Skoog: Blood or bronze: What’s being protected?

President Trump could stop obsessing over antifa if he stopped promoting fascism.

Caroline Skoog

“Over the last five weeks, there has been a sustained assault on the life and property of civilians, law enforcement officers, government property and revered American monuments such as the Lincoln Memorial. Many of the rioters, arsonists and left-wing extremists who have carried out and supported these acts have explicitly identified themselves with ideologies — such as Marxism — that call for the destruction of the United States system of government.” This was President Trump’s EO13933, “Executive Order on Protecting American Monuments, Memorials and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence.”

Amid a national uprising against a police system that has killed and brutalized Black and Brown people with impunity since its start, President Trump has centered the national conversation around a vague specter of “the radical left.” Centuries of oppression, inequality and bloodshed have culminated in this moment of rebellion, yet the White House concocts legislation to defend the rights of statues. Congressional efforts and government funds are allocated to a  Department of Justice Task Force Force on Violent Anti-Government Extremists devoted to investigating, prosecuting and suppressing “anarchists and left-wing extremists.” Meanwhile, the reason behind the rebellion persists. Law enforcement’s hands are wet with the blood of Black bodies, and the call for change has been buried beneath right-wing dog-whistle rhetoric. 

On May 31, 2020, President Trump tweeted his intent to declare Antifa, the anti-fascist movement, a terrorist organization. It’s likely a hollow threat, as the federal government only has the capacity to label foreign organizations terrorist groups (beyond the foreign requirement, the definition often changes to fit new groups), but as idle talk, it’s insidious. It delegitimizes protesters’ outrage and distracts from the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement. By evoking the far-right’s cherished talking point, Antifa, the president doesn’t have to recognize the deep-seated rot ulcerating from the foundation of a country that was built on stolen land and slavery but hasn’t delivered reparations. 

The president’s incapacity to declare domestic terrorist groups hasn’t deterred his administration from resurrecting elements of textbook Red Scares. As Trump stated in his Fourth of July speech, “Make no mistake: this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution. In so doing [sic], they would destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence, and hunger…. That is why I am deploying federal law enforcement to protect our monuments, arrest the rioters and prosecute offenders to the fullest extent of the law.” The full weight of the Justice Department is being used for all the wrong reasons. And if anyone has revised the events and players in the American Revolution for their own modern political agenda, it’s Tea Party Republicanism today.

Although President Trump routinely condemns the left, the DOJ’s task force also lists groups with a far-right basis. In a memo to the Department of Justice, Attorney General William Barr notes, “We have evidence that anti-government violent extremists including those who support the [far-right-wing] ‘Boogaloo,’ those who self-identify as Antifa, and others — will pose continuing threats of lawlessness.” Against all logic, the anti-fascist movement is looped in with “Boogaloo,” a group intent on bringing about a second civil war. 

Casting the same blanket of domestic terror over anti-fascists and Boogaloo Bois deliberately evades the context of both groups and falsely frames their motives as equivalent. One of these groups upholds neo-Nazis and racist rhetoric. The other de-platforms neo-Nazis and dismantles racist rhetoric. Conflating the far-left with the radical-right exploits and misdirects the country’s palpable fear of white supremacist violence. Moreover, as both Antifa and the Boogaloo are decentralized groups that encompass a broad range of milieus, what constitutes an “extremist” member of these groups can shift at the task force’s convenience. Barr can make up the rules as he goes along. 

The dawn of the “alt-right” in 2010, then with more traction in 2016, catalyzed the anti-fascist movement known as Antifa into the United States’ public consciousness. The movement has since become a household name and a boogeyman for conservative politicians. Short for anti-fascism, the term more accurately describes a wide-ranging ideology that opposes fascist practices, propaganda and agendas. The faction encompasses a multitude of political tendencies, beyond anarchists or anarcho-socialists, and thus embodies various interpretations of radical politics. 

Historically, anti-fascist movements materialize to thwart the proliferation of oppressive politics and to defend communities from violent acts perpetrated by fascists. Fascism first germinated out of the residuum of World War I under the aegis of Benito Mussolini, a former socialist bent into a jingo. Under Mussolini’s control, a secret police force, the Blackshirts, infiltrated and suppressed the Italian Workers’ Movement, trade unions and the Italian Socialist Party. The latter two then signed a pacification pact with Mussolini. The conditions of Italy’s fascist regime prompted the formation of Arditi del Popolo — “The People’s Daring Ones.” Composed of anarchists, socialists, unionists, communists, republicans and former army officers, the group committed themselves to fighting the State’s tyrannical forces and despotic nationalism.

Of course, modern anti-fascism and fascism look staunchly disparate from their European roots. Robert Paxton, a professor emeritus of social science at Columbia University, characterizes fascism as “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal constraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.” More succinctly, Paxton lays out the five stages of fascism: “(1) the initial creation of fascist movements; (2) their rooting as parties in a political system; (3) the acquisition of power; (4) the exercise of power; and, finally, in the longer term, (5) radicalization or entropy.”

Present-day antifa groups in the U.S. stem from the punk sphere’s Anti-Racist Action (ARA) networks in the 1980s, which ousted Skinheads from the hardcore scene. ARA groups eventually fizzled out upon acknowledging the inadequacies of their anti-racist strategy that singled out racist individuals. In the place of single-issue activism, anti-authoritarian and revolutionary perspectives collected and subsequently established Rose City Antifa in 2007.

There is no anti-fascism without fascism, which is why antifa groups generally expand membership and activity amid upticks in local fascist organizing. Antifa is a defensive tactic. It’s an insufficient measure to topple fascism or the State’s unrestricted power on its own, but street-level action continuously remains the most effective avenue of recourse when it comes to obstructing Nazis. Throwing a brick at a Starbucks won’t end capitalism, but punching a Nazi has the capacity to cut a white-power rally short and prevent the immediate dissemination of fascist rhetoric. (I do not condone nor condemn the technique.) Ultimately, antifa groups communicate that Nazis aren’t welcome. If our government won’t step in and censure white supremacy, then the onus falls on grassroots action to stop it from amplifying.

August 11 will mark the three-year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. At that rally, white supremacists armed with torches demonstrated in Emancipation Park, formerly known as Lee Square after Robert E. Lee. Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis attacked counter-protesters. They drove a car into a crowd of people. They killed Heather Heyer. In response, Donald Trump famously remarked there were “people that were very fine people, on both sides.” 

In 2017, the FBI reported more than 7,000 hate crimes on the basis of race, religion, gender and a host of other categories. The bureau does not track hate crime casualties. 

How are we litigating violence against statues?

While the administration repeatedly indemnifies oppressive politics and white supremacist acts of violence, they build intelligence programs to suppress voices of dissent. At a time of mass civil unrest, and a health and economic crisis, the president is directing funds and resources to protect symbols of nationalism. The problem is being solved with more incarceration, policing and militarization. It’s unsettling, considering fascism usually enters into power through the government’s front door. 

Antifa groups have organized since the birth of fascism and will continue to fight against fascistic policies and white supremacy for as long oppressive conditions persist. Trump’s fetishizing and persecuting the group may steer people away from identifying themselves with the Antifa label. That won’t stop anti-fascist grassroots action.