Antifa: Terrorist Organization or Pres. Trump’s Scapegoat?

For protests that turned violent, President Trump blames the far left, and saying he wants to designate Antifa – short for ‘Anti-Fascists’ – as a terrorist organization. But activist and Occupy Wall Street organizer Mark Bray hits back in a piece for the Washington Post. Bray joins Michel Martin to explain why he believes Trump’s bluster is a diversionary tactic.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: And now we’re going to take a closer look at who is marching on America’s streets and why. After some protests turned violent, President Trump is blaming the far left. He says he wants to designate Antifa, short for anti- fascist, a terrorist organization. But activist and organizer of Occupy Wall Street Mark Bray is hitting back against this in “The Washington Post.” Here he is talking to our Michel Martin about how Trump’s bluster is a distraction.


MICHEL MARTIN: Thanks, Christiane. Professor Bray, Mark Bray, thanks so much for talking to us.

MARK BRAY, AUTHOR, “ANTIFA: THE ANTI-FASCIST HANDBOOK”: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

MARTIN: I was talking to a friend of mine, and she asked me what I was working on. I told her I was preparing for a conversation with you. And I said that you have written this book called “The Antifa” — or “Antifa Handbook.” And she said, what is that Antifa thing? I know I hear the president talking about it a lot, but what is that? So, I just wanted to start there, because the fact that this group or whatever it is has been so much in the news doesn’t change the fact that a lot of people have no idea what it is. So, what is it, and how do you pronounce it?

BRAY: Sure. And, of course, for starters, Trump is playing off with the fact that there’s a lot of misinformation and confusion. So, it’s a politics of European origin. And, in that way, it’s pronounced Antifa. But I don’t really correct pronunciations. It’s short for anti-fascist in lots of nations. Certainly, the history of anti fascism goes back a century to resistance to Hitler and Mussolini. But the kind of history of this specific politics develops in post-war Europe when there are groups of leftists who are resisting efforts to bring back the ideas of Hitler and Mussolini. In the U.S., we can see in recent decades the development of anti-racist action and more recently in groups that call themselves Antifa. It’s kind of a revolutionary politics of organizing against the far right that doesn’t rely on the courts or the police to stop neo-Nazis, but argues that community self-defense is necessary. Most Americans had no idea what this was prior to 2017, when we had some obviously very newsworthy confrontations in Berkeley, most famously in Charlottesville against the Unite the Right rally. And what people don’t really understand is, it’s not one uniform organization. It’s the kind of politics or activity. So, Trump calling it an organization is really misrepresenting the fluidity of what it’s all about.

MARTIN: Well, to your point, the president the other day blamed this group, or whatever it is, for much of the violence that we’re seeing connected to the protests that were set off by the killing of George Floyd. And he said he’s going to designate it a domestic terrorist organization. I think we need to sort of set aside the fact that he doesn’t have the authority to do that. There is no legal mechanism to do that. But, having said that, is it an organization? In the United States, is it an organization?

BRAY: I compare it to socialism, right? Socialism itself is not an organization, but there are socialist groups. Antifa itself is not an organization, but there are Antifa groups. Some of the oldest are Rose City Antifa in Portland, Oregon, which started around 2007. There’s NYC Antifa, started around 2010. And these are organizations with members that carry out political activities. But they are autonomous. They don’t have a hierarchical leadership. There’s no office. There’s no CEO. And so calling it an organization is attempting to put it in a box that it doesn’t fit in.

MARTIN: Well, what do they want, though? I mean, what — let’s talk about sort of in Europe first, and then let’s maybe sort of translate that to the U.S. context. I mean, in Europe, do they aspire to be a political party? I mean, do they have meetings?

BRAY: It’s a good question. So it’s important to remember that the activists who participate in Antifa don’t only wear the Antifa hat. They’re also trade unionists. They’re also environmentalists. They’re also sometimes part of other political parties. And so, when I did interviews for my book with the European anti-fascists, they sometimes said, look, Antifa is a firefighting operation. When we see white supremacists organizing, and we consider it to be an immediate threat to our communities, we mobilize around a banner of Antifa and we organize to shut it down. Otherwise, when that’s not a threat, we work in our political parties. We work in our unions. We work to build a better world through other mechanisms. So, Antifa is not a vehicle for all issues. It’s one sort of gadget in the toolbox for political purposes.

MARTIN: So, in the United States, what are they all about?

BRAY: Right. So, a lot of them are revolutionaries and anarchists who aspire to build a post-capitalist society and to abolish the police and prison system, right? So, this is not something that aims to integrate itself within the Democratic Party. And so, in that way, their politics make a convenient boogeyman for Trump, for obvious reasons, even though the kind of popular support for some of what they’re about is more than it might seem, because, like, for example, on Sunday, the hashtag #IAmAntifa was the fourth highest trending hashtag on Twitter in the U.S. So there is a kind of sympathy for aspects of what they’re about, even if they’re far from mainstream.

