Dirty Work

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Antifa. Anathema. Anarchist.

Since the rise of Antifa under the Trump Administration, activists have debated how to ‘label’ the group—which calls itself anti-fascist, but openly advocates and uses violence in public protests—and whether the masked, club-and-pepper-spray wielding ‘members’ are doing more harm than good.

We’d argue that the answer is the latter. Far more harm, and little good if any.

Heather Heyer’s death Aug. 12 at a Charlottesville, Va. protest against neo-Nazis, as well as injuries to 19 others, served as a severe reminder that demonstrations in the U.S. can turn violent. But while protestors typically fear brutality from State agencies such as police or the military, Antifa blurs the boundaries between friend and foe; the group is usually identified with the Progressive Left, but behaves very much like a paramilitary organization.

Steve Chase, an expert in strategic nonviolent civil resistance, recently wrote that Antifa “voluntarily does the dirty work of agents provocateurs.” Chase, manager of academic initiatives for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in Washington, D.C., argues that Antifa’s ‘diversity of tactics’ strategy of using violence to suppress demonstrators “is just a way to sell this second, very defective, pro-violence outlook to unsuspecting activists.”

The debate over diversity of tactics is more than just a rhetorical exercise. What’s at issue is the future of free speech, and whether free speech will empower activists to effect social progress; Antifa’s presence at otherwise peaceful protests bode poorly for that future.

At an Aug. 28 rally against bigotry in Berkeley, Calif., Antifa protestors beat a man who wore the colors of the U.S. flag, and pepper-sprayed other demonstrators, the Los Angeles Times reported. Other demonstrators, the Times noted, were attacked with shields on the basis that they were standing near right-wing protestors. The Washington Post reported the same event under the somewhat confusing headline, “Black-clad antifa members attack peaceful right-wing demonstrators in Berkeley.”

Antifa’s actions at protests around the U.S. led the Department of Homeland Security to classify the group as a domestic terrorist organization Sept. 1. This raises the question of whether U.S. law enforcement agencies might pursue domestic terrorism charges against peaceful protestors, if Antifa activists happen to be present at a protest that turns violent.

And, again, this does not bode well for free speech, or for the social-justice causes that free-speech is meant to address. If protestors equate the exercise of public free speech with a reasonable probability of injury, or a heighten chance of arrest, numbers at those events will dwindle. Law-enforcement agencies are more likely to use extreme force in the presence of violent protestors, with consequent collateral damage—harm to peaceful protestors. And those who otherwise might have become active in nonviolent civil resistance or progressive movements will be turned away by both physical fear, and the fear of being labeled as violent—or worse, as terrorists.

Antifa’s presence at protests blurs the distinction between activism and outright violence. It blurs the distinction between protest and a low-intensity war.

As Chase remarked, Antifa is doing the work of infiltrators, in helping suppress social-justice movements, and increasing the chance that harm will come to peaceful human-rights activists. We’d argue that if you want to work for peace, do it in a way that doesn’t victimize people.

Work for peace peacefully.