On Thursday, President Donald Trump reiterated his controversial and widely-criticized assertion that “many sides” share blame for the violence in Charlottesville, Va., in August. Trump cited recent clashes between antifa, a militant anti-fascist organization and white supremacist groups in Charlottesville as well as subsequent rallies across the nation, claiming antifa’s aggression justified his earlier reluctance to denounce white nationalism. 

Antifa’s methods — particularly their willingness to provoke violence with the far-right — are worthy of criticism, but one can denounce these methods without establishing moral equivalency between antifa and the white supremacists they oppose.

In the weeks since the Charlottesville rallies, considerable attention shifted to antifa, the far-left political movement that has taken a visible role in opposition to the so-called “alt-right.” Antifa was present in Charlottesville and took on more central roles in subsequent rallies in Berkeley, Calif., and Portland, Ore. Videos of antifa members attacking right-wing protestors led conservative political commentators to vocally decry the group. After the episode of violence in Berkeley, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi released a statement condemning the group and calling for the criminal prosecution of instigators.

Though other liberals have defended or expressed admiration for antifa, Pelosi is right. There is compelling evidence that antifa members incited the political violence in Berkeley and elsewhere. Jake Tapper, a CNN journalist, alleged that antifa members attacked journalists in Charlottesville.

It is prudent to denounce these methods, as our democracy thrives only under the framework of peaceful and respectful dialogue. Violence, even if retaliatory, against political opponents, no matter how vile their views, only degrades our ability to find and implement constructive solutions to our problems. Antifa’s violent tactics have demonstrated that the group aims to silence its political opponents through force and intimidation, which is an ugly and detestable strategy regardless of ideology.

Such violence and intimidation is neither justified nor pragmatic, as it only lends credence to President Trump’s claims of moral equivalency while also perpetuating the white nationalists’ false narrative of white persecution by the left (when in fact, right-wing extremists have been responsible for 74 percent of politically-motivated killings in the past decade). Furthermore, this violence irreversibly isolates antifa from the political mainstream, fracturing the opposition to white nationalism. The nation needs to form a united front against white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other far-right hate groups in order to effectively oppose white nationalism, but antifa’s belligerence impedes our ability to do so.

Perhaps most detrimentally, antifa has become a political distraction, drawing attention away from the anti-hate message of the counterprotest and siphoning criticism away from white nationalism. The national debate over antifa has shielded white nationalists from further criticism, even as they continue to stage rallies and marches across the United States. It is clear antifa’s methods have overshadowed its message, and that it is now a glaring liability in the struggle against white nationalism.

However, criticism of antifa should in no way establish, or even imply, a moral equivalency between antifa and white nationalism. Though labeled an anarchic group, antifa’s decentralized nature prevents it from developing a cohesive far-leftist ideology. Rather, antifa’s ideology is rooted in opposition to white supremacy, bigotry and racial hatred — after all, the group’s name is shorthand for anti-fascism.

Contrast this to the ideals of the white nationalist demonstrators in Charlottesville: overt racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia. Many of them openly identified with neo-Nazi organizations and other hate groups. Perhaps some of the “alt-right” marchers would bristle at being labeled a neo-Nazi, but it cannot be denied that they willingly associated themselves with neo-fascism while enthusiastically participating in a rally that had become a symbol of white supremacy. Indeed, the demonstration was promoted as a rally to “Unite the Right.”

This leads to another key distinction. While the “alt-right” marched in Charlottesville under the coordinated pretext of unifying the various factions of the “alt-right”, the counterprotestors were an ideologically eclectic group linked by only their common disgust of white supremacy and neo-Nazism. The anti-white nationalist crowd in Charlottesville included clergy, students and community leaders, with antifa only comprising a small, albeit visible, minority. Heather Heyer, the victim of the Charlottesville car attack, was not a radical, but an innocent woman brave enough to stand against racism.

Heyer’s tragic death exemplifies why it is inaccurate and disrespectful to push a “both sides” narrative, especially when characterizing the events in Charlottesville. The aggressive methods of antifa warrant explicit denouncement, but critics must be wary of straw man-ing the counterprotestors, as the vast majority are not represented by antifa. Furthermore, any criticism of antifa must not establish a pretext of moral equivalency between white supremacy and its opponents. The strongest condemnation should be reserved for white nationalism, as it is simply misguided to continue to focus on antifa when the more clamant matter is the pervasive presence of bigotry in American society.

Noah Harrison can be reached at noahharr@umich.edu.

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