Antifascist organizers had a visible, and at times violent, presence in Berkeley on Aug. 27, 2017. Photo: Emilie Raguso

It seemed like something had to give.

On one side were the Berkeley police, standing in formation along the western edge of Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, outfitted in riot gear. Opposite them, in the street, were 100-200 antifascist, or “antifa,” activists. Dressed fully in black, “masked up” and carrying shields and sticks, antifa had come to the park expecting to find neo-Nazis and force them to leave. But first, they faced off with the police.

“Cops and Klan go hand-in-hand!” the activists chanted, as some officers began to pull on tear gas masks.

Some antifascists in the front of the crowd lunged forward at the police. A few officers pointed weapons at the group. Reporters and other protesters lingered on the sidelines, sensing violence was going to break out at any moment.

Then, abruptly, the police turned to their right and walked out of the park in a single-file line.

Antifa in turn flooded into the park, toppling some of the orange barriers the city had placed there the night before in anticipation of a far-right “No to Marxism” rally and counterprotest. But while the antifascists were among thousands who turned out in Berkeley that day, Aug. 27, to rally, mostly peacefully, against racism and bigotry, only a couple dozen right-wing protesters ultimately showed up. Those who did were chased out of the park to a chorus of “Nazi scum!” and “fascist!” and, in a handful of cases, physically attacked, mainly by the antifa demonstrators who swept in en masse that afternoon.

That evening and the following day, there was no shortage of reports on the black-clad mob that had busted into the park “disrupting” a peaceful protest and beating people bloody.

While there has long been curiosity and criticism surrounding their actions, “antifa” became a household term in Berkeley that day. Who exactly were those hordes of masked protesters, observers wondered, and what were their motives? What is with the secrecy? And the violence?

Those who identify as members of the “antifa,” in Berkeley and beyond, are not necessarily part of a fixed group but are often activists who work in smaller groups or who come together for specific actions, like the rallies that have been roiling Berkeley since February. They all share the belief, however, that fascism is burgeoning — and that it must be squashed before it is too late. They reject the idea that discourse and debate can do the job. Instead, they believe far-right voices must be prevented, not just muted, through violence if necessary. Many antifa members are anarchists, and many are involved in other leftist organizations.

Antifascists point to history to support their belief that standing by and allowing fascists their “free speech” is what contributed to the rise of fascism before World War II. They are quick to point out that Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were brought into power through conventional, legal means, writes Mark Bray, a Dartmouth historian, in his new book “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook.”

“For militant anti-fascists, those historical facts have cast doubt on the liberal formula for opposing fascism,” writes Bray, himself an Occupy Wall Street alum. “That formula essentially amounts to faith in reasoned debate to counteract fascistic ideas, in the police to counteract fascist violence, and in the institutions of parliamentary government to counteract fascist attempts to seize power. There is no doubt that sometimes this formula has worked. There is also no doubt that sometimes it has not.”

It is thus unsurprising that Bay Area antifascist organizer Henry Taylor’s take on the events of Aug. 27 differs from the many media reports of intimidation and terror. Taylor, who has participated in multiple local antifa actions in recent years, agreed to talk to Berkeleyside about the local antifascist scene, the tactics and the motives, and why he believes antifa’s violence has been taken out of context. His name has been changed per his request.

Taylor believes the violence was blown out of proportion: “It was a totally broad cross-section from all walks of life. There were a handful of scuffles but I’ve seen much worse when the Giants won the World Series,” he said.

Members of antifa hold up a flag at the April 15, 2017 rally in Civic Center Park. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Taylor was wearing a nondescript sweatshirt the day of the rally so he could blend in. Rather than cloaking himself in black clothing, “I’ve found it’s easier to be invisible wearing a college hoodie” at protests, he said. But he was on duty nonetheless, taking photographs to document the protest, with the blessing of antifa.

Many in Berkeley first became aware of antifa during the Occupy movement in 2011-12, then at Black Lives Matter protests, on UC Berkeley’s campus where demonstrators shut down a planned speech by Milo Yiannopoulos in February, and at the ensuing clashes downtown, where antifascists have brawled with protesters on the right and far right.

