US ‘Antifa’ Groups

Executive Summary 

  • ‘Antifa’ refers to a diverse collection of groups across the globe united by a shared belief that they are collectively resisting fascist ideology. 
  • Antifa is best described as a collection of decentralized organizations. There is no national-level decision-making body. Antifa groups in the United States are ideologically aligned and share tactics with their domestic and foreign counterparts; however, there is little to no evidence of tactical or strategic coordination. 
  • Antifa groups focus heavily on protests and counterdemonstrations against mobilization by far-right extremists, and other groups to whom they are opposed, but also conduct online actions such as doxxing (publicly posting identifying information about an individual, generally with malintent) 
  • Some members of Antifa groups are known to engage in criminal activity such as property crime, criminal misconduct and street brawling. Since the 1990s, there have been zero deadly terrorist attacks in the US that can be tied to Antifa groups or members. 

Ideology & history 

While used as an umbrella term by media sources to refer to a milieu of radical anarchists, militant antifascists, and other left-wing anti-capitalist or antigovernment activists, the shared characteristic of Antifa members and affiliates globally is the belief that they are collectively resisting fascist ideology. Nearly all members subscribe to some form of anarchist or socialist ideology, although members often belong to different subsets of those ideologies including Maoism, anarcho-communism and others. The term Antifa is a truncated form of ‘antifascist,’ and Antifa members often point to this terminology to justify their actions. They also frequently use the term to assert that those identifying as “anti-Antifa” are by definition pro-fascist. 

Figure 1: Common symbols used by Antifa groups.

Antifa groups claim that the purpose of their activism is to counter fascism, but their definition of fascism is often extremely broad and can be biased by members’ left-wing political beliefs. Antifa groups and affiliates often garner significant press coverage when they target domestic extremist organizations, such as the Proud Boys and neo-Nazi groups. But they also frequently protest or commit property crimes against those they perceive as upholding the capitalist system, such as business leaders, law enforcement officials, and politicians1.  

Antifa groups exist across the globe and most often claim common ancestry with anti-fascist partisan groups in World War II Europe. Continental Europe groups are more directly descended from that lineage; however, the modern Antifa movement in the United States and the UK are more accurately traced to the anti-racist skinhead movement of the 1980s. The emergence of Nazi skinhead groups in the Midwest led to internecine fighting within the punk music scene and the emergence of anti-racist groups, including Anti-Racist Action (ARA) in Minneapolis, which closely resembles present-day Antifa groups. Much like the modern groups, ARA engaged in street brawling and doxxing of perceived opponents. Members of ARA were largely self-described anarchists, but the group also included communists, Maoists, and others politically aligned with left-wing movements2.

Structure & organization 

Antifa is best described as a collection of decentralized organizations that are each comprised of a constantly shifting group of official or unofficial members. The exact structure of each group can vary widely from location to location and many, such as New York’s Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council (MACC-NY) do not explicitly identify themselves as Antifa. Some operate in a more formal manner with membership lists and leadership positions, while others simply exist as a collective of like-minded individuals. Even in Antifa groups with more traditional structures, decision-making is generally done by consensus and participation in events or activities is rarely, if ever, considered mandatory for members. There is no regional, national or international leadership structure that makes decisions or governs the actions of Antifa groups or individuals. Collaboration between Antifa groups is typically ad hoc and based on shared ideology and goals, rather than directed by a top-down strategy.  

Antifa groups do share tactics and intelligence with counterparts in other areas. This, along with a high degree of ideological alignment among the groups, leads to similar behaviors that create the illusion of unified action despite the lack of formal coordination. Individual groups also commonly call on their counterparts to join in campaigns such as boycotts, protests or criminal activities. Popular campaigns may be imitated by Antifa groups nationwide, creating a coordinated appearance. Some Antifa groups will form networks to coordinate their actions. When doing so, they will often emphasize their “points of unity,” showing ideological alignment. 

