by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Antifa is, in fact, hard to pin down. It has no known leaders, no address, not even a Twitter account. A number of specific groups involved in street violence embrace the antifa label. Those groups, in turn, are highly secretive and loosely organized. Stanislav Vysotsky, a former antifa activist and author of “American Antifa: The Tactics, Culture, and Practice of Militant Antifascism” (2020), concedes that “for most people antifa is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wearing a black mask.”
This elusiveness, which appears to be by design, makes it difficult to define or even identify members of a movement that nevertheless has had an outsized impact on American society.
Yet, the black mask slips. Scholarly research and daily journalism shed light on antifa’s ideology and its long history in the United States. Its mixture of left-wing politics and anarchist nihilism can be traced back more than 100 years. Its modern incarnation, centered in the Pacific Northwest, features 1960s radicals, including former members of the Weather Underground, anti-racist skateboard punks who emerged in the 1980s, and younger radicals. Their racial and ethnic makeup is uncertain, but significant numbers are white. Arrest records and other publicly available information suggest many of those identifying as antifa are itinerant or marginally employed. …
… While American antifa adherents explicitly reject the First Amendment and other classically liberal ideas about free speech and assembly, they see as their spiritual ancestors 19th century slavery abolitionists and others who fought slavery and later racism. Bray writes that John Brown, the white man who tried to spark a slave revolt by attacking a federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Va., in 1859, is a particular hero.
More recently, antifa in America have drawn power from punk-rock subcultures and post-1960s left-wing extremism.