Biden and Trump Are Both Right on Antifa

What is antifa? “An idea, not an organization,” Joe Biden said during Tuesday’s debate. “When a bat hits you over the head, that’s not an ...

What is antifa? “An idea, not an organization,” Joe Biden said during Tuesday’s debate. “When a bat hits you over the head, that’s not an idea,” President Trump countered. “Antifa is a dangerous, radical group.” Both men are right—Mr. Biden that antifa is foremost an ideology, and Mr. Trump about its propensity for violence.

Some adherents I’ve interviewed describe antifa as a radical leftist political affiliation or movement. They pride themselves on being leaderless and not hierarchical, and “membership” is more a matter of self-profession than enlistment. The core belief is a duty to oppose “fascists,” “bigots” and the “alt-right,” though these terms are seldom defined. Some adherents fall back on a definist fallacy: Antifa is short for “antifascist,” so anyone who doesn’t support it must be pro-fascist.

The lack of formal structure and leadership doesn’t mean antifa is unorganized. Individual activists often issue “calls for action” on social media, urging like-minded people to join them in the streets. The rallying cry is boosted by anarchists, socialists, social-justice activists, far-left nonprofits, clergy and others—some of whom call themselves antifa and some not. Turnout at protests or rallies is spontaneous, and to the extent that there are antifa groups, they’re small and intimate. “The phrase that leftists use is ‘affinity groups,’ ” says Mark Bray, author of “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook” a sympathetic history. “They are basically people who know each other well and can plan to attend actions together and sometimes will have a division of tasks.”

It’s no coincidence that many antifa demonstrations occur at police stations and courthouses. Antifa generally “refuses to put faith in the courts or the police to stop the far right,” Mr. Bray says. “Part of the reason for that is a kind of radical critique of the system as being a fertile ground for fascism to grow.” Instead of seeking legal redress, antifa activists embrace what they euphemistically describe as a “diversity of tactics.”

“Mass social upheaval always involves this range of popular movements, property destruction, conflict with law enforcement, property getting set on fire, debates around demands,” Mr. Bray says. “Most Americans think it can’t happen here,” but “that doesn’t mean that social movements shouldn’t happen.” Not all antifa adherents engage in violence, but they universally refuse to disavow it. Other antifa tactics include the heckler’s veto and doxxing—publicizing information about opponents’ identity in the hope that they will lose their jobs or suffer other social consequences.

Who’s funding antifa? “The question, honestly, is silly, because it’s based on the assumption that there’s a whole lot of expensive things that require funding,” says George Ciccariello-Maher, a self-professed supporter of antifa and author of the forthcoming “A World Without Police.” Instead, “it’s just people showing up” and participating in “a shoestring operation.” It doesn’t cost much to print posters, and activists can rent a U-Haul and drop off a load of protest supplies for a couple of hundred dollars.

The little fund-raising that is done is usually crowd-sourced, both Messrs. Bray and Ciccariello-Maher say. Supporters of far-left protests make contributions through GoFundMe to bail-out funds or legal-defense funds for those arrested, and more-established progressive groups sometimes help promote these efforts. In June, Kamala Harris tweeted in support of the Minnesota Freedom Fund, and Reuters reported that at least 13 Biden staffers gave to it.

Some conservatives have claimed George Soros funds antifa, a suggestion Mr. Bray finds laughable: “First of all, these are radical anticapitalists who would not accept an offer of funds from a billionaire. And I don’t know of any billionaires who want to fund revolutionary anticapitalists anyway.” Laura Silber, chief communications officer of the Open Society Foundations, says that while Mr. Soros and his group supports the right to peaceful protest, “we abhor violence of any kind” and “we do not now nor have we ever funded ‘antifa.’ ”

Antifa’s complexity was part of what Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Chris Wray tried to explain during the congressional testimony Mr. Biden cited in the debate. “Antifa is a real thing. It is not a fiction,” Mr. Wray said. “Trying to put a lot of these things into nice, neat, clean buckets” is “a bit of a challenge, because one of the things that we see more and more in the counterterrorism spaces [is] people who assemble together in some kind of mishmash, a bunch of different ideologies. All—we sometimes refer to it as almost like a salad bar of ideologies, a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and what they’re really about is the violence.” Mr. Wray vowed that “we are not going to stand for the violence” and said the FBI is investigating “anarchist violent extremists” and “their funding, their tactics, the logistics, their supply chains.”

Antifa’s lack of a central structure is what makes it effective at imposing disorder on American cities. Without leadership, no one can moderate the movement or prevent a protest from becoming a riot. If antifa were a conventional organization, the government could cripple it by bringing criminal charges against its leaders and financial backers. Instead, it can only prosecute low-level activists who commit street crimes. Even that often proves difficult, since antifa has adopted a “black bloc” uniform that makes it difficult to tell rioters apart. Instead of a hierarchy, law enforcement is now contending with a hydra.

Ms. Melchior is an editorial page writer for the Journal.

Wonder Land: The ruin of major liberal cities by progressive policies is a significant political event. Image: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

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Newsrust: Biden and Trump Are Both Right on Antifa
Biden and Trump Are Both Right on Antifa
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