One day after George Floyd’s death, crowds flooded the streets of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. On the third day of raging protests, a contingent of rebels besieged the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct. In retreat, the cops abandoned the building, and by the next morning, it was a gutted, charred shell.
Protests spread quickly across the country, with undulating levels of ferocity. The riots not only represented the boldest popular abolitionist expression in at least a generation; they also marked a jolting rupture in pandemic-era isolation. “All riots emit a world-historical shine, but the George Floyd uprisings were extra radiant because they opened the doors of the world,” artist and writer Hannah Black reflected. “The riots saved social life by proving that it was possible, with masks and moving air, to spend time together outdoors without getting sick.”
At the time, we did not fully know the relatively low risk of contagion while moving outdoors, especially in masks; what we did know was the extreme threat posed to Black life by the plague of policing. As ever, but for new reasons, masks and mutual aid helped keep rebels safe. Life spread through the furious crowds; the virus did not.
Extreme state repression reliably followed, with brutal policing of protests leading to thousands of arrests. Defanging liberal calls for “peaceful protest” rang out, as did condemnations of property destruction as violence. The militancy of the first weeks of uprising gave way to long and predictable mass marches. But those eruptive nights in early June were the most powerful challenges to the city’s racist bastions — policing and the property it protects — that I have ever witnessed.
Within two days of Floyd’s murder, as the protests spread nationwide, Trump signaled his strategy to invoke “Antifa” to undermine the uprisings as the work of “outside agitators” while further encouraging and legitimizing law enforcement crackdowns and white supremacist vigilantism. As is typical, he did so with a most Trumpian tweet: “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.” The statement combined a profound ignorance of — or disregard for — the official mechanisms of US governance, a deep connection to the mentality of his white supremacist base, a desire to distract and distort, and an authoritarian confidence (grimly justified) in the political consequences of his raging online proclamations. Of course, the president could not, in one fell tweet, shift the legal status of anti-fascist activity or Antifa affiliations. Needless to repeat that no centralized Antifa “organization” exists. Nor is there any US statute under which groups are designated domestic terror organizations. Nonetheless, federal law enforcement uses domestic terrorism categories to organize and describe cases, and a host of anti-terrorism laws are available for use against “domestic extremists.” Trump’s tweet was by no means meaningless. Dozens of protest arrestees around the country reported being questioned during their detention about Antifa connections, often by clueless federal agents tasked with producing a reality to match the Trumpian mythology of Antifa “terror.”
With the cynical invocation of “Antifa,” politicians ranging from far right to centrist liberal sought to discredit Black rebellion, while laying the ground for ever more-brutal anti-Black repression. Since no formal Antifa organization exists, the label provided an expansive-enough cover for a wide range of crackdowns and retaliations against any number of protesters. Trump blamed “ANTIFA,” and Attorney General Bill Barr followed up by stating that the Justice Department planned to use its network of 56 regional FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces to identify the “criminal organizers and instigators,” while specifically naming “Antifa and other similar groups.” Even though the term was largely an empty signifier in the scope of the Black-led uprisings, such finger-pointing served as a tool to unleash the weight of federal law enforcement against Black protest, while rhetorically denying Black agency.
It is a historical racist trope to suggest that Black communities cannot rise up and self-organize huge revolutionary action. In every major city, it was abundantly clear that young Black people were leading the uprisings. The promulgation of outside-agitator myths erased the agency of those communities organizing on the front lines. This divide-and-conquer strategy is as old and tired as any “bad protester versus good protester” dyad, which time and again has distracted from the glut of police violence attending every moment of anti-racist protest.
It just so happens that the Ku Klux Klan also favored this strategy. In the 1930s, the Klan issued flyers in Alabama stating that “paid organizers for the communists are only trying” to get Black people “in trouble.” As James Baldwin wrote in 1961, “It is a notion which contains a gratuitous insult implying,” that Black people “can make no move unless they are manipulated.”
When Trump railed against Antifa and “radical-left anarchists,” the assumption was clearly that these so-called infiltrators were to be imagined as white. There is little doubt that white anarchists and self-identifying Antifa activists took part in the 2020 protests and, at times, took militant action. But having been involved in anarchist organizing in the United States for a decade, I can assure you that there are simply far too few explicitly anarchist or Antifa activists (white or non white) to account for the vast scope of insurrectionary activity that took place over those weeks. And, more to the point, the Black people taking radical action have no need for white leftist instigation.
Politicians like New York mayor Bill de Blasio also blamed “anarchists” and “Antifa” for the riotous protests in their cities, tacitly suggesting that a furious eruption against the constant violence exerted against Black life would be somehow illegitimate or inexplicable — that it must have come from outside. Not to mention that most of the “outside agitator” claims were provably false. Minnesota governor Tim Walz said that 81 percent of protest arrestees in the first days of the uprisings were not locals; however, numerous press reports found that over 80 percent of arrestees had local addresses. As Austin-based anarchist scott crow wrote in early June, “Blaming anarchists and antifa, with absolutely no evidence, is a way to make what’s happening seem fringe and marginal when these are popular uprisings … This is a time of mass outrage at an unjust system.”
