality and even terrorism among far-left activists, justifying what they say is a long-due crackdown. Politicians including Trump have pushed to designate Antifa groups as terrorist organizations.

"I've talked to every police chief in every city where there has been major violence and they all have identified Antifa as the ramrod for the violence," Trump's former attorney general Bill Barr told CNN's Wolf Blitzer in September.

"They are flying around the country. We know people who are flying around the country...We see some of the purchases they are making before the riots of weapons to use in those riots. So, we are following them."

Such a move, however, faces practical difficulties in its enforcement because of Antifa's decentralized nature, lack of clear leaders, and it does not have known bank accounts, assets, or infrastructure.

Adherents are not card-carrying members of Antifa organizations, and it is extremely difficult to establish the true size of these groups. All of these problems could make life harder for terror prosecutors.

Antifa could in theory be designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO)—the designation used against Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda, which has itself become decentralized over the past few years—given anti-fascist organizing's international history and links.

This designation has been used to prosecute Americans who are not clear members of an FTO but demonstrably align with their ideology.

But according to an article by Heather Williams, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation think tank: "Designating a largely domestic organization as an FTO would likely invite legal challenge. The U.S. legal counterterrorism framework is fragile, and it has been successfully challenged before...

"Terrorism laws give intelligence and law enforcement authorities access to a suite of surveillance tools they would not have otherwise.

"They also make certain actions that would otherwise be protected speech or assembly illegal; doing so could have significant short- and long-term political implications that we do not understand. This alone would justify concerns about their potential for abuse."

Williams concluded: "Designating Antifa may be intended to be a discrete act, but the precedent it would set could bring major strategic changes to how the United States uses counterterrorism laws, with uncertainties about whether those changes better serve national security."

It also risks inflaming political divisions. Designating Antifa as terrorists would "pave the way to criminalizing and delegitimizing all politics to the left of Joe Biden," argued political historian Mark Bray, who wrote a book on Antifa, in The Washington Post.

'We Are Careful About Security'

Antifa has become something of a bogeyman, seen as a malign hand behind many societal ills, its prominence and threat often exaggerated. Polls show that many Republican voters have internalized the supposed scale of the threat.

Right-wing figures blamed Antifa activists for the violence associated with the Black Lives Matter protests, though an Associated Press review of thousands of court documents suggested they were not responsible for most of it.

Last year, then-attorney general Barr declared that "the violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly."

In September, The New York Times reported that Barr pushed prosecutors to charge protesters with sedition.

Some on the right, including in Congress, have even tried to blame Antifa for the storming of the U.S. Capitol by a Trump-supporting far-right mob on January 6.

Trump's "Platinum Plan" unveiled in October vowed to prosecute Antifa activists as terrorists along with the Ku Klux Klan. The president had branded anti-fascists as terrorists during the summer's unrest, and later described them as a "very bad group."

A report on the domestic security threat by the Department of Homeland Security in October last year, when Trump was still in office, noted the bubbling "anti-government/anti-authority violent extremism" in the U.S.

"These violent extremists, sometimes influenced by anarchist ideology, have been associated with multiple plots and attacks, which included a significant uptick in violence against law enforcement and government symbols in 2020," the report said.

"These violent extremists are increasingly taking advantage of large protest crowds to conduct violence against government officials, facilities, and counter-protestors."

But the DHS was clear about the source of the biggest security threat: White supremacists. It described them as "the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland" among domestic violent extremists.

Antifa activist pictured in Salem, ORegon
A protester waves an anti-fascist flag at the Oregon statehouse on March 28, 2021 in Salem, Oregon. Nathan Howard/Getty Images

This is one of the reasons Antifa groups organize in secret—they are, inevitably, a target of the far-right. "We are careful about security," one activist said.

"The Base plotted to murder a couple they believed, incorrectly, were members of our group," they added, referring to a notable neo-Nazi group. "We take these threats seriously."

"We're already semi-underground and likely to stay that way," another added. "It's not just a matter of personal safety; the far-right goes after families as well."

The Portland activist added: "We've just gone through four years of the Trump administration. So I think we're about as paranoid and careful as you can get."

All were relatively unconcerned about local police. "Cops are dumb," said a Corvallis activist. Others noted reports of local police departments adopting right-wing propaganda and conspiracy theories to inform their own intelligence-gathering operations.

In 2018, for example, a public records request by Unicorn Riot, a leftist nonprofit media outlet, uncovered internal emails from Georgia's Coweta County Sheriff's Office that featured disinformation spread by neo-Nazis on Facebook.

The Facebook post shared among officers included false reports of damage done by supposedly armed anti-fascists. They shared the post by email while preparing to police a rally by the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement.

In another instance, a public records request by Willamette Week revealed Portland Police were communicating with far-right organizer Joey Gibson regarding events involving his Patriot Prayer group in the Pacific Northwest.

Portland Police Lieutenant Jeff Niiya exchanged friendly texts with Gibson and even told him where leftist protests were being held. Niiya was later cleared of misconduct after an investigation by city officials.