MARTIN: A lot of people do have a hard time distinguishing them from the – – kind of the white supremacist Proud Boys that they say that they are fighting. A lot of people see it as indistinguishable, well, the spray-painting, the violence, the tagging — the tagging. And people don’t know who’s who. I mean, so, how does that work?

BRAY: Yes, I mean, there’s a lot of confusion out there. And I think part of it is the prevalence of the horseshoe theory, right, the theory that the extremes meet on the ends. And what far right and far left groups often have in common is that neither of them have a liberal political sensibility, right? Both sides are willing to sometimes engage in confrontation with their political opponents or sometimes destroy property. But beyond those kinds of similarities, the far right and the far left are different in their politics. But you’re referring to sort of the visual, right, the optics of it.

MARTIN: Right. Mm-hmm.

BRAY: Sometimes, it can be confusing, especially in a context when everyone is wearing masks now, right? So, that kind of association that existed for a long time between anti- fascist marching in black (INAUDIBLE) covering their face, making it a bit more discernible, is a little more confusing now. And that’s I think, muddying some of the journalistic coverage. But, in Charlottesville, for example, I think that the dividing lines were fairly clear, most of the imagery. In the Pacific Northwest, where some of the main confrontations have occurred, it’s clearer. Part of the confusion now is that you have the president, you have far right media saying, the destruction is Antifa, the destruction is everywhere, it’s Antifa, they’re out there, despite the fact there was a leaked FBI report reported on in “The Nation” the other day where the FBI found no evidence of Antifa destruction in the May 31 property destruction that we witnessed, and the fact that these groups are really small. So they just don’t have the numbers to do what Trump has ascribed to them. But, really, Antifa is one little part of broader movements to oppose white supremacy and fascism. And so, really, they’re — they should be at most a footnote to this story, but Trump has made them into the conversation.

MARTIN: But where does the property destruction fit into it? Like, I’m saying, in a city like Washington, D.C., or a city like Atlanta, where does the smashing the cars, the spray-painting, where does that fit into it, if it, indeed, does have Antifa elements involved in it? So, how is that an attack on white supremacy?

BRAY: Sure. So…

MARTIN: You see what I’m saying?

BRAY: Yes.

MARTIN: I mean, you’re calling it a method. For some people, it’s the goal. So, how does that fit into it?

BRAY: But first, just to clarify that most of the people doing this are not members of Antifa groups, because there just aren’t enough members of Antifa groups to do this. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there are some members of Antifa groups who are breaking things, and what would be their motivation if they were doing that, right? To me, the understanding is, it’s an attack on the police as an institution. It is not a demand for reform. And since anti-authoritarians and anarchists who don’t believe in working through the electoral system or the criminal justice system wants to achieve that goal, they want to foment popular opposition to these institutions physically, right, through destroying police cars, through burning down police stations. That’s the politics. It’s not a politics of electing leaders to enact their ideas through the electoral system.

MARTIN: And the fact is, somebody is burning these cars and tagging these buildings…

BRAY: Right.

MARTIN: … and depriving working people of their jobs and property. That’s just a fact. A lot of these small businesses that are getting destroyed, these nail salons, guess who owns those? Working-class black and brown people, OK? The question is, who is that and what’s the motivation?

BRAY: Well, I think that it’s pretty clear that it’s a lot of different people are doing it, right? Are some of them anarchists or anti-fascists? Quite possibly, right? I’m just saying that, numerically, there aren’t nearly enough of them to do it all. Have they done a portion of it? Quite possibly, right? There are anarchists and anti-fascists who approve of those political activities. There are others who don’t. But the bigger picture here is that this specific conversation is a sideshow to the bigger conversation of, why is it that there are plenty of other kinds of people who are doing this, and what are the social and historical factors that have led up to that? And that’s really the big question that Trump doesn’t want us to have.

MARTIN: I can tell you, there’s been a lot of interesting conversations dating back to sort of Occupy, dating back to those protests at the World Bank, IMF. And I always seen sort of distinct points of view about it. Some people would be like, I can kind of see it. And other people are like, they’re just a bunch of punk kids who want to break something. Is there any truth to some people are just — kind of have built up steam that they want to — they need to release in some way? Or is there really ideology, I guess, behind it for some of the people involved?

BRAY: For me, the start of the conversation is, if we define illegal acts as non-political, then we will see those who commit them as non-political, right? That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is not to say that everyone who breaks something has an explicit political agenda. But it is possible to have a political agenda that values property destruction as a tactic, right? Property destruction, back to the Boston Tea Party, if you want to use the most famous example, has existed as a tactic — as a tactic. It was also very — the suffragette movement in the U.K. in the 1920s, women smashing windows to get the attention of society, or the anti-nuclear movement in the ’80s just trying to destroy nuclear facilities. It is a tactic. And — but we have sort of written it out of the history of how we see our political menu, our repertoire. Now, that is sort of the reality. But the other side of it is to see that, if we have a society where people don’t feel like their grievances can always be held, there are going to be other forms of expressing it, even if people don’t have the language to say what that means, that rage means to them.

