It’s unlikely that Martin Gugino, the 75-year-old activist labeled an “antifa provocateur” by Donald Trump this week for the sin of being knocked to the pavement on video by police in Buffalo, New York, ever in fact identified as a member of an “antifa” group. Not that it would make any difference to Trump, who only wanted to dehumanize and demonize the man by casting him as an embodiment of the right’s favorite bogeyman in the Trump era.
For most Americans, the first question is: What the hell is “antifa” anyway? The answer: A lot of things, some of them noncontroversial and some controversial, but pretty much none of them are what Trump, Fox News, Breitbart, and the rest of the right-wing media ecosystem have told you they are.
The narrative about “antifa” that has been generated on right-wing media over the past three years—and then often thoughtlessly regurgitated and amplified on more mainstream media, including CNN and MSNBC—is an almost entirely false one: A violent leftist movement dedicated to Marxist overthrow of American values, intent on quashing patriotic Americans’ free speech, capable of massive terrorist acts of property destruction, and coming to your neighborhood soon. None of this is remotely accurate.
As existential threats to our national well-being go, the “antifa” bogeyman is a very recent addition to the American right’s long history of concocting dire enemies through the use of eliminationist rhetoric. It really only first arrived on the right’s radar in January 2017, when a bundle of conspiracy theorists tried to claim that they were leading the charge for a Communist attempt to prevent Trump from being sworn in as president, with Alex Jones of Infowars and “health ranger” Mike Adams leading the charge.
Ten months later, they briefly resuscitated the same hysterical scenario, claiming that “antifa” and associated Satanists were planning to spark a violent civil war, with Trump’s overthrow being the ultimate purpose. However, this time, the antifa panic spread to a broader audience, including Fox News, which carried a report claiming that “antifa” planned to topple the “Trump regime”: “Will the so-called “Antifa apocalypse” come with a bang or a whimper?” a Fox News story asked in its lede.
One widely viewed YouTube video claimed: “They will start off by attacking police officers, first responders, anybody that’s in uniform,” he said. “And after they have disrupted that enough in the nation, and us first responders are literally going everywhere, trying to resolve things, they will then go after the citizens and the people and the government and all of that. So if you’re white, you’re a Trump supporter, you’re a Nazi then, to them. And it will be open game on you.”
“Make sure you got enough ammo, make sure your guns are ready,” another YouTuber advised in a popular clip. “You have to understand these are vicious, vicious people. Your life means nothing to them. In fact, if you’re a white man, you don’t deserve to live.”
The right-wing blog Gateway Pundit even published a post claiming that “antifa” radicals were planning to “behead white parents and small business owners”—citing a post that in fact mocked gullible fools on the right who believed such nonsense. As it turned out, these even included officials at the Department of Homeland Security who bought into the hoax and handled it as if the threat were a real one.
In reality, the “civil war” turned out to be just a handful of small anti-Trump rallies. But the myth of the looming threat of the Evil Antifa Horde had been born.
It’s had an especially lively new life in Trump-loving right-wing media since the protests over the killing of George Floyd erupted. Tucker Carlson’s opening monologue June 2 raised the spectral bogeyman again, warning that they were coming soon to your neighborhood, where “violent young men with guns will be in charge. They will make the rules, including the rules in your neighborhood. They will do what they want. You will do what they say. No one will stop them. You will not want to live here when that happens.”
On Fox & Friends June 4, the cohosts, in aghast tones, told their audience that “antifa is dropping off bricks and pickaxes to attack cops and take out buildings and stores,” showing them videos of blue plastic boxes filled with bricks and rocks. (In reality, as Vice reported, the containers were from construction sites and were nowhere near any planned protests.)
Similarly, Laura Ingraham hosted a June 3 segment blaming nefarious antifa conspirators for the protests’ violence: “I mean, when you see people dressed in clown masks throwing Molotov cocktails toward or in police vehicles and the bricks on the streets, piling them up, passing them out to people, what is this?” she asked her guest, who replied: “Well, it certainly looks to me like the far-left radical type element that has been with us for a long time.” (Also in reality: the only arrests related to people with Molotov cocktails has involved far-right “Boogaloo Bois” who brought them to a rally in Houston, intent on wreaking havoc.)
