Antifa. Anarchists. Alt-left rioters. Black Bloc. Regardless of their preferred name, these radical groups have recently catapulted into the national spotlight as opportunistic purveyors of violence and destruction, often utilizing high-visibility events such as the speaking engagement of a conservative author at the University of California at Berkeley in February to riot and inflict physical violence and cause thousands of dollars of property damage, utilizing their signature mob chaos and havoc-laden tactics.
From the American political party conventions held every four years and the G8 Summits staged across the globe, to many lesser-known regional protests such as those now roiling over the removal of Confederate monuments, a common and generally violent attendee often rears its ugly head. Antifa, as it is now widely known, is predictable in its tactics and responses. Law enforcement agencies must be informed about the group and its tactics, so they can be prepared to competently execute mass civil unrest strategies to prevent the loss of innocent lives, and the large-scale destruction of property.
While Antifa is generally recognized by its trademark all-black clothing and mob stratagem, police are often otherwise unfamiliar with this parasitic and calamitous criminal subculture. In order for law enforcement officers to effectively safely interact with and competently prosecute anarchists such as Antifa, a more in-depth examination is helpful.
A Short, Destructive History
Antifa, an abbreviated acronym for "anti-fascist," has emerged in the United States in the last decade, particularly fueled by the widening divide between political ideologies. As both left-wing and right-wing political stances have become increasingly entrenched, and from some perspectives extreme, in recent years, Antifa has become the militant, destructive muscle of the severe, militant, far left-wing.
Viewing the current presidential administration as "fascist" and dictatorial, Antifa members often see themselves as righteous revolutionaries and freedom fighters, and therefore self-justify the use of violence, rioting, and destruction of property to dismantle the evil status quo. Unlike legitimate peaceful, non-violent forms of protest, Antifa advocates "direct action," which employs volatile clashes with their opponents, the police, or any other perceived threat, obstacle, or enemy.
During the 2016 presidential election cycle, Antifa members clashed violently with white nationalists and right-wing factions nationwide along the Trump campaign trail. Other more recent incidents gave the movement the spotlight in the national media.
In February, Milo Yiannopoulos, a confrontational and controversial alt-right national speaker and author, was scheduled to speak at UC Berkeley. Prior to the start of the event, Antifa groups stormed the campus building where the speech was to be held and violently engaged police forces, set fires, launched incendiary devices toward officers, and destroyed thousands of dollars of campus property, forcing the cancelation of the event.
On March 4 at a pro-Trump rally in Berkeley, numerous injuries and 10 arrests resulted from Antifa clashes with police. Local police confiscated improvised weapons from the rioters, including baseball bats, bricks, metal pipes, wooden boards, and knives.
Another political speech, this time by conservative author Ann Coulter, was canceled by authorities at UC Berkeley in mid-April following overt threats of violence and mayhem by Antifa groups.
In May, Antifa groups threatened to violently disrupt the Portland Rose Festival in Multnomah County, OR, due to their distaste for a local Republican Party group participating in the festival. The festival was canceled.
On August 12 in Charlottesville, VA, hundreds of white nationalist and white supremacist adherents held a rally to protest the pending removal of a Confederate memorial in a public park. In the weeks leading up to the demonstration, Antifa groups online advertised the day as "The Battle for Charlottesville," and touted rallying cries for Antifa members to flock to Charlottesville. As the two groups converged throughout the day of the event, predictable violence and mayhem ensued, and tragically one protestor was killed when a white nationalist allegedly drove his car into a crowd of protesters.
Identifying Them in the Crowd
To effectively identify criminal Antifa members among authentic protestors and demonstrators, officers need to know their common traits and physical identifiers. A common symbol utilized by Antifa is the "Anarchy A," which is composed of a capital letter "A" within a circle. Officers may see this image in the form of graffiti, but more often as a body tattoo. Another common Antifa tattoo consists of the letters "ACAB," which stand for All Cops Are Bastards. The black flag of anarchy also advertises the presence of criminal-minded Antifa members. The flag may appear as solid black or as a red and black divided rectangle, and it is often hoisted in the air on flag sticks amid protesting crowds.