MARTIN: So, you have alluded to the fact that Antifa is not the — is a footnote in some ways to the current movement, but that President Trump is making them a headline. What is your sense of — what’s the motivation in doing that?

BRAY: I think that, if you put Antifa for — aside a moment, it’s pretty clear, regardless of one’s politics, that there is — there’s a causal chain of events between the murder of George Floyd and America on fire, right? Whether you agree or disagree with that, there’s a causal relationship there. People are enraged and angry. And even if they’re taking it out in ways that one may not like, that seems to be pretty connected, right? It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in political science to put that together. But if Trump can say, instead of the fact of people being angry and taking out their rage on property and police, in fact, no, it’s actually this small, shadowy group of Antifa, perceived by society to be predominantly white, dressed in black, breaking things for no political agenda, as he describes it, then that means that we can disentangle the destruction and the kind of this biggest political rebellion we have seen in this country for half-a-century from the grievances that it is connected to, and therefore de-escalate the urgency of coming up with an answer for why it is that this is happening. It’s his way of deflecting and talking about something that is in his wheelhouse, which is opposing this nefarious far left.

MARTIN: Do you think that the focus on Antifa is just made up? Or do you think — is it possible that he just doesn’t know? I mean, you think that he just — he really thinks that?

BRAY: I don’t think he cares if it’s true. I think that he is a very cynical politician who doesn’t deal in truths and falsehoods in his mind. He deals in what language is convenient to achieve his goals. And, sure, maybe he believes that it’s true, because, in a certain sense, he believes that anyone who’s burning or looting or destroying is more or less Antifa in his mind, perhaps, anyway. That’s how some people (AUDIO GAP) anyway, right? They start to sort of inflate Black Lives Matter, Antifa, the left, you name it, into this sort of group of destructive others. And that’s sort of the kind of framework he’s encouraging and trying to sort of encourage the good protester/bad protester dichotomy, which is a conversation to be had in its own way, but is not really the central issue, which is, how do we stop this from happening?

MARTIN: Is it interesting thing that — in contrast to Charlottesville, where he talked about the good people on both sides, because the triggering event in this case was not white people allegedly defending a Confederate statue, but because people opposing the death of this African-American man. Because the triggering event was people opposing — grieving the death of this African-American man by the police, you feel that — he feels that there couldn’t possibly be good people on both sides.

BRAY: Right. So, his slogan, right is make America great again, right? He wants to bring America — and, by this, he really is largely talking to white America — back to this imagined past, an imagined past where there weren’t attacks on Confederate statues, where police were universally respected. And so the kind of dichotomy between Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter, which is only growing wider, it seems, seems to be forefront in his political calculations. And he’s very clearly allying himself with Blue Lives Matter, respect for authority. police are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, even it’s obvious that George Floyd was killed by this officer. And his political calculus is simple. More difficult, it seems to me, will be Joe Biden’s effort to try and sort of balance both of these considerations.

MARTIN: It may seem like just a ridiculous question to you, but the people whose property is being destroyed are not the people who killed George Floyd, right?

BRAY: Right. Of course not.

MARTIN: So, I mean, is it justified in any way?

BRAY: I think that my understanding of people who have made arguments sympathizing with it in the media is that, when you have a political boiling point where there isn’t perceived to be an acceptable outlet for how to express these grievances, right, there is the — we have seen the empty rhetoric from politicians time and time again that we need to reform, we need to reform, with nothing following through, that this is just, whether we like it or not, inevitably what’s going to happen. People are going to take it out on the kinds of targets that are around them, sometimes, in part, because of economic imperatives, sometimes not, and understand that capitalism as a system is integrally linked, right? George Floyd was killed because someone called the police because he allegedly committed an act of fraud with a counterfeit bill, right? So, the economic context of that shouldn’t be lost in why the person called the police and why people who think of the police as the protectors of their economic interests would make such an action. These are integrally linked. And revolutionary developments are messy.

MARTIN: So, what’s your goal next? Like, what do you see as your work now and going forward?

BRAY: Yes. I have really — in speaking to people such as yourself, I try to clear up the record on what Antifa is and is not. And in this case, I’m really just trying to redirect people back towards the core racial, economic, social, and historical issues at heart here and say, hey, I — this is not the story. This is a diversion. And although there may be, of course, handfuls of members of Antifa groups out there doing all the different things that are being done, that’s not really the point. And the more that we spend time on it, the more we’re missing what’s really going on, and delaying the process of having a conversation to make it so that black people aren’t regularly murdered by the police.

MARTIN: Mark Bray, thank you so much for talking to us.

BRAY: Been a pleasure. Thank you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane speaks with former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense John Kirby and former Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan John Allen about President Trump’s militaristic actions. She also speaks with Paul van Zul and Vincent Warren about what the U.S can learn from South Africa’s transition out of apartheid. Michel Martin speaks with Mark Bray about the president’s remarks on Antifa.