June 14, 2021 | Monograph
Behind the Black Bloc
An Overview of Militant Anarchism and Anti-Fascism
Senior Advisor on Asymmetric Warfare
In 2020–2021, the United States saw a discernible rise in armed politics and violent activism. Multiple factions and movements resorted to violence or the threat of violence to pursue their objectives, and the United States witnessed scenes it had not experienced for decades, such as armed citizens patrolling the streets in Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and elsewhere.1 Militant anarchists and anti-fascists often took to the streets during this period. On August 29, 2020, Michael Reinoehl became the first anti-fascist responsible for a killing in the United States in 25 years when he shot Aaron Danielson, a member of the far-right group Patriot Prayer, at a rally in Portland, Oregon.2
In 2020, Antifa became a household word and a contested topic in presidential debates. However, it is clearly difficult for many observers to differentiate anti-fascist and anarchist efforts from a broader set of protest activities. Militant anarchists and anti-fascists see themselves as responding to an oppressive state and the rise of fascist organizing. While militant anti-fascists and anarchists view themselves as the protectors of marginalized communities, other militant actors see anarchist and anti-fascist groups as the aggressors to whom they are responding.
This report analyzes militant anti-fascism and anarchism within the broader domestic tapestry of armed politics and also explores transnational movements connected to anarchism and anti-fascism. Ideologically, anarchism and anti-fascism are similar but not identical. Anarchism is resolute in its opposition to the state, whereas anti-fascists focus on opposing institutions, groups, and individuals they perceive as fascist. However, the two ideologies influence one another, and the two movements have notable commonalities. While neither is inherently violent, both ideologies have adherents who embrace the use of violence to achieve their goals. This report examines why and how these groups carry out violence, and how they interact with partners.
Anti-fascism and anarchism are not new ideologies. There is a rich history of global anti-fascist and anarchist organizing. Militant anarchists and anti-fascists are active in Europe, Latin America, and beyond, participating in acts of street violence similar to those recently seen in the United States. In some countries – particularly in Chile, Greece, Italy, and Mexico – militant anarchists also perpetrate violence outside of protest situations, including arson, bombings, assassinations, and assaults. Fortunately, militant anarchist and anti-fascist movements in the United States have conducted such attacks less frequently.
Experts view militant anarchist and anti-fascist activity as largely decentralized. Many of these militant groups exist solely at the local level, in small units called affinity groups. Members largely focus on limited violence during protests and other mass actions rather than carrying out targeted attacks. Militant anarchist and anti-fascist groups worldwide emphasize indirect communication with one another. Public blogs and news sites function as clearinghouses to issue communiqués, claim attacks, and publicize violence. Select conflict regions – particularly Rojava in Syria and the Donbas region in Ukraine – and major protests present opportunities for in-person exchanges.
Though militant anti-fascists and anarchists engage in violent activity, both movements embrace some elements of pacifism or nonviolence. Militant anarchists, for example, typically prefer attacking property and infrastructure over people. For attacks employing bombs, for example, they often strike at times when fewer people are expected to be at the attack location. However, anarchist groups in Latin America and Europe have intentionally engaged in lethal violence.
In the United States, the First Amendment protects advocacy of anarchist or anti-fascist goals and ideologies decoupled from the use of violence. Individual members of a single group may vary in their willingness to deploy violence to achieve shared goals. Groups and individuals who engage in violent activity may mingle with those who do not but espouse similar rhetoric or beliefs.
There may be a shift in militant anarchist and anti-fascist activities under the Biden administration. The activity of these groups tends to be cyclical, dependent upon the degree to which “fascists” are thought to be gaining power. These groups saw former President Donald Trump as fitting into this category. As a result, under his administration, the United States saw a significant increase in activity by anarchist and anti-fascist groups, reaching heights not seen in decades. Now that the apparent peak of civil unrest has passed and Trump has left office, militant anarchist and anti-fascist activities may decline. That said, militant anarchists and anti-fascists are motivated by a wide range of goals, many of which are unlikely to change under the new administration. Numerous groups that fall under this umbrella vociferously disagree with many of the Biden administration’s policies, which they believe do not go far enough to the left. Regardless, if militant anarchist and anti-fascist groups try to maintain a similar operational tempo under the Biden administration, they may attract less support. The biggest countervailing factor that may enable continued large-scale mobilizations is the information environment, which makes such mobilizations easier than ever before.
