What really is antifa?

Effie Baum, an ‘everyday anti-fascist,’ talks about President Trump’s threat to designate the movement as a terrorist organization, and corrects the record.

 

As cities across the United States entered a sixth day of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers on May 25, President Donald Trump did something no other president had done before: He attempted to make a terrorist designation via tweet. “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization,” he wrote, referring to an anti-fascist movement that has gained momentum during his administration.

The next afternoon, speaking from the White House Rose Garden, Trump reiterated that promise as flash-bang grenades echoed nearby. Peaceful protesters, demonstrating against nationwide police brutality against people of color, were sent screaming and sprinting away. “In recent days, our nation has been gripped by professional anarchists, violent mobs, or, arsonists, looters, criminals, rider rioters, antifa and others,” Trump told reporters.

Experts called Trump’s designation an “empty threat” that would be challenged in court. But it wasn’t a new idea: Last year, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, R, co-sponsored a bill to brand anti-fascists as terrorists. In Washington, Republican state Rep. Matt Shea — who has himself participated in far-right domestic terrorism, according to a bipartisan investigation last year — introduced a bill to investigate antifa. Neither gained traction.

PopMob members dressed in costumes gather in opposition of a Proud Boys rally in Portland, Oregon, last year. “One of the ways that you can really take away the power from those guys is to laugh at them,” organizer Effie Baum says of the far-right.

Two years ago, tired of seeing anti-fascists portrayed as only masked, black-clad protesters breaking windows or getting into fistfights, an “everyday anti-fascist” group formed in Portland, Oregon. Popular Mobilization — or PopMob — was a response to the rallies continually being held in the city by far-right agitators like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer. As PopMob spokesperson Effie Baum told High Country News, the group’s goal was to send a clear message: Fascists aren’t welcome here.

PopMob also wanted to reframe the media’s image of antifa. The group coined the term “everyday anti-fascist” and turned counter-protests into dance parties, circuses and, most famously, free milkshake giveaways. HCN recently caught up with Baum to talk about Trump’s threat and the fact that not all anti-fascists wear black. Some, in fact, wear banana costumes.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

HCN: Let’s start with a very basic question: What is antifa?

Effie Baum: “Antifa” is short for anti-fascist. It is not a unified organization. Anybody can use (the term), and anybody who identifies as an anti-fascist could also say they are antifa. You don’t have to “join” antifa. It is a self-designated thing. If you are anti-fascist, you are antifa.

Where it gets muddy is that the media representation of “antifa" is often images of people utilizing a tactic known as “black bloc,” which is big groups of people dressed all in black that you see on television. And the issue with that is that, in addition to equating antifa only with that specific tactic, it does a huge disservice to all of the work that anti-fascists do besides that one very small thing, which is community defense. Ninety-eight percent of the work that anti-fascists do does not happen in the streets. Black bloc is a tactic — it is not an organization or a group.

The stereotype is that (people in black bloc are) disruptive, that they’re just troublemakers, but the fact of the matter is they are our front lines of defense from state violence and from violence that would be inflicted on us by the right.

One of the other things that anti-fascists do is expose fascists and people that are engaging in white nationalist and far-right ideologies and violent activity. A lot of it is also, like, internet research and looking at pictures from things like Charlottesville, and identifying the people in those photos and then posting their information as a way to raise that cost of participation.

You don’t have to “join” antifa. It is a self-designated thing. If you are anti-fascist, you are antifa.

HCN: My mind goes to the way that KKK groups were more visible in the 1960s, and those people were socially shamed out of participating in outwardly racist activities. Is that the logic of that practice, too?

EB: That’s exactly what it is. We want these people to be exposed because we know that the majority of people don’t share their ideology, the majority of people are not white supremacists or active, organizing, white nationalists, and don’t support that far-right violent rhetoric. So, by exposing them — yes, it makes them uncomfortable, because then all their co-workers know that they’re engaged in that work, their landlords, their spouses, because sometimes not even their family knows. And it is a way of making them be shamed by their community.

HCN: Yesterday, Trump reiterated the tweet that he sent out on Sunday, that he intends to designate antifa as a terrorist organization. How do you understand what he’s trying to do?

EB: Right now, in this moment, the people are a real threat to the power of the police and the power of the state and basically all of the authoritarianism that Trump has been utilizing in his time in office. And so (he is) desperate to discredit what is happening by any means necessary. Because it is growing and spreading so rapidly, they cannot contain it. So, given the public perception and stigma that already exists against anti-fascists, anti-fascists are an easy scapegoat.

