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Police officers at protests in New York City recently.
Police officers at protests in New York City recently.
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

Explainer: What is Antifa and why has Trump said it will be labelled a terrorist organisation?

Trump and other US officials have partly blamed Antifa for the violence at recent protests.
Jun 3rd 2020, 6:11 AM 37,097 95

YOU MAY HAVE heard the word ‘antifa’ thrown around a lot in recent days in relation to the ongoing protests against police killings of black people in the United States.

The protests were ignited by the killing of a black man named George Floyd, who died in police custody after an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. 

As the protests continue, Donald Trump and other US officials have blamed Antifa for inciting violence during the protests.

On Sunday, Trump announced the US would be designating Antifa as a terrorist organisation. 

What is Antifa?

Antifa stands for anti-fascism. The term doesn’t refer to one singular group, but rather a movement of individual groups protesting against fascism and the far-right. 

The term is believed to originate from Germany in the early 1930s. Socialist ‘anti-fa’ groups tried to stand up to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. 

The movement has since grown and adapted. A lot of Antifa groupings have formed in the US since the 2016 presidential election. 

In Ireland, there are a number of Antifa organisations such as Anti-Fascist Action Ireland. 

Alongside fascism, Antifa groups now campaign against a wide range of social justice issues such as racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, according to one group in New York. 

However, the main focus in the past few years has been against neo-Nazis, white supremacist groups and the alt-right. 

During Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, for example, scores of black-clad, mask-wearing Antifa supporters and other protesters smashed windows and burned a car in Washington.

donald-trump-sworn-in-as-president-of-the-usa Donald Trump's inauguration as US president in January 2017. Source: Pool/ABACA

In August that year, Antifa protesters were holding counter-demonstrations when white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched in places like Charlottesville, Virginia, and engaged in physical fights. 

The movement has no head or national organisation, according to a Congressional Research Service analysis

This described Antifa as “decentralised, consisting of independent, radical, like-minded groups and individuals.”

Mostly they are non-violent, the report says, but “a portion of Antifa movement members are willing to commit crimes to promote their beliefs.”

“The basic principle of Antifa is ‘no platform for fascists’,” US historian Mark Bray, who has written extensively about Antifa, told Vox.com

“If you ask them, they’ll tell you that they believe you have to deny any and all platforms to fascism, no matter how big or small the threat.”

Bray said that Antifa supporters see it as a kind of preventative action. “They look at the history of fascism in Europe and say, ‘we have to eradicate this problem before it gets any bigger, before it’s too late.’”

Are Antifa groups responsible for the violence at recent US protests?

The vast majority of protesters at recent demonstrations have been peaceful. 

However, the consensus among US officials is that a number of groups are responsible for the violence that has broken out. 

ABC News reported that Department of Homeland Security intelligence reports blame actors on both ends of the political spectrum.

Officials in Minnesota say their information points to instigators including white nationalists, leftist anarchists, and even drug gangs.

Trump has repeatedly said Antifa and other “radical left” organisations are to blame for violence at the protests.

Other US officials, as well as state and local officials, have said the violence and destruction has involved multiple groups including, but not limited to, Antifa protesters.  

“Various domestic terror groups on BOTH far left & right are instigating & committing acts of violence & looting,” Senator Marco Rubio, who as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee receives top level intelligence briefings, said on Sunday.

In terms of inciting any violence online, as a decentralised movement Antifa does not have official social media accounts to organise protests or instigate violence. 

NBC News reported on Sunday that a Twitter account pushing violence and claiming to represent Antifa had been suspended by Twitter after it was linked to a US white nationalist group called Identity Evropa. 

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What has Trump said he will do about Antifa groups?

On Sunday, Donald Trump announced on Twitter that the US would designate Antifa as a terrorist organisation.

Trump tweeted in recent days:”It’s ANTIFA and the Radical Left. Don’t lay the blame on others!”

He also said: “Congratulations to our National Guard for the great job they did immediately upon arriving in Minneapolis, Minnesota, last night. The ANTIFA led anarchists, among others, were shut down quickly.”

Tweet by @Donald J. Trump Source: Donald J. Trump/Twitter

However, it is unlikely that the US will be able to designate the movement as a terrorist organisation at the moment.

The US has no statute that permits designating violent domestic groups as terrorists, as they have for international groups like Islamic State or Al-Qaeda.

The global terror designation is powerful as it permits the arrest and imprisonment of someone who even expresses support for those jihadist groups or others. 

That law has not been expanded to domestic groups, mainly due to fears it could tempt a leader to deploy it against political rivals.   

US Attorney General, William Barr, has also singled out Antifa as instigating the riots.

In terms of any legal action, he indicated that the focus would be on federal crimes involving crossing state lines to take part in riots. 

The US government could potentially use international links of a group like Antifa to apply the terror designation.

In April, Washington took that step for the first time, designating a Russia-based white supremacist group, the Russian Imperial Movement, as terrorists.

- With reporting by AFP

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Orla Dwyer

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