Tenses of Violence: Antifascist Action & Legal Critique in Charlottesville’s Wake

by | 25 Aug 2017

[M]any Trump supporters said they welcomed [Trump’s] visit as an opportunity to express their views.Tim Foley, an Army veteran who leads his own citizensborder patrol in Arizona, showed his Glock handgun to a reporter, saying he and his comrades had come to Phoenix to ‘keep the peace.’

Ignorance is fueling the opposition to Trump,” Mr. Foley, 57, said in an interview outside the convention center alongside other members of his Arizona Border Recon, which he calls a nongovernmental organization. (Critics call it a militia.) ‘Were the last line of defense. No one wants another Charlottesville.’

New York Times, August 22 2017

“Police Use Tear Gas on Crowds After Trump Rally”

A petition submitted to the White House on August 17, demanding that the Trump administration ‘formally recognize AntiFa as a terrorist organization,’ has obtained over 270,000 signatures at the time of this writing, on August 23.

Considering that antifascist activists (“antifa(s)”) have injured few and killed none, the (technically misguided) petition’s success is chilling, though unsurprising. At a rally held yesterday in Phoenix, Arizona, Donald Trump elicited loud boos from thousands of his supporters as he shouted: “They come in the helmets and black masks! Antifa!” This comes at a time when the Trump administration has eliminated spending on fighting white power extremism. A “terrorist” label for domestic antifa groups would permit even those who have have condemned white supremacy to cheer federal prosecutions, and approve the police harassment and arrest of persons attending protests who wear black, cover their faces, or bear antifascist insignia. Mass detainments have already taken place. Currently, the names of people who visited the anti-inauguration “Disrupt J20” site are being collected by the federal government.

Commenters on the left, right, and at the center will state disapproval of antifa’s methods and ideology, while maintaining concurrent disagreement with President Trump’s “both sides” argument. This exploratory essay responds to criticisms of antifa that, when not simply reactionary, displays a deep misunderstanding of the relationship that defensive violence and skepticism of law—to the point of breaking it—has to political activism. Rather than rehearse left defenses of radical activism, I concentrate on two interrelated legal aspects that, to my view, invite further thinking: 1) the interactions and incompatibilities of rights and antifascist action, and 2) the criminal nature of some antifascist actions. I begin to identify tenses of violence, and hope to point up how violent potentialities are embedded within different ideological, legal and historical contexts.

Some antifa activists follow anarchist ideology, and this is pointed to as reason to condemn them on equal footing as white supremacy and proto-fascism. I won’t belabor the fact that “not all” antifas are anarchists, nor that fascism and anarchism are as far apart on ideology as could possibly be. But it ought to be pointed out that while fascism considers all actions lawful—whether speech, assembly, or violence—when they serve the ends of the state, neither antifa nor anarchism considers lawful speech, assembly or violence equivalent to freedom or justice. Antifas will argue that the ability for proto-fascist speech and assembly to obtain cover under the First Amendment is simply wrong. Anarchism’s ideology rests on the tenet that state power, and the state itself, is defined by its monopoly of violence, which it can lawfully distribute to further its ends. For antifas who identify as anarchists, it follows that the state is never not at risk of becoming fascist.

The employment of regime supporters for the purposes of achieving and consolidating state power is historically associated with the rise of fascism, as with the Sturmabteilung (SA) “Brownshirt” paramilitary that guarded the ascendant Nazi party. Early antifas (Antifascistische Aktion) fought the Brownshirts and were crushed. After the SA’s suppression helped Hitler to emerge victorious in 1933, rank and file Brownshirts were either absorbed into the armed forces or dispatched to terrorize Jews. (Most SA leaders and insufficiently Hitlerite SA members were killed.) The tense of violence used by the SA is, seen retrospectively, fatal. Used to clear the way for its regime to achieve state power, past violence in support of a rising regime is legitimized and absorbed by the new regime.

Let us turn to paramilitarism in relation to the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment. On one reading, the state sanctions the ownership and use of guns in self-defense. A second reading additionally takes up the “necessary to the security of a free State” part of the Amendment, reasons that prolific citizen gun ownership ensures that government cannot achieve tyranny over the states. But can the “well regulated militia” act in defense of the State (the federal government)? Or, only after the federal State has enacted unfreedom via military force? Or, does the word security imply that the State is free when it is presently defended? There is nothing in the Amendment that assumes armed citizens cannot just as well be in support of a current government against insurrection.

A third reading embraces the potentiality of militia groups that purport to defend State power, and the tense of violence is liminal: the Amendment sanctions violence that may eventually, though not necessarily, be needed to secure the State. A drop in militia activity as Trump rose to power indicates confidence in his regime: those prone to join such groups feel that the State is secure under Trump’s care. That they can reform and reactivate at any moment, however, keeps well regulated militias’ violence liminal.

