Antifa: what is the movement that Donald Trump blames for violence in US protests?

Experts question whether president can carry out threat to designate Antifa as a terrorist organisation

US President Donald Trump says he plans to designate a far-left, anti-fascist movement often referred to as Antifa as a terrorist organisation after blaming it for violence during ongoing nationwide protests against police brutality.

Mr Trump and members of his administration have made it a point to blame Antifa for the violence seen in protests over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis who died in police custody on May 25.

“Congratulations to our National Guard for the great job they did immediately upon arriving in Minneapolis, Minnesota, last night. The Antifa-led anarchists, among others, were shut down quickly. Should have been done by mayor on first night and there would have been no trouble!” Mr Trump tweeted.

US Attorney General William Barr also named Antifa when referring to the demonstrations.

“The violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly,” Mr Barr said in a statement released on Sunday.

Mr Barr implied that Antifa was exploiting the demonstrations over Floyd’s to pursue “their own separate, violent and extremist agenda”.

But what is Antifa?

In criminal complaints the US Justice Department has previously described Antifa as being "short for 'anti-fascists' … a movement for people who generally oppose the white supremacist and 'alt-right' movements, sometimes by protesting events or engaging in property damage or violence".

Despite Mr Trump’s claims, there has been little reported evidence to pin the recent violence on any particular group, and some questioned whether he would be able to carry out his threat against Antifa.

“Antifa is a vaguely defined movement of people who like direct-action protest tactics, not an actual organisation,” the author and legal reporter Charlie Savage pointed out in a tweet.

“Even if it were a real group, the law that lets the government deem entities as terrorists only applies to foreign organisations,” he said.

"Antifa is neither 'terrorist' nor an organisation," said Mark Bray, a historian and author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook.

“To explain a little: 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 wrote on Twitter.

How prevalent or organised the Antifa movement is remains to be seen, but it is not unique to the United States.

There have been references to the Antifa movement in various countries and the same goes for the “Alt-Right” conservative nationalist movement, whose members has been known to clash with Antifa on several occasions.

Mr Bray said the Antifa movement had its roots in post-Second World War anti-fascism.

“Self-defence groups were formed in Britain and Germany among immigrants and leftists to defend themselves against the neo-Nazi skinhead wave,” he said in an interview with C-SPAN in 2017.

He said he disagreed with categorising Antifa as a violent movement.

“What people miss is what the vast majority of anti-fascists do is non-violent. They monitor the far-right, trace them across various social media platforms, find out who they’re organising with, find out where their events will be held, make phone calls to the hotels to get them to cancel the event, and they spread popular education.”

Mr Bray said Antifa used a variety of tactics that did not create any confrontation, but the media chose to focus on those that that led to what he described as a “spectacle”.

“Anti-fascism is an argument for self-defence collectively against the proven historical perils of white supremacy and fascism,” he said, alluding to the backlash against those in the alt-right movement supporting Mr Trump.

In an interview with The National, Peter Yacobucci, an associate professor of political science at Buffalo State University, expressed ample skepticism about Trump's efforts to classify Antifa as a terrorist organisation.

“There is no central communication hub, leadership, financing mechanism, or doctrine,” said Mr. Yacobucci, referring to Antifa. “As a result, designation as a terrorist organization is somewhat non-sensical. It would be akin to declaring optimists as a terrorist organization,” he added.

Yacobucci also emphasized the US law currently only allows groups that are foreign to be classified as terrorist organisations, though he noted Trump may move forward anyway.

“We have seen the past three years such problems have frequently been ignored by President Trump and his compliant Attorney General Bill Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo,” he said.

However, Yacobucci stressed that Trump’s rant against Antifa might be more style than substance.

“Antifa is being used by by President Trump to divert attention from what is really happening,” he said, referring what he described as Trump’s efforts to shift the debate away from a discussion about racial injustice and law enforcement.

Another political science professor, Timothy Kneeland of Nazareth College in Rochester, New York, is also skeptical of Trump’s announcements about Antifa.

“This would not stand up in court,” he said. “Trump’s actions are probably not constitutional.”

Kneeland said hypothetically, if Trump did succeed with his efforts to classify Antifa as a terrorist organisation, it would be analogous to the Communist Control Act of 1954, which outlawed the Communist Party USA.

“Thus, those people who identified with this loose coalition (Antifa), would lose the shield of the First Amendment which would reduce their visibility and and ability to protest,” he explained.