President Donald Trump announced Sunday that he wants to designate antifa a terrorist organization. Antifa, short for antifascist, has no defined structure, no leadership. It also has killed exactly zero people and does not advocate a worldview that is in itself violent, both of which are usually defining characteristics of a terrorist group.
The individuals who support antifa and its goals believe that fascism must be combatted aggressively and that antifascist action of all kinds is inherently a form of self-defense. Their tactics are based on the assumption that fascists in Europe would never have gained power if more people had confronted and defeated them in the streets in the 1920s and 1930s.
While they act mostly in self-defense and in the defense of others, they are different from many left-wing and liberal activist groups in that they are willing to use force. The extent to which individual members are willing to stray from nonviolence varies widely. Again, antifa is not a structured organization but rather a loose network of groups and individuals who identify as antifascists.
Antifascists will commonly defend not only themselves but also individuals who are committed to nonviolence to the extent that they will allow themselves to be beaten without retaliating. Antifa has intervened to protect nonviolent protesters, including faith leaders, on multiple occasions.
Antifa rejects the “marketplace of ideas” argument that good ideas will rise to the top and bad ideas will naturally die, arguing instead that violent ideas continue to thrive and must be aggressively confronted wherever they arise, whether it’s in the streets, at white supremacist rallies, online or anywhere else.
This logic is also why they dox members of alt-right and white supremacist groups. Doxxing refers to exposing the identities and sometimes the addresses of one’s opponents. Goals vary, but most commonly, as in the wake of the Charlottesville, Virginia, rally in 2017, it leads to calls for participants to lose their jobs.
Members of antifa have different opinions about when and to what extent violence is acceptable in the fight against white supremacy. Some regret what they see as the need for violence but believe it is the only way to stop white supremacists. Others are unapologetic. Others condemn the use of violence for purposes other than self-defense.
Antifa is often seen as threatening because its members wear all black and cover their faces. The uniform is a practical choice to preserve anonymity. Being identified by members of right-wing groups can be a death sentence, and many members of antifa receive constant death threats and face repeated assaults. Being identified by law enforcement can lead to legal trouble even if the individual member of antifa has done nothing illegal.
It is also an intimidation tactic. The “black bloc” aesthetic helps them achieve their goal of getting and keeping white supremacists off the streets with less physical violence. Because antifa has no formal membership, it makes it easier for people to join the black bloc at direct action events.
You may not agree with antifa’s goal of ridding the U.S. of what they see as fascism, nor approve of their tactical openness to violence, nor their rejection of the marketplace of ideas.
But it would be unreasonable to classify a group with no leader, no central command, no death toll and a history of protecting rather than victimizing civilians as a terrorist organization. Most law enforcement officials know that, but Trump would rather tweet about antifa than address the pandemics of racism and COVID-19.
Kaitlyn Radde (she/her) is a rising junior studying political science. She plans to pursue a career in public interest law.