When hundreds of black-clad antifa gathered across from the White House to protest a planned white nationalist rally on Sunday, Makia Green sensed that local members of Black Lives Matter might need some reassuring.
Two of the biggest leftist movements of the Trump era were there for the same reason, but they haven't always seen eye to eye. So Green, 26, took to a microphone to tell the mostly local Black Lives Matter activists that they shouldn’t be alarmed by the masked protesters who showed up wearing helmets and gas masks.
“I said, ‘These people that are here, I understand why it can be frightening to see them in this manner, with their faces covered’,” Green recalled. “They cover their faces so what they do in our defense does not fall onto their families.”
Many Black Lives Matter members have long viewed antifa — overwhelmingly white, and masked when they rally — with some suspicion. While the two groups generally take the same side when white nationalists come to town, conflicts have arisen over tactics and strategies.
But in the past year Black Lives Matter and antifa have started coordinating, and there are signs that they’re increasingly finding ways to work together. Green knew, for example, that antifa would be there because she’d discussed plans for the counterprotest ahead of time with other Black Lives Matter members with organizers from anti-fascist groups.
Black Lives Matter D.C. and Black Lives Matter Charlottesville co-signed a letter with antifa under the banner of “Shut It Down D.C,” which called on “anti-fascists and people of good conscience” to mobilize in Washington. There was also a “steering committee” made up of locals, who set the ground rules for the main counter-rally.
“The concern was that people might come in and try to escalate without our consent”
The main point of mistrust among Black Lives Matter activists was that antifa might engage in violence. “The concern was that people might come in and try to escalate without our consent. That has been the experience from others,” Green said. “These are things we discuss ahead of time. We have this relationship with trust, and it’s important you use your leadership to guide the folks that trust you.”
Collaboration between the two groups has been on the rise since the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville a year ago, and has been accelerated by the resurgence of public-facing, newly emboldened white supremacists. Prior to Sunday’s demonstration, they coordinated a “resistance training session” before the rally at the University of Virginia for the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville on Aug. 11.
“We are working with Black Lives Matter, local clergy. This is not a movement that wants to be a lone group of militants,” James Anderson, editor for It’s Going Down, an online hub for antifa, told BBC at the time.
Some view the partnership that’s emerged between certain chapters and antifa as symbiosis: Antifa is willing to use violence or even damage property to discourage racist gatherings so Black Lives Matter, which is nonviolent, doesn’t have to.
“That forges some bonds when people are willing to put their body on the line — for you,” said Deva Woodly, an associate professor of politics at the New School who teaches a course in Black Lives Matter and social movements. “You might not even know them, but they’re committed to this. It makes a lot of sense that there would be this kind of symbiosis.”
One week after the first violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville left one dead and dozens injured, Black Lives Matter and antifa joined forces in Boston to protest a “free speech rally” organized by far-right activists. The counter-demonstration, which vastly outnumbered those attending the “free speech rally,” was organized by an activist coalition that included Black Lives Matter. Organizer Nino Brown told NBC News ahead of time that he expected antifa to show up — and that he welcomed their presence.
“Though we don’t agree with antifa’s tactics and strategy and adventurism, we respect their willingness to put their bodies on the line to fight fascists,” Brown said. While Black Lives Matter organizers were up on a platform with megaphones, black-clad antifa behaved like security, securing the perimeters of the protest up to where the far-right rally was held.
Friends with benefits
Black Lives Matter activists see another benefit of collaborating with antifa. The group rose to prominence after the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 as a response to police killings of black men. But it became a lightning rod for the right, which rolled out taunting slogans like “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter.” Last year, a leaked FBI report warned of the threat posed by the “Black Identity Extremist,” motivated by the “perception of unjust treatment of African-Americans and the perceived unchallenged illegitimate actions of law enforcement.”
Today, that boogeyman is antifa, whose adherents use “black bloc” tactics, where protesters wear all black and conceal their faces so they can’t be identified. They burst onto the scene in 2016 during the presidential election, and have become a mainstay of American political and free speech events.
