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In Many Ways, Antifa Eludes Definition. What Is It Exactly?


A man named Michael Forest Reinoehl seemed to confess to killing a right-wing demonstrator in Portland while doing an interview with Vice News last week. Law enforcement moved to arrest Reinoehl. They killed him. They said he was armed. Reinoehl described himself as a supporter of antifa - that's a term we've heard a lot lately and one that is elusive. Mark Bray is a historian at Rutgers and author of "Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook."

Good morning, Mark.

MARK BRAY: Good morning.

KING: I was interested to see Mr. Reinoehl had referred to himself as a supporter of antifa, not a member of antifa. What exactly is antifa?

BRAY: Yeah. So it's clearly a term that has been the subject of a lot of confusion, not helped in any way by President Trump. It's not a singular organization. It's a kind of politics or activity of radical opposition to the far-right that doesn't have any qualms about physically disrupting far-right demonstrations. But it's not something new. That's the misconception. This isn't something that came about over the last few years. Anti-fascism has a hundred-year history, and this specific strain of militant anti-fascism has existed in the U.S. for several decades, at the very least.

But, of course, it came into prominence around clashes with the far-right, especially in 2017 in Charlottesville and elsewhere. But the other misconception is that anti-fascists really spend most of their time monitoring the far-right and trying to dox them - that is, making their private information public to get them fired or ostracized from society.

KING: What fascism is - what fascism do they say they're responding to? Like, you make the point that they've been around for a long time, but we didn't start talking about fascism a lot, you know, prior to President Trump's election or even the last, like, two, three years. So what has been their mission previously?

BRAY: Right. Well, unfortunately, there have been quite a wide variety of far-right militias and Klan groups and Nazi groups operating in the U.S., really, you know, for decades and beyond. The issue is that they weren't considered a threat by mainstream society because they didn't have access to the halls of power the way that they started to have, to a greater degree, when President Trump was elected through figures like Stephen Miller or, earlier, Bannon, Gorka and so forth. And so that made this kind of issue of not only fascism but also white supremacy more broadly more relevant and immediate to a lot of people.

And although antifa groups had existed prior to 2017, my research showed that a lot of new groups formed around the time of Trump's campaign and his election.

KING: Do they believe violence is justified, and if so, what kind of violence?

BRAY: They do. Not to say that that's always the most effective method - they don't believe that. But, you know, if you look back at the past hundred years of fascism - look at examples of the Holocaust, slavery - you know, they argue that self-defense is necessary to confront white supremacy and fascism and that, you know, the lesson of the Nazis was not that people were too aggressive with them early on; it was that they waited until it was too late. And so the antifa argument is that we need to treat all far-right and fascist groups as if they could be the seeds of a new genocidal regime.

KING: The rebuttal would be nonviolent protest has a history of working - right? - and no one gets killed. I know that you spent time interviewing people in antifa for your book. When you present them with that argument - why get violent if you don't need to? - what do they say?

BRAY: Well, you know, arguably, the most notable historical counterexample to that would be the Holocaust, right? Nonviolent resistance works if there is a public sphere to be leveraged to influence the behavior of the oppressor. Fascism is inherently resistant to the notion of taking the public sphere into account in that way, and so, historically, self-defense against the Nazis is, of course, relatively widely well-accepted. The question is, how bad does it have to get before that kind of resistance is necessary? And the antifa historical argument is that you don't wait for the fascist or white supremacist threat to get even one step down the road; you treat it as the threat it is very early on.

KING: President Trump has said he wants to designate this group, antifa, as a terrorist group. Now, legally, my understanding is he can't do that. But he is making a point with that statement, which is that people, many people, find antifa scary - the name scares them; the actions scare them. Does this group need to present better, or do they not care that people are scared of them?

BRAY: Right. Well, you're right that, I don't believe, he has the legal power to do that. And, also, to clarify, antifa is not just one group; it is a kind of politics or activity, and there are a variety of different groups around the country. But, you know, more fundamentally, they argue that Trump's focus on antifa is a distraction away from Black Lives Matter, a distraction away from the underlying social and racial grievances behind the BLM protests and a way to create a boogeyman.

KING: Mark Bray, author of "Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook." Thanks for being with us.

BRAY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.