It's time for a closer look at the antifa

Crowds started gathering hours before the planned protest. By about 5 p.m., about 200 had arrived, and those who had come to participate in the anti-immigration rally commingled with counter-protesters. (Aug. 21, 2017) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here

It was a packed house at Red Emma's late last month when author Marc Bray came to talk about his book, "Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook." Members of the crowd spilled from the speaking area, a relatively small space marked by rows of chairs facing the back of the store, into the chairs and tables usually reserved for customers who are eating or drinking or reading.

Released this August, the book is a historical explainer about the roots of anti-fascism in Europe and North America during the '20s, '30s and '40s.


The book is a dense read but an important one. It shows how deadly hate can be, how efforts to whitewash or diminish the past only make the current danger more potent, and how there is no room for fence-sitters in the fight for good. Oh, and also that sometimes you have to punch a Nazi.

Crowds started gathering hours before the planned protest. By about 5 p.m., about 200 had arrived, and those who had come to participate in the anti-immigration rally commingled with counter-protesters. (Aug. 21, 2017) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here

Mr. Bray, in a button-down shirt and slacks, looked the part of visiting college professor as he read a section in his book about the 43 Group — a group mostly made up of Jewish veterans that formed in post-World War II Britain. London and other cities were still reeling from the effects of the war, Mr. Bray said, and fascists who had been jailed or had gone into hiding were re-emerging with their messages of hate.

The group began informally with just four men, then grew to 43 (hence the name), and swelled to over 300. Their goal: interrupting fascist events where organizers stoked resentment of the Jews, by any means necessary. That meant starting loud arguments with attendees, knocking over stages and yes, physical violence. And they were effective. Mr. Bray reports that the group was attacking six to 10 fascist meetings a week. And locals who had beforehand been afraid to leave their homes felt more confident and empowered.

Mr. Bray said that at the powers-that-be at the time tended to minimize the effect of these racist gatherings, saying that the groups' numbers were relatively small and they couldn't do much harm.

"But if you were a Jewish person in the East End of London who was scared to walk out your front door because your synagogue had been defaced or your cousin had been attacked a week earlier … then this was nothing marginal. Even in small numbers fascism can be dangerous, fascism can be deadly," he said.

The story is important for a few reasons. First of all, people can underestimate hate. World War II hadn't been over for long before people began getting overly hopeful about what it meant for the world. The rosy glasses went on before the rubble was cleaned up. Also, authorities were allowing these fascist gatherings to occur under the guise of free speech. These were just words, they reasoned, and words can't hurt. However those words led to very real consequences like attacks on synagogues and people. Similarly, today, journalist Shane Bauer (writing for Mother Jones) has noted that police have not always been proactive in containing these antifa versus fascist actions — sometimes even arresting and pepper spraying nonviolent activists while leaving supremacist demonstrators alone. Finally, our relationship with violence is a funny thing. People were not happy about antifascist violence even then, Mr. Bray writes, but it was effective and the marginalized groups targeted by the antifa felt safer and more empowered because of it.

It's hard not to draw lines from the story of the 43 Group to America in 2017. Hate groups aren't hiding — they are convening in places like Charlottesville, Va., and Berkeley, Calif. Just like then, hate groups are not afraid to show us their faces, not afraid to tell minorities that they won't be replaced by them, not afraid to translate the verbal violence of their words to physical, as 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. is alleged to have done when police say he ran Heather Heyer down in August.

Shortly after the incident President Donald Trump refused to condemn the white supremacist groups who'd gathered that weekend, saying that there were very fine people on both sides.

People remember the past the way they want to, and for many, it's intoxicatingly easy to imagine that peace is all you need to create a better world. It's easy to cling to an image of Martin Luther King Jr. standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial giving a soaring speech and point to that as racial progress. Easier still to forget that despite his hopes, he was hounded by the FBI, labeled "the most dangerous Negro in America," and gunned down for his efforts.

Another thing that Mr. Bray notes in his book is that anti-fascists have other work that they do — it's not all knocking heads and creating chaos. Many of them work to end sexism, racism and the like. They aren't on the scene because they want to be, only because they feel they have to be.

As for the argument that people like Milo Yiannopolous and his ilk are guaranteed the right to free speech, well, the First Amendment guarantees freedom to peaceably assemble. These gatherings, just like Klan marches in Jim Crow America decades before them, imply danger and violence. There is nothing peaceful about them. The antifa, then, fill in the messy spaces that would be taken care of if policing was not plagued with unresolved racial problems or if, say, the president of the United States was proactive in keeping all of its citizens safe.

Until that happens, it looks like they aren't going anywhere.