Typically, Antifa employs a common mode of dress, which is part of a tactic frequently called "Black Bloc." In the "Black Bloc" stratagem, throngs of Antifa members all dress in black clothing in an effort to appear as a unified assemblage, giving the appearance of solidarity for the particular cause at hand. This tactic is particularly troubling for law enforcement security forces, as no single Antifa rioter can be distinguished from another, allowing virtual anonymity while they are conducting destructive and violent criminal acts as a group.
The more dangerous criminal Antifa rioters can assault police security forces, and then easily blend back into the mob and disappear. Antifa members in Seattle recently hurled canned food at police horses as well as mounted police officers, then blended back into the hordes of black-clad rioters like cowards. Even when viewing video surveillance footage after a criminal riot and attempting to determine the problematic catalysts for the criminality, investigators can have difficulty differentiating one Antifa subject from another. Antifa adherents also often wear dark-colored bandanas tied loosely around their necks, which can be used as makeshift gas masks to rebuff chemical munitions should they be deployed by police. These facial coverings also conceal the wearer's identity.
Criminal Antifa sects normally attempt to comingle in genuine protest demonstrations, and are known to wear their "Black Bloc" monochromatic uniform underneath outer clothes, so as not to immediately stand out in the crowd. Officers should also scan for backpacks, which may conceal containers of broken glass, acid-filled projectiles for throwing, or cans of spray paint for vandalism. Antifa is also known to pre-stage hidden caches of improvised weaponry in the area of a planned protest or demonstration, to be easily accessible by their riotous members. These everyday items used as weapons often include vehicle lug nuts, golf balls, hammers, broken glass, and "smilies"—bandanas looped through padlocks and violently swung at enemies.
Dealing with Antifa
It is important to understand that not every public protest or demonstration will attract an element of Antifa. The types of demonstrations most commonly attended by Antifa groups include those against environmentally harmful practices, those against gentrification, anti-police rallies, right-wing political events, and most recently those contesting the removal of Confederate war monuments. When you must deal with Antifa, a few key focal points are crucial.
First, know that you will be recorded. Antifa members most often surreptitiously video and audio record their interactions with police forces in an effort to capture some demonizing interchange or illegal commands by an officer. When speaking with any criminal-minded anarchic Antifa adherent, always assume that you are being recorded and know that even your most benign statement may be edited and manipulated against you. The more tactically minded Antifa members will often bait officers into making emotionally charged statements with confrontational and cantankerous interactions that they will capture on video.
Antifa subjects will often be students of search-and-seizure laws, so agencies must ensure that officers clearly understand Fourth Amendment dictums. Law enforcement officers monitoring these volatile protests should also be experts in their local city ordinances, which regulate demonstrators' limitations and rules. For instance, in many metropolitan areas, local ordinances dictate the maximum size of protest signs, the use of amplified sound, and the wearing of facial coverings during demonstrations. If you are aware of such ordinances in your jurisdiction you can use them to legally remove anarchic Antifa groups from the situation on minor infractions. Such a simple, proactive measure can often turn the tide back in the direction of civility and order.
Perhaps most importantly, police agencies should plan ahead. Agencies should know who may attend these unstable protests so they can somewhat predict challenges before they present themselves. Written tactical plans should dictate law enforcement security force deployment, police video surveillance plans, contingency procedures, and plans for medical emergencies, should they arise. Delineated protest zones and separate cordoned areas for counter-protestors should be clearly defined.
Protestors and counter-protestors both have the right to demonstrate and voice their beliefs, but agencies should be cautioned about placing these groups too closely to one another. It is important to remember that while the First Amendment protects free speech and assembly, it also mandates that the assembly be peaceable. Not all speech and not every public assembly is constitutionally protected. Public speech that is likely to incite imminent violent reaction is not legal.
Subversive, criminally intentioned Antifa is a new form of challenge for American police departments when monitoring and providing security for the appropriate, legal exercise of citizens' First Amendment right to free speech and peaceable assembly during protests and demonstrations. But with exhaustive preplanning and adequate event-specific training prior to volatile public demonstrations, officers can safely and competently face and manage encounters with Antifa.
Kory Flowers is an 18-year sergeant with the Greensboro (NC) Police Department who has extensive investigative and undercover experience tracking criminal subversive groups, including anarchists, white supremacists, and sovereign citizens. Flowers trains law enforcement officers nationwide on various extremist groups and criminal factions, and has written articles and conducted interviews and podcasts for publications including POLICE Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and National Public Radio.