Not a single aspect of any of these characterizations or claims is accurate. While some black-clad activists have been involved in confrontations with police in a number of cities, there is no indication that any of this has been coordinated, or that antifascist agitators have been urging anything other than vocal protests and marches against police brutality. FBI officials so far have been clear that they have not found any evidence yet of “antifa” involvement in any of the violence at these rallies.
I know this from having covered multiple events involving antifascists as a reporter, first for the Southern Poverty Law Center and more recently for Daily Kos: a total of 17 of them over the past three years, as well as on a number of occasions before Trump’s election, thanks in no small part to the ongoing presence of factions of violent white supremacists in the Pacific Northwest.
I can say without hesitation that, while I’ve always considered myself antifascist in the generic sense, I have never been either a participant in this movement nor an admirer of a number of its tactics—particularly the propensity to slap cameras out of the hands of journalists, something I’ve experienced personally (and to somewhat disastrous effect). I’m from an older generation (63 years old and counting) and pretty firmly an old-fashioned small-d democrat, so there are a lot of components of antifascist beliefs that very much run against my personal grain. None of that is a surprise.
But let’s be clear: Each of these events was a planned rally sponsored by a far-right organization, which was why I was there to report. The first was an appearance by alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos on Inauguration Day 2017 in Seattle. During that event, an antifascist I had been standing next to only moments before was shot by a woman who thought she had to defend her husband against an evil violent “antifa” dude; the man survived, and I wound up being the central prosecution witness in the trial of the woman and her husband.
As I explained afterward:
If there is any single indelible impression that I have come away with from my experience through this trial—as well as my multiple experiences covering far-right street brawlers and their events, along with the opposition that comes out to meet them—it is how readily, almost automatically, the demonization and dehumanization of these leftist protesters rises to the surface as if utterly normalized.
Certainly a primary takeaway, both as a witness to that riot as well as many subsequent others, and as a witness to the Hokoanas’ trial, was that the standard media narrative about “antifa”—particularly the one you get from both the Fox Newses and Breitbarts of the world and the CNNs—is mostly a load of rubbish.
If anyone came out of the whole mess looking decent and honorable and principled, it was Josh Dukes [the victim]. Regardless of what his Twitter account looked like, the man I saw in the plaza that night was doing exactly what a peacekeeper should. Taking away a pepper spray device from a man wielding it, regardless of the side, fits that description as well. The contrast between his character and that of the gaslighting Hokoanas could not have been more stark.
I couldn’t help remarking, as all this was beginning to happen in early July, on the contrast between the media interest in this case and in that of Andy Ngo, the right-wing provocateur/journalist who was attacked by antifascists on June 30 in Portland and banged up, purportedly with the help of “concrete milkshakes,” according to early reports. For weeks since, the public has been flooded with horrifying tales of the “violent antifa” that is assuredly coming for their children next, after they’ve dispensed with your free-speech rights.
Yeah, well. That’s a giant crock.
This view was reinforced through multiple subsequent events, involving outfits that call themselves Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys and American Guard, all claiming the pretense of the far-right cause du jour (it varied from “free speech” to “Stop Islam” to “not all men” to “stop sanctuary cities and illegal immigration”) as a serial array of excuses to bring right-wing brawlers hailing mostly from rural areas and exurbs into urban centers full of the “leftists” they love to hate and often fantasize about beating up. Which, given some of the violence I witnessed, it quickly became clear was the entire reason these men were organizing these events: to beat people up on the street.
The motives of the antifascists I covered were significantly different. Mainly, they were focused on defending their communities from these far-right outsiders who were there to cause violence. Most were intent on sending a message to these actors that they and their message were not welcome in their communities.
There are always Black Bloc folks—the people who mask up in black and commit prolific acts of mischief and sometimes violence at the right-wing events—but I can also attest that on none of the occasions when I covered these events were the majority of people dressed like that, nor particularly inclined to rough behavior. The typical participant was a white middle-aged progressive or member of the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter; there was rarely a shortage of grandmothers in the mix.