But their striking presence and violence in the park on Aug. 27 — and their extraordinary secrecy — left many more wondering exactly who is behind the bandanas and under the hoods.

Antifa: “Stereotype of white boys playing at revolution” is inaccurate

Antifa may be suddenly gaining visibility, but antifascist action is hardly a new phenomenon.

The current antifa tradition is an offspring of the antifascist movement against the followers of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco in Europe in the 1920s and beyond, according to Bray. His new book made the San Francisco Chronicle’s best-seller list this week.

In the 1980s in the U.S., a group called Anti-Racist Action formed in the same tradition, to fight neo-Nazi skinheads, particularly in the punk scene. The members of that movement were more inclined toward mass organization and were more public about their actions than today’s antifa, which took root at the end of the George W. Bush presidency amid wariness of government surveillance, said Alexander Reid Ross, a Portland State lecturer and author of “Against the Fascist Creep,” in an interview with Berkeleyside.

Though tactics and ideologies differ a bit between antifa localities and groups, most subscribe to something like the “points of unity” laid out by the Torch Network, a self-described coalition of “militant antifascists,” according to Ross. Among those principles is the disruption of fascist activity, resistance to all forms of oppression and lack of reliance on the police and legal system. In short, antifa members believe they must take matters into their own hands, preventing the spread of tyranny and bigotry without the help of the police, who they see as arms of the state and enablers of fascism.

Although antifa literature often talks about “self-defense” and “defending the community,” antifa protesters in Berkeley have often thrown the first, and hardest, punches.

“We believe in being proactive when it comes to fascist violence, which means confronting fascist organizing before they have a chance to put their ideas into action, and taking fascist threats seriously,” the Torch Network says on its website.

An antifa member at the Berkeley rally on March 4, 2017. Photo: Daniel McPartlan

In the aftermath of the August protest, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said antifa should be classified as a gang. On a basic level, Ross said, that designation is just not “descriptively” accurate. Antifa tends to operate in small groups with ties to broader radical webs, and shuns hierarchical structures, unlike gangs.

“That’s a point that is important to antifascists,” Ross said. “Since the beginning of antifa, the organizing structure of groups that took on that name was explicitly against being gangs. They said, ‘We’re going to be smallish groups that do a lot of research and have pretty extensive networks in communities that can spread information, develop information and use information. The antifa groups per se are more like hubs in broader networks.”

Antifa’s amorphousness, as well as its extreme resistance to the press, makes it difficult to determine who is involved in, and the demographic makeup of, the local antifascist scene. But many have their suspicions.

“The usual stereotype is out-of-town, well-to-do white boys playing at revolution,” Taylor said. “In case of antifa I’ve never seen anything to say that’s true. They are mostly young, but they tend to be local. A lot are black or Latino, a lot are LGBT, a lot are women. It’s really very diverse, and it tends to be lower-income.”

Unlike members of the far right, who often post their plans and expose their identities on social media and internet forums, often hoping to gain followers, antifa is much more secretive. The activists often communicate through encrypted messaging apps like Signal. They typically refuse to speak with the press and ripped cameras out of the hands of photographers at the Aug. 27 rally.

However, there are several online antifascist publications that do reveal their thinking, though the articles are typically posted anonymously. One of the most prominent is It’s Going Down. Locally, Berkeley Antifa has an active Twitter account.

“The internet, for all the evil it does, also provides a direct avenue for antifascist groups to put out their statements,” Ross said.

Antifa demonstrators march from Ohlone Park to Civic Center Park on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017. Photo: David Yee ©2017

The vast majority of the work antifa does, said Taylor, is gathering intelligence on the far right, often by scraping white supremacist internet forums for identifying information and plans for actions. They use the information to plan counter actions or wage campaigns against individuals. They have posted fliers around Berkeley warning about particular people and their alleged collusion with the police. When the white nationalist group Identity Evropa posted posters around Berkeley in May 2016, antifa activists took them down.

