NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The alt right is struggling to hold itself together. It’s dealing with infighting and money problems, and some of its leaders have decided they can’t risk holding events that are open to the public. One reason for that is antifa, the anti-fascist activists best known for punching Nazis but who also engage in digital counterintelligence, infiltrating white nationalist message boards and chat rooms to find out who they are and what they’re doing.
In late April, anti-fascist activists camped out in the woods of rural Tennessee the night before the American Renaissance conference, an annual gathering of white collar white nationalists who try to put an intellectual sheen on racism. They hoped to get the conference cancelled, or at least make it unpleasant for attendees. For some, it did not matter if some of the tactics they used were seen as unethical. In the conference’s hotel parking lot, they’d seen a car with a license plate that referenced Zyklon B, the chemical used in German gas chambers in the Holocaust.
“They're proud of things that cost millions and millions and millions of deaths. It makes them happy. And I don't feel bad for ruining their fucking weekend,” an activist who goes by Naya told VICE News.
"You're a badass"
The brutality of these particular activists’ physical violence contrasts with the sophistication of their intelligence gathering. Much of that is done through catfishing. Specifically, “pretending to be a girl,” an activist called Junto said. They create female identities on social networks where white nationalists congregate like Gab and VK, and give them praise. Lines like, “‘You're a badass.’ ‘You're so good at what you do,’” Junto said. “‘Teach me.’ ‘How do I be a part?’ ‘Where can you pick me up in a parking lot?’” He explained, “That's using their misogyny against them. They can't quite fathom that they could ever be duped by a female.”
The weekend before, several of the anti-fascists campers had been in Newnan, Georgia, to disrupt a neo-Nazi rally of reportedly less than 30 people. But it was in Michigan in March they experienced what Junto described as the “most successful operation we ever had.”
Prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer had successfully sued to be allowed to speak on a few college campuses, but his speech at Michigan State University did not go well. He ended up speaking to a couple dozen people, many of them journalists, in a dreary building that held livestock auctions. The anti-fascists fought off a line of white nationalist supporters.
The night before, the anti-fascists say they figured out where the white nationalists were staying, paid a hotel worker for information, and booked a room across the hall. They got in car chases. Matthew Heimbach, then head of the white supremacist Traditionalist Workers Party, confirmed to VICE News that nails were thrown in front of their cars, and popped their tires.
A few days later, Spencer cancelled his college tour. "Antifa is winning to the extent that they are willing to go further than anyone else,” Spencer said in a video posted on YouTube. “In terms of just violence, intimidation, general nastiness, they are willing to do things that no one else is willing to do.”
Naya admitted it was possible there were people among the anti-fascists who were there to do violence for the sake of violence. How do they weed them out? “We don’t,” he said. He does not worry that that could mean the movement was morally compromised. Asked whether violent people might create a backlash, Naya said, “I don't know. I honestly don't know. ... I mean that's a possible eventuality. But at the very least if that were to happen hopefully we would have beaten them and then Nazis don't organize anymore and they go away forever.“
But in a way, violence has made face-to-face interactions with white nationalists harder. Police are better prepared. In Tennessee, the American Renaissance conference appeared to go on as planned. It was hard for the anti-fascists to know, because they weren’t allowed in the building. They were limited to a protest pen across a road that was filled with police. A sniper was on the roof. Naya and Junto briefly entertained the idea of an amphibious assault, because a triathlon was happening in the same park that day, and the swim portion was in a lake behind the building. But it was deemed to risky. “You don’t win every battle,” Naya said. But, “I wouldn't I wouldn't feel right tomorrow morning if I hadn't been here.”
Junto said that Spencer’s decision to quit kept him motivated. “To see it visually come from the mouth of the fucking leader of those fools… To say 'I give up.' I mean he was probably is the most prominent and most widely accepted within the alt right... And he gave up,” Junto said. “That's what we're there to do. Our entire, our goal isn't to, you know, beat people up, break shit, or do violence. Our goal is to make them quit doing their shit. And so every one of them that falls apart and quits or gives up, that's a huge victory.”
This segment originally aired May 2, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.