SEPTEMBER 13, 2020
In 2005 I reported on a violent political rally in the German city of Gera near Weimar with neo-Nazis who wanted to run a candidate for chancellor during the national elections that brought Angela Merkel to power. Her husband was a warlike politician with a mustache named Udo Voigt. Skinheads and conventional-looking Germans – including young families with Birkenstock – gathered in the dappled sunlight of an enclosed park for speeches and music. The local police had surrounded the perimeter of the park to prevent counter-protesters who marched against the rally in Gera's cobblestone streets from colliding with the skinheads. The police always appear when neo-Nazis march in post-war Germany – without them there would be riots.
A far right band in the park had just finished a series of racist thrash music while technicians set the stage for a speech by Voigt. Behind it, a banner for the NPD, Germany's most important neo-Nazi party at the time, fluttered in the wind. I happened to ask a pregnant woman pushing a stroller across the grass why she chose NPD. Family and country, she said. Policy in favor of German families, German priorities. She felt alienated from Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats and Merkel's more conservative CDU / CSU – the big parties – and although she posed as a simple dissident against the German mainstream, the racist fog of the rally was difficult to ignore.
She smiled gently at me as she explained her problem with the conventional German parties. "You endure too much corruption," she said.
I made notes that many people viewed with suspicion. Udo Voigt climbed the stage between black amplifier columns and spoke with rolled up sleeves like a man who had work to do. He gave the usual populist right-wing extremist line: anti-immigrant, anti-establishment, anti-journalist, pro-German blood and soil. The next time I saw a similar event was 10 years later when US networks began televising Donald Trump's campaign events.
A journalist from the anti-fascist scene named Andrea Röpke had turned up in the park, and someone drew a makeshift cardboard sign to highlight her name. A kite tail of neo-Nazi thugs then followed her at walking pace through the park until she left. It felt like a threatening rush of already hot water, but Röpke disappeared before the violence broke out.
I didn't know Röpke, although I had traveled from Berlin to Gera with a busload of anti-fascist activists. "Antifa", which stands for anti-fascist, was a loose association of people who had chartered buses from different cities to show resistance to the skinheads. It was my first close encounter with the movement. I only lived in Europe for a few months. In the USA "Antifa" was practically unknown at the time. In Berlin, it was infamous for causing predictable, almost ritual problems on May 1st with the so-called “Black Bloc”, a gathering of anarchists who used May 1st as a reason to march, shout and do things at police officers throw.
But it was also a recognized fact of German life, a recognized resistance movement against the ongoing problem of neo-fascism. Antifa is a network for organization between different left groups, not a group in itself. His followers and fellow travelers come together for spontaneously organized events and then disperse. To get on the Gera bus in Berlin, I had to dial a phone number that I found on a lamppost flyer. I spoke to an unnamed person who gave instructions: go to a left bookstore on Kastanienallee, buy a ticket for five euros at the cash desk and meet the bus at a specific time and place.
It worked well. I had no other way of reaching Gera with so little money or at such short notice. The Antifa kids were hoodie-wearing post-punk activists, gentle but intense, the kind of people you've met at squats, apartment house parties, and live shows in Berlin. Many of them knew each other. But everyone had a different reason to be on the bus and no one questioned my presence. When we got to the outskirts of Gera there were instructions on where to assemble, how not to be arrested, and so on. I mingled for a while and slipped out to infiltrate the NPD rally.
The neo-Nazi and antifa groups would never meet in Gera if the police had something to say. The German police tried to hold a wall of green uniforms between the far left and the far right when a group announced a demonstration. When fists or cobblestones flew, they turned things off. This was one of the reasons why the NPD was hiding in a barricaded park.
"Antifa" has formed coalitions to challenge fascist street fighters since the 1920s, but it has never built a governance structure or line of figureheads like the Black Panthers or even the decentralized Occupy Wall Street. According to Mark Bray, in his story Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook 2017, the movement is “a method of politics, a place of self-identification by individuals and groups, and a transnational movement that has suddenly adapted pre-existing socialist, anarchist and communist currents Need to respond to the fascist threat. “It exists because left wing outfits can be so broken and ineffective on their own. The earliest grouping was a collaboration between communists and social democrats in Italy who met on the street to fight Mussolini's fascists.
Nonetheless, Donald Trump tweeted on May 31 that the federal government would "identify ANTIFA as a terrorist organization". To the extent that some Americans could organize a protest using Antifas methods and networks, Trump's idea is illegal as only foreign groups can be so named by the State Department. The first wave of arrest records from George Floyd's protests showed no involvement from Antifa and very few professional troublemakers.
"Instead of outside agitators, more than 85% of those arrested by the police were local residents," Time reported. "Of those charged with curfew violations, civil unrest, and failure to follow the law, only a handful appear to be affiliated with organized groups."
