Is antifa necessary?

Antifa has a role to play.
Antifa has a role to play.
Image: Reuters/Stephanie Keith
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This past weekend, US president Donald Trump sparked a firestorm of controversy when he took aim at Colin Kaepernick and other athletes for their anthem protests against police brutality. Trump’s commentary pushed many, both inside and outside the world of sport, to take a knee themselves; with more NFL players choosing to participate in the anthem protest on Sunday and Monday. These events have helped to fuel what has been an ongoing debate in the United States lately: What types of protest are acceptable? In the midst of this, one group of protestors in particular has come under intense scrutiny.

Since the tragic events at Charlottesville the American public has been grappling with the question of whether or not it is acceptable to use violence against neo-Nazis and white supremacists. This issue first came to light when famed white supremacist Richard Spencer was punched on Trump’s Inauguration day—but it has obtained new relevance these past few weeks, as neo-Nazis have felt more emboldened to take to the streets lately.

At the center of this debate, is a group of loosely organized protestors known as “antifa”, short for “anti fascist”. Wherever white supremacists congregate, a group of antifa demonstrators can be found nearby. They are known for their trademark black clothing and for hiding their identity, but most of all, they are known for the tactics by which they confront Nazis with. Antifa demonstrators believe that fascism must be crushed “by any means necessary”, and often times, this means battling white supremacists on the streets directly­­—bats are brought out, blows are traded and injuries are common.

At first glance, it seems reasonable to condemn what are seemingly random acts of violence occurring on American streets. Even if one disagrees with Nazis, surely, there are better ways of dealing with them than through methods of violence. I once held this position until I started going to anti fascist rallies in my city and witnessed for myself what transpires. Anti-fascist violence is fundamentally misunderstood. Dismissed as reckless and unnecessary, it is actually a last resort tactic that is born out of necessity and meticulous planning.

This year alone, white supremacists in the United States have killed six people from Portland to Olathe, Kansas to New York City. Their rhetoric is not harmless; it frequently escalates into acts of violence against people of color, Jewish people, LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups. At the protests I attended in Toronto (yes, Canada is not immune to white supremacy), a thin line of police bikes separated us from the Nazi demonstrators–police watched nonchalantly as white supremacists harassed people of color passing by, and chanted racist slogans. The only thing that separated myself and other people of color from them was a group of anti fascist protestors. I watched as anti fascist protestors took hits that would have otherwise been aimed at us.

Cornel West, speaking to Democracy Now, said had it not been for the anarchists and anti fascists in Charlottesville, who coordinated with the clergy to keep them safe, that he and his fellow clergy would have been “crushed like cockroaches.” Indeed, in Charlottesville, 20 year old Deandre Harris was beaten by several white supremacists–this was an unprovoked attack that did not occur anywhere near any antifa counter protestors. I have seen this first hand in my city–when not impeded by anti fascists, racist protestors marched to the nearest mosque and began to harass congregants.

It may be tempting to say that this is what the police are for, to protect communities and maintain order. But the police do not consider Nazis a serious threat–they show up more armed and armored for peaceful Black Lives Matter protests than they do to rallies hosted by white supremacists who are armed to the teeth. In Charlottesville, a synagogue requested protection from the police but were turned away, and had to resort to hiring private security to protect the premises.

Weeks have passed since Heather Heyer died after being hit by a car driven by a white supremacist. Since then, thousands of people have signed an online petition asking the White House to declare “antifa” a terrorist group. This is a ridiculous assertion–anti fascist protestors are not terrorists; if anything, they are heroes. They put their bodies on the line, risking injury and possibly death, to defend marginalized people.

I am not a violent or confrontational person, I am too meek to even consider throwing a punch at anybody, let alone a Nazi. But I do want to show up and oppose white supremacy, and my antifa friends allow me to do so in a safe environment. They have protected me on many occasions at these protests.

Violence is a jarring thing to witness, it’s not a pleasant sight to see people being punched and bloodied. Like many, I agree violence is something to be avoided–but the responsibility for these blows and punches falls squarely under the feet of those who allow Nazis to march unimpeded in the first place, the city and law enforcement officials who grant them permits and protection. Asking protestors to remain non-violent as Nazis approach them is in effect, asking those of us who are the target of Nazi violence, to be willing to die for the sake of liberal sensibilities.

You don’t have to support violence yourself or go out and punch a Nazi, but do not ask marginalized people to be martyrs for the principle of non-violence while our lives are being threatened.