It also works to delegitimize the movement, because if they say, ‘Oh, it’s just a bunch of white kids or white supremacists, or these out-of-towners or outside agitators’ — what that does is it delegitimizes the real issues that we are dealing with and (why) these marches and protests are happening: the murder of George Floyd, the rampant murder of Black men and women across the country by police, and the violence that the state and the police inflict on Black and brown bodies every day.

An authoritarian administration is always going to villainize those that are the most opposed to this rising tide of fascism and authoritarianism that we’re seeing both in the U.S. and internationally. By shifting the narrative away from the police brutality, they do get that public support from both sides that are clutching their pearls over broken windows, instead of focusing on the police violence that we’ve been seeing.

HCN: Legislators around the country, as well as Portland city and Oregon state officials, are talking a lot about broken windows right now.

EB: Well, I think it is just business as usual for the police, because the police basically protect property and the wealth of the ruling class. The entire purpose of the police is largely property protection, and capitalism prioritizes the safety of property and capital over people.

It is really absurd that people are more concerned about broken windows, which can be fixed, than the fact that we have an entire culture of policing that gets away with murder every single day. And the issue shouldn't be whether or not Target got its windows broken, because Target is a multi-bajillion dollar organization that can afford to replace some windows. But people like George Floyd and all of the people that have been murdered by the police are never gonna get their lives back. Those family members are never going to get their sons and daughters, and sisters and brothers and spouses, back. Those people are gone forever. Windows can be fixed. Graffiti can be painted over or washed off. All of that is just stuff.

A common strategy for anti-fascists is black bloc. PopMob reframes the public’s image of antifa. Members of PopMob form a “Banana Bloc” band to oppose a KKK rally planned in Portland, Oregon.

HCN: Popular Mobilization started two years ago. Tell me how your role has shifted from when you formed then to what it is today.

EB: When we originally formed, our main goal was trying to encourage as many people as possible to show up and stand against these far-right groups that were having these rallies in Portland. We wanted to create an environment where it was more accessible and more welcoming for a larger, diverse group of people to show up and participate. The idea is that it would hopefully dissuade the police from using a lot of violence and crowd control.

The other thing that we do is try to make it fun as a way to invite more people to participate. And, you know, all of this stuff against anti-fascism and standing up against the violent far-right is so serious. And the thing is, one of the ways that you can really take away the power from those guys is to laugh at them.

Some Proud Boy-affiliated loudmouth from Florida named Joe Biggs was organizing, and they were busing and flying in far-right dudes from all over the country for this “war on antifa” in Portland (in August 2019). And so we decided we did not want them to have the capability of making what I refer to as “toxic masculinity riot porn,” which is the videos that they will post of themselves engaging in street fights. … So we encouraged people to be as ridiculous as possible and, like, dress up in banana costumes or the giant poop emoji and unicorns and dinosaurs so that any opportunity they had to try to make some video of them looking all macho would have something completely ridiculous in the background. We had an entire brass band dressed as bananas. That was the Banana Bloc — like, 50 people dressed in banana costumes.

It was also the largest coalition we’ve ever had around an action. We had more than 30 organizations signed on. It was a very broad-based, diverse coalition that ranged all the way from more militant organizations like Rose City Antifa, all the way to the NAACP, interfaith organizations, Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Portland United Against Hate — a very, very diverse group of organizations coming together united around one idea, which is we don’t want these fucks in our city.

There are a lot of organizers in this town that have been doing this work for a really long time that are seasoned and (have been) working on police accountability for a long time.

HCN: What is your role in the current rallies — to back up Black and brown leaders?

EB: Yes. ... It is not appropriate for us to take center stage in planning these; instead, we should be supporting the groups that are organizing events — amplifying, boosting, uplifting the voices of our local Black organizers. There are a lot of organizers in this town that have been doing this work for a really long time that are seasoned and (have been) working on police accountability for a long time.

HCN: A lot of our readers live in small communities or small cities. What do you say about being anti-fascist in places like that?

EB: Well, that’s part of our everyday anti-fascist thing. Anybody who is opposed to fascism, you are an anti-fascist. And you don’t have to show up in the streets or fill some role or be an organizer or a protester to identify as anti-fascist. You know, 75 years ago, everybody in this country was an anti-fascist. When we were at war with fascists in Europe, everyday people, everyone would have been an anti-fascist. Being an anti-fascist should not be a controversial thing. It should be controversial to be a fascist.

Leah Sottile is a correspondent at High Country News. She writes from Portland, Oregon. 

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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