Last year, I testified in the Senate on Antifa and the growing anti-free speech movement in the United States. I specifically disagreed with the statement of House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler that Antifa (and its involvement in violent protests) is a “myth.” What was most striking about that hearing was the refusal of Democratic members to condemn Antifa’s activities or recognize the scope of anarchist violence even as riots raged in Portland, Oregon and other cities. Indeed, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, famously walked out of that hearing after Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, challenged her to condemn Antifa and leftist violence.
Now, Portland, Mayor Ted Wheeler who previously blamed former President Donald Trump and the federal government for violence is calling on citizens to stand up to the “self-described anarchist mob.” I am not sure why Wheeler added “self-described” but his belated recognition of the threat is still welcomed. He notably did not specifically condemn Antifa, including the homegrown and notoriously violent Rose City Antifa (RCA).
Wheeler called for the city’s residents to assist authorities in their efforts to “unmask” members of the “self-described anarchist mob” who continue to riot and loot in the city. Portland is in a state of emergency and riots have continued for years. Indeed, Democratic leaders in the city appear to have finally worked through all of the “stages of grieving” identified by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They began with denial and transference in blaming federal authorities and Trump for the violence. They then joined protesters in angry denunciations of the federal government is seeking an alliance.
They then bargained with the groups. (They did not go as far as cities like Seattle in allowing actual “autonomous zones” last summer, but avoided confrontations and limited police responses). Wheeler himself was criticized for failing to act against the rioting but insisted that he was trying to find a middle road of “compromise” with the groups. The riots, of course, continued and intensified. After a period of depression when the rioting continued after the Biden election, they have finally made it to acceptance.
That progression however is not evident with other national and even state Democratic leaders. Democratic leaders continue to avoid criticizing Antifa and some like Nadler deny their very existence. This level of fear and denial is precisely what Antifa has struggled to create. As I have written, it has long been the “Keyser Söze” of the anti-free speech movement, a loosely aligned group that employs measures to avoid easy detection or association. Yet, FBI Director Chris Wray has repeatedly pushed back on the denials of Antifa’s work or violence. He told one committee last year Wray stated “And we have quite a number — and “Antifa is a real thing. It’s not a fiction.”
Some Democratic leaders not only recognize Antifa but support it. Former Democratic National Committee deputy chair Keith Ellison, now the Minnesota attorney general, once said Antifa would “strike fear in the heart” of Trump. This was after Antifa had been involved in numerous acts of violence and its website was banned in Germany. His son, Minneapolis City Council member Jeremiah Ellison, declared his allegiance to Antifa as riots raged in his city last summer.
Notably, one of the witnesses from the Senate hearing last year was conservative journalist Andy Ngô, who was previously attacked by Antifa members in Portland. He wrote a book about the group but stores like Portland’s famed shop Powell’s Books have banned it from its shelves. When musician Winston Marshall congratulated Ngô on his book, he was condemned and later issued a cringing public apology. Ngô recently had to leave the country due to the attacks and death threats from Antifa and other groups. One does not have to agree with Ngô to support his right to speak or oppose the efforts to block people from being able to buy or read his book. Yet, the “deplatforming” campaign against Ngô, his book, and anyone who praises him is a signature of Antifa.
Wheeler’s success in “getting to acceptance” was not easy. He was repeatedly targeted himself by protesters at home and at restaurants. Finally, as riots continue for a second year, Wheeler is willing to rally the public against “self-described anarchists” while avoiding the forbidden reference to the real “A word”: Antifa.
Wheeler’s fear of confronting the Rose City Antifa is rather conspicuous given the prominence of the group in Portland. As I noted in my Senate testimony, the RCA is arguably the oldest reference to “Antifa” in the United States. In 2013, various groups that were part of ARA, including RCA, formed a new coordinating organization referred to as the “Torch Network.” This lack of structure not only appealed to the anarchist elements in the movement but served the practical benefit of evading law enforcement and lawsuits.
The RCA and other aligned groups have little patience for free speech. It is at its base a movement at war with free speech, defining the right itself as a tool of oppression. That purpose is evident in what is called the “bible” of the Antifa movement: Rutgers Professor Mark Bray’s Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook. Bray emphasizes the struggle of the movement against free speech: “At the heart of the anti-fascist outlook is a rejection of the classical liberal phrase that says, ‘I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’” Indeed, Bray admits that “most Americans in Antifa have been anarchists or antiauthoritarian communists… From that standpoint, ‘free speech’ as such is merely a bourgeois fantasy unworthy of consideration.” It is an illusion designed to promote what Antifa is resisting “white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, ultra-nationalism, authoritarianism, and genocide.” Thus, all of these opposing figures are deemed fascistic and thus unworthy of being heard.
The signature of the group is the same orthodoxy and militancy that characterizes groups that they oppose. Like its counterparts in right-wing groups like Proud Boys, Antifa has a long and well-documented history of such violence. Bray quotes one Antifa member as summing up their approach to free speech as a “nonargument . . . you have the right to speak but you also have the right to be shut up.”
Notably, when George Washington University student and self-professed Antifa member Jason Charter was charged as the alleged “ringleader” of efforts to take down statues in Washington, D.C., Charter declared the “movement is winning.” He is right. It is winning because politicians, the media, and academics have refused to recognize it for what it is: a violent, anti-free speech movement. Wheeler’s indirect criticism is tiny blip in a sea of indifference or denials from other leaders. That is all that Antifa needs to win. Silence.