What is Antifa, the movement Donald Trump accuses of instigating violence during the George Floyd protests?

Donald Trump has accused Antifa of leading the mass protests in the US sparked by the death in custody of George Floyd, but experts say it is unclear how involved the movement really is.

Protesters rally at the Minnesota State Capitol during the sixth day of demonstrations.

Protesters rally at the Minnesota State Capitol during the sixth day of demonstrations. Source: EPA

United States President Donald Trump has announced he will label Antifa a terrorist organisation, blaming the far-left movement for the recent .

Alongside many peaceful protesters seeking justice for George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed by police last week, scuffles between demonstrators and police turned violent as demonstrations spread across the country. 

Numerous buildings, including a police station in Minneapolis, have burnt to the ground. Police have deployed rubber bullets, tear gas and smoke bombs against protesters. More than 20 states have declared curfews. 

, Mr Trump pointed the finger at Antifa - but what role has Antifa played and does he actually have the authority to declare its affiliates terrorists? 

What, or who, is Antifa?

Antifa, short for anti-fascist, is an umbrella term used to define various far-left groups who stand together in opposition to proponents of the far-right.

The movement does not have a leader or governing body, a formal membership process, or a unified ideology.

“It’s an incredibly diverse movement, everyone from socialists, through to environmentalists, through to single-issue people who just stand opposed to the right may fall under the banner if they choose to,” says Joshua Roose, a senior research fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation.

“Antifa doesn’t have an ideological narrative, per se, they stand in opposition to something.”

The exact origin of the movement is unknown, but it is believed to stem from anti-Nazi organising in Germany. 

“The basic pretence is never again on our watch will we let the far-right get up to the stuff they’ve done historically,” Dr Roose, who specialises in extremism, said. 

As part of this belief, their staple action is turning up to counter-protest far-right rallies, such as during the 2017 Charlottesville protests.

Members of Antifa line up during an alt-right rally in Portland, Oregon.
Members of Antifa line up during an alt-right rally in Portland, Oregon. Source: Getty

Self-identified members can be difficult to differentiate from other protesters, but some have been known to carry Antifa flags and many wear all black.

According to US media, some local Antifa groups are highly organised and meet frequently. But because of the fluid and non-formal nature of the movement, it is unclear how many people identify as Antifa members in the US or globally. 

The movement is often seen as controversial due to some members’ belief that violence is permissible in stopping fascists, who they say are inherently violent.

In 2017, the movement was accused of throwing at a UC Berkley campus ahead of an appearance by right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos. 

Why does Donald Trump want them labelled a terrorist organisation?

With no end in sight to the demonstrations that have wreaked havoc across a number of major cities, US officials are desperately trying to bring the violence under control. 

As protesters took to the White House lawns on Monday, Dr Roose told said Mr Trump was now attempting to divert attention away from the original cause of the unrest.

“This is basically a form of political grandstanding by the president to mobilise his base,” Dr Roose said.

“It’s a way of saying, there’s one group here that is the problem. It’s not black people, who might vote for me, it’s not the far-right, who will certainly vote for me, it’s the far-left.”

On Sunday, Mr Trump said the violence was “being led by Antifa and other radical left-wing groups who are terrorising the innocent, destroying jobs, hurting businesses and burning down buildings”, but provided no evidence for his assertion.

Hours later, he tweeted: “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organisation.”

On the same day, US Attorney General William Barr , which described “violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting” and labelled it “domestic terrorism”.

Protesters confront police outside the White House
Protesters confront police outside the White House. Source: EPA

“Federal law enforcement actions will be directed at apprehending and charging the violent radical agitators who have hijacked peaceful protest and are engaged in violations of federal law,” the statement read. 

What role have they played in the protests?

The short answer: it’s unclear.

While Mr Roose said it’s likely Antifa “members” are among protesters due to an overlap in ideological views, there is no evidence to suggest they are leading the violence. 

Understanding the extent of Antifa’s involvement in the protests is complicated by reports that people dressed in black damaging property are from the far-right in an attempt to incite further violence.

SBS News has been unable to verify either claim about the involvement of Antifa or far-right actors in violent actions.

At their origin, the protests were a grassroots movement of people aligned with the Black Lives Matter cause seeking justice for Mr Floyd and other black people killed by police.

John Harrington, the head of the Department of Public Safety in Minnesota, where the protests began, said about 20 per cent of Saturday's arrests were of people from outside the state. 

Could Antifa actually be declared a terrorist organisation?

Experts have also questioned whether Mr Trump has the authority to declare members of the movement terrorists, particularly when it has few of the hallmarks of a traditional organisation, like leadership or a formal membership process.

Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) National Security Project, Hina Shamsi, told there was “no legal authority” for designating a domestic group a terrorist organisation. 

Experts, such as , the former head of the Justice Department’s national security division, have also said such a move would likely violate the US’ first amendment right to free speech.

The US Department of State publishes a list of , which includes more than 60 overseas groups. 

It is also unclear whether the loosely-defined group could be considered an organisation at all, as pointed out by author Mark Bray, who wrote a book on Antifa.

“It’s like calling bird-watching an organisation. Yes, there are bird-watching organisations as there are Antifa organisations but neither bird-watching nor Antifa is an organisation,” he tweeted.

Dr Roose said the move to label a “disparate movement” a terrorist organisation “beggars belief”. 

“We are going down a very dark road if we start labelling people who are protesting as terrorists,” he added. 

“It has no real grounding in reality.”

With Reuters

6 min read
Published 1 June 2020 at 6:34pm
By Maani Truu