Although antifa is often used interchangeably with the black-clad, masked crews that showed up on Aug. 27, there is some internal disagreement about whether such “black bloc tactics,” which date back to the autonomous movements in Germany and the Netherlands in the 1970s and 80s, are wise, said Taylor. Some believe black blocs attract too much attention, and others think they are too vulnerable to infiltrators.

“The cases where it does work is where there’s widespread community understanding and support,” he said.

Antifa achieved that community support in Berkeley on Aug. 27, according to Tayor. From one view, the antifascists did attract a much larger and more diverse alliance than has been visible at past protests. They organized in a coalition with many other counterprotest groups and were joined by a wide range of activists, from other community members to clergy, on a large victory march to Ohlone Park after the event.

Before the rally, organizers from various leftist groups met several times to craft a shared set of rules, Taylor said. All agreed to respect “a genuine diversity of tactics, within a broader framework of only defensive action,” though “it was not a green light to do whatever you want” he said.

Berkeleyside obtained a copy of an agreement hashed out with other organizers by an interfaith group that marched to the scene from the First Congregational Church. Those organizers agreed not to use violence except to prevent bodily harm, not to destroy property and not to take photos of antifa, among other prohibitions. “Participants agree to stand in solidarity with all counter-protestors resisting fascism on this day. While we may not personally like all the tactics we witness, we will not talk to the police or the media about any action taken by our fellow counter-protestors,” the document said.

The next day, after images of antifa beating up protesters had become the dominant media message around the country, a few local progressive leaders who had been part of the counterprotest coalition held a press conference to say antifa was not the unrestrained vicious mob it was portrayed to be.

“Our experience on the streets was that we were defended by people who came, as antifascists, to do that,” said Sara Kershnar, a legal observer with the National Lawyers Guild.

Antifa pushes over barriers in Civic Center Park on Aug. 27. Photo: Kelly Sullivan

“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?” said Berkeley pastor Michael McBride of The Way Christian Center.

In a New York Times op-ed written with other black Christian leaders, McBride said, “There has never been a time in American history in which movements for justice have been devoid of violent outbreaks.”

Plus, they wrote, not much credence should be given to opposition to antifa, since moderate liberals have long abhorred violence and civil disobedience as tactics for social change. He pointed to Gallup polls from the Civil Rights Movement that found a majority of Americans opposed sit-ins and the now celebrated March on Washington.

Along with new allies, new critics

Despite the increase in voices speaking up on behalf of antifa after Aug. 27, there was also a loud, diverse chorus criticizing the violence.

Many residents told Berkeleyside ahead of the rally that, especially in light of a massive, successful counterprotest in Boston, they would have liked to show up to protest bigotry on Aug. 27, but stayed away for fear of violence instigated by, or involving, antifa. After the rally, many condemned the attacks, which left some with bloody faces and torn shirts, some saying the lawful right-wing protesters did not deserve such brutal treatment. Others worried about the backlash to the leftist violence, saying the tactic plays into the right’s hands, making them look like victims.

Josh Marshall, the editor of Talking Points Memo, wrote that the militant left should not be compared to the militant right: “Embracing violence to combat political and moral evils like racism and fascism is simply not equivalent to embracing violence to advance these evils.” However, he said, fascist groups “have historically used the presence of civil violence to justify ‘law and order’ crackdowns which usually empower and propagate authoritarian politics.”

Other critics were concerned antifa’s violence and intimidating demeanor alienated too many potential allies.

Antifa organizers, while angered by what they view as extreme mischaracterization by the media and local leaders, are not necessarily concerned with gaining solidarity from mainstream liberals. Though some want to build a larger coalition, they at the very least do not expect people to understand them, Ross said.

The current manifestation of antifa was developed with the intention of “preserving this sort of distance from mass organizing, based on the understanding that the state wouldn’t be on their side,” he said. “Antifa was sort of born of the security culture.”

Indeed, the Department of Homeland Security has classified their actions as “domestic terrorist violence,” Politico reported recently.