The uprisings were not ignited through infiltration by Antifa cells, but they are accurately described as anti-fascist. “Antifa,” after all, is not only a shortening of “anti-fascist,” but also speaks to a set of radical practices inherited through a particular historical trajectory and tradition — one with European origins. The driving anti-fascist force behind the 2020 uprisings was born of a different legacy, that of militant Black resistance in this country. So when Trump, his servile Justice Department, and numerous Republicans and Democrats were swift to blame Antifa and “outside agitators” for inciting unrest, it was an erasure of the anti-fascism endogenous to Black liberation struggle.
Trump-led efforts to discredit the uprisings as the work of Antifa unwittingly highlighted the importance of reorienting our frameworks of anti-fascism in the United States to center its legacy in the Black radical tradition. In doing so, we can better appreciate the sui generis nature of American fascism in a way that makes clear, in no uncertain terms, that fascism in this country was not undone with the unseating of Trump, nor is it simply a question of battling far-right organizations and individuals. Its shock troops and structures, to say nothing of its core constituencies, remain firmly on the scene.
The most powerful rebellions in half a century may have erupted in the Trump era, but they took aim at a racist fascism that is far older, and all too-overlooked by a liberal commentariat fixated on Trumpian “norm-busting.” As such, the uprisings for Black life and liberation have clarified the scope and shape of contemporary American fascism and anti-fascism in a way never accomplished by preceding debates around Trump, his supporters and policies, or around Antifa and Antifa tactics.
“As the Black Lives Matter movement has made clear, the threat is not of a ‘return of the 1930s’ but the ongoing fact of racialized state terror,” wrote critical theorist Alberto Toscano in October 2020. “This is the ever-present danger that animates present-day anti-fascist energies in the United States.” And as much as a fascist constellation need not bear the name “fascist” to be so (most fascists disavow the label), anti-fascist struggle need not coalesce under the banner of anti-fascism, or Antifa, to be rightly understood as anti-fascist in practice.
Thus, to describe the anti-racist uprisings as also “anti-fascist” is not only accurate — and a way to subvert Trumpian anti-Antifa vitriol — but also recognizes the history of Black radicalism, which has for decades insisted that the US police state be understood as a fascist one. As historian Robyn C. Spencer noted in 2017:
Black history has been marginalized in this burgeoning contemporary discourse about fascism. Analyses of the US as fascist have a long history in the Black intellectual tradition. Black thinkers like Harry Hayward, Claudia Jones, George Jackson and Kuwasi Balagoon used fascism as an analytical framework to understand the rise of segregation in the South after Reconstruction; white populism at the turn of the 19th century; land and labor struggles in the Black Belt South, and the evolution of capitalism in the 1970s.
The commentators who expended considerable energies distinguishing the Trump presidency from a formal fascist regime overlooked not only decades of theorizing on European fascism (as I have previously noted), but also the historical work of Black radicals in the United States, who rightly insisted on seeing fascism as operative on — and in the very consistency of — US soil, as well as at work through the state’s war machine abroad. It was through a lens of anti-fascism that the Black Panthers “sought to make their class and cross-race anti-imperialist politics more explicit,” wrote Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. in Black against Empire. The Black Panther Party (BPP), the historians noted, “began widely using fascism to describe the U.S. policies of U.S. government” in the late 1960s, a period when the organization was establishing leadership of a revolutionary movement in allegiance with other oppressed communities and liberation fighters around the country and world, from Vietnam to South Africa. In short, fascism became a conceptual hinge that made it possible to unite seemingly distinct movements and diverse constituencies into a common cause opposed to repressive capacities of the American state. “This is fascism; there’s no doubt about it,” Angela Davis said in December 1969 at a rally of 4,000 protesters outside Los Angeles City Hall, referring to the brutal police raid on the Panthers’ LA headquarters. The raid was the first-ever example of a Special Weapons Assault Team (SWAT) attack; cops with M16 rifles, dressed in all-black, military-style uniforms, fired 5,000 rounds at the Panthers’ heavily fortified building.
In July of that year, the Panthers organized the United Front against Fascism (UFAF) conference in Oakland, which drew around 5,000 attendees from around the country, with representatives from over 300 organizations. “In addition to the Young Lords, Red Guard, Los Siete de la Raza, Young Patriots, and Third World Liberation Front, attendees included the Peace and Freedom Party, the International Socialist Club, Progressive Labor, Students for a Democratic Society, the Young Socialist Alliance, and various groups within the Women’s Liberation Movement,” noted Bloom and Martin, “a broad cross-section of the New Left.” As might be expected, numerous tense debates arose, including around problems of male supremacy in liberation struggles. Yet there was strong consensus around understanding the US police and carceral state as a locus of fascism. Such a theory differed markedly from a European experience defined by mass fascist parties and the formal suspension of liberal democracy. Nevertheless, it pointed to some unmistakable similarities: authoritarian creep, racialized violence, and an increasingly aggressive posture domestically and abroad in the service of capital.