Most participants at antifascist events I’ve attended are, at least initially, present to have a good time voicing their beliefs opposing organizations that are proto-fascist at best, and explicitly dedicated to bringing violence to their communities. One of my favorite regulars at Portland antifascist events is a marching band whose members all dress in yellow and call themselves “Banana Bloc,” performing lively tunes and carrying a mock Gadsden Flag yellow banner, adorned with a banana peel and reading, “Don’t Slip On Me.”
The people at these counterprotests are not evil communist radicals, but ordinary people with a perfectly explicable desire to defend their communities from violent actors. And yes, many of them are in fact subsequently caught up in the violence that the right-wing protesters bring to their cities.
The media formula that poses these protesters as equivalent—morally, politically, and behaviorally—could not be a more absurd distortion of the reality. This was driven home to me when Patriot Prayer held its rally in Portland on June 5, 2017, immediately in the wake of Jeremy Christian’s murderous attack on his fellow passengers on a commuter train less than a week before.
City officials had pleaded with Joey Gibson, Patriot Prayer’s founder, to call off the event, which was ostensibly about ensuring “free speech” for “conservatives.” Gibson and his cohorts had refused, claiming that Christian had nothing to do with his group—even though Christian had in fact marched with the group less than two weeks before.
In the meantime, at his initial arraignment, Christian had sounded like a Joey Gibson imitator in the courtroom:
“Free speech or die, Portland! You got no safe place. This is America! Get out if you don’t like free speech!
“Death to the enemies of America! Leave this country if you hate our freedom. Death to Antifa!
“You call it terrorism, I call it patriotism!”
The antifascists I have encountered and covered have been primarily intent on stopping this kind of hatefulness and its attendant violence from spreading in their communities. Yet they have been boxed in by a media narrative that portrays them as the cause of the violence, right-wing extremists who disingenuously play the innocent victims, and police forces that not only have clearly favored the right-wing invaders, but have often created fresh violence by treating the leftists with their contempt and violence—making mass arrests on city streets, kettling innocent bystanders and protesters together, and then carting them off to jail.
The police, particularly in Portland, have manifestly failed at protecting their communities from this violence—and then amplified the problem by mistreating and often arresting the people they’re supposed to be protecting for protesting the situation. It’s been ugly, and it has intensified the communities’ disdain for their hired protectors.
This is the mess that Trump and the American right generally are exploiting by portraying “antifa” as a dire existential threat to the nation in the form of far-left radicalism. Trump’s earlier tweet announcing “the United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization” was in fact a mostly empty threat, since there is no place in American law that would enable him to make such a designation.
After all, there is no national “antifa” organization—only small local cooperative groups, all of them officially leaderless—and no national “leaders,” despite anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists’ risibly false claims that George Soros is the man behind it all.
Perhaps more to the point, antifascists have committed exactly one terrorist act in the past three years (Willem Van Spronsen’s self-martyrdom in attempting to attack a Tacoma, Washington, immigrant-detention facility in April 2019), while in contrast, there have been 49 cases of domestic terrorism committed by right-wing extremists in the same timespan. Antifascists have killed exactly no one during that time. Far-right extremists, in contrast, have killed 144 people in the United States alone. (A special report coming soon from Reveal News and Type Investigations will lay these numbers out in full detail.) And indeed, even the FBI has made clear that “antifa” has not been involved in the protests over the killing of George Floyd.
Actual terrorism, however, is not what interests Trump. What he instead is doing is using a vague image of far-left radicals to tar everyone who protests the police, as well as any who might protest him or his policies or oppose them. This is why he tried to make Martin Gugino out to be “antifa.”
If he and his attorney general—who has vowed to use the powers of the Justice Department to bring “antifa” to heel, despite its lack of any kind of serious record of terrorism—are able to transform their words into action, then Americans will be facing an administration capable and willing to use an ill-defined term to declare anyone it wants a “terrorist,” and to treat them accordingly. This has always meant violence, incarceration, and censorship. For America, it would mark the final emergence of Donald Trump as a dictator with limitless powers.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.