When white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday, they were met with throngs of counter-protesters who showed up to oppose the bigotry and hatred. Many of those counter-protesters are being broadly categorized as "antifa," and that has a lot of people wondering what antifa is, and just as importantly, what exactly antifa wants.
Still, the term "antifa" is a little bit vague. Although it's often used to refer to individual organizations and groups, it's used just as frequently to refer to the broader organizational strategy that those groups adopt. The phrase is short for "anti-fascism," and yet not everybody who opposes fascism qualifies as antifa. Furthermore, there's no centralized antifa organization in the United States, just a network of autonomous groups; as such, there's no "official" antifa mission statement.
Generally speaking, though, antifa is leftist political movement whose central focus is fighting racism — especially state-sponsored racism, which includes fascism. It is strongly opposed to President Trump and the alt-right, and has organized many protests and counter-protests since Trump's election. Although Antifa isn't the only progressive movement that's active right now, it tends to be more radical and militant than, for instance, something like the Women's March. Many antifa groups and protesters have no compunctions about resorting to violence.
A good case study of antifa played out in February, when right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at UC Berkeley. Protesters — not all of them antifa — stormed the Berkeley campus demanding that the administration cancel Yiannopoulos' speech. Although those demands initially went unanswered, the administration finally relented when protesters began smashing campus windows and setting things on fire.
After the speech was canceled, two leftist activists explained why the Berkeley protest was an example of "exemplary antifa action."
"Fascists must be stopped," Hart Eagleburger and Jack Rusk wrote at Left Voice. "They must be stopped at all costs. And this includes confronting them violently in the streets, since they will undoubtedly unleash a whirlwind of violence upon us if we are so negligent as to allow them to grow significantly."
This gets at one of the core animating beliefs of antifa: Because racists and fascists ultimately want to inflict violence on innocent people, it's justified to use violence to stop them from doing so. To support this reasoning, antifa will sometimes point to a quote attributed to none other than Adolf Hitler, who said in 1933 that his then-nascent Nazi movement could have been stopped if its opponents "had from the first day annihilated with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement."
Some see antifa as a sort of mirror image of the alt-right, and although the respective ideologies are in direct opposition to each other, there's some truth to that comparison. Neither movement is an official organization; rather, they are loosely-connected groups of like-minded believers. Both are very fond of using Internet memes to spread their messages, as well as being generally militant and not open to compromise with their opponents, and both have some followers who use violent tactics at protests.
Not surprisingly, just about every wing of the conservative movement, including both pro- and anti-Trump contingents, uniformly despise antifa and its followers. But given the movement's newfound attention in the mainstream and Trump's hideously-low approval ratings, it's doubtful that antifa is going anywhere anytime soon.