The conference inaugurated the formation of National Committees to Combat Fascism (NCCFs) in at least eighteen cities: a multiracial network of community groups, organized under the BPP umbrella, that focused on orchestrating local campaigns for community control of police and building legal teams to defend political prisoners. Today’s abolitionist fight to defund the police and invest instead in non-carceral systems of community support and economic justice unquestionably belongs to this anti-fascist lineage, yet, as Spencer also pointed out, these historical and conceptual linkages have been lost to popular memory:
In late January 2017, fascism remain[ed] in the top 1 percent of words searched in the US according to Merriam-Webster, leading one news article to opine that “Americans Worried About Fascism.” Yet the UFAF’s Wikipedia page is two sentences long and does not even acknowledge that the Panthers were the main impetus behind the conference. The NCCFs don’t even have a Wikipedia page.
In a 1971 letter from prison that described incarcerated life, revolutionary author George Jackson wrote of the enduring “manifestations of fascism” — “the concrete and steel, the tiny electronic listening device concealed in the vent, the phalanx of goons peeping in” — as well as the intolerable economic realities faced by the Black working class. Jackson was shot dead by prison guards the following year. The incarcerated population at the time of Jackson’s execution was around 200,000 people; presently, the country cages well over 2 million people. While Black people make up 13 percent of the general population, they comprise 40 percent of the prison population. It’s hardly surprising that the term “fascist” continues to be invoked to describe such a vast archipelago of detention and premature death.
The manifestations of fascism that Jackson and Davis, among others, described have only expanded their reach. Prior to the BPP’s decimation by the FBI’s merciless COINTELPRO campaign, its efforts to build a “United Front” against fascism expressed what an effective anti-fascist solidarity could look like. It does no justice to that legacy to pretend that we can practice an anti-fascism worthy of the name without prioritizing the fight for police and prison abolition—in short, against the fulcrum of a peculiarly American reaction. “If the growing resistance movement to Trump’s fascism is to realize its potential for societal transformation, it must draw from the deep well of Black anti-fascist resistance,” Spencer wrote. Three years later, in continuation of that very tradition, the George Floyd rebellions offered the most potent expression of anti fascist struggle of the Trump era.
Throughout the summer of 2020, the uprisings escalated, de-escalated, and re-escalated with shifting loci nationwide — from Atlanta, Philadelphia and Portland, to Louisville, where police had executed Breonna Taylor that March; to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where cops had maimed and paralyzed Jacob Blake when they shot the 29-year-old Black man seven times in the back at close range. Again and again, federal and local law enforcement displayed allegiance with white supremacist militia, who prowled the streets in numerous towns and cities where protests had erupted.
The heavily armed, camo-clad white far-right “patriots” were often indistinguishable from the militarized forces sent in to quash the revolts. Dozens of videos captured instances of cops and federal agents thanking the vigilantes for their presence — the state and civilian fascists in deadly union for whiteness and property against Black life. Government forces were filmed sharing water with and thanking Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old Trump fanatic who had traveled across state lines to Kenosha. Later that night he shot dead two Black Lives Matter protesters. Leaked Department of Homeland Security memos revealed that its federal agents were later advised to publicly support the right-wing teen and claim that he “took his rifle to the scene of the rioting to help defend small business owners.” For federal law enforcement to stand with open white supremacy was by no means unique under Trump; on the contrary, this is the raison d’être of US policing.
As the full weight of the government’s law enforcement apparatus bore down on the anti-racist protesters, leaked FBI documents made clear that the agency was well aware that white supremacist groups constituted by far the deadliest threat of extremist violence in the country. Unsurprisingly, however, efforts to crush and weaken the fight for Black lives took priority. During the summer of 2020 there were almost as many federal anti-riot charges as there had been in the previous thirty years combined. That some cities saw vigorous protests last for weeks on end speaks all the more to their tenacity. In Portland, anti-racist standoffs with local police, federal agents and other fascist thugs lasted over one hundred nights.
Five years prior, establishment politics and media had transmogrified the Ferguson and Baltimore rebellions into cries for police reform — which they were not. But the fires of 2020 largely resisted such reduction, despite ample liberal efforts. The demand from the streets to abolish the police — at the very least to defund them — would not be contained, even as the summer’s great wave of riotous protest calmed.
The uprisings carried forward the legacy of anti-racism anti-fascism rooted not in twentieth-century Europe, but in the Black radical tradition that has long insisted that racist fascism coexists within, rather than in antagonism to, US liberal democracy. Less interested in comparing an American president to Hitler or Mussolini, this capacious anti-fascism recognizes the continuity from slavery and colonial oppression, through the overthrow of Reconstruction and the establishment of Jim Crow rule, to the fascistic operations of carcerality to which Black life is subjugated to this day. There is a history of mutual enrichment between abolitionist Black anti-fascism and the forebears of contemporary Antifa; indeed, the genealogies are not entirely distinct. But, as the uprisings of multiracial rebels exemplified, in the legacy of the Panthers and the long Black radical tradition, the struggle against American fascism is, has always been, and necessarily will be forged in the fight for Black liberation.
Excerpted from Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life by Natasha Lennard, published by Verso Books.