In his recent Phoenix rally, President Donald Trump bashed one his favorite go-to scapegoats, the news media. We vex him with our insistence on reporting facts that he doesn’t like to hear.
Instead of focusing on right-wing extremists, he said, we should focus on “antifa,” short for anti-fascist. He was talking about the alliance of anti-fascist and anarchist groups who he said turned out in their “helmets and the black masks” to protest and often disrupt Trump rallies and other farther-right groups.
At an earlier news conference, Trump attacked “the alt-left,” a label that Fox News commentators and others on the right have attached to antifa and its fellow travelers.
“You had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” he declared. “Nobody wants to say that.”
Quite the contrary, many have said that, including such leading voices on the left as Noam Chomsky, the linguistics and political philosophy scholar. He recently called antifa a “minuscule fringe of the left, just as its predecessors were,” and a “major gift to the right, including the militant right, who are exuberant.”
I was appalled, for example, by the video that went viral this past weekend of five masked and black-clad antifa protesters beating an unidentified white man who is balled up on the ground at Sunday’s “Rally Against Hate” (an ironic title as a backdrop for this video) in Berkeley, Calif.
But just before the clip ends, a flash of humanity and decency appears in the form of a young African-American man in a red T-shirt, his long dreadlocks tied back in a long ponytail. He jumps in front of the attackers, waves them back and protects the man from further injury with his own body until the man can get away.
Mother Jones journalist Shane Bauer, who took the video, identified the aggressors only as members of antifa and their victim as a suspected member of the alt-right.
I was curious about the spontaneous hero, who can be seen wearing a headset and a sound recorder strapped to his body. He turned out to be Al Letson, host of public radio’s excellent “Reveal” documentary magazine program, produced by the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting.
By telephone, Letson told me that the beating triggered memories of another viral video, the brutal videotaped beating of a black man in Charlottesville, Va., by several white men with poles and sticks after the white-power “Unite the Right” rally broke down. Two suspects have been arrested and more are being sought.
“All I could think of was that guy in Charlottesville,” said Letson. “Nobody came to help him, and I didn’t want that story to repeat.”
Anyone with a level head in the antifa movement should thank Letson for preventing even more bad news for their movement.
Antifa’s actual violence pales statistically in comparison with terrorism rooted on the far right, according to the Anti-Defamation League, one of the groups that keeps track of such things. Of the 372 politically motivated murders recorded in the U.S. between 2007 and 2016, the ADL finds, right-wing extremists committed 74 percent of them. Left-wing extremists committed fewer than 2 percent.
Trump, unlike his predecessors in office from both parties, resists denouncing white racist groups — in an apparent move to hold onto as many votes as he can, regardless of where they come from. He instead insists that “both sides” are to blame for recent violence at the white-pride rally in Charlottesville, which equates the neo-Nazi side with protesters against Nazism. Americans can do better than that.
If Trump really wants to get rid of antifa, the best way would be for him to stand up and fight the white supremacist and other far-right movements to which antifa is rising in reaction.
As for antifa, they should remember — as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., among others, nobly showed — you maintain your moral authority by resisting the temptation to adopt the violent tactics that you deplore in your opponents.