Antifa Defends Violence

The activists defended their use of violence and property damage, arguing it is a response to far-right and police violence. They also believe it is more effective at making protestors heard than being peaceful.

"In an era where police frequently murder Black people with impunity, we don't care too much about the concern trolling of centrist commentators," the Corvallis activist said.

"A few panes of broken glass should not generate more outrage than Black men being murdered."

As for violence against the far-right, the Portland activist framed it as "community defense." Fighting police, too, is justified they argued because it is seen as a response to law enforcement violence.

"Police here beat the crap out of people in the middle of the street on a fairly regular basis," they said.

Bystanders are sometimes caught up in the chaos of violent protests. Not all damaged properties belong to large corporations or police departments, for example; some are owned by small businesses just trying to eke out a living.

Even in those that are corporate-owned, it is the ordinary workers, not the executives, who have to clear up the mess left behind.

Antifa activists are usually present on the fringes of larger events, such as the Black Lives Matter protests. But the nebulous nature of Antifa makes it tricky to definitively assign blame for specific incidents to individual actors or chapters who are associated.

There were many reports of damage to small businesses during last year's racial justice protests, whether from arson, looting, or other acts of violence, which occurred on the edges of the mostly peaceful marches.

In New York City, the Department of Small Business Services said at least 450 businesses were damaged by looting and vandalism in late May and early June.

And in Minneapolis, the epicenter of the racial justice protests last year after George Floyd's murder by a police officer, almost 1,500 businesses were badly damaged in riots, forcing some buildings to be demolished entirely.

The Rose City activist defended the damage as an expression of grief and injustice: "While it is at times sad, especially if it's somebody who supports the movement, it's also sad that like Black people are dying and being shot by police. It's a sad situation overall."

'We Don't Get Paid for This'

Antifa chapters are ideological umbrellas for a range of leftists, though anarchism is "definitely influential," according to a member of the Atlanta group. One thing is certain: Very few, if any, are liberals or Democrats.

According to members of the three Antifa chapters, President Joe Biden's victory offers little hope for those committed to fighting and silencing far-right actors in the U.S.

All framed the Democrats as a fresh face on toxic American capitalism, imperialism, and inequality, and warned of more domestic turmoil in the coming year.

"I see the administration as simply an extension of the status quo which often enables authoritarianism and fascism (e.g. police repression) but will fight back against fascism if fascism threatens its material interests," one Atlanta activist said.

Anti-fascism has its roots in early 20th century Europe, where leftists and community groups organized against rising fascist regimes in countries including Spain, Italy, and Germany.

American Antifa emerged in parallel, centered in European immigrant communities and labor movements.

Since the end of World War Two, anti-fascist groups have continued to agitate against resurgent fascism and racism in Europe and the U.S., for example organizing against neo-Nazi skinheads and armed racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

The chapters that spoke with Newsweek are all part of the Torch Antifa Network, which was founded in 2013 and operates across the U.S. and in Canada.

All the activists that spoke with Newsweek scoffed at claims that Antifa is linked to the Democratic Party or the Biden-Harris administration. "The right-wing scapegoating doesn't have any reference to reality," one Atlanta activist said.

"It's interesting to examine the history of how the right wing scapegoats their enemies using conspiracy theories because the pattern is very common over the past century or so. We are a decentralized group and we don't work for or with the DNC."

Many Antifa groups follow the "Three-Way Fight" philosophy, which puts them in conflict with both the state and the non-state far-right. Leftists were vehemently anti-Trump but saw him as the product of a corrupt system rather than its cause.

"The Trump administration was especially dangerous because it represented an accelerating alliance between the state and the non-state far right," one Atlanta activist said. "Now we're back to a more fractured landscape."

"Biden is not going to be an anti-fascist president," said another.

"But it's less about him as a person and more about the presidency itself being part of a system that ends up structurally enabling fascism to some degree no matter what individual politicians are plugged into it."

"Our actions are not coordinated or funded by anyone but ourselves," said the Corvallis chapter member.

"The Democrats are not funding anti-fascist groups. In fact, we oppose the Dems and other liberal institutions because they exist to perpetuate capitalism and imperialism."

The activist called efforts to tie Antifa to the Democrats a ploy to rile up voters and undermine the idea of independent community organizing: "We don't get paid for this."

Activists also batted away claims they had organized or directed Black Lives Matter protests around the country over the past year, calling it a "persistent myth" and adding: "They're simply organic community responses to racist police violence."

The Corvallis member said: "Most of the folks out there are poor and working-class kids who just give a fuck. There isn't any motivation other than love for our neighbors and a desire for a more just society."

The Rose City activist added: "There is no [George] Soros money, it's just us when we don't have work."

Trump supporter with an Antifa effigy
A supporter of former President Donald Trump poses with an effigy of a dead anti-fascist activist on his car at a pro-Trump rally on November 1, 2020 in West Nyack, New York. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

The Future

All three groups vowed to continue their opposition to far-right groups around the country, including by violent means.