American Antifa groups often claim common cause with their counterparts in Europe and South America and there is significant ideological alignment across the global movement; however, groups will adjust their tactics and targets as they deem appropriate for their region or country. 

There is often disagreement between and among Antifa groups on their ultimate goals. Some members may seek the overthrow of the ‘fascist system’ (albeit with no concrete plan to do so), while others advocate for the development of small collectives. In June 2020, anarchists associated with Antifa groups clashed with the Seattle Police Department (SPD) near the SPD East Precinct building following an incident in which a child was pepper sprayed and denied medical attention. Violence ensued, with protestors throwing bottles, fireworks and incendiary devices at the police facility, eventually forcing the SPD to vacate the East Precinct. Activists, including members of Antifa, subsequently established a four-block “autonomous zone” known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ). The short-lived CHAZ was beset by infighting, illustrating that the widely differing ideological goals and principles between Antifa members as well as apparently aligned left-wing movements can lead to disarray within groups, even when they have successfully achieved their objectives.  

Online activity 

Antifa groups and affiliates also engage in online activism, much of which involves infiltrating online chats of their ideological opponents and engaging in doxxing. These techniques became prominent following the 2017 Unite the Right Charlottesville march and the 2021 January 6 riots. Through open-source investigative techniques (OSINT), group infiltration and online monitoring, Antifa groups have identified and doxxed hundreds of violent extremists from these events, and their reports and articles have been cited by local and federal law enforcement as assisting with dozens of arrests. 

Antifascist efforts have also exposed datasets used by researchers, journalists and counter-violent extremism (CVE) practitioners, including typically inaccessible resources such as the contents of private Discord servers and leaked chats and forum posts of neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups which have provided important insights around the activity of domestic violent extremist groups. 

Many Antifa groups also maintain blogs or websites that advertise their activities, provide information to prospective members, and occasionally anonymously claim credit for acts of vandalism or even violence.  

Protest tactics 

Figure 2: Self-defense class attended by Antifa members in Chicago.

For most Antifa groups, their goal of resisting fascism is achieved through a combination of online and offline actions. Groups will overtly advertise benign, legal actions such as peaceful protests using social media and flyers. Members, however, also engage in criminal (or potentially criminal) activities and ‘black bloc’ protests, in which members will dress in identical black outfits designed to hide their identities and impede law enforcement action against any specific individual. a practice to guarantee anonymity and reflect solidarity, often resulting in violence.  

The most prominent and visible activity of most Antifa groups is the organizing of protests intended to disrupt events they identify as ‘fascist.’ Preparation for these protests is relatively sophisticated; in addition to basic safety and ‘counter-protest’ tactics, they often include instruction on how to prevent, mitigate or avoid law enforcement crowd control tactics, training on how to treat gunshot or stab wounds, information and resources to recover from tear gas, pepper spray, or injuries from riot munitions, and collecting and distributing bail funds for arrested protesters.   

Anarchists assessed to be affiliated with Antifa groups have also engaged in criminal activity including arson, vandalism, and obstructing roadways as part of their political protests. Although the claims are generally submitted anonymously and cannot be definitively tied to a specific Antifa group or member3. 

In addition to organizing ordinary protests and demonstrations, Antifa groups will often call for a “black bloc” action.  These actions often, but not always, include acts of property crime or result in clashes with counter-protestors or law enforcement4.  

 Antifa groups will also take on the role of protecting other protestors when known violent extremist groups are likely to attend an event. While this tactic has been effective and may also serve as a deterrent to domestic violent extremists, in some cases Antifa attendance may antagonize opposing groups, increasing the possibility of violent confrontations. 

Some groups or group members choose to arm themselves in preparation for confrontations with their opponents. Recently, in response to bomb threats, arsons, and assaults targeting LGBTQ+ events, Antifa gun clubs have shown up armed to drag queen story hours in response to the appearance of other armed and/or violent groups such as the Proud Boys or neo-Nazis. While this tactic has largely been used as a deterrent, Antifa attempts to protect protestors or bystanders can escalate into actual violence; either due to a perceived or actual threat, or because of an accident or misperception that leads to an escalation. 