Under a political system that favors violent group potentiality, when can people who have traditionally been disfavored by such groups and the state act to defend themselves against the threat they pose? Antifas have their answer: the tense of defensive violence against the total-state threat of fascism is necessarily and always opportunistic, to be applied to any and all manifestations of fascist ideology. Since opportunism is inherently atemporal, antifa defensive violence will often appear preemptive and offensive to liberalism, as speeches and assemblies are deliberately and directly disrupted, and to those ends, physical safety and property may be at risk. Antifas are well aware that direct action and civil disobedience, violent or nonviolent, may result in their arrest. For individual antifas, the incursions of arrest do not supersede the goals, particularly since their tactics are, according to them, the most effective in pushing white supremacist rallies off the streets and back onto the internet (most antifa activity is comprised by the online monitoring of white supremacist and nationalist hate groups).

Detractors on the left argue that meeting violence with violence and breaking laws hands moral capital to those who don’t throw punches, even when their politics are reprehensible. The corollary argument appears to be that reprehensible politics may seem less reprehensible because its holders are nonviolent followers of law. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement’s nonviolent strategy are invoked, as antifascists are called, not only impractical and irrelevant—because nonviolence works—but committers of sacrilege against the legacy of proper anti-racist activism.

This view of nonviolent protest during the Civil Rights Era is common, but selective and theoretically suspect, especially when applied ahistorically. Martin Luther King practiced nonviolence, but regularly used bodyguards until he died (see, for example, Bernard Lee, who was with King in Memphis in 1968). Despite deserved admiration for his commitment to nonviolence, King wasn’t always effective. His criticisms of the American economy, the Vietnam War, and even on the snails’-pace of racial desegregation, were resented and ignored by white officials.

As for rank and file civil rights activists, they were constantly jailed—sometimes as pretexts for harassment, but also because they intentionally broke laws: those generally applicable, as well as Jim Crow. They were attacked and killed by white supremacists, but more often in their communities and homes, rather than during the protests themselves. Many activists did not hesitate to protect themselves and others using force in those spaces and at times other than public protests, which demanded collective assent to the national strategy of nonviolence. The tense of defensive violence during this era in the South was necessarily domestic: it was used when and where it was needed, but not until it was moved out from under the public eye.

The ultimate goal of the national civil rights movement was the mainstreaming of black citizens through legal arguments and sanctioned political processes. But in that struggle, communities of color grasped the reality that white America might not support their plea for equality if black people were seen as retaliating against their attackers or showed themselves “uncivil;” i.e., dangerous and undeserving of rights, as pro-segregationists argued. One can detect within current exhortations to practice Kingian nonviolence a justificatory subtext, amounting to an argument that mainstream distaste for force leads to the defense and embrace of the nonviolent, perceived innocent, white supremacist. This reminds one of what contemporary activists of color have scorned as “respectability politics”: the policing of non-whites’ behavior, dress and speech to curry white approval and inclusion. In this case, a version of respectability is wielded by liberals against the antifa left, as well as Black Lives and other left activists, chiding that white supremacists will gain sympathizers and the moral high ground if left opposition acts out of the mainstream.

This argument’s re-emergence in 2017 gives one worrisome answer to the question of whether the civil rights movement “worked.” At any rate, antifascist activists not only accept their non-mainstream status, they foresee remaining out of the mainstream until they are no longer needed. They see their task as meeting white supremacy on the fringe and stopping it from entering the mainstream by, in the words of one antifa activist, making organizing “so unpalatable” that it falters and ceases. Theodor Adorno’s argument that fascism can only win mass support via irrational appeals also suggests that, for a significant portion of people who support fascism, rational arguments to dissuade will also not work. The antifa activist’s function is to deliver extreme unpalatability—displeasure and intolerance. This will never be acceptable under a liberalism, which, in theory and increasingly in practice, tolerates any attempts to mainstream any opinion or program, as long as its methods—speech, assembly, and violence—are lawful.

As Natasha Lennard has pointed out, creating equivalencies between the good protester and the nonviolent law-abider has nothing whatever to do with justice, nor is pressing one’s rights likely to result in justice under a regime that enforces distinctions between “good” and “bad” protest. But even if one insists that being on the right side of the law retains the value of getting the law-abiders to your side, how will limiting protest really work to draw clear distinctions against an American fascism that goes out of its way to invoke the constitution and rights and praise law enforcement, and to appear well-spoken and tidy in public?  Many marching in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville wore “preppy” clothes and displayed good grooming, representing a growing contingent of white supremacists who self-consciously perform respectability.

Strongly denouncing antisocial forms of violence is common ground for liberals and leftists. Yet, ignoring violence’s tenses and the specificity of the threats posed by them muddies critique, and justifies support of petitions such as the one above, or of lesser repressive measures that make general claims to security and safety. A liberalist “arrest now, defend later” approach that underlies support for the policing of political activism generally fails to appreciate the difficulty any non-mainstream, anti-government activist will encounter when challenging state power. But more to the point, it fails to recognize that the tense of violence the state achieves by placing the terrorist label on antifascist organizing is totalist.


Michaela Brangan is a Cornell University PhD Candidate (English) and holds a Cardozo School of Law, JD


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