The moral outrage over the antifascist movement, otherwise known as “antifa,” did not take long to hit a fever pitch. A mere weeks after the far-right terrorist attack in Charlottesville which claimed the life of an antifa counter-protester, Marc Thiessen in The Washington Post has become the latest commentator to present a confused analysis of the movement, calling antifa the “moral equivalent of neo-Nazis” after a group of black-bloc protesters shut down a right-wing protest in Berkeley last weekend.
“Both practice violence and preach hate. They are morally indistinguishable,” the former Bush speechwriter wrote on Wednesday. “There is no difference between those who beat innocent people in the name of the ideology that gave us Hitler and Himmler and those who beat innocent people in the name of the ideology that gave us Stalin and Dzerzhinsky.”
Thiessen isn’t alone. Top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi released a statement this week “condemning antifa violence” in Berkeley last weekend, and Thiessen’s analysis is emblematic of an emerging critique of antifa protesters from the right, center, and even left that has very little nuance: antifa are just as bad as the people they’re opposing. The criticism is driven by the ridiculous obsession with both-sidesism, and shows a lack of understanding about just how dangerous the threat of fascism is, particularly for marginalized people.
It’s helpful first to identify the differences between black bloc protesters and antifa. Black bloc — so named because protesters wear black and operate in a block formation — is a militant tactic during a protest aimed at fascism or capitalism. Historically, as in the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999 and the G20 protests in Hamburg earlier this year, it’s been mostly practiced by anarchists, not disciples of Stalin and Dzerzhinsky as Thiessen claims; by contrast, the broader anti-fascist movement (if you can even call it a movement) is a loosely defined group of people who are morally opposed to fascism. You can be an antifascist without participating in black bloc tactics. Most people are.
According to people who were there, the violence in Berkeley was relatively limited in nature. “By focusing on scattered violence, reporters glossed over the bigger story,” Mother Jones’ Shane Bauer wrote. “The Bay Area has become the latest target of fascist and other far-right groups promoting disruptive rallies across America, often in cities where they know they are not welcome.” Bauer continued: “When a group of hundreds of black-clad protesters later arrived to the rally site and poured over the police barricades…I heard several normally dressed protesters shout ‘thank you,’ something that, in years of attending and covering protests in the Bay Area, I have never seen.”
Predictably, however, the media retreated to what they know best: the idea that both sides do it. And in the days since, conservatives and centrists have gleefully jumped at the chance to equate the right and the left. Thiessen’s polemic against antifa because he hates “political violence” is especially rich coming from a man who played a vital role in selling Iraq to the American public, and has never seen a war he didn’t like. If war isn’t the ultimate act of political violence, what is?
Conservatives and centrists have gleefully jumped at the chance to equate the right and the left.
In Time, McGill professor and unabashed centrist Gil Troy piled on with his second definition of “alt-left” in less than a year. “Far right and far left radicals represent a politics of backlash and lashing out, not consensus-building or reaching out,” he wrote. “The Right nor the Left has a monopoly on virtue or violence.”
Troy is obviously wrong about this. Joshua Holland wrote for The Nation earlier this year that a 2015 survey of law enforcement agencies — no friends of left-wing groups — found that police “rate antigovernment extremists as a greater threat than reactionary Islamists,” and a 2010 report found that there had been over 300 acts of arson, acid attacks, and bombings aimed at abortion clinics since the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973.
The far right being the premier purveyors of terrorism in this country is nothing new. Our original domestic terrorists were the Ku Klux Klan, which held considerable political power all over the country during the height of Jim Crow; although the Klan has fractured into several groups since the Civil Rights era, it was estimated by police and a Klan leader that hundreds of members participated in the Unite the Right rally. A week after Charlottesville, another Klan leader, Chris Barker, called a Univision reporter a racial slur and said that the far right would “burn out” immigrants. “We killed 6 million Jews the last time,” Barker said. “Eleven million is nothing.”
The right is full of groups who have explicitly threatened and historically attempted to eradicate people who are not white. By contrast, the “alt-left” was credited by Cornel West with saving him and anti-racist clergy from being attacked in Charlottesville. “We would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and anti-fascists,” West said. (He’s likely right: in the weeks since Charlottesville, the police response to the rally has come under scrutiny, including a moment when a Unite the Right protester fired a gun and police failed to apprehend him.)
In his attempt to be seen as the Reasonable Centrist who is above petty politics, Troy flat out ignores reality. The body count of white supremacists far outnumbers anything that the Black Panthers or the Weather Underground (two groups Troy cites as moral equivalents to the far right) ever did. To pretend otherwise is like equating the danger of playing Russian roulette with taking a walk.
There has been criticism of antifa from the left as well, including from respected figures like Noam Chomsky, who called antifa a “major gift to the right” in an interview. In a column for Truthdig, left-wing journalist Chris Hedges wrote that antifa and the alt-right were “mirrors” of each other, both full of people “cast aside by the cruelty of corporate capitalism.” That critique isn’t totally off, in that both nationalist and socialist movements gain a larger foothold when the liberal order has failed, but Hedges went one step further. “[Antifa] fuels the right wing’s paranoid rants about the white race being persecuted and under attack,” he said. “And it strips anti-capitalists of their moral capital.”
To pretend that the alt-right and antifa are comparable is like equating the danger of playing Russian roulette with taking a walk.
As Dartmouth professor and antifa expert Mark Bray — who was denounced by his university president for supporting the right of people to defend themselves against Nazis — noted in a Meet the Press debate with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Richard Cohen, this is not merely a political debate between opponents in which “moral capital” has currency. Anti-fascists and fascists both view this fight as a political struggle, one that has been fought time and again all over the world in the streets and on battlefields. And with an emboldened far-right making its presence known all over the country, antifascists see the situation as dire, and the need to show up as vital.
The argument that antifa might actively harm any long-term goals the left might have may very well be true. And it should be a goal to prevent violence at these protests, if for no other reason than self-preservation, considering the right-wing is usually armed to the teeth. If every protest ended the same way as one did in Durham on August 18, when 1,000 people spontaneously showed up to counter-protest a rumored Klan rally and peacefully ended any chance of it ever starting, or as one did the next day in Boston, when tens of thousands of people dwarfed an alt-right protest, it would be vastly preferable to anyone getting hurt or arrested.
Political struggle is almost never ideal, though. It’s ugly, fluid, and uncomfortable by nature. But when you recognize the history of fascism and white supremacy in America and what kind of violence that has entailed, it becomes clear that there is no moral equivalent to Nazis and white supremacists.