As the wildfires hit Molalla, Oregon, in early September, 29-year-old independent journalist Alissa Azar crouched in the weeds by the side of a gravel road. She angled her camera, searching for a shot that would include the people fleeing their homes, a fire warning sign, and the smoke rising up from the earth.
Then she heard voices. She looked up and saw three men. Although they were dressed casually, wearing t-shirts and jeans or shorts, they were armed. Two had their rifles trained on her and another had a firearm at his side, she said. They asked who she was and why she was in Molalla, a town 35 kilometres (22 miles) south of Portland and devastated by the wildfires sweeping across the state.
She explained she and two colleagues had come from Portland to document the fires, but the men did not seem to believe her. They repeated their questions, looking her up and down, she said, and demanded to know if she “knew about the looters and rioters” who had allegedly shown up in town.
Her colleagues attempted to ease the tensions.
“Get the f**** out of our town,” Azar said the men told them. As the reporters drove off, the men took photos of their vehicle and its registration plate.
Although Azar had heard of the rumours taking root as the fires spread, she had not “realised the severity” of the misinformation spreading online. “It 100 percent put all of us in danger of doing our jobs, but I understood that a bit after it had happened,” she reflected. “I just never even considered the idea that a wildfire could get political, you know?”
With wildfires raging across much of Oregon and California, scattered reports of arsonists quickly morphed into wild-eyed rumours that fanned out from the crevices of the internet, spreading across social media outlets and crawling onto the pages of several far-right news sites: Anti-fascists had deliberately lit the fires, the conspiracy theorists claimed, and now they hoped to loot the homes of evacuees. InfoWars, the website headed by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, blamed “Democrat terrorists” for sparking the blazes. Gateway Pundit, a far-right website, claimed an “Antifa radical” had been arrested in connection with the wildfires, although it later removed the word Antifa. Fox News host Laura Ingraham joined the chorus, saying in a recent interview Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden had failed to condemn “Antifa” for “intentionally setting” fires in California.
The claims drew so much attention the Molalla Police Department had to assure concerned locals there “has been no Antifa in town”, adding: “Please, folks, stay calm and use common sense.”
But the hoaxes continued. A three-hour drive south of Molalla, in Douglas County, emergency operators struggled to handle all the phone calls that came in. Worried residents wanted more information about a report – an unfounded claim sent viral in a Twitter post by failed Republican Senate candidate Paul Romero – that police had six anti-fascist activists in custody for supposedly setting fires. “This is not true,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement. “Unfortunately, people are spreading this rumour and it is causing problems.”
A few days after Azar’s encounter with the vigilantes, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Portland Division called the reports untrue. Worse still, the claims had interrupted emergency services. “Conspiracy theories and misinformation take valuable resources away [from] local fire and police agencies working around the clock to bring these fires under control,” Loren Cannon, the FBI Special Agent in Charge, said in a statement posted on Twitter.
A far-right surge
Throughout the 2016 presidential election campaign and since Donald Trump came to office in January 2017, a resurgent far-right has sparked in response a revived anti-fascist movement. On August 12, 2017, thousands of white nationalists and neo-Nazis descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, where they protested against the city’s decision to remove a Confederate statue. Throughout the day, the far-right protesters attacked locals and counterdemonstrators and clashed with anti-fascists. By the end of the day, a far-right marcher named James Alex Fields Jr had rammed his car into a crowd of anti-racist counter-demonstrators, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring dozens.
The far right enjoyed another surge during the November 2018 midterm election season, when Trump claimed a US-bound caravan of migrants and refugees constituted an “invasion” on the southern border with Mexico. Anti-immigrant protesters flooded the borderlands, while high-profile attacks by far-rightists included a foiled plot to send pipe bombs to several prominent Democrats and a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that killed 11 worshippers.
Although the rhetoric over anti-fascists has turned increasingly fiery, research consistently suggests that far-right violence remains the most dominant domestic “terror” threat in the country. In June, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank, published a report that found that “right-wing terrorists perpetrated the majority – 57 percent – of all attacks and plots” between 1994 and 2020. It also found that “in 14 of the 21 years between 1994 and 2019 in which fatal terrorist attacks occurred, the majority of deaths resulted from right-wing attacks”.
Neither an organisation nor a group, Antifa is both an ideology and a decentralised movement that includes people from across the left – anarchists, communists, and socialists, among others – fighting back against the rise of the far right. Anti-fascists engage in a wide range of activism – public education, protests, and monitoring the far right, for instance – but it is the movement’s willingness to use direct confrontation and to damage property that has captured much of the public’s attention. “What’s overlooked is everything that people don’t see,” said Mark Bray, an historian and author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook. “What they see and what gets the headlines and becomes a media spectacle is confrontation, but that’s only a small percentage of what anti-fascists do.”
Bray explained that research, coalition-building, and other nonviolent tactics play an important role in the anti-fascist movement’s efforts to stop the far right from building a “coherent political movement”.
