Members of the black bloc march into Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park after police officers retreated during a day of protests in Berkeley on Sunday. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Members of the black bloc march into Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park after police officers retreated during a day of protests in Berkeley on Sunday. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Why use the term ‘Antifa’?


The term is increasingly being used to scoop many people into a giant rhetorical net, and there’s debate about what it refers to. The definition evolves as we speak.

If you listen to Trump apologists, you might get the impression that everyone who dares to speak out against the president is a member, or at least associated with, “Antifa.” Because when any talk of violence perpetrated by the hate groups that he is associated with arises, they immediately deflect, pointing to “violence” on the other side. Our side.

Some anti-Trump protesters are fine with being called “Antifa”; others don’t give the word much thought.

Antifa isn’t a new word; it’s sometimes used to describe European resistance to fascism that arose in the early part of the last century, among other movements in history. But in today’s context, something about the term “Antifa” feels thrust upon those of us who are standing up to hate.

Up until recently, protesters for any number of liberal causes, whether their style is peaceful or more confrontational, have not self-identified as “Antifa.” These social justice causes have their own names that reference resistance, anti-war, anti-hate, anti-corporations. Whether you agree with their agendas or tactics, they named themselves, often with words expressing values.

On the one hand, you could say “Antifa” is simply a word being repurposed to describe resistance in context to a president with a fascistic vision; a kind of shorthand we need today to toss a lot of outraged people about a lot of things into one basket to make it simple.

But context is key. Let’s look at the dynamic of these “rallies” organized by neo-Nazis, the KKK and others aligned with Trump’s agenda …

We know that guns and weapons are brought by the neo-Nazis who are instigating these events. They like to even wear their guns, proudly putting their mini-militias on display for all to see. But our side? The left? That’s not standard operating procedure.

Yes, sometimes people show up to protests or counter-protests on behalf of social justice causes who are intent on committing violence and mayhem. If they show up, they are small faction and don’t represent others who are there for peaceful protest.

Whether they actually believe that they are helping, there is always that possibility that a few will behave badly. And where there is a fight and broken windows, the media will go. But when referencing an entire body of people present to voice their dissent, why not use a neutral word, like “counter-protesters?” And if referencing any violence that took place, why not stick to numbers and descriptions of their words and acts? Or arrests and for what offenses? Why use the term “Antifa”?

Names matter. When I was a cultural anthropology student at San Francisco State University, we weren’t making comparative analysis between cultures anymore. Influenced by critical theory and French postmodernism, anthropology turned inward, asking what it means to compare, define and represent “others,” including the inherent power in words, naming and how power is reinforced as their usage evolves.

“Hegemonic discourse.” Often, we assume that word meanings and usages evolve organically, overlooking times when there is more to the story.

Make no mistake: Trump’s spin team is intent on conflating peaceful groups with acts of violence. And by stripping their individual group names, they erase any reference to values.

I came across an interview of Trump apologist/right-wing pundit Melanie Morgan describing “Antifa” on YouTube. Halfway into the 40-minute interview, I was thinking, “If watching this were a drinking game and each mention of George Soros or Bill Ayers was a sip, I would be out by now.” Trump’s spin team has its talking points and messaging memos and are dutifully following the script.

Did I mention that a pro-Trump online provocateur going by the name of “Microchip” started an online petition last week to have “Antifa” declared a terrorist group? It garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures (who knows how many are real) in just days.

Linguistics pioneer Noam Chomsky recently said “Antifa” is a “major gift to the right.”

When I asked cognitive linguist George Lakoff what he thought of the term, he replied, “My feeling is that ‘Antifa’ is an unintentional way of helping the alt-right.”

Maybe there is a way to help others understand. Increasingly, online tools are being developed that let anyone track propaganda dissemination, including hashtag evolution, associated words and influential accounts. Some are clunky, but we have to start somewhere.

I will be digging around to see what I can find and reporting back. In the meantime, you can check some of the resources, like Hamilton 68, and hashtag-tracking tools out for yourself.

Maureen Erwin is a Bay Area political consultant. Most recently she led Sonoma County’s Measure M, which will create the largest GMO-free growing zone in the U.S.

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