Last September another cache of leaked documents revealed how U.S. security agencies classified antifa as a “domestic terror group.” Fox News, with the headline “Antifa apocalypse? Anarchist group’s plan to overthrow Trump ‘regime’ starts Saturday” perpetuated a conspiracy theory that “antifa Supersoldiers” planned to launch a coup last Nov. 4.
With antifa now the spotlight, Black Lives Matter has quietly evolved from a protest movement into something more mainstream, whose actions run the gamut from vigils to TED Talks to film festivals to political lobbying on Capitol Hill. It’s also broadened its focus beyond policing to address other issues that impact black lives in America, like housing inequality, worker protections, and guns.
While Black Lives Matter tends to organize within their own communities in response to local issues, antifa will travel from across the country to shore up their numbers at protests.
“Antifa could be anybody. They’re folks who are coming out of an ideology,” said Daryle Jenkins, a black activist and founder of One People’s Project, an organization that is aligned with antifa but has one foot in the Black Lives Matter camp.
“The folks you see making up Black Lives Matter is the community, people who are worried they’ll be the next ones shot in broad daylight by the police.”
For its part, antifa sees its role as engaging in civil obedience and risking arrest or injury so that black activists don’t have to.
“I think it’s on people of privilege to weaponize that privilege,” said Jae Carico, an organizer with a antifa chapter based in Tennessee, whose bid for U.S. Senate was recently endorsed by the Green Party. “That allows people of color the space to organize their communities so they don’t have to worry about the defense aspect. That’s something we can do. We talk to Black Lives Matter organizers, and ask if they want us to do security for their marches.”
However, not all Black Lives Matter chapters are down with the idea of an antifa security detail.
“Sometimes they don’t like how we wear masks, because they don’t hide their identities”
“Sometimes they don’t like how we wear masks, because they don’t hide their identities, so why should we? I think that’s understandable,” Carico said.
Carico said that some Black Lives Matter chapters are worried that antifa will unnecessarily escalate tensions at their events, or hijack their messaging.
“Basically some people think we’re there to get patted on the back or showing up and looking intimidating but don’t actually want to do the less glamorous aspects of community organizing,” Carico said.
Fights on the left
Last August, one week after Unite the Right in Charlottesville, a fight broke out between antifa and Black Lives Matter members at a protest over a Confederate monument in Dallas. The counter-demonstration, which was organized by a local activist coalition, drew members of Black Lives Matter and local clergy. According to reports, antifa’s arrival immediately escalated the tone of the counterprotest.
Video of the melee shows Black Lives Matter protesters facing off with antifa, demanding they remove their masks. In response, antifa calls the Black Lives Matter protester an “Uncle Tom,” and chant “he’s a cop, he’s a cop.”
“I’ve seen antifa act outside community initiatives. We’re anarchists. And I think that attracts people who are angry and want to get that anger out, and sometimes it’s not always productive,” said Carico. “But I feel that we learn, and do better, and I think people are seeing that.”
There’s also concern that coordinating with antifa could do bad things for Black Lives Matter’s reputation.
“Coordination could change the public perception of Black Lives Matter”
“Coordination could change the public perception of Black Lives Matter, where people mistake that coordination as an endorsement of violence,” said Pete Simi, an expert in extremist groups and an associate professor of sociology at Chapman University in Orange, California. “Coordinating and being part of are two different things, but that distinction can get lost in the public eye.”
For example, right-wing media and President Donald Trump have previously lumped the two movements together under the term “Alt-Left”
Nonetheless, to Woodly, the professor at the New School, coordination is also a sign that both are maturing.
“Antifa is trying to define itself as more than kids wearing black with an anarchy sign,” said Woodly. “In a way, a lot of these movements are maturing, collaborating, learning how to articulate their ideas more clearly. Seeking to change common sense of who they are, and what they stand for.”
Cover: Rally and March Against the Fascists in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, Aug. 12, 2018. The rally, being held in Lafayette Park near White House, marks the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville, Virginia, rally where a car driven into a crowd of counter protesters killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer. (Photo by Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto via Getty Images)