What is Antifa, the group Trump wants to designate as a terrorist organisation?

Donald Trump claims ‘left-wing anarchists’ are behind much of the past week’s violence, but has offered no evidence

Andrew Naughtie
Monday 01 June 2020 18:32
Trump adviser denies there's any racism in the police and blames 'Antifa' instead

In his response to protests over the killing of George Floyd, Donald Trump has focused on condemning disorder and rioting and calling on cities to call in the National Guard and stamp out violence and damage to property.

Among Mr Trump’s main themes is that the protests are being “fomented” by far-left “anarchists”, specifically those affiliated with “Antifa” – a loose alliance of left-wing protesters and groups that has come to the fore since he was elected. He has now announced that the US government will designate Antifa as a terrorist organisation.

It is unclear what, if any, evidence Mr Trump has seen to imply that Antifa is the driving force behind the violence seen in several American cities, but his attacks on the movement have been repeated by various administration officials, including Attorney General Bill Barr. However, their characterisations of Antifa and its actions are hard to square with reality.

The word “Antifa” is not a new coinage – in fact, it’s a term used to mean “anti-fascist” in various languages, and has been invoked by numerous left-wing and radical groups over the decades.

In its current American usage, it does not describe a hierarchical organisation with clearly defined leaders; instead, it serves more of an umbrella term for an array of political fellow travellers united by both their left-wing philosophies and their use of various direct action methods.

Not all its self-identifying “members” subscribe to the same specific ideologies, and not all condone all of the same radical tactics. And yet, the idea that the movement is a fully integrated, structured political organisation has stuck in the popular imagination, especially in certain quarters of the right, where the name “Antifa” is used to invoke the image of an organised, violent far-left threat to social order and security.

One of Antifa’s first conspicuous appearances during the Trump era was at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a large turnout of far-right and racist protesters were confronted by left-wing and anti-racist counter-protesters.

Antifa-identified activists have mounted conspicuous demonstrations many times since then, including against right-wing speakers on college campuses, and certain of the movement’s tactics have become familiar features of large left-wing protests – dressing entirely in black, for instance.

Some in the movement do indeed use violent tactics, which have helped alienate them not just from the right, but from much of the mainstream left. After a violent protest in Berkeley, California in 2017, Nancy Pelosi issued a statement condemning Antifa’s tactics. “The violent actions of people calling themselves Antifa in Berkeley this weekend deserve unequivocal condemnation,” it read, “and the perpetrators should be arrested and prosecuted.

“In California, as across all of our great nation, we have deep reverence for the Constitutional right to peaceful dissent and free speech. Non-violence is fundamental to that right.”

There is little or no legal basis upon which Mr Trump can “declare” Antifa a “terrorist organisation”. The US government uses this designation for international organisations, there is no terrorism law that under which it can classify domestic groups as such. And even if there were one, because Antifa is not a clearly defined entity like al-Qaeda or Isis, it’s not clear to what or to whom the designation would actually apply.

But Trump’s critics argue that his calls to legally sanction Antifa serve a political function whether or not they lead to anything. By calling its adherents “terrorists”, they argue, Mr Trump and his administration are stoking fear of the movement and the radical left in general – while casting much of the last week’s events not as a furious reaction to racism and police brutality, but the work of violent “anarchists” exploiting social unrest.

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