As white nationalists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past weekend, they were confronted by counter-protesters, some of whom were members of a loosely-organized coalition known as "antifa," or "anti-fascists." Anti-fascist symbols were often prominently displayed on flags and other items during the counter-protests, likely leaving many to wonder what exactly these antifa symbols mean.
There is no central antifa organization in the United States (rather, there exists a loose network of several organizations). However, according to BBC News, in general antifa organizations are considered far-left entities that are anti-racism and anti-sexism. They are also generally opposed to far-right ideologies. Moreover, antifa does sometimes condone violence as an acceptable protest method, particularly if it involves destroying property or using violent methods to prevent future fascism-induced violence.
While there is not necessarily a central antifa symbol, since there is no central antifa organization in the U.S., one symbol commonly seen on antifa flags and other possessions during the Charlottesville counter-protests consisted of a circle containing three arrows.
This symbol is known as the anti-fascist circle. It has its roots in German anti-fascist movements of the 1930s. The symbol was designed by Sergei Tschachotin for the German anti-fascist paramilitary organization known as the Iron Front. It was reportedly designed as a circle so it could easily be painted over Nazi swastikas.
There is no consensus on what the three arrows in the circle mean. Some experts say they represented the three primary enemies of the Iron Front, but others say they represented German political parties and organizations that were supportive of the anti-fascist movement.
Over time, the symbol was adopted by many left-wing organizations around the world. For example, the Young People's Socialist League (the former youth branch of the Socialist Party USA until the youth branch was dissolved in 2010) used the anti-fascist circle as part of its logo and indicated that the three arrows were used to represent ways to improve society: through direct action, education, and elections.
As you can see, while over time the arrows have held different meanings for different entities, the symbol is generally understood as one that is representative of a far-left organization that is anti-establishment. Hence, this is why the anti-fascist circle was seen on so many antifa flags and other personal items during the counter-protests in Charlottesville over the weekend.
In addition to the anti-fascist circle, you may have noticed other symbols as well. The anti-fascism flag symbol (most typically, a red and black flag draped over each other) is also often used by antifa organizations, both in the U.S and around the world. Often, black flags are understood to represent anarchy and red flags, communism or socialism.
While these two symbols do not reflect all of the symbols utilized by antifa during the Charlottesville counter-protest and beyond, they certainly constitute some of the more common ones, as they have historical ties to the global anti-fascism movement.