Cops from New York to Los Angeles, meanwhile, have shown themselves to be instigators of some violence of protest, especially when it comes to the implementation of arbitrary curfews. But Trump and his makers have played up the fantasy of a nationwide threat from "Antifa". Attorney General William Barr made a statement on the Floyd protests, insisting: "The violence instigated and used by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the riot is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly."
The actual lack of anti-fascist violence during the protests against George Floyd did not prevent some right-wing vigilantes from appearing armed on the streets of some small towns in search of leftists to be killed. In Sequim, Washington, and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, panic on right-wing websites brought self-organized militias with assault rifles onto the streets. Trevor Treller in Idaho told the Washington Post that he had mobilized "after hearing from trusted voices that" anti-fascist types "were on the move." A similar little panic in Ohio led city residents to complain about a strange, orange, almost chemical-looking "antifa dust" that settled on their sidewalks, driveways, and cars. "It was a rust fungus from pear trees."
This new hysteria, promoted by the White House, does not excuse some anti-fascist activists for their extreme behavior. Protests in Portland, Oregon began as Black Lives Matter demonstrations, but fragmented and transformed beyond their original purpose until some local African Americans were unsure how to react. ("White people are extra," a friend of mine reported on Facebook.) The White House exaggerated these protests in July and August, using them as an excuse to bring paramilitary-style federal agents onto the streets. Against the will and advice of the Governor of Oregon and the Mayor of Portland, after dark, these agents kidnapped a handful of protesters in unmarked SUVs and carried out what could be recognized as a fascist ritual in any other country, what the tensions are still going on further tightened.
Three weeks later Michael Forest Reinoehl – who describes himself as "100% ANTIFA!" on Instagram – Aaron Danielson shot dead on a Portland street. Danielson was part of a right-wing group called the Patriot Prayer, and he had joined a caravan of fighters that had rolled into Portland in SUVs. Danielson and Reinoehl both wanted to cause trouble that night, and Nancy Rommelmann later wrote in Reason that the murder also killed Antifas Veneer for Social Justice. "You cannot celebrate the shooting of one man by another," she wrote, "no matter how much you claim that killing is your sense of justice and that you expect to get justice."
Reinoehl was shot dead five nights later by police officers who approached him to arrest him for the murder of Danielson. Witnesses claim that Reinhoehl never resisted the arrest.
Antifa activists as a group are not calm or liberal-minded people. They believe in disturbing fascists before they get a chance to speak. They are an intolerant street fighting wing and some of them don't like my own tribe of journalists and writers.
But Antifa tends, like a cluster of antibodies, to cluster where fascism becomes a threat. Right-wing extremist parties have been organized and founded in Europe for decades. Their counterparts in the United States have only had a serious boost since President Trump.
American hysteria first took off last summer when the name "Antifa" was torn from the fringes of domestic politics onto the soundstages of Fox News and CNN. Andy Ngo, an online provocateur, tweeted about a planned left-wing counter-demonstration against a Proud Boys march in Portland, Oregon ("Unknown if Antifa will come back to fight," he wrote, as the event is in for a rerun was Portland). The Proud Boys are a group of far-right bullies who call themselves "Western chauvinists" and they sometimes appear as masked fighters holding bats and shields. Ngo joined the right-wing groups.
When he personally appeared at the event, he was a figure of hatred – similar to Andrea Röpke in Germany – and he was predictably in a street hype with some black-clad antifa agitators carrying raw eggs, milkshakes and a naked fist and stupid Line. He ran away like a ghostbuster before this fight. He did a big deal online, managed to raise money for far-right causes with support from high-octane Republicans – as well as an outraged editorial in the Wall Street Journal. ("Our friends on the left keep warning of the rise of political violence on the right," it began, as if a neo-Nazi in a car in Charlottesville hadn't killed one person and injured 19 in broad daylight recently.) "I pray for a full and speedy recovery for journalist Andy Ngo, "Minority Chairman Kevin McCarthy tweeted later. "The hatred and violence perpetrated by Antifa must be condemned in the strongest possible way by all Americans."
Judge it, well. But don't be ashamed of the US by defining anti-fascist activists as "terrorists". In recent months – in direct imitation of Charlottesville – plowing cars in groups of Black Lives Matter protesters has become a terrible habit for far-right groups across the country. Attributing the rise in violence this summer solely to "Antifa" is doing the far-right a favor, which puts the Trump administration in a questionable historical category alongside autocrats like Hitler and Mussolini. Chance still looks bad, even to Republicans who long ago stopped caring about what the rest of the world might think.
Michael Scott Moore is the author of a bestselling book, The Desert and the Sea, and Too Much of Nothing, a Los Angeles comic novel. He was born in Los Angeles, but lived in Berlin for over a decade.
Selected image: "Antifa sticker @ KK" by Dimi is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Banner image: "Black Bloc Hamburg" by Autonome Newsflasherinnen is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 DE. The picture has been darkened from the original.