VENTURING INTO THE LEFT: An Exposition on Antifa
By: Ali Javeed
UTSC is no stranger to social justice. Free Palestine banners hang in our student centre, our Student Union held a “social justice fair” and by being an educational institution, naturally we are more socially progressive. This inclination as students to participate in activism often doesn’t stop inside of our campus communities, it spills over onto our streets, neighbourhoods and city. But when we look to the media and see social/political activism, we are primarily exposed to the sensationalist surface:
“Sweaty far-right neo-nazis hold tiki torches in one hand, and hitler salute with the other” “Masked mobs of far-left anti-fascists violently confront police.”
The Underground wanted to look deeper than the visuals and into the ideologies that make the far-left tick. We met with Mike. R, a political organizer who has participated in anti-fascist for 30 years to hear about his personal experience and insights on the movement.
Mike entered into activism at an important time in Toronto’s social history. The white-power skinhead movement was facing a resurgence as part of an ideological sweep that was occurring across North America. It became a war of beliefs between the two poles of the political spectrum, Heritage Front (a right-wing organization) verses Anti-Racist Action (ARA) and Anti-fascist Action (AFA). As these organizations were becoming more active in Toronto, Mike moved into the city for university at 18 years old. As he saw the hate unfold around him, Mike realized that he needed to act.
A large part of the radicalization was music. Throughout Toronto, blatantly racist Punk bands like RAHOWA (Racial Holy War) began having shows - an informal way for people with toxic ideologies to feel empowered and meet like-minded people. Mike described the shows simply as a “bunch of dudes all pumped up, on heavily racially charged music, advocating violence”. The response to this growing comfort with white supremacy was when ARA, a network of anti-fascist and anti-racist activists began stepping up their activism to “shut this shit down”. They saw the white supremacist ideology as a serious threat, and knew that there “wasn’t going to be protection from anyone else.”
Mike saw this as his call to action.
Morals of tolerance, understanding and complicity commonly exercised by the general public were not appealing to Mike when he joined the ARA. They were involved in action. Not just holding rallies like other political groups at the time, but to remove the platform for hatred and bigotry by the far-right Heritage Front.
This meant that activists like Mike had to be ready to get in the faces of their political opponents, “which sometimes meant street level confrontation resulting in some violence”
It’s important to recognize that there is no actual group called “Antifa”. There are no membership cards, tattoos, or pins that make someone an official member. Antifa is the name for a broader anti-fascist movement that is a collective of like minded anti-fascist and anti-racist organizations banded together against the far-right.
Today, individuals that choose to put on the Antifa trademarks of all black clothes, and face covering likely belong to organizations like Torontonians Against Fascism, Socialist Action, or various chapters of the Revolutionary Student Movement.
Covering your face, and not wearing any identifiable clothing is more than protecting your identity, Mike explains, but rather “it’s about immersing yourself in something bigger...I’m not there as an individual, I’m there on common cause to shut down this cancer in society that the (fascist) ideology represents”.
This unity is a core aspect of the movement. Standing in solidarity as a single body in anonymity against a group of hateful people.
Although wearing a mask in public is not an offence, according to Section 351(2) “disguise with intent” is. The law describes that “everyone who, with intent to commit an indictable offence, has his face masked or coloured or is otherwise disguised is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years”.
But in the nature of this work - shielding your identity is necessary.
It’s not just “social justice warriors”, who have no other commitments, but making ruckus in the streets, as the far-right would describe. These are your neighbours, they work and shop at the same places as you. This applies to individuals both on the far-right and far-left.
They could be your very classmates.
It is not uncommon for members of the far-right to take pictures and videos at demonstrations to “dox” members of antifa on the internet. To be doxxed is to have your personal information and identity exposed online with negative intent. As members of Antifa are often students or young adults, their intimidating appearance in all black, and participation in controversial counter-protests can be potentially harmful if sent to employers or universities.
When large - often rowdy groups of people wearing all black, show up to a protest, drowning out speakers, blocking doors or physically confronting police, Antifa often becomes the bad guy.
Although they are fighting against racism, some might argue that their brash demeanour works against them. Mike disagrees. “If debate was able to defeat fascism it would have”
A key part of the Antifa movement is refusing to engage in dialogue… and no, insults hurled across protest lines do not count as discourse. This lack of discussion and civil appearance may turn away potential recruits to the movement, and counter-productively uphold the negative perception the far-right, and the general population, has of the far-left.
Mike believes that maintaining a respectable and civil demeanour as a movement doesn’t work. “(If) we relied on the kind of people that would be turned off by actions that get things done, we would be water things down to the point of being ineffective”.
Mike doesn’t believe in what he refers to as “respectability politics”.
This a common practice exercised by the far-right by dressing well, emphasizing free speech and often tone-policing in order to make their hateful ideologies more digestible for the average person. Mike believes that it’s “an appeal to liberal moralism” that in the end sacrifices appearance for effectiveness.
Just because members of Antifa are willing to break some social and (criminal) rules, it’s still important to remember that “fighting fascism isn’t just about punching Nazis....(but) at times it’s necessary.” This does not mean that members have to necessarily participate in it themselves.
