On June 26, 2016, back when the idea of a Trump White House seemed like speculative fiction, antifa showed up to kick white supremacists out of Sacramento. What started as a white nationalist rally turned into a bloody, chaotic brawl that left at least 14 people hurt; police would end up recommending criminal charges for more than 100 of the participants. The most brutal moment, according to antifa who were present, was when a knife-wielding neo-Nazi ran through the crowd, stabbing as he went, leaving six opposing protesters injured, two with life-threatening wounds. The police were there in force, but he escaped arrest. (A year later, a white nationalist and two antifa counter-protesters were arrested and charged.)
That sort of violence—and relative passivity by cops—is a familiar sight by now. As seen at the "Battle of Berkeley" on April 16 and the Charlottesville protest on August 14, when skirmishes between the alt-right and antifa take place, police have often taken a hands-off approach. This means forming areas of containment—sometimes with concrete blockades, sometimes their own armored bodies lined shoulder-to-shoulder—to keep the fights within from spilling to the businesses and thoroughfares, but allowing just about anything at all to go on inside the protest areas.
In the Trump era, white supremacist rallies have become increasingly menacing and prone to violence—and antifa activists say that the police can't be trusted to keep counter-protesters safe, unless they're alt-right. That, activists say, is how one should view the much-publicized moments of violence at a protest last month in Berkeley. "We felt we were going to have to rely on ourselves," says Sara Kershner from the National Lawyers Guild, one of roughly 50 legal observers at the protest.
Though the left has come under fire for high-profile incidents of antifa aggression, in conversations with activists in the Bay Area—where I've covered protests since 2013—none were concerned about negative portrayals in the media.
The National Lawyers Guild was one of the organizations involved in planning the Bay Area Rally Against Hate, a counter-protest scheduled to coincide with the "No to Marxism in America" event that, in the wake of Charlottesville, was less about fighting socialist ideology and more a way for the alt-right to gather. Turnout was low, with maybe a dozen total right-wingers showing up.
More notable was the lead-up to the counter-protest which, according to Bay Area activists with knowledge of the scene, was the first time the organizing process included reaching out to the undefinable coalition of leftists, communists, socialists, anarchists, anti-racists, and anti-fascists who wear masks and black clothes to act as the front lines at rallies. These people physically block police actions, act as medics for fallen protesters, and sometimes engage in physical violence against either property or protesters on the other side. (This tactic is called "black bloc," a protest technique often mistakenly conflated with "antifa," which is an ideology.)
Organizers wanted to get these people the same page, and urge them not throw the first punch in what would surely be a powder keg atmosphere. And while black bloc participants weren't on planning conference calls, the messages got through.
"Our experience [at the protest] was that the black bloc totally respected the agreements we put out," says Kershner, "which is that we are not looking to engage in violent confrontation, but will defend ourselves and others if we're attacked."
The rally, which drew thousands of people and stretched across many city blocks, was almost entirely peaceful, if raucous at times. But the part that everyone saw was on a five-second video clip shot by Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer. It showed five masked antifa striking an alt-right activist on the ground. That activist, Keith Campbell, was targeted by antifa because, as described in this Reveal piece, he "has a history of Islamophobia" and threatened to use his camera stand as a weapon. But that context was largely stripped away in the commentary that followed, nearly all of which condemned antifa.
In the Washington Post, Marc Thiessen called antifa "totalitarian" and compared them to Stalinists. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who represents a Bay Area district in Congress, said the actions of antifa "deserve unequivocal condemnation." Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin now wants to classify antifa as a gang. (All this comes just weeks after Donald Trump was raked over the coals for "blaming both sides" for Charlottesville.)
Defenses of antifa by allies appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, and Pacific Standard, among other places. But most actual antifa don't worry much about the "optics" of their actions, and are disconnected from the media narratives that have been erected around them.
They say they use black bloc tactics to act as a physical barrier between threats—either police or alt-right brawlers—and peaceful protesters. (They did this to great effect in Charlottesville.) Or they act as vanguard to make other protesters reasonable in comparison. Or they think they're sending a smashy message to corporations, or they act as medics while EMTs are held away behind police lines. Yes, some of them try to to initiate combat against white nationalists. But they don't worry about what newspaper columnists will say, or how their actions will play out on Twitter or Fox News.
This disconnect between the streets and the tweets is nothing new. As journalist Susie Cagle documented in 2012 during Occupy Oakland, members of the press and politicians, especially those who aren't actually at protests, tend to latch onto the most dramatic moments rather than the larger contexts. This mostly means talking about arrests and accounts from cops and other city officials. Wrote Cagle about Oakland protests that year:
The most spectacular planned events that capture media attention in this mid-sized, economically-depressed city are still reported in a way that mainly reflects the city's accounts of events. The 24-hour vigil at City Hall Plaza, the foreclosure defenses, the squats of foreclosed buildings, the pop-up gardens and tongue-in-cheek homemade boats on Lake Merritt—none of these actions captured the camera's gaze until the police came, until arrests were made.
That dynamic has helped foment an atmosphere of distrust between the left-wing activists and the media. At the extreme end, this manifests in antifa smashing cameras and attacking journalists. But even those who don't embrace that kind of tactic don't much care for the press. "It's obvious what the general media is doing," says Molly Armstrong, co-chair of East Bay DSA, a socialist organization that helped coordinate and marched at the event. "The intention is not to tell the story of what was at the protest, but just feeding off what they think will get more clickthroughs." (Disclosure: I'm a member of East Bay DSA.)
Even though antifa has largely disdained the media, one leftist activist told me about a new phenomenon: Though most liberals, centrists, and conservatives have been denouncing antifa, many on the left are realizing how black bloc tactics fit into the general leftist protest movement.
The night after the Berkeley rally, members of Bay Area SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) issued a press release lauding the actions of black bloc protesters earlier that day. "Many of us were not aware until today of the crucial role that antifa have been playing to defend communities against white supremacist violence, at great personal risk," wrote one organizer.
The next day, a group of left-wing activists, pastors, and attorneys held a press conference at Berkeley City Hall in an attempt to correct the narrative. "Why is antifa all of a sudden becoming labeled as the most violent element when they were literally here with a buffer between those who were here to harm us?" Michael McBride, a pastor at Berkeley's The Way Christian Center, who helped organize the counter-protest, asked reporters.
Statements like McBride's may sway right-wingers out to demonize leftist protests in general, or even moderate Democrats who reflexively fear rule-breaking and violence. But the people on the front lines of these protests are increasingly supportive of antifa, and antifa themselves have never cared what the media thought of them. They certainly aren't going to start now.
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