Figure 3: Standoff at Portland Courthouse in 2020.

Antifa members have also engaged in criminal activity during protests, although they will often claim that violence was initiated by law enforcement. The activity is frequently limited to resisting arrest and the use of noxious agents or other chemical substances, but in a few cases Antifa groups or members have escalated to violently clashing with law enforcement and attempting to firebomb federal facilities.  

The 2020 protests around the Portland Federal Courthouse were among the most violent and well-publicized Antifa actions in recent history. During those demonstrations, which included an overwhelming number of peaceful protestors, Antifa members undertook coordinated action to blockade federal, state and local law enforcement, attempted to firebomb the courthouse, and injured a significant number of law enforcement and government personnel.  

During extended periods of protest— such as the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally or the 2020 George Floyd Protests— Antifa activity (and the activities of their violent extremist opponents) has been more likely to spill over into violence either at protest sites or nearby, creating a risk for unaffiliated protestors, bystanders and responding law enforcement.  

Figure 4: Antifa members protesting at the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right March.

This type of violence on the margins is exemplified by a shooting in August 2020 near a Black Lives Matters protest in Portland, Oregon. Following that protest, an altercation occurred between a self-identified “antifascist activist,” Michael Reinoehl, and members of Patriot Prayer, a conservative Christian group that is known to bring firearms to protest events and has white nationalist members. While the precise details of the altercation remain unclear, it ended with Reinoehl shooting and killing Aaron Danielson, who had participated in a Patriot Prayer caravan through Portland earlier that day that clashed with Black Lives Matter protestors. While is it unlikely that this homicide was premeditated by Reinoehl, it highlights the possibility of violence when Antifa groups confront their ideological opponents (or vice versa).  

Criminal activity 

The majority of Antifa criminal activity consists of property crime, criminal misconduct and street brawling. Since the 1990s, there have been zero deadly terrorist attacks that can be tied to Antifa groups or members, and there have been very few incidents involving Antifa members that resulted in deaths. Certain acts of property destruction are generally seen as permissible forms of resistance by Antifa groups. Preferred targets for smashing, burning, and defacing include police cars, banks, Confederate statues, and other targets seen as symbolic of oppression. These criminal acts can be dangerous to bystanders and the perpetrators, but it is likely that perpetrators of these acts generally do not intend to cause bodily harm.  

However, in some cases Antifa groups or members have shown a willingness to harm their targets, even if only as a second-order outcome. As described above, Antifa groups and members injured a number of law enforcement personnel in their prolonged attempt to firebomb the Portland Federal Courthouse, an effort that would doubtlessly have injured or even killed others if it were successful.  

Similarly, in 2019, Willem Van Spronsen attacked a private detention facility contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, throwing Molotov cocktails and attempting to burn down the center. Spronsen, who was known to be active in left-wing protest communities and identified himself as “antifa” in a Facebook post, was shot and killed by law enforcement. While Spronsen was the only casualty of this incident, his intended act would clearly have risked injury or death to both workers at the facility and any migrants housed there.  

Endnotes

[1] Bray, Mark. Antifa: An Anti-Fascist Handbook, Melville House, Brooklyn, NY, 2022, pp. 114–117.

[2] Analysts reviewed postings from blogs and social media pages operated by Antifa groups to substantiate these claims as well as others throughout this Explainer. Citations will not be provided for these sources. 

[3] ISD analysts observed these claims through monitoring of a network of blogs operated by individuals assessed to be supportive of Antifa or Antifa adherents themselves. Citations to these blogs will not be provided.

[4] Antifa adherents have called for the use of “black blocs,” discussed their efficacy, and admitted to acts of property crime or violence on blogs operated by individuals assessed to be supportive of Antifa or Antifa adherents themselves. Citations to these blogs will not be provided.

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This Explainer was uploaded on 5 April 2024.

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