While the nation reeled from a wave of rioting and violence sparked during protests over the police killing of George Floyd last month in Minneapolis, President Donald Trump laid the blame on a bogeyman he’s frequently targeted: Antifa.
Members of the nebulous group are terrorists, he insisted.
But local anti-fascists said that label couldn’t be further from the truth.
Rather than taking part in looting or acting as “outside agitators” during recent protests, self-identified anti-fascists told the Chicago Sun-Times their work overwhelmingly revolves around identifying and exposing far-right extremists, neo-Nazis and racists who are potentially taking part in violence. They worry the president’s rhetoric may now put them in danger.
In fact, one anti-fascist activist from Chicago — an information security professional in his 30s who works for a Fortune 1000 company — contended he and other anarchists are actually advocating for “less violence, not more.”
Anarchism is “really not about chaos and destruction, even though in colloquial use that’s basically how it’s defined. It’s about building a society that’s free of oppressive hierarchies,” said Bernard, who did not use his last name for fear of being targeted by police or political opponents.
Antifa is characterized by a broad leftist ideology and individual efforts aimed largely at identifying and fighting perceived neo-fascist threats. What’s more, adherents said there’s no overarching organizational structure or known leadership in Chicago or elsewhere.
And because there’s no official federal designation for domestic terror organizations, Trump has no authority to label the group as such. Still, Bernard said he was concerned to see the president “tweet out a video of an individual at a protest with the caption, ‘Anarchists we see you!’”
“That is very alarming to be seeing from the top leadership of our country, and I don’t know necessarily if he needs a legal structure to make that a real threat to us,” he said.
“Any time that someone says, ‘We’re going to treat you like a terrorist,’ of course that would concern people on a personal, mental health level,” said Freddy Martinez, a hacker and journalist who works with anti-fascist sources and has leaked communications between individuals on the far right, including members of the white nationalist group Identity Evropa.
Analysis: Antifa not involved in recent violence
In the past, Antifa activists have drawn criticism for allegedly smashing windows and lobbing Molotov cocktails during demonstrations and violently confronting white nationalists and others on the far-right.
But a recent analysis published by the Washington Post found no cases in which someone with an avowed affiliation with Antifa led any violence at the recent nationwide protests. Three alleged Antifa affiliates were, however, charged earlier this month with looting a Target store in Austin, Texas.
“We do more trying to build the type of world we want to live in than tear down the type of world that’s being built around us,” said Ralph, a refugee from the former Soviet Union who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and doesn’t want to be identified.
Nevertheless, he decried recent instances of police violence and said he believes “any proportionate use of force in response to that is morally justified.”
Ralph was compelled to get involved with a loose collection of anti-fascists after watching what unfolded at the Unite the Right rally in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a neo-Nazi protesting the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 28 others.
In the wake of the violence, Ralph made connections with other anti-fascists through an event posted on social media and eventually started joining “black bloc” protests, in which participants dress in all black, cover their faces and sometimes destroy property. Among other demonstrations, he joined a counter-protest of the second Unite the Right rally in 2018 in Washington, D.C.
Now, both Ralph and Bernard said the bulk of their work happens online and revolves around ad hoc efforts to research perceived threats and doxx, or publicly identify, individuals involved with right-wing extremist organizations. Bernard claimed he was among the activists responsible for the massive leak of information from Iron March, a neo-Nazi forum linked to acts of violence and terrorism.
“Nobody was guiding that or coordinating it or anything,” he said. “There was an anonymous shared document where everyone from across the country was just dropping whatever clues they could find.”
An emergent threat
Doxxing those involved with groups tied to the white nationalist movement, like the Proud Boys and Identity Evropa, has become a central aspect of anti-fascist action in Chicago.
When unrest gripped the city after a downtown protest May 30 devolved into chaos, social media platforms were flooded with warnings that members of extremist groups were showing up at ensuing demonstrations. Ultimately, though, the anti-fascists said most of those tips proved unfounded.
“I would say I’ve seen more panic about that than actual threats,” Ralph said.
But elsewhere, federal charges related to the recent protests were lodged against four men tied to the emergent “boogaloo” movement, a loosely connected far right group whose adherents don Hawaiian shirts and are allegedly pushing to incite a second civil war. The offenses ranged from murder to gun and explosives charges.
Martinez drew parallels between the “boogaloo” movement and the rise of armed separatism in the late-80’s and early-90’s that led to the siege of Ruby Ridge in Idaho and the Oklahoma City bombing.
“I don’t know if the government’s taking it as seriously as it maybe should,” he said earlier this month.
Then on Friday, U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced a new task force targeting domestic extremist groups and issued a memo conflating the recent actions of the “boogaloo bois” and those linked to Antifa.
“While some of the challenges to the rule of law that we have seen in recent weeks are fleeting, others are persistent,” Barr wrote. “We have evidence that anti-government violent extremists — including those who support the ‘Boogaloo,’ those who self-identify as Antifa, and others — will pose continuing threats of lawlessness.”