As Portland deals with Proud Boys protests, here's what Trump doesn't get about antifa

Why the debate about the status of antifa is likely to be guided more by political ideologies rather than hard evidence.
Image: Charlottesville Marks First Anniversary Of Deadly Rally
Anti-fascist protesters link arms at an event marking the one year anniversary of a deadly clash between white supremacists and counter protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia on Aug. 11, 2018.Win McNamee / Getty Images file
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By Gary LaFree, founding director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism

On Saturday, Portland grappled yet again with clashes between far-right Proud Boy activists and anti-fascist supporters. According to police, six people reported minor injuries and at least 13 were arrested. Portland has been the scene of several high-profile confrontations over the past few years which have raised the profile of both groups, especially the loose community known as antifa — short for anti-fascists.

Speaking to reporters about white supremacist violence in the United States earlier in August, President Donald Trump noted that “antifa” and “other kinds of supremacy” were similarly concerning. Trump’s dislike for antifa is well-known, as the activists have taken on an increasingly visible role since his election.

How and what to label acts of organized violence in the U.S. has taken on a more urgent feel given the recent mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, allegedly carried out by a man with virulently anti-immigrant views.

Antifa supporters protested his inauguration, participated in the February 2017 University of California, Berkeley, demonstrations against alt-right speaker Milo Yiannopoulos, confronted alt-right supporters in Boston and most recently assaulted conservative journalist Andy Ngo during a clash with far-right activists in Portland, Oregon. At the end of July, Trump mused that perhaps antifa should be designated a terrorist organization, alongside groups like the vicious gang MS-13.

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How and what to label acts of organized violence in the U.S. has taken on a more urgent feel given the recent mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, allegedly carried out by a man with virulently anti-immigrant views. But the debate over how to classify antifa has been percolating ever since the 2017 violent clash between right-wing and white supremacist marchers and antifa counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Rather than denounce white nationalists unequivocally, Trump condemned "hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides." Shortly after, Fox News concluded that antifa was a “domestic terrorist organization.” Following the attack on Ngo in July 2019, Republican Sens. Bill Cassidy and Ted Cruz introduced a bill designating antifa as a terrorist organization, prompting Trump’s tweet.

Many on the right now argue that the failure to label antifa a terrorist group proves that the mainstream media supports a double standard. Those on the left respond that the failure to counter right-wing extremism in the 1930s allowed the disastrous rise of fascist political parties in the first place. Indeed, anti-fascist opposition groups can be traced back to the 1920s and the 1930s, when militant leftists battled fascists in the streets of Germany, Italy and Spain. Antifascist movements faded with the end of World War II but began to rise again in Europe and the United States in the late 1980s, in response to a perceived growth in neo-Nazism.

But determining whether antifa in 2019 is a terrorist group is difficult for at least three reasons. First, the logistical reason; defining what constitutes a group is itself complex. When we think of terrorist groups, what usually comes to mind are highly organized entities that persist over time, have a more or less well-defined chain of command and exhibit stable leadership along with a hierarchical organizational structure. In other words, groups like al Qaeda, the Islamic State militant group, or the Irish Republican Army, the IRA. On the other end of the spectrum are loosely affiliated individuals who carry out terrorist attacks but are not members of any known organization and who have no formal links to a specific group. And between these two extremes, there are a bewildering array of alternatives.

Antifa falls on the less structured side of this continuum. It is not a highly organized entity. It has not persisted over time. There is little evidence of a chain of command or a stable leadership structure. To this point in time, antifa resembles other broad political phenomena like the anti-abortion or animal rights movements. Individuals who oppose abortion or using animals for experiments encompass a diverse range of positions, stretching from those who do not support the use of abortion or using animals in laboratories, to those who legally protest these practices, to those who are willing to use violence to stop them.

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Second, terrorism is a method, not a group or an individual. Many of the most prolific terrorist organizations — from the IRA to the Islamic State — have been strongly engaged in non-terrorist as well as terrorist activities. The same goes for individuals. Individuals who commit terrorist acts nonetheless spend most of their time engaging in lawful behavior. This means that when evaluating whether groups or individuals are terrorist we invariably run into contradictory evidence, some supporting the terrorist classification but most of it reflecting lawful behavior. In the case of antifa, we have to analyze each incident attributed to them separately — not just conclude that an act was terrorist because antifa initiated it.

And finally, most definitions of terrorism include the assumption that individuals are committing violent acts because of an underlying political motive. But measuring the motives of individuals is complicated. Usually, we are forced to take their word for it. For example, in most respects the horrendous 2017 murder of 58 people at a concert in Las Vegas resembled a terrorist attack. However, the perpetrator never stated clearly what the motive of the attack was. Without such a statement, it is difficult to distinguish terrorism from other forms of violence.

Antifa illustrates these complexities. Thus far, it is more of an amorphous movement than a group. People who call themselves antifa or are labeled by others as antifa are most often engaged in legal behavior. The most convincing recent cases for classifying antifa actions as terrorist probably come from the 2017 conflict in Charlottesville and the 2019 attack on Ngo. But uncovering the motives of the individuals involved even in these high-profile cases is complex. Certainly, there are obvious differences between the street brawls attributed to antifa and the systematic violence perpetrated by either ISIS or the El Paso shooter. In the light of these complexities, the debate about the status of antifa is likely to be guided more by political ideologies rather than hard evidence.