Conclusion and Policy Recommendations
Militant anarchists and anti-fascists present a challenging issue set. Countering the growing propensity for a variety of militant groups to dictate the American political conversation raises challenging questions in a democratic society. While militant groups may imperil public safety, much of their activity – including their advocacy of extreme ideas and engagement in aggressive protest activity – is constitutionally protected. To address the growing set of domestic challenges, this section outlines concrete steps that the U.S. government and society more broadly can take to curb the pull of violent extremism and the threat that it poses.
LEGALLY ADDRESS DOXXING TACTICS DESIGNED TO THREATEN VIOLENCE
Doxxing is a gray-area tactic employed by militant anarchists, anti-fascists, and extremists of other ideological persuasions. The difficulty in prosecuting doxxing lies with proving intent. In many cases, the legality of doxing can hinge on the presence of malicious intent, which, if not proven, can leave the victim with no recourse.170 Doxxing can be employed to intimidate and to threaten violence – for example, by exposing personal information (such as home addresses) of individuals targeted by these campaigns. The U.S. government must better protect against harmful doxxing. While there are complex speech-related issues at play, doxxing increasingly stifles speech. Tech companies can also play a role in countering doxxing by rapidly responding on their platforms.171
WORK WITH INTERNATIONAL PARTNERS TO DISRUPT TRANSNATIONAL COLLABORATION
Compared to other spheres of extremism, militant anti-fascists and anarchists are seemingly less internationalized. Nevertheless, the transnational elements of these movements deserve attention. The U.S. government should collaborate with international partners to study transnational activity among both groups and individuals. A number of militant anarchist groups have cells or affinity groups in multiple countries, while individual anti-fascists and anarchists have traveled to combat zones. The highest levels of anarchist violence are currently in Europe and Latin America, and the United States could see an uptick in violence if these foreign groups increasingly penetrate U.S.-based activism.
The U.S. government should study relevant trends to prepare for potential new avenues for the internationalization of militant activity and possible transnational collaboration by these groups, with an eye toward disrupting such efforts. Such awareness would empower U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies to respond more effectively to future acts of anarchist and anti-fascist violence.
RESIST DEPLATFORMING UNDER THREAT OF FORCE
Deplatforming, or physically denying platforms to individuals with whom one disagrees, is a tactic used by anarchist and anti-fascist extremists, sometimes violently. To prevent this tactic from being normalized, efforts must be mounted to resist it. While the initial effect of physical deplatforming may be to deny speech to a single individual, deplatforming has broader impacts. First Amendment-protected speech is denied under threats of violence, due to the perspective of the speaker.
A whole-of-society approach is needed to protect speech and resist deplatforming. The tactic can also be a driver of reciprocal radicalization. Denying speech and operating space, sometimes by force, serves only to further radicalize and galvanize those who have been deplatformed or support the denied perspective. The potential for such activities to spark violence should be apparent. It is important that institutions, be they universities, government offices, or other entities, protect people’s right to free speech, including those who are controversial.
UNDERSTAND THE INFLUENCE OF RECIPROCAL RADICALIZATION AND FRINGE FLUIDITY
As noted, fringe fluidity and reciprocal radicalization deserve attention. In the current age of extremism and armed politics, fringe fluidity may become an increasingly powerful force. Likewise, evidence of reciprocal radicalization among extremist groups demands attention. In today’s political climate, extremists of one political persuasion have no shortage of opposing actors and events to radicalize them. Washington should devote resources to studying these phenomena. Doing so would afford an understanding of how extremist organizations and ideologies can overlap and interact with each other, and could open new avenues for reducing the size of extremist ecosystems.
RESIST THE TEMPTATION TO PICK SIDES BETWEEN EXTREMIST GROUPS
In recent years, U.S. government officials have spoken ambiguously and unclearly about extremist violence. This is highly problematic. Political leaders must recognize the role they play in furthering extremist narratives. Reacting to violent extremism by choosing a side to make a political point serves to prioritize goals and enemies as the extremists would. As political factions and movements in the United States resort to the use or threat of violence, politicians must be unified and precise in their messaging: Political violence is intolerable in a democratic society. Such language would deny political legitimacy to extremist groups and individuals seeking to use violence to advance political goals.