America's far-right is regrouping after the January 6 attack on the Capitol, trying to navigate increased scrutiny, public opposition, and—for some—criminal charges.

Groups like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, and others are still recruiting, training and marching. Yet the much-promoted "white lives matter" rallies scheduled for April 11 largely failed to materialize.

Anti-fascist groups infiltrated several social media channels for far-right organizing to undermine the planned events, while leftists and community groups turned out in force to face down far-right activists who did show up in person.

"It was very poorly organized on the national level, so that made our job easier," one Atlanta anti-fascist said of the "white lives matter" marches.

"It is good to see that in most places nationally where white nationalists showed up, they got outnumbered and humiliated."

Still, experts and police have told Newsweek that this summer could see a reinvigorated far-right, one using more sophisticated and extreme tactics while even forging alliances and cooperation between groups.

"What we are noticing here is that the far-right is re-composing after January 6 and repression," one Atlanta anti-fascist said. "But they are forming new alliances, and will likely be back on the streets soon enough. Their confidence and organization has suffered, though."

"These groups probably won't hold big open events for at least several more years, but they'll be busy recruiting and propagandizing," said another Atlanta chapter member.

"They're in a holding pattern where they're waiting for some kind of disruptive cultural or political moment that works in their favor (such as the Trump campaign in 2016) to come along so they can take advantage of it and use it for cover.

"These movements operate in cycles, like horrible cicadas."

In Atlanta, anti-fascists are keeping an eye on the Three Percenters and watching for resurgent neo-Nazi accelerationist groups like The Base and Atomwaffen Division.

In the Pacific Northwest, anti-fascists are expecting far-right organizing and rallies "through the summer," though the Corvallis chapter has seen a "significant decline" in recent activity.

"That doesn't mean they're not going to try to rally though, and wherever they go, they will be met by people who oppose them."

Activists in Corvallis are particularly concerned about the Proud Boys, despite the group's recent internal conflict. "Many have embraced more extreme, openly fascist, aesthetic and ideology in the last few months," they said.

Collusion

All activists who spoke to Newsweek accused law enforcement of collusion with the far-right. There has been a steady stream of law enforcement employees disciplined or fired for involvement with or sympathy for far-right organizations.

In October, a Chicago police officer was investigated for wearing a Three Percenter face mask while policing a protest.

A Michigan officer was fired in 2019 after a KKK application form was found in his home, and the same year a Connecticut officer admitted he had been a member of the Proud Boys before leaving the group out of fear of leftist attacks.

"The abolitionist left is much more of a political threat to the police than the right are, because we'd like to defund and/or abolish their repressive institutions," one Atlanta activist said.

Another Atlanta activist said: "In Georgia, up to the 1960s the KKK and the police were completely synonymous. Nowadays it's still an overlapping Venn diagram, especially in the more rural areas. We've doxxed KKK sympathizer cops and Nazi jailers."

Even after January 6 and with increasing concerns about domestic terrorism, the activist believes the "unequal treatment will still continue because police culture is inherently repressive and nearly impervious to reform from above or below."

"Whenever far-right groups challenge the police/state monopoly on violence, they will invoke a strong defensive reaction and be put down, but will otherwise be ignored or handled with kid gloves," they said.

But the Corvallis activist noted fault lines opening between the far-right and police.

"Right now one of the biggest dividing points in the far-right is whether or not to 'back the blue'," they said. "This fight started in Oregon about a month before January 6 when fascists here broke into our state Capitol and got maced for the first time in their lives."

'It's About Defense'

Continued violence between the left and right is near-guaranteed. Police often frame both sides as equal threats, though data shows the far-right is far deadlier and more disruptive than their opponents on the left.

There has been only one deadly anti-fascist incident in the last 25 years—a 2020 shooting of a far-right activist in Portland by a self-described anti-fascist—according to a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report from October.

There have been 21 killings since 2010 attributed to the broader "far-left."

Far-right actors, meanwhile, have been responsible for 329 deaths since 1994. CSIS said the far-right had been responsible for 41 politically motivated attacks and plots in the year up to October 2020, versus 12 among the far-left.

These far-right groups are traditionally well-armed and make a point of marching with body armor and long guns in a show of strength.

The leftist activists were hesitant to say whether they would be arming up too, though also said they see little benefit in an "arms race" with the far-right. "Our strength is in broader-based organizing," one said.

"We're aware of the risks," an Atlanta activist said. "I don't view it as a heroic stance, because if these people ever took over, they'd kill most of us anyway. It's about defense more than anything."

Correction 24/04/21, 1:18 p.m. This article was updated to note that neo-Nazi group The Base was not involved in the attempt to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Police detain Antifa protester in Olympia, Washington
Law enforcement personnel detain an anti-fascist protester during political clashes on December 12, 2020 in Olympia, Washington. David Ryder/Getty Images