Liberal voices claiming to support racial justice and oppose Trump have offered support for the pernicious “outside agitator” narrative.
On Sunday, in the midst of the largest popular uprising in at least a decade, President Donald Trump posted a most Trumpian tweet. It appeared to combine a profound ignorance of — or disregard for — the official mechanisms of U.S. governance, a deep connection to the mentality of his white supremacist base, a desire to distract and distort, and an authoritarian (grimly justified) confidence in the political consequences of his raging online proclamations. “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization,” he wrote.
In a literal sense, the tweet will likely prove false. No actionable legal statute will designate antifa — an abbreviation of “anti-fascist” — a terrorist organization. Trump has not, in one fell tweet, shifted the legal status of anti-fascist activity or antifa affiliations. He has, however, signaled the strategy he plans to take to discredit a powerful, black-led liberation struggle, while further encouraging and legitimizing law enforcement crackdowns and white supremacist vigilantism against broad swaths of anti-racist, leftist dissent.
Blaming antifa is a move as cynical as it is predictable for the president and his bootlickers. Meanwhile, liberal voices — claiming to support racial justice and oppose Trump with vigor — have been offering both tacit and explicit support for this pernicious “outside agitator” narrative. By now, this should also come as no surprise.
To speak first to the limitations of Trump’s effort to scapegoat antifa as a terrorist organization: For one, as has been stated ad nauseam, antifa is not an organization but a set of practices, deployed by activists for nearly a century, which aim to create intolerable material consequence for those who engage in fascist activity. There are groups who come together under the “antifa” banner, but there is zero centralized leadership or membership structure.
Secondly, the U.S. has no statutes under which groups are designated domestic terror organizations. The U.S. government only formally designates foreign groups as “terrorist organizations”; the fact that actions are taken internationally by autonomous collectives in the name of “antifa” would not be sufficient to earn an official State Department terror label. Nonetheless, federal law enforcement uses domestic terrorism categories to organize and describe cases, and a host of anti-terrorism laws are available for use against “domestic extremists.” Trump’s tweet was by no means meaningless, even if illogical.
Trump’s anti-antifa statements commit rhetorical violence, and provoke physical violence, in a number of directions. For one, it is a historical racist trope to suggest that black communities could not rise up and self-organize huge revolutionary action. In every major city, it is abundantly clear that these uprisings are being led by young black people. The promulgating of outside agitator myths is an affront to the agency of communities organizing on the front lines of these battles. The divide-and-conquer strategy is as old and tired as any “bad protester versus good protester” dyad, which again and again distracts from the plague of police violence attending every moment of antiracist protest. It just so happens that it was a strategy favored by the Ku Klux Klan. In the 1930s, the Klan issued flyers in Alabama stating that “paid organizers for the communists are only trying” to get black people “in trouble.” As James Baldwin wrote in 1961, “It is a notion which contains a gratuitous insult implying, as it does, that Negroes can make no move unless they are manipulated.”
When Trump has railed against “radical-left anarchists” in recent days, the assumption is clear that these so-called infiltrators are white. There is little doubt that white anarchists are taking part in current protests and, at times, taking militant action. Having been involved in anarchist organizing in the U.S. for a decade, I can assure you that there are simply far too few radical leftists to account for the vast scope of insurrectionary activity we are seeing. And, more to the point, the black people taking radical action in this movement have no need for white leftist instigation. When politicians like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio blame “anarchists” for the riotous protests in their cities, the tacit suggestion is that a furious eruption against the constant violence exerted against black life is somehow illegitimate or inexplicable — that it must come from outside. Not to mention, most of these claims are provably false. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said on Saturday that 81 percent of protest arrestees were not locals; numerous press reports found that over 80 percent of arrestees had local addresses.
“Blaming anarchists and antifa, with absolutely no evidence, is a way to make what’s happening seem fringe and marginal when these are popular uprisings,” said scott crow, an Austin-based anarchist, in a statement from the anarchist platform Agency. “This is a time of mass outrage at an unjust system.”