Antifa lunges at a man carrying a camera on Aug. 27. He was later beaten. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
Police lead away a man who was chased and beaten by antifa on Aug. 27. Photo: Thomas Hawk

After the white nationalist and neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, where a counterprotester was killed, antifa enjoyed a fleeting moment of acceptance by the mainstream. President Donald Trump was derided, even by his Republican colleagues, for blaming violence “on many sides.” Before the Aug. 27 rally, Bay Area officials focused on condemning the potential appearance of white supremacists in Berkeley. The change in the target of their criticism after the event was striking.

Days after Rep. Nancy Pelosi told the National Park Service to pull a permit for a “white supremacist rally” in San Francisco on Aug. 26, she put out a statement blasting the “violent actions of people calling themselves antifa in Berkeley.” And Rep. Barbara Lee, considered to be one of the most progressive members of Congress, said that the violent acts in Berkeley were “unacceptable and undermine the work of the vast majority of protestors who came to peacefully denounce hatred, bigotry, and discrimination.” Arreguín made his oft-repeated comment about gangs then too.

Last month Arreguín explained to Berkeleyside why the left was now the target of his criticism. Whereas at past rallies, antifa and protesters on the right and far-right, including some white supremacists, attacked one another, that was not the case on Aug. 27, where few on the right even showed up, he said.

Some with antifa say they successfully scared away the Nazis, but, said Arreguín, “What I saw is [antifa] were the aggressors.”

Peaceful right-wing protesters?

According to Reveal, Antifa arrived at Civic Center Park on Aug. 27 with a portfolio of people to target. Though most did not materialize, those on the right who were there, as well as others, were shouted at and chased out of the park or kicked and punched.

Some at the rally were local supporters of Trump, who engaged in conversation with counterprotesters on Allston Way before antifa showed up. Several have said they have done nothing to deserve being called Nazis, let alone to be beaten up for their beliefs. Among that contingent was Jourdin Davis, a Berkeley High graduate and member of a group that calls itself the Original Berkeley Warriors for being veterans of the March 4 and April 15 clashes. Davis, who was chased out when antifa arrived, said, “If I didn’t get into my Jesse Owens mode I’d probably have a black eye.”

Others were wider-known figures, some of whom have advocated violence themselves. The most well-known right-wing protester at the rally was Juan Cadavid, also known as Johnny Benitez, a former member of the Proud Boys, a self-described “Western chauvinist” group. The Orange County GOP severed ties with Benitez after seeing a video of him talking about “Jewish problems.” Benitez has also said Holocaust remembrance organizations are anti-European. On a now-deleted Instagram account, Benitez posted a photo of himself carrying a Tiki torch, like those carried by white nationalists in Charlottesville, before coming to the Aug. 27 rally, where he was shouted down by counterprotesters. (See Berkeleyside’s report on some of the right-wing protesters at the event.)

A protester on the right declares antifa “scum” on March 4, 2017. Photo: Daniel McPartlan
A protester on the right declares antifa “scum” on March 4, 2017. Photo: Daniel McPartlan

According to Ross, it is common for far-right and white supremacist organizers to show up to events masquerading as what they call “normies” or more moderate conservatives.

Their thinking, Ross said, is “the optics will be in our favor because it will be cool caddies from the golf course being attacked by horrible-looking antifascists crawling out of a sewer.” In Charlottesville, he said, “that obviously failed miserably because they can’t hold themselves back from murder.”

An antifa account recently posted alleged screenshots from a far-right forum displaying this tactic in action.

However, black bloc participants might have different ideas about what qualifies as an appropriate target, and it is easy to imagine an unintended victim of a large group of people who show up prepared for battle but find fewer enemies on the field than they expected. This reporter witnessed a young man, who appeared to be a counterprotester as well, approach antifa on Aug. 27 and yell at them to be peaceful and take off their masks. A few antifa members began lunging at him and yelling, “fascist scum” and “Nazi.” His friend came and put his arm around him, ushering him away.

Antifa tactics, conceded Taylor, are not foolproof. But “walking right up to a black block line in a situation where they have to be defending themselves” is not wise, he said. “There are times and places to be having those discussions. Right in the heat of the moment when things might be getting hairy” is not one.

