With so much buzz about the protest, riots and humans in general behaving like absolute fools, I thought I would write this short piece about some of the history that’s involved. At first, I really didn’t want to write about one group or another as in my writings, I like to stay neutral and tend to stick to things that are more along the happier, human side of life, but then I remembered that I wrote about riots around the globe last night which is why we are here tonight writing this piece.
The Battle of Cable Street was an event that took place in Cable Street and Whitechapel in the East End of London, on October 4, 1936. It was a clash between the Metropolitan Police, sent to protect a march by members of the British Union of Fascists led by Oswald Mosley, and various anti-fascist demonstrators, including local anarchist, communist, Jewish and socialist groups. The majority of both marchers and counter-protesters traveled into the area for this purpose.
It had become known that the British Union of Fascists (BUF) were organizing a march to take place on October 4, 1936, through the heart of the East End – an area which then had a large Jewish population. Mosley planned to send thousands of marchers dressed in their Blackshirt uniform through the East End. An estimated 100,000 residents of the area petitioned then Home Secretary John Simon to ban the march because of the strong likelihood of violence. He refused, and sent a police escort in an attempt to prevent anti-fascist protesters from disrupting the march.
The anti-fascist groups built roadblocks in an attempt to prevent the march from taking place. The barricades were constructed near the junction with Christian Street in Stepney, towards the west end of this long street. The main confrontation took place around Gardiner’s Corner in Whitechapel. An estimated 20,000 anti-fascist demonstrators turned out, and were met by 6,000–7,000 policemen, who attempted to clear the road to permit the march of 2,000–3,000 fascists to proceed. The demonstrators fought back with sticks, rocks, chair legs and other improvised weapons. Rubbish, rotten vegetables and the contents of chamber pots were thrown at the police by women in houses along the street. After a series of running battles, Mosley agreed to abandon the march to prevent bloodshed. The BUF marchers were dispersed towards Hyde Park instead while the anti-fascists rioted with police. About 150 demonstrators were arrested, although some escaped with the help of other demonstrators. Around 175 people were injured including police, women and children.
ANTIFA – pronounced: an-tee-fa – is an English word that is a loanword from German, taken as a shortened form of the word antifaschistisch – anti-fascist – and the name of Antifaschistische Aktion which inspired the wider Antifa movement in Germany.
The late 1920’s and early 1930’s also saw rising tensions mainly between three broad groups, the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) on one side, the Nazi Party on another, and a coalition of governing parties, mainly social democrats and liberals, on the other side. Berlin in particular was the site of regular and often very violent clashes. Both the Communists and the Nazis explicitly sought to overthrow the liberal democracy of the Weimar Republic – Germany’s government from 1919 to 1933 – while the social democrats and liberals strongly defended the republic and its constitution. As part of this struggle all three factions organized their own paramilitary groups.
As well, when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini consolidated power under his National Fascist Party in the mid 1920’s, an opposition anti-fascist movement surfaced in Italy. Many anti-fascist leaders were syndicalist, anarchist, and socialist émigrés from Italy with experience in labor organizing and militancy. Ideologically, antifa sees itself as the successor to anti-Nazi activists of the 1930’s; European activist groups that originally organized to oppose World War II-era fascist dictatorships re-emerged in the 1970’s and 1980’s to oppose white supremacy and skinheads, and eventually spread to America. After World War II, but prior to the development of the modern antifa movement, violent confrontations with fascist elements continued sporadically.
Modern antifa politics can be traced to opposition of the infiltration of Britain’s punk scene by white power skinheads in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and the emergence of neo-Nazism in Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall. In Germany, young leftists, including anarchists and punk fans, renewed the practice of street-level anti-fascism. In the late 1980’s, left-wing punk fans in the United States began following suit, though they initially called their groups Anti-Racist Action (ARA) on the theory that Americans would be more familiar with fighting racism than they would be with fighting fascism.
The Anti-Fascist Handbook, credits ARA as the precursor of the modern US antifa groups in the United States and Canada. In the late 1980’s and 1990’s, ARA activists toured with popular punk rock and skinhead bands in order to prevent Klansmen, neo-Nazis and other assorted white supremacists from recruiting. Their motto was “We go where they go” by which they meant that they would confront far-right activists in concerts and actively remove their materials from public places. In 2002, the ARA disrupted a speech in Pennsylvania by Matthew F. Hale, the head of the white supremacist group World Church of the Creator, resulting in a fight and twenty-five arrests. One of the earliest antifa groups in the U.S. was Rose City Antifa, which was formed in Portland, Oregon in 2007.
Other antifa groups in the U.S. have other genealogies, for example in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where a group called the Baldies was formed in 1987 with the intent to fight neo-Nazi groups directly.
The ideology of individuals involved in the movement tend to hold anti-capitalist and anti-government views, and subscribe to a range of left-wing ideologies. A majority of adherents are socialists, anarchists, and communists who describe themselves as revolutionaries, although some social democrats and other leftists adhere to the antifa movement. The movement is pan-leftist and non-hierarchical, and is united by opposition to right-wing extremism and white supremacy, as well as opposition to a centralized state. Antifa activists reject anti-fascist conservatives as well as liberals. The movement eschews mainstream liberal democracy and electoral politics in favor of direct action. Despite the movement’s opposition to liberalism, right-wing commentators have accused antifa adherents of supporting liberalism and being aided by liberal sympathizers.
The Anti-Defamation League states that, “Most antifa come from the anarchist movement or from the far left, though since the 2016 presidential election, some people with more mainstream political backgrounds have also joined their ranks.”