In the midst of the growing Black Lives Matter protests since 2020, the word “Antifa” has increasingly appeared online and in the mainstream media. Antifa can refer to different things in different places, but is generally considered a movement or idea, rather than an organized group, which brings together individuals who want to take a stand against fascism, often using violence to do so. Antifa activists feel strongly that peaceful and law-abiding resistance is not enough to stop fascist movements from mainstreaming; hence the Antifa slogan of “Punch a Nazi in the face,” which later became “Punch a MAGA in the face.” It should be noted that the working definition of fascism, according to the Antifa activists interviewed by the first author, includes “extreme nationalism, xenophobia, scapegoating, closing borders and usually oppression of women or class of people.” The interviewees also maintain that their conception of violence excludes property damage including breaking windows, destroying property, setting fires, and spray-painting cars and buildings.
Debates continue to swirl as to Antifa’s status as a violent extremist or terrorist group, or even as an organized group at all, but few scholars and even fewer politicians and media figures have explored, however, the effect that Antifa – however it is categorized – has on the recruitment and radicalization efforts of far-right and white supremacist violent extremists in the United States.
Presently, we provide the first sample (n = 51) of qualitative examinations of the effects of interactions and encounters with Antifa on current and former members of far-right, white supremacist, and hate groups. We argue that, if Antifa’s goal is indeed to raise the cost of participating in far-right violent extremism, and not simply to wreak havoc and incite violence at otherwise peaceful protests, the results of the present study suggest that their tactics are generally ineffective. Rather, interactions with Antifa, according to current and former members of white supremacist groups, provide fuel for the proverbial fire in a few different ways.
1. Members of white supremacist groups tend to look for fights but may be instructed by their leadership not to act violently except in self-defense in order to portray themselves as a legitimate political movement. Thus, encounters with Antifa give members with pent-up aggression exactly what they need – an opportunity to fight and to frame such violence as self-defense.
For example, Fred describes Antifa as “a decentralized body like Anonymous, but when it comes to White Power national socialist[s], that’s when they gather and extend. Tires slashed, windows broken, they’d find out where our cars were parked. They’d start [by throwing] bottles of urine at us, [trying] to attack us.” He explains, “There are two sides of the extreme who hate each other. They are both sides. Antifa and NSM [National Socialist Movement] clash only becomes stronger. Bonds inside the groups strengthen on both sides. [We had] stun guns, flashlights, and batons to defend [ourselves]. Worrying about Antifa always brought us closer. Two extreme groups pushing against each other’s opposite force.”
2. Attacks by Antifa serve as post hoc justifications for violence, as they can be used by white supremacist leaders and recruiters as evidence that “the left” is indeed trying to violently silence “conservative” viewpoints. Specifically, wearing neo-Nazi attire or carrying hateful symbols on flags allows these groups to knowingly provoke attacks from Antifa but remain physically nonviolent in order to maintain their stance that they are being targeted for peacefully expressing their political views.
TM, who led the KKK’s branch in Germany, said that his group would take similar actions with Turkish gangs as the NSM took with Antifa: “We got in violent clashes, street fights with Turkish gangs. We would go into a part of town more populated by immigrants to get attacked, but we wanted to blame them for attacking us [and say that] they are the bad guys. One time a girl got hit over the head with a beer mug. One got stabbed one time, and I got shot. [We’d say], ‘Look how uncivilized, savage, they are.’ It justified what we believe in.”
3. Violent brawls with Antifa or being subjected to projectiles or doxxing solidifies in-group bonding and bolsters bravado and reputations of white supremacists within their groups.
Russell describes a fight with Antifa in which he claims he was protecting protesters outside of a Planned Parenthood: “I told our group, if they get violent this week, we need to respond. [It’s] okay to use self-defense. They lit a flag on fire; I saved the flag. [The] Antifa leader kicked me on the hand. We went after them […] We whipped the crap out of them. They way outnumbered us [but] they ran away crying. They never showed up again.”
4. Being doxxed and fearing attacks by Antifa as one tries to exit such groups can raise barriers to disengaging and deradicalization and make it seem impossible to do so.
Greg argues that many fear that others knowing about their previous hateful affiliations will prevent them from living improved lives. After leaving his skinhead group, Greg started removing others’ racist tattoos for free: “I’ve had people say let them live with [the tattoos], let them pay for it, [but] we are people, we make mistakes, we are human beings. It’s easy to hate a Nazi, but having compassion for a person that made a mistake, that’s hard.” He describes the difficulty that many formers have in reintegrating into mainstream society: “I had a client three months ago, huge swastika on his stomach. [He had] mixed race grandchildren and a Hispanic son-in-law. He was invited to go to the pool. He has a swastika on his belly from 20 years ago. They have no idea. He can now enjoy life with his family. [He] doesn’t have to worry about his grandchildren wondering why he has a Nazi symbol on his stomach. [He gets to] get rid of causing fear and hatred.”
5. Unruly action by Antifa at otherwise peaceful protests allows white supremacists to conflate all of the protesters (particularly Black Lives Matter) as being violent and extreme and also allows white supremacists to position themselves as being aligned with law enforcement, which helps them to recruit current and former members of the military and law enforcement.
Josh P. says that he was initially driven to join the Proud Boys because of his encounters with Antifa. He says that on the day of the “Million MAGA March” in November of 2020, members of Antifa followed him to a bar and tried to jump him, but they were prevented from doing so by a group of Proud Boys. As he explains, “I hung out with them that day. There were some scuffles with Antifa, three fights. They all swung at me first. I am a trained fighter. One swung a knife at me. Another one stabbed right in front of me. None of us [Proud Boys] to my knowledge had weapons. No one was able to hit me. I had a knife swung at me. I moved his arm and knocked him out after.” Other times, he claimed, he wanted to fight Antifa in defense of the police. He says that he heard that Antifa was using “spray bottles of piss at the cops. I was infuriated.” He continues, “I wanted to protect the cops,” and told his police officer friends, “I can do what you are not allowed to do.” After January 6th, however, Josh was arrested in part because of his violent actions toward the Capitol Police and for rioting in the Capitol.
It is clear from our research that violence by counter-protesters and those identifying as Antifa fuels the fire of radicalization and extremism, convincing the violent extremists that their cause is just and noble and that they are indeed under attack. At best, threats by Antifa might raise the cost of overt participation in white supremacist activities to the point that an individual disengages from their group, but there is no evidence that this would lead to deradicalization, wherein the individual experiences an attitudinal change and denounces the white supremacist ideology. Alas, disengagement without deradicalization can leave the individual vulnerable to re-engagement, especially if they feel that they have lost and not replaced the sense of belonging, acceptance, and purpose that their violent extremist group provided to them. Therefore, we encourage those working to curb the spread of far-right violent extremism in the United States and elsewhere to focus on deradicalization through psychosocial interventions that challenge the individual’s beliefs while simultaneously addressing their grievances, real and perceived, which initially motivated them to join their groups, and providing them with a new network of social support to replace that previously provided by their violent extremist group.