If you read the coverage online or watch the cable networks, the extremist movement known as antifa is either the new Al Qaeda or the new Big Foot. President Trump wants to have antifa classified as a terrorist organization, while various Democrats insist it is simply a conservative phantom. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler even insisted that violence by antifa is a myth and called the accounts imaginary.
While I oppose designating antifa as a terrorist organization, its existence is certainly not a myth. Indeed, it may be the most successful movement against free speech in modern history. However, its structure and tactics avoid easy detection, which is why so many people claim the group is an apparition. It is true that whenever such spontaneous and concentrated violence erupts, many people tend to believe it is antifa.
Antifa is often the culprit on university campuses. In the film “The Usual Suspects,” the character Virgil described the invisible villain Keyser Soze. He is “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.” Antifa does exist and the last few weeks demonstrate how skilled it is as the Keyser Soze of social unrest in America.
Antifa was founded on a rejection of formal structures and leaders. Many associated groups are part of Anti-Racist Action and a loose coordinating organization known as the Torch Network. This lack of structure not only appeals to the anarchist elements for the movement but serves to evade both law enforcement and legal challenges. The threat of antifa is not its role in civil unrest but its activities attacking free speech.
Both far left and far right groups have been identified in riots in various cities. These extremist groups use social media and the internet to sow disorder, hide their identities, and frame other groups for their activities. Notably in the last week, Richmond police identified both antifa and the Boogaloo Boys in violent protests in that city. It is part of what Attorney General William Barr refers to as the “witches brew of violent groups on both sides” such as antifa and some other similar groups.
Antifa members have been arrested and involved in violence in the cities. The president of the Portland National Association for the Advancement of Colored People wrote in the Washington Post to denounce the “white spectacle” of the recent violence. He asked, “What are antifa and other leftist agitators achieving for the cause of black equality?”
The answer is that antifa is not an ally to Black Lives Matter. It is all about revolutionary change and using demonstrations to trigger greater social unrest. It follows the same purpose mistakenly spoken by former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley following those riots during the Democratic National Convention in 1968, “The police are not here to create disorder. They are here to preserve disorder.” Antifa causes such violence.
Antifa has found allies while the movement has grown. It primarily targets conservatives and the free speech community, so it has not been a major concern of liberals. Former Democratic National Committee deputy chair Keith Ellison, now the Minnesota attorney general, once said antifa would “strike fear in the heart” of Trump. This was after antifa had been involved in numerous acts of violence and its website was banned in Germany. His own son, Minneapolis City Council member Jeremiah Ellison, declared his allegiance to antifa in the heat of the protests this summer.
That fact is that antifa works to strike fear not in the heart of Trump but in the heart of anyone who will oppose the movement. The antifa handbook states how the group has rejected the idea of free speech and has spent years organizing protests to prevent opposing views from getting heard. That practice has been adopted by other groups as well. Antifa violence can give colleges or politicians cover for barring conservative speakers. Nancy Pelosi has called for the revocation of a permit for a conservative prayer group viewed as a security matter in San Francisco.
George Washington University student Jason Charter has been charged as the alleged “ringleader” of efforts to take down statues across the capital. Charter has been an active antifa member on campus for years. Following his arrest, he claimed the “movement is winning.” It is winning partly since local officials order police to stand down or drop criminal charges to avoid conflict. But it is winning mostly since people remain silent.
Silence hurts free speech. Antifa knows that. It is the silence of professors who watch as their colleagues are harassed, investigated, or threatened. It is the silence of students who watch as others are attacked for dissenting ideas. It is the silence of reporters who watch as other journalists are fired or forcibly retired for challenging orthodox views. Finally, it is the silence of those politicians who dismiss the destruction of property as a case, in the words of Pelosi, that “people will do what people will do.”
Antifa will do a great deal of damage if allowed. It is why, for academics and writers, its existence is frightening. As Virgil explained, Keyser Soze became the “spook story that criminals tell their kids at night.” Antifa has achieved the agenda against free speech to a degree that even critics like me never imagined possible. It simply took inaction from our government and silence from our citizens. Threats against free speech are reaching a critical mass in our schools and on our streets. We can either take action or remain passive bystanders to what inevitably comes next.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University who will testify today before the Senate Judiciary Committee on antifa and the movement against free speech in America.