Right-wing and left-wing protesters clashed in Portland, Oregon, as they have many times before. This time, a 600-car caravan of Trump supporters driving through the city attracted counterprotesters, and before the night was over, one man shot and killed another.

A self-proclaimed antifa supporter, 48-year-old Michael Forest Reinoehol, was investigated as a person of interest after his sister identified him to police.

“I am 100% ANTIFA all the way! I am willing to fight for my brothers and sisters!” he wrote in a June 16 post. “We do not want violence but we will not run from it either!” When police went to arrest him in Olympia, Washington, the confrontation ended in his death.

What is antifa? It’s become a watchword in this highly volatile season of American politics. But everyone seems to use the word “antifa” differently, with definitions ranging from a small set of organized groups that oppose fascism, to a larger movement of anti-Trump protesters who are willing to resort to property destruction and violence. For the average American, it can be difficult to sort out what exactly antifa is and whether it is a threat.

What is antifa?

Put simply, antifa is an unstructured movement known for using counterprotests and physical force to stand against fascists and racists. The existence of the movement is incontestable, but observers debate whether it is dangerous. On Saturday night in Portland, individuals who identify as antifa, or anti-fascists, were just one type of people in the streets, along with Black Lives Matter supporters, and members of Patriot Prayer, a Portland-based right-wing group that is known for attracting white supremacists and getting into violent brawls.

These groups have clashed many times before. But it’s antifa that President Donald Trump and several members of Congress have singled out by calling it a domestic terrorist organization. As protests against police brutality have raged for months, with some turning destructive in both Portland and Kenosha, Wisconsin, this amorphous group has been accused of stirring up street violence, destroying property and attacking police in cities across the country.

Conservative pundits like Chris Talgo, editor and research fellow at the Heartland Institute based north of Chicago, say antifa is a dangerous force, “hellbent on destroying people’s businesses, federal property and the like.” Some academics, however, who have studied the movement say antifa is being given more attention than it is due.

Mark Bray, a part-time lecturer at Rutgers University and author of “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook,” acknowledges there has been a spike in violent and destructive demonstrations in the months following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. But he says that very few of the people engaging in such behavior are actively part of antifa groups.

“Antifa is a useful boogeyman,” said Bray, adding that certain conservative politicians and media sources have used antifa as a broad term to describe anyone who carries out illegal acts involving arson, looting or graffiti.

But while the number of members that belong to actual antifa groups may be small, Talgo fears the movement, aided by social media, is having an outsized impact on the protest culture across the country.

“I do understand antifa is not responsible for all of this,” said Talgo. “But antifa is laying the groundwork for this bedlam to take place by normalizing these tactics.”

What does antifa stand for?

Today in the United States, antifa, which is short for anti-fascists, is known as a very loose collection of individuals and groups who aggressively oppose far-right movements, mainly focusing on white supremacists, neo-Nazis or other organizations with violent agendas like the Proud Boys, said Oren Segal, vice president for the center on extremism with the Anti-Defamation League.

The movement is not organized. Rather, it is comprised of small squads of people in different cities, with no national leaders or unifying structure, Segal said.

While the concept of anti-fascism dates back to the early 20th century when the authoritarian forms of government gained prominence in Europe, modern-day antifa has its roots in a movement called Anti-Racist Action (ARA), which had anarchist and communist elements and emerged out of the Midwest in the 1980s, according to Alexander Reid Ross, who lives in Portland and is the author of “Against the Fascist Creep.” Anti-Racist Action grew in popularity among the left-wing anarchist punk scene, and in the mid-2000s some people associated with ARA started organizing as antifa, Ross said.

It wasn’t until 2015, however, when Trump’s presidential candidacy sparked conflict between antifa and far-right groups, that the movement attracted mainstream involvement and media attention, Ross said.

How popular is antifa?

Bray said it is impossible to quantify how many people are part of the antifa movement. The Torch Network, a coalition of anti-racist and anti-fascist groups including Rose City Antifa, has just nine chapters. But Bray noted that there is a difference between people who are members of antifa groups and people who associate with the cause more generally.

“People doing this work don’t divulge their identities,” said Bray, who interviewed more than 60 anti-fascists for his book.

According to Ross, the Pacific Northwest, and Portland in particular, has become a focal point for antifa. Because of media attention, groups there are some of the most well-known, despite having few members, he said.

