On the morning of the protest, Sean Hines of Santa Rosa awoke with a sense of purpose he’d seldom felt. He was a 20-year-old high school dropout with no car, no job and no money. A year and a half ago, he’d been arrested for a drunken brawl. Now Hines was about to be arrested again, but for something he believed in.
In the halfway house where he lived, Hines dressed in all black. He chugged an energy drink, popped some nicotine gum and climbed into a friend’s car that blasted German punk rock as it barreled toward Berkeley.
“Alerta, alerta, anti-fascista!” the chorus shrieked.
It was a call to arms for militant anti- fascists, or “antifa” — and Hines was heeding it.
But the Aug. 27 protest in Berkeley did not go according to plan. Police quickly arrested Hines and 12 others. Then, in images broadcast across the country, more than 100 antifa activists leapt over barricades and stormed Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, attacking a handful of President Donald Trump supporters and right-wing activists.
Despite the presence of hundreds of peaceful protesters unaffiliated with antifa, images of the violence led most media coverage of the event.
A month earlier, few Americans had heard of antifa. Then came Charlottesville, Virginia, where antifa activists were credited with protecting clergy members from attacks by white supremacists.
The violence in Berkeley led to a backlash, including from the left. The city’s mayor, a Democrat, called for antifa to be classified as a gang and for UC Berkeley to cancel conservative speeches this month to avoid more violence.
In Washington, where antifa smashed storefronts and torched a limousine on Inauguration Day, authorities fear the far-left activists will strike again Saturday, when the Mall will host the “Juggalo March” — a gathering of fans of the rap group Insane Clown Posse — and a pro-Trump event dubbed the Mother of All Rallies.
If Trump’s election has emboldened the far right, it has also energized its enemies.
Hidden behind masks, however, antifa activists remain mysterious. Are they everyday citizens guarding against the rise of a Fourth Reich? Or are they, as Trump has claimed, merely the “alt-left” — a lawless mirror image of the white supremacists they oppose?
On Thursday, Trump claimed recent antifa antics had justified his much-criticized response to Charlottesville, in which he blamed the violence on “both sides.”
“I think, especially in light of the advent of antifa, if you look at what’s going on there, you have some pretty bad dudes on the other side also, and essentially that’s what I said,” he told reporters Thursday.
Interviews with a dozen antifa activists show they come from a variety of backgrounds and are only loosely affiliated. Some, like Hines, are youths in search of a cause. Others have been demonstrating for decades. Many are anarchists, although some vote. They employ a range of peaceful tactics, including doxing, or exposing personal details about, white supremacists. While they are all open to using violence, some embrace it — even glorify it.
What unites them is the belief that free speech is secondary to squashing fascism before it takes root in the United States.