Mainstream media backlash against antifa in the wake of recent far-right rallies has failed to learn lessons which promote fascist rhetoric, endanger leftist activists, and accurately depict the tactics used by antifascists.
by Derek Scarlino / Love and Rage
By the time of this writing, it is well-understood that the recent Unite The Right event in Washington D.C., the second of its kind since last August, was a flop for fascists. With only a few dozen members of far-right groups uniting while being opposed by thousands of antifascists and other protesters, it seems that the past year of antifascist organizing as well as internal conflicts within far-right movements have taken their toll on the public face of white nationalists and other milieus of the far-right.
After the events in Charlottesville last year, which included the tragic death of Heather Heyer, liberal media outlets widely condemned this seemingly new “antifa” phenomenon as much as the fascists they they organize against. A “regressive left” strain of violent protesters who are “no better than the fascists” they claim to oppose. Despite that there’s a trove of over 70 years’ worth of concerted antifascist history, why do the actions of antifascists catch so many off guard? What’s more troubling, though, is how oft misrepresented antifa is in traditional, fact-reporting outlets.
Avi Selk, writing for the Washington Post, produced yet another critique on antifa that overlooks the fact that militant activism carries with it inherent risks such as state repression and retaliatory violence from far-right groups. Selk’s article is about clashes between journalists on the ground and antifascist protesters in Washington on the day of Unite the Right 2. Concerns over reporter safety are grounded in real-life, deteriorating conditions in many countries. I’ve experienced this first-hand at the Republican National Convention as Bikers for Trump linked arms with police to block off a mass arrest, the biker group blocked and swatted at cameras, even getting involved in shoving matches with photographers including myself. When Love and Rage published a submission exposing Proud Boys in Albany, NY last summer, we were deluged with threats of legal action and physical intimidation.
Violence against journalists is a growing problem and it should be taken seriously, but context is very important. The interest for antifa demonstrators is rooted in self-defense, not simply attacking journalism as an institution as the right and autocrats are wont to do.
As the report notes that about 40 fascists were hidden behind dense police lines, the narrative b-lines straight to antifa “members” who, thirsting for violence, began targeting reporters because they were prevented from directly confronting the fascist platform. Pursuing this angle, the report continues in a fashion which exposes the typically light knowledge on the subject matter.
“several dozen masked antifa members marched up 13th Street NW in the early afternoon. They carried the movement’s red-and-black flag, and some wore makeshift body armor, even though no fascists were anywhere in sight.”
Referring to antifa demonstrators as “members” is misleading. Antifa is not a group. Many political groups do engage in antifascism. Instead, antifa is a political tradition rooted in a diverse array of tactics aimed at disrupting fascist organizing. One of those tactics is black bloc. A fixture of demonstrations opposing fascism, austerity, and capitalism which has roots in 1980s Germany when it was used to distract police from assaulting other demonstrators. It’s the tactic that gets for-profit media the best ratings.
Also of note is whether or not the Antifascist Action flag was being waved, which depicts two flags, one red and one black, or the “red and black” today used interchangeably among anarcho-syndicalists and anarcho-communists.
What then follows is an exchange between an antifascist protester and a Washington Post reporter ending with the protester telling the reporter that photographs can “hurt” them. Given the reported coordination between militias, far-right groups, and law enforcement, this is a valid concern again rooted in self-defense and security. As such, far left media outlets tend to blur or censor images. Organizers routinely remind attendees, in person, and on social media, to either not take photos of faces, or to censor them due to the real threat of state repression.
Given the history in the United States of white supremacists, racists, and fascists serving roles in law enforcement, it should come as no surprise that police tend to see right wing groups as more mainstream than the far-left and target the latter in unique ways. Because anarchists are drawn to antifascist movements and organizing, and given the US government’s violent response to left-leaning groups from the Industrial Workers of the World, to the Black Panthers, to Occupy, it should be equally unsurprising that antifascism will be treated as more of a threat than fascism despite the fact that since 2001, 101 deadly acts have been committed by the far-right in the US compared to 0 attributed to the far-left.
With that in mind, what the reporter sees as senseless and hypocritical takes on a very different meaning:
Again and again, small groups of antifa members harassed, threatened and occasionally jostled reporters. The activists demanded not to be photographed as they marched down public streets — even as many of them hoisted their own cellphone cameras and staged their own photo ops.
Without understanding that those “photo ops” will likely be censored, or sent to outlets who will censor them before publishing, the unfolding storyline supports the narrative of antifa violence for the sake of violence. Speaking of narrative, included in the report is a protester’s concern of controlling it. It seems like evidence of ominous intent to spin coverage until we read further on and see that protesters challenged reporters on whether or not they would report tear-gassing by the police. To the protester’s point, there was no follow-up.
The significance of this lies in the potential, and sometimes intended, lethality of dispersal weapons by police. Just a week prior in Portland, during Patriot Prayer’s Freedom March, police were filmed firing teargas canisters, aimed level with the ground, directly at antifascist counterprotesters during a Patriot Prayer march in the city.
The canister smashed through the helmet of a demonstrator, sending them to the hospital with serious injuries.
As criticism came down on the Portland PD for their incitement of violence during the protests, the Chief of Police went on a conservative radio show to brag about the “butt-kicking” his officers engaged in that day. Meanwhile members of the ACLU and National Lawyer’s Guild condemned the tactics of law enforcement in targeting the left activist base in the city.
As overwhelming as the use of state violence is, along with the collusion of dangerous far-right groups, Selk’s article goes on documenting several instances of antifascists harassing journalists, who all display concerns for security. Avoiding the press, however, is a developing tactic. Because journalists are trained to cover each side of a story, organizers of a vigil in Charlottesville to chronicle last year’s loss of life planned to refuse to give comments to the press if the story also contained commentary from fascists using the media as a platform to normalize themselves as NPR did with Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler before his paltry showing in DC. Kessler took the opportunity to rank races by intelligence.
The article ends with an embedded tweet making a horseshoe comparison between the far-left and far-right in the mutual disdain they allegedly have for “enlightenment values” — the ultimate vignette of the lens of liberal political tradition. Yet, it wasn’t liberal reportage that led to a decline in outward displays of support for fascist ideas in the past year. It was deliberate, organized antifascism. Where there might be a lesson in approaching how antifascism functions, what the concerns are of those who take up that fight, and giving credence to the very real threats against them, there seems to be a lack of will to acknowledge it in mainstream media.
Antifascism is dangerous. The currents of leftist activism that flow through it also connect to vulnerable communities which are so often the focus of leftist solidarity and self-defense actions. The type of media coverage that ignores deadly violence on behalf of the state and far-right to pick fights with antifa exposes those aforementioned groups to further repression and harassment as they normalize entities that kill people and promote genocide while painting those who oppose such things as equals.