There are no doubt strong disagreements between those taking part in the current protests about preferable and acceptable tactics. Questions over property destruction and looting and even the meaning of “violence” in these historic uprisings are far from settled; I will hardly settle them here, and nor will I repeat arguments that I and so many others have made about the violence done by the liberal demand for civility. Suffice it to say that the government, its police, and the capital they protect are not interested in preserving and respecting black lives. The disproportionate, devastating deadly effects of the coronavirus pandemic on people of color, made to work and left to die, has made ever clearer what was already well exposed.
Meanwhile, white supremacists and the far right have committed over 70 percent of extremist murders in this country in the last decade; not one killing is attributable to anti-fascist activism. The FBI under Trump has also taken steps to obscure whether it is investigating white supremacist organizations. Whether you agree or disagree with the confrontational tactics typically associated with antifa, the Trump administration’s focus on these activities is, without question, in the defense of white supremacy.
Since there is no formal antifa organization, the label is also expansive enough to provide cover for a wide range of crackdowns and retaliations against any number of protesters. Trump has blamed “ANTIFA” and Attorney General Bill Barr followed up by stating that the Justice Department will use its network of 56 regional FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces to identify the “criminal organizers and instigators,” while specifically naming “antifa and other similar groups.” At the same time that pointing the finger at “antifa” can rhetorically deny black agency, it can also be a tool to unleash the weight of federal law enforcement against black protesters, as and when the government decides to apply the potentially capacious antifa label. And leftist groups that have openly organized under the banner of anti-fascism will face further threats from law enforcement, which have already escalated under Trump.
Since day one of Trump’s presidency, his far-right regime has targeted anti-fascist activity. On Inauguration Day, over 200 anti-fascist protesters were mass-arrested and hit with hefty felony riot charges, all of which were later dismissed or dropped. In the wake of deadly white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, Trump fired up crowds at his vanity rallies with roaring condemnations of “anteeefa!” In 2019, he tweeted a threat to declare “ANTIFA” a “major Organization of Terror.” His lackeys in Congress then put forth a nonbinding resolution, which could have precisely zero legal consequence, to name “antifa” a domestic terror group. Dozens of repressive anti-protest laws have been added by state legislatures, in which all manner of collective dissent is designated an illegal riot.
It is a little on the nose: a presidency committed to policies and politics of fascistic racism, while explicitly naming anti-fascism as its enemy. Yet the liberals of the so-called resistance have been willing enablers of the anti-anti-fascist narrative. As I have noted, it remains a striking fact of centrist-to-right wing convergence that, in the month that followed the intolerable events in Charlottesville, America’s six top broadsheet newspapers ran more opinion pieces condemning anti-fascist action than pieces condemning white supremacists and Trump’s failure to disavow them. And now, too, the president’s dangerous ranting about antifa has not produced liberal opposition; from MSNBC pundits to the New York mayor, the infirm Trumpian narrative on this most historic moment is being affirmed. Once again, as Martin Luther King Jr. observed in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice” provides as great a “stumbling block” to black liberation as the explicit white supremacist.
This is not an aberration but a continuation of a norm that long predates Trump. Yet, as with the deadly and extreme violence carried out by riot police on city streets this week, we are observing a dangerous and fascistic escalation by the state. On Monday evening, Trump made perhaps his most formally fascist statement to date. After demonstrators outside St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., were tear-gassed to make room for his photo-op, Trump threatened to deploy the U.S. military against protesters. “If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them,” he said.
Today’s unprecedented uprisings sit firmly in the legacy of the black radical tradition; “anti-fascist” as a label need not apply. Yet, as a description, it should not be ceded to Trumpian vitriol. In every major city where streets have been stormed, riot police have been confronted, and fires have blazed, we see anti-racist anti-fascism at work.