“It’s a chaotic and messy situation,” Taylor said, but he posited that potential small casualties are better than the “alternative,” a right-wing paramilitary showing like in Charlottesville.

Counterprotesters surround Johnny Benitez (center, in black) on Aug. 27, 2017. Irma Hinojosa, a well-known right wing commentator who is with Latinas for Trump, is on the right in the red shirt. Photo: Daniel McPartlan

He also said there is room for improvement in the relationship between antifa and the media.

“There’s definitely overreaction that happens,” said Taylor. He said he always asks permission before taking photographs because some activists cannot risk losing their jobs or facing threats if identified by the right.

Both the far right and far left “doxx” liberally, meaning they do research to identify their enemies, post their personal information online and often call their employers in hopes of getting them fired. The high-profile arrest of alleged antifascist organizer Eric Clanton after the April 15 rally, leading to charges for assaulting four people with a bike lock, can likely be traced back to thorough doxxing efforts on a far-right Internet forum, where users combed through photos from the rally and social media, using his perceived hairline position and height as clues. More recently, a worker at Top Dog who attended the rally in Charlottesville was “outed” on Twitter for his participation, leading to his resignation from the Berkeley restaurant.

A man who has filmed multiple Berkeley rallies said he is currently being doxxed by antifa. The man, who did not want to provide his name out of fear for his safety, has a Youtube channel where he posts satirical videos which he said have “no political message — just, look at these dummies doing dumb things.” While he said, “I don’t blame the antifa guys for being wary of people with cameras,” most of his videos feature antifa. Others make fun of far-right protesters.

The man said he tries to dress in neutral outfits at rallies and had not been bothered until Aug. 27, when a By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) activist came up to him and took his photo. BAMN is adjacent to antifa, sharing some of the same beliefs and practices, but it has its own principles, considers itself a democratic group, and its organizers make no effort to mask their identities.

The man said the photo made its way to another antifa activist, who posted it online and is telling everyone he said anti-Semitic slurs to her, a “horrific lie,” he insisted.

“I’m worried this is going to get back to my boss and I’ll lose my job,” said the man, who grew up in Berkeley and works as a salesman for a food distributor.

He tried to contact the alleged doxxer, but she blocked him on social media, he said.

Antifa protesters smashed property and started fires at UC Berkeley, ultimately leading to the cancelation of Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech on Feb. 1, 2017. Photo: David Yee
Antifa protesters smashed property and started fires at UC Berkeley, ultimately leading to the cancelation of Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech on Feb. 1, 2017. Photo: David Yee

Antifa gained followers after election of Donald Trump

While BAMN and an allied group, Refuse Fascism, actively recruit new members — as do many of the right-wing groups that have come to Berkeley — groups involved in intelligence-gathering and black bloc tactics try to thoroughly vet anyone interested in joining their ranks, Taylor said. That is not always easy to do, especially during violent events, where anyone can join in the melée, Ross said.

“That’s kind of a big issue. How can one maintain these networks and systems with regards to knowing everyone who’s in them, when they’re so amorphous and horizontal?” he said.

Screening process or no, there is a growing number of people eager to take part.

“Just like there was an upsurge in far-right interest since the election, there certainly has been a spike in interest in antifascism,” Ross said.

And he believes it is the left’s duty to at least support antifascist action.

When asked whether antifa violence could backfire and give ammunition to the right, Ross said the left is complicit in allowing that to happen.

“This is kind of schoolyard stuff,” he said. “If you push me while the teacher’s back is turned, and I push you as soon as the teacher turns around, and the teacher grounds me, does someone who sees the whole thing tell the teacher to ground me or say, ‘I see what that bully did?’”

Liberals “share a responsibility to say, no, this is the guy that started it. Passivity is contributing to the oppression in society today,” Ross said.

Interestingly, while speaking to ABC, Arreguín also used a playground analogy to describe the political clashes that have rocked his city this year.

But he had a different perspective: “You don’t fight bullies by being a bully.”

Ed. note: This story’s headline was edited after publication to better reflect the content of the article.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...