“At least in the US, the most effective tactic of anti-fascists in recent years has been doxing,” Bray added, referring to the practice of publicising the personal information of members of the far right online or elsewhere. In recent years, doxing has been used, in particular, against far-rightists who operate with pseudonyms or behind a cloak of anonymity online. “That kind of puts it in perspective … it just goes to show you that the tactic that’s been one of the most effective is a nonviolent tactic that relies on the social ostracisation of fascists,” said Bray.
In recent months, Trump and his right-wing political allies have dragged up old threats to designate the loosely-knit movement a “domestic terror” organisation. In June, Congressman Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida, took to Twitter and called on the US government to “hunt down [Antifa] like we do those in the Middle East”. The following day, Senator Ted Cruz accused anti-fascists of carrying out a “terrorist assault” on the country.
With the threat of an escalated crackdown looming, right-wing politicians and many liberals alike have blamed Antifa for property destruction, looting and clashes with police during the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man. For years, conspiracy theorists have claimed Hungarian-American philanthropist and billionaire George Soros, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, funds and orchestrates the anti-fascist movement, Black Lives Matter and others. In the past, right-wing media personalities like InfoWars’s Alex Jones and their followers have spread theories falsely claiming mass shooters were actually anti-fascist activists.
Daryle Lamont Jenkins, a 52-year-old anti-fascist and founder of the One People’s Project, a non-profit that monitors far-right groups and individuals, sees something intentional – as well as sinister – in the constant claims that Antifa lurks behind everything from wildfires to mass shootings. “It’s gone beyond annoying. It’s not scaring us but it is making us very angry,” Jenkins explained by phone. “They’re basically trying to give a cover story for those who want to do us harm, and I don’t necessarily mean us as in Antifa – I mean us as a society.”
History of Red Scares
The hysteria is not without historical precedent. Since the early 20th century, through World War I and the Civil Rights Era, American politicians have hyped up the threat posed by leftists.
At about 6am on December 21, 1919, it was still dark when the USAT Buford nodded out of New York Harbor. The ship had recently made several trips to and from Europe, hauling American troops home as World War II came to an end. Now the vessel had a new purpose: To ship 249 immigrants believed to be communists and anarchists to the newly-founded Soviet Union. Nearly 200 of those on board the ship – dubbed the Soviet Ark by the press – had been swept up on November 7 as part of the Palmer Raids, a series of raids that led to the arrests of thousands of suspected left-wing immigrants – mostly Italians and Eastern European Jews. Hundreds of those detained were eventually deported. “Slowly the big city receded, wrapped in a milky veil,” Alexander Berkman, an anarchist writer who was on the Buford, later wrote of the departure. “The tall skyscrapers, their outlines dimmed, looked like fairy castles lit by winking stars and then all was swallowed in the distance.”
By the time the Palmer Raids ended, the authorities had arrested nearly 3,000 people and deported 549 of them. The raids marked the climax of the First Red Scare (1917-1920), a period during which the US government leveraged the feverish patriotism of WWI to sharpen widespread fears of a supposedly impending communist or anarchist revolution. American authorities clamped down on communists, anarchists, immigrants, striking workers and Black Americans, among others.
More than 20 years later, as WWII came to an end and the Cold War took root, the Second Red Scare saw a renewed hysteria over supposed communist infiltration of American society and the US government. As politicians like Joseph McCarthy and officials like FBI Director J Edgar Hoover fanned the flames of paranoia, hundreds were arrested and thousands lost their jobs thanks to blacklists targeting suspected leftists.
Today, anti-fascists, historians and watchdogs worry the tendency to see Antifa lurking around every corner is ushering in a new wave of political repression – one that has and could continue to claim lives.
For his part, Bray sees the present moment as a “variation of longer-standing Red Scares, and [the country’s history of] demonising communists, anarchists, Black Panthers, and radical environmentalists”.
scott crow of the Anarchist Agency, an Austin, Texas-based collective that seeks to amplify anarchist perspectives, said: “They’re connecting dots that aren’t connected, and that’s how people get killed. The right-wing media ecosystem has drummed up a red menace.”
In late July, US Attorney General William Barr testified during a House Judiciary Committee. He had been called to comment on law enforcement’s crackdown on protesters during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that had spanned much of the summer, but he placed a tunnel-eyed focus on anti-fascists and anarchists. “Antifa is heavily represented in the recent riots,” Barr said, which led many observers to point out that there was no evidence to support his claim.
A week later, Senator Ted Cruz chaired a committee focused on “how Antifa and other anarchists are hijacking peaceful protests and engaging in political violence that is not only criminal but antithetical to the First Amendment”, referring to the guarantee of freedom of speech. Among the witnesses called to testify were legislators from several states and Andy Ngo, a Portland-based journalist who describes himself as independent and objective but who has been accused of working with far-right groups in the past. Ngo, who last year made headlines when an anti-fascist punched him, has been criticised for sharing misleading and inaccurate information about anti-fascist demonstrators in his hometown. During the hearing, Ngo claimed Antifa is a “violent insurrectionary group”, describing Portland as the “canary in the coalmine”.
