Antifa strength, numbers greatly overstated by foes

## Stapilus
## Stapilus

On the last evening of May, about 200 backers of Black Lives Matter coalesced next to Main Street in downtown Klamath Falls, rallying in memory of police brutality victim George Floyd. The participants, a diverse group, held signs but stayed calm and peaceful. 

They also watched, cautiously, a smaller but significant crowd across the street. A less diverse group, its members were described this way in a news report:

“They leaned in front of local businesses The Daily Bagel and Rick’s Smoke Shop wearing military fatigues and bulletproof vests, with blue bands tied around their arms. Most everyone seemed to be carrying something: flags, baseball bats, hammers and axes. But mostly, they carried guns.”

They needed firearms, participants said, because “antifa, paid by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, were being bused in from neighboring cities, hellbent on razing their idyllic town.”

This reaction wasn’t a rarity around the United States, especially in the West. Similar crowds of heavily-armed locals gathered in Coquille, Medford and the Idaho community of Coeur d’Alene around the same time. They were also awaiting the arrival of black-clad antifa militants.

Those meetups were organized. A social media post from The Real 3%ers Idaho offers an example of how it happened. “We have credible intel tonight that antifa and other groups are planning a riot tonight in the Boise area,” the post warned. “Their plan is to destroy private property in the city and continue to residential areas.”

Of course, none of it was real or credible. None of the arrivals actually occurred. In this season’s weeks of protest and rallies, antifa has been hardly anywhere to be seen.

Antifa may set a new record for its big, national depiction as an outsized threat — at times, by no less than the president of the United States — when compared to its actual small size. 

As is often the case, there’s a kernel of truth: Antifa is not imaginary. It does exist. When fascism grew in Europe after World War I, the term “antifa” was coined by anti-fascist forces.

After World War II, fascism and anti-fascism both quieted — at least in relative terms — for a couple of generations. But later in the 20th century, perhaps coinciding with the dimming of many accurate historical memories of the world’s earlier experience with the ideology, fascism became making a comeback. And its opponents took notice. 

The modern antifa is decentralized, not really organized at all, without any overall leader or central office. It’s adherents are linked loosely through local organizations.

There is a guide to the movement, a book called Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook (Melville House, 2017). A description offers this about the movement’s intent:

“Antifa aims to deny fascists the opportunity to promote their oppressive politics, and to protect tolerant communities from acts of violence promulgated by fascists. Critics say shutting down political adversaries is anti-democratic; antifa adherents argue that the horrors of fascism must never be allowed the slightest chance to triumph again.”

Antifa does have a style of sorts as well, marked by dressing in black.

Its playbook makes specific allowance for violence. However, actual cases of antifa violence have been few in number and have originated primarily in response to violence or threats of violence from forces at the right end of the spectrum.

Most accusations of its involvement in violence at protests around the country have proven unfounded. After looking into violence in Washington, D.C., for example, the FBI found “no intelligence indicating antifa involvement/presence.”

As author Mark Bray puts it, “The vast majority of anti-fascist organizing is nonviolent. But their willingness to physically defend themselves and others from white supremacist violence, and preemptively shut down fascist organizing efforts before they turn deadly, distinguishes them from liberal anti-racists.”

Antifa’s association with violence has led to its portrayal as disruptive and lawless. That has allowed conservative talking heads to paint it as a civil threat, in an attempt to counter violent images of the alt-right.

At the same time, nonviolent activists on the left have cited occasions when the intercession of antifa avoided violent results. Academic Cornel West recalled an event  where, “Those 20 of us who were standing, many of them clergy, we would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and the anti-fascists who approached, over 300, 350 anti-fascists.”

The willingness to engage in rumbles with forces of the alt-right has made antifa a talking point on the right. It has also gotten members into a series of legal scrapes. But their numbers — not even any reliable estimates of their population seem to exist — almost certainly are very small.

On the other hand, white nationalists have been seen, and sometimes arrested, at violent incidents around the country. One news report noted, “In some cities, local officials have noted that black protesters have struggled to maintain peaceful protests in the face of young white men joining the fray, seemingly determined to commit mayhem.”

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who saw violence happening in her city, remarked, “It is striking how many of the people who were doing the looting and stealing and the fires over the weekend were young white males.”

As ever, some precision and understanding is helpful in avoiding overreaction — and armed standoffs.

Randy Stapilus has devoted his career to writing stories, columns and books on politics and government in the Pacific Northwest. He is a longtime resident of Carlton, where he owns and operates the Ridenbaugh Press publishing house.


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