Mike explains, “it’s okay to be uncomfortable with violence...It’s an admirable idea, and a preferable one (to not resort to violence).”
This can be seen in Toronto at white supremacist protests, where Antifa and its allies show up to counter-demonstrate. Often, it’s a few members who are outspoken as they lead chants, provoke police, or make themselves physically available to confront members of the opposite side. Everyone participates with their own comfort, but there is a general understanding of how much physical involvement is required.
On September 8th, PEGIDA - a group advocating for ‘anti-islamization of the west’ was countered by Antifa during their march towards old city hall. Members of Antifa linked arms to block the street to prevent the march from moving forward but were eventually injured as police began escalating the situation through aggressive shoving and eventually punching an unarmed counter-protestor in the face. This is a perfect example of Antifa using a tactic that uses force to communicate their message - but only to a degree that was necessary as Mike described.
Antifa as a movement houses a concoction of anti-establishment beliefs of anti-capitalism, socialism, communism and anarchism. It is also a self-proclaimed militant movement, this is reinforced through their hate for police and comfort using physical violence when necessary. Mike makes clear that the movement is “not the most altruistic thing in the world. We’re not trying to stop people from having racist ideas or thoughts, that’s beyond our scope”. Instead Mike describes that individuals don the face covering with Antifa to stop members of the far-right from realizing their political agendas.
Agendas that often run parallel with islamophobes, racists, and white supremacists.
“COPS AND KLAN GO HAND AND HAND” is a common chant that can be heard at any counter-demonstration that Antifa attends. Far-left protestors believe that the police protect hate groups and allow them to spread their damaging messages under the guise of free speech.
Antifa’s hate for police strengthens when they use aggression to allegedly maintain the peace, and prevent demonstrations from escalating into violence. When police use force, it is not to create an even fight, or level some sort of playing field, they are instructed to use more force than that which they are facing to gain control of the situation. Due to the confrontational nature of many far-left activists, when they are pushed - they push back. The police know this well, and often come equipped with some riot equipment (gloves, batons, but not shields (yet)) to overpower any resistance they may encounter. Unsurprisingly, this often escalates the current situation, and inspires new members to join the resistance at future protests.
Even when the police are there, Mike describes that Antifa can still hold the power, “there have been times where we have won against the cops, you lock arms and keep walking, they try to stop you but you have more numbers, that works in your favour, you dont need to throw punches. The power of the people, the numbers and the resolve can be enough. Usually that is enough.”
Mike describes that dealing with the police requires a lot of discipline, “you can’t just go throwing fists at fascists, much less at cops. They’ll win. They’re in overwhelming numbers.”
When expanding activist circles Mike believes that people who come out simply looking for a fight are not useful, and the last thing that you need is someone that will “lose their cool”, as police are always looking for ways to shut protests down. Even if officers are aggressive and push protestors, Mike explains that the movement needs people who are “able to react. If (someone is) shoved by a cop, and they’re about to get stepped on by people. You need someone who has discipline, and awareness and can pull them up for their own safety. A lot of the time, you’re looking out for the people that you are there with.”
But then again, how do you clear an arm linked line of black clad, angry activists off the street to make way for a far-right march double the size? Far-left activists believe that the march shouldn’t be allowed in the first place.
But other than far-right chants and signs that may reinforce hateful ideologies, Police claim that far-right demonstrations in Toronto are peaceful and thus lawful.
Mike on the other hand believes these ideas that the Toronto police allow the far-right to chant are extremely dangerous, “hate speech is an action, a form of violence and should be seen that way”.
When violence does occur by the far-right rally in Toronto, it is often perpetrated by the Proud Boys, a men’s activist group. On July 21st at the intersection of University and Armoury PEGIDA held held a rally to which the Proud Boys showed up in solidarity.
The far-right in Toronto relies on other hate organizations to show up to their rallies since each chapter really only has a few people available on short notice.
After negligence from the police by not paying attention to members of the far-right some were able to cross protest lines and instigate fights with the far-left.
Unfortunate for Antifa, it is always their counter-protestors who pay the price for any sort of physical violence. 5-6 far-left were arrested compared to 0 on the far-right. It makes sense why members of Antifa hate the police.
Mike believes that progress has been going well with the movement in Toronto “but there is always room to do better. But in order for that to happen, we need more people to get involved.
We’re always going to want more people...Even if they don’t want to go to the front lines, Just to stand up and say ‘no’ this is not what we want.”
Despite Antifa working hard to stifle the voice of the far-right, debate between ideologies is all that is possible on university campuses like ours. At the University of Toronto in November, former White House chief-strategist and far-right media executive Steve Bannon has been booked to debate David Frum, in a Munk Debate about populism.
While some may argue that the debate will offer an intellectual basis to often emotionally conflated ideas, members of Antifa would view this as the university expanding the platform for the far-right.
Similar debates or speakers from the far-right like Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkley have been shut down through pressure provided by Antifa and their allies.
We’ll see if Torontonians provide similar opposition at the next Munk Debate.