What is antifa – and does its rise mean the left is becoming more violent?

Concerns about possible violence are surfacing again in the Bay Area as the University of California, Berkeley, gears up for “Free Speech Week.” The four-day event, hosted by a conservative student group, features controversial personalities from the so-called “alt right” – a coalition of groups that espouse white nationalism, anti-Semitism, and populism.

The occasion follows counterprotests in Berkeley and other cities such as Portland that have given critics fodder to accuse leftist activists of stirring up violence in otherwise peaceful public gatherings. At the heart of the allegations is antifa, whose appearance at neo-Nazi and white nationalist rallies has led to heated, and sometimes nasty, confrontations.

Q: What is antifa?

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Antifa (pronounced either AN-tifa or an-TEE-fa), is short for anti-fascist or anti-fascist action. It refers to a loose collection of far-left-leaning and anti-racist groups, networks, and individuals. The majority are anarchists, but affiliates range from far-left factions, including socialists and communists, to citizens spurred to action by the election of President Trump and upset by what they perceive as state support for white nationalism. Uniting them is a “desire to directly and even physically confront white supremacists in the public square,” says Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at the nonprofit Anti-Defamation League (ADL).  

They also associate with opposition to homophobia, sexism, and the kind of capitalism that gave rise to the Occupy movement, among other progressive ideologies.

Q: Where do they come from?

Antifa strategies draw from the clashes between militant leftists and fascists in the streets of Germany, Italy, and Spain in the 1920s and ‘30s, writes Peter Beinart for The Atlantic. “Their conviction is that the Nazis never would’ve taken power in Germany, and similar movements wouldn’t have taken power elsewhere, if people hadn’t ceded the public square to them,” Mr. Pitcavage says.

The idea saw a resurgence in the 1970s and ’80s, when skinheads and neo-Nazis began to penetrate the punk scene in both Europe and the United States. German anti-fascists in the 1980s gave the term its modern connotation, while the Anti-Racist Action Network – a similarly deregulated association that was influenced by anarchist principles – became, in the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s, the core of antifa in the US, said Mark…

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