Research

The Antifa Academic

A Dartmouth lecturer who wrote a book on the anti-fascist movement discusses his research and the people at the center of it

August 24, 2017

Mark Bray: "I felt it was incumbent upon me, not only as a scholar but as an activist and also as a Jew who lost part of my family in the Holocaust, to encourage people through whatever means they see fit to organize against white supremacy."

Since the 2016 election, the rise of the so-called alt-right has drawn another fringe group onto college campuses and into the public consciousness: antifa, a contraction of the word "anti-fascist."

Antifa members violently protested Milo Yiannopoulos’s speeches, prompting the University of California at Berkeley to cancel an event scheduled on that campus in February. They were at a white-supremacist rally that began on August 11 at the University of Virginia and that turned deadly in Charlottesville, Va., the following day.

For the most part, antifa groups have drawn steady condemnation because of their willingness to use violence and their position that some views are so abhorrent they should not be voiced. But since Charlottesville, more voices have come to antifa’s defense.

One of those belongs to Mark Bray, a lecturer at Dartmouth College. His book, Antifa: the Anti-Fascist Handbook is part history of the movement, part argument for why it should be taken seriously. Some news organizations have been willing to do that ever since the rally in Charlottesville and President Trump’s subsequent comment that seemed to equate neo-Nazis and white nationalists with those protesting against them. Mr. Bray published an op-ed in The Washington Post the day after Mr. Trump’s comments and has appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press, the NPR talk show 1A, in a story in The Guardian and in a book review in The New Yorker.

Mr. Bray’s work and comments also drew a statement from Philip J. Hanlon, Dartmouth’s president, who said the lecturer’s views do not represent those of the college.

"As an institution, we condemn anything but civil discourse in the exchange of opinions and ideas," the statement said. "Dartmouth embraces free speech and open inquiry in all matters, and all on our campus enjoy the freedom to speak, write, listen and debate in pursuit of better learning and understanding; however, the endorsement of violence in any form is contrary to Dartmouth values."

Mr. Bray spoke to The Chronicle about his book and its subjects. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Can you describe antifa’s recent history since the presidential election?

A: I’ll go back a little further than that. In the 1990s the Anti-Racist Action movement was the vehicle for this kind of organizing in North America. It went into a bit of a decline in the mid-2000s. In the late 2000s a new wave of anti-fascist organizing started to get going including Rose City Antifa in Portland, Ore., in 2007 and NYC Antifa in 2010.

But it wasn’t really until Trump’s campaign and his election that more and more of these groups formed. In the course of my interviews, I learned about a number of groups that were formed in 2015, 2016, and 2017.

Regarding the popular awareness of antifa, that really started with the shutting down of the Milo Yiannopoulos event at UC-Berkeley. Even before that, you can to some extent point to the punching of Richard Spencer at the inauguration as a little bit of a preview. That made this book newsworthy and relevant, but certainly the events of Charlottesville, the tragic death of Heather Heyer, the remarks by President Trump about there being violence on many sides, made it really germane to the national conversation. Even at the rally in Phoenix, he, I think for the first time, explicitly called out antifa.

Q: Is there a typical kind of person who adopts this ideology? Are they younger or older? Are they educated?

A: These groups tend to be very private and practice what they refer to as security culture and try to conceal their identities. I know some of the people who I interviewed, but many of them I don’t. Many of them I spoke to via encrypted chats and don’t even know their gender or racial identity.

It’s safe to say it tends to trend young as most radical groups tend to in the United States. I will say it’s more diverse, both in terms of race and gender, than some mainstream portrayals would have us believe. There are some where the majority of the members are women.

The other thing to add in terms of the trajectory of what is taking hold: At this point there are people showing up to demonstrations and marches with anti-fascist flags who are interested in taking some pages out of the playbook of anti-fascism who aren’t necessarily part of a group.

Q: Are there college students who are part of antifa, and is there an overt connection between student activism and antifa, or are they coming in contact now for the first time?

A: To be a full member of one of these groups is a huge time commitment. The vetting process that they have to bring in new people is extensive and thorough and lasts a long time. They’re concerned about being infiltrated. The time commitments it requires in terms of monitoring far-right groups, doing training, and participating in group readings is so huge that a lot of people in general and probably a lot of college students in particular are not prepared to do it.

I do think that the example set by antifa groups and the principles they propose, such as "no platform for fascism," are growing and becoming popular.

Q: You make it very clear in your introduction that this isn’t a nonpartisan look at antifa and you’re even donating part of the proceeds to an antifascist group. Why did you choose to frame it that way?

A: I don’t think that we can be neutral about fascism or neutral about white supremacy. Given the stakes of the current political moment and a really dangerous attempt by the "alt-right" to make racism great again, I felt it was incumbent upon me, not only as a scholar but as an activist and also as a Jew who lost part of my family in the Holocaust, to encourage people through whatever means they see fit to organize against white supremacy. To me that involves taking a stand. I’m trying to explain to the general public what this political point of view is about, so, agree or disagree, the public will at least have an accurate view of it. I also want to empower a new generation with the methods and strategies used by the 60 anti-fascists from 17 different countries who I interviewed.

Q: You write that antifa groups are trying to deny fascists a platform by any means necessary. Most universities have taken the position that more speech is the best way to counter bad speech and that we can’t infringe on the rights of anyone to speak because that infringes on the rights of everyone to speak. Can you explain where people in anti-fascist groups are coming from?

A: For the most part, historically, anti-fascism has focused on depriving a platform to organized far-right groups. The recent university element of it is a little bit of a wrinkle on the traditional model. It’s a slightly different conversation to have at a university versus a neo-Nazi group that’s trying to a rally in a park.

When this debate exploded after the Milo incident there were some university officials who took a more nuanced stance. One was an NYU vice provost, Ulrich Baer. He came out arguing that if we want to maximize free speech and make it so that people from all sorts of opinions and backgrounds and identities can feel comfortable participating in the public sphere of the university, we can’t allow groups and individuals to dehumanize our colleagues and fellow students and make it so that people feel unsafe on the campus. (Katherine E. Fleming, New York University’s provost, wrote a letter to The New York Times clarifying that "the free exchange of ideas is a bedrock principle at NYU.")

Nell Gluckman writes about faculty issues and other topics in higher education. You can follow her on Twitter @nellgluckman, or email her at nell.gluckman@chronicle.com.