They smashed windows and rioted through the streets of Washington during the inauguration of President Trump. In Charlottesville they joined liberal demonstrators in counter-protesting a white supremacist rally. And this week, they toppled over a bronze Confederate statue in Durham, N.C.
On Tuesday, Trump insisted that counterprotesters in Charlottesville acted violently and deserved equal blame for the unrest that left a 32-year-old woman dead and others hospitalized. “What about the alt-left that came charging at the alt-right?” Trump demanded. “Do they have any semblance of guilt?”
Anarchists and antifascists, often called the antifa, are factions of the far left who feel they are not represented by the mainstream Democratic Party. They have become more visible in the Trump era and are often lumped together, although not all antifascists identify as anarchists.
“The Trump presidency has certainly given a boldness to fascists and racist movements throughout the country, and that’s a moment where anarchists are ready to respond in a way that many others aren’t,” said Samantha Miller, 32, a Washington anarchist who helped organize the Inauguration Day protests.
But that approach — in which people are willing to engage in some level of violence or property destruction to achieve a social or political goal — existed long before the Trump presidency.
Andrej Grubacic, an anarchist and anarchist theorist who heads the anthropology department at California Institute of Integral Studies, says that anarchism became an international movement during the first age of globalization at the end of the 1800s, when people were migrating around the world.
People moved across Europe, Asia, and the Americas seeking a better life, but didn’t always find it.
“They did not discover, as they expected, streets paved in gold,” Grubacic said. “They discovered lots of coal mines and factory jobs working in really bad conditions.”
Even then, anarchists were associated with violence. But Grubacic said that at the time, violent acts against people in power were an accepted part of radical politics. People saw it as a way to build social justice movements and stop wars.
During the 1886 Chicago Haymarket Square Riot, a bomb was thrown at a labor rally in support of eight-hour workdays, resulting in the death of at least eight people. Anarchists were convicted and sentenced to death for the crime, although there was not strong evidence against them, and many criticized the trial proceedings. The men are considered martyrs for the labor movement.
In 1901, Leon Czolgosz, a self-proclaimed anarchist, assassinated President William McKinley, a murder that was disavowed by many anarchists as hurting the movement. Czolgosz said that Emma Goldman, one of the most famous anarchist figures, inspired him. Goldman, who did not know Czolgosz, wrote about the assassination in the Free Society, a popular anarchist magazine at the time.
I care not what the rabble says; but to those who are still capable of understanding I would say that Anarchism, being, a philosophy of life, aims to establish a state of society in which man’s inner make-up and the conditions around him, can blend harmoniously, so that he will be able to utilize all the forces to enlarge and beautify the life about him. To those I would also say that I do not advocate violence; government does this, and force begets force. It is a fact which cannot be done away with through the prosecution of a few men and women, or by more stringent laws-this only tends to increase it.”
Violence damaged the anarchist movement’s reputation around the world, and at the onset of the 20th century, anarchists rebranded, referring to themselves as libertarians. In most countries today — with the United States among the exceptions — libertarianism is synonymous with anarchism.
When Nazis and fascists rose to power in Europe in the 1930s, anti-fascist groups emerged. The punk rock scene in the 1980s also spurred the growth of those groups in the United States. So has the issue of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Although these groups share many similarities and protest tactics with anarchists, they are focused on fighting fascist and racist politics. Anarchists in America, for example, also think that the government and Constitution are inherently racist and the entire U.S. government should be abolished and reimagined on a much smaller scale, Washington anarchists say.
Anarchism in the 21st century is most commonly associated with “black bloc” tactics — protests in which participants wear all-black clothing and black masks to conceal their identities as they often engage in property destruction. This makes it harder for participants to be charged and prosecuted. The “black bloc” approach was used during the 2017 Inauguration Day protest.
Grubacic said that it is possible to be an anarchist and disavow violence.
“Many anarchists disagree with the idea of breaking a window. But it’s a practical tactical disagreement, not a moral one,” Grubacic said.
“Breaking windows is a way of showing that we are not going to just go into the good night,” he said. “We are here and we are going to do everything we can to prevent the murders of millions of people. It’s a sense of just showing and demonstrating that we are serious about opposition to wars and opposition to violence against human beings.”
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