More recently, in mid-September, Barr reportedly instructed prosecutors to explore the option of charging protesters with sedition, a rarely used charge usually rolled out only for those who pose a serious impending threat to the government. In the past, the US has levied sedition charges at Puerto Rican nationalists, communists, white nationalists accused of plotting murders targeting public officials and others, and disparate groups accused of planning coordinated bombing campaigns. “Treating protest as a form of sedition won’t hold up in court, but that is clearly not the point here,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a legal advocacy nonprofit group, responded on Twitter. “Independent and ethical prosecutors should reject this administration’s authoritarian impulses.”
Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project against Hate and Extremism watchdog organisation, described the Antifa-focused hearings and the crackdown on protesters as a “dodge”.
“It’s ridiculous,” she said. “There’s no major left-wing threat out there destroying the country – but there is on the far right.”
In March, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an Alabama-based organisation that monitors hate groups, said the number of white nationalist groups in the US hit 155 last year, marking a 55 percent spike since 2017, the year Trump came to office.
Beirich pointed to the example of Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old vigilante who allegedly shot three people, two of them fatally, in August during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The demonstrations had broken out after a police officer shot and seriously injured Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man. Trump later made comments in defence of Rittenhouse, who is facing multiple homicide charges. “He was trying to get away from them, I guess, it looks like,” Trump weighed in. “I guess he was in very big trouble. He probably would have been killed.”
For Beirich, the focus on anti-fascists and leftists, at a time when far-right groups are on the rise, is part of a strategy “attempting to undermine social justice movements [and] Black Lives Matter. It’s about attempting to delegitimise all the people who care about those issues as some kind of radical and violent”.
Beirich added: “There’s no Antifa headquarters, you’re not a card-carrying member of Antifa – it’s a disaggregate movement.”
A confused narrative
Since George Floyd’s death in May, demonstrators in Portland have protested every night. Skirmishes with police – including federal agents who had been deployed to the city – have seen clouds of tear gas, mass arrests, and more recently, some demonstrators hurling Molotov cocktails. Shane Burley, 36, a Portland-based journalist and expert on the far right, has covered the demonstrations for most of the summer. Although most have centred on police killings of Black Americans, Burley has covered a handful of recent anti-fascist counterdemonstrations against far-right groups rallying in the city. He believes the trend of calling every instance of unrest “Antifa” is worrying. “The narrative about it is so confused,” Burley said. “‘Antifa’ is the only word that they know for anything that is radical and leftwing; it’s just the blanket term they use to describe this stuff.”
On August 22, when Burley waded into the columns of far-right protesters at one demonstration in downtown Portland, he had a simple task in mind. He wanted to interview conspiracy theorists about their predilection for pinning the blame for most of the world’s ills on George Soros.
But it was not long before Burley’s work was derailed. People he recognised from previous far-right demonstrations as members of the far-right Patriot Prayer group urged others not to speak to him, he said, claiming he is a communist. Some carried firearms and large knives. He said a few shoved him with their shields. “At that point, I backed off because I was very aware that I didn’t have my helmet and stuff with me,” Burley said. That same day, far-right demonstrators clashed with anti-fascists and attacked reporters. Some sprayed Mace, while others beat journalists with shields and batons.
On the night of August 29, Burley arrived downtown after a caravan of hundreds of cars carrying Trump supporters rode through the area. Many carried weapons, while some pepper-sprayed counterdemonstrators from the beds of pickups. Trump flags and “Thin Blue Line” pro-police flags fluttered from vehicles. “There was definitely a feeling that something was sideways,” Burley recalled.
He did not yet know it, but a few blocks down the road, a confrontation was under way. Michael Reinoehl, a 48-year-old self-described anti-fascist, reportedly shot and killed 39-year-old Aaron Danielson, one of the pro-Trump caravan participants and a supporter of Patriot Prayer, which has been active in Portland and elsewhere in the northwest for years. On September 3, VICE broadcast an interview with Reinoehl in which he claimed he acted in self-defence and shot Danielson to prevent him killing “a friend of mine of colour”. That same day, Trump sent out a tweet questioning why Portland police had not arrested Reinoehl, whom he described as a “cold-blooded killer”. Minutes later, it was announced federal agents had shot and killed Reinoehl while attempting to arrest him near Olympia, Washington State. A witness later cast doubt on the US Marshals’ claim that officers had tried to “peacefully arrest” Reinoehl, saying instead that they opened fire without warning. Trump, for his part, called the deadly shooting “retribution” in an interview on Fox News.
As daily protests against police violence continue in Portland, far-right groups aim to continue their own protests throughout the coming weeks.
“For the time being, I think it’s going to keep escalating,” Burley said. “There’s no real sign that it’s not going to … My big fear is that someone else is going to get killed at one of these things.”