Rose City Antifa in Portland, which formed in 2007, is the longest standing antifa group in the U.S. and mainly focuses on research, said Ross. A Rose City representative declined to answer questions about membership numbers. Another Portland-based antifa group founded in 2018, called Popular Mobilization or PopMob, has less than 20 members, according to one of its founding members, Sylvan E. She responded to a Facebook message sent by the Deseret News to the official PopMob page and asked that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy.

Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University and an expert in U.S. politics and social movements, estimates that at most, the number of people who identify as part of antifa, is in the low thousands.

But antifa’s following online is much bigger.

PopMob’s social media following has doubled, said Sylvan E. The group now has more than 20,000 followers on Twitter and 7,400 followers on Facebook. A website called Itsgoingdown, a platform that covers the antifa movement, went from having 9,000 followers on Twitter when Trump was elected, to 92,000 today, according to a website administrator.

In an Aug. 19 statement, Facebook said it removed more than 980 groups, 520 pages and 160 ads from Facebook in addition to 1,400 hashtags on Instagram that were being used by organizations to encourage riots, “including some who may identify as antifa.”

Is antifa violent?

In recent weeks, antifa supporters in Portland wearing masks, helmets and shields have reportedly used weapons like rocks, fireworks and bottles filled with chemical solutions against far-right protesters and instigators.

“Antifa activists focus on harassing right-wing extremists both online and in real life,” the Anti Defamation League reported. “The use of violent measures by some antifa against their adversaries can create a vicious, self-defeating cycle of attacks, counter-attacks and blame. This is why most established civil rights organizations criticize antifa tactics as dangerous and counterproductive.”

Ross said much of antifa sees nonviolence as an ineffective tactic against fascists. Bray said property destruction is “one of the tools in their tool box,” in addition to doxxing (disclosing sensitive information as a form of harassment) and community mobilization. When Bray was working at Dartmouth College, the president of the school wrote a letter disavowing Bray’s research, because he did not denounce the legitimacy of violent protest tactics. Although, Bray says, violence is “not always the most effective strategy.”

Jeff Schoep, an anti-racist advocate and the former head of the National Socialist Movement, which was once the largest neo-Nazi organization in the country, said he used to get into bloody fights with antifa people who would come from out of state to protest at NSM rallies. But the fights only motivated him to further defend the white nationalist beliefs he held at the time, he said.

“I definitely think antifa is dangerous, and I definitely think we should be worried about it,” said Talgo.

But in terms of street demonstrations, it’s hard to attribute violent acts to antifa groups or antifa sympathizers because they usually don’t self-identify, Talgo said. Such events also tend to attract opportunists and rogue criminals.

Additionally, antifa adherents and other protesters often dress in black block: all black clothing, including face coverings, making them hard to identify. It’s a tactic that has been part of protest culture for decades but has become more popular as a means of maintaining anonymity in light of smartphones and increased surveillance, according to Bray.

“Just because they are not wearing name cards that say, ‘Hi! I’m an antifa member,’ doesn’t mean they are not associated,” said Talgo.

Sylvan E. does not cast judgement on those who use violence in protest, but she said PopMob does not encourage it either.

“We try not to draw too heavy a line between good protester and bad protester ideas. I think that ultimately serves to work against the actual work people are doing,” said Sylvan E. “We don’t want to see people get hurt; that is not the goal of this movement.”

Sylvan E. said that PopMob does not coordinate with anyone outside of Portland. She also explained that while members may support anarchist and communist ideologies individually, those themes are not the focus of the group.

“There’s a frustrating lack of understanding in American media about what anti-fascism is and what antifa means,” said Sylvan E. “People think there’s some sort of central organization pulling the strings making decisions for different antifa chapters around the country, and that is very much not the case.”

What role has antifa played in racial justice protests?

Because antifa is an unstructured group, it’s difficult to tell what kind of influence the movement has had on the tenor of protests in recent months, said Segal. But according to the ADL’s tracking of public demonstrations since the pandemic, including those in response to the killing of George Floyd, there is no evidence that antifa adherents have played any kind of organizational role, Segal said. They have however, showed up to participate in protests organized by others.

Trump has repeatedly said that antifa forces are responsible for nationwide destruction and unrest, despite reports from both the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI which have shown no evidence of a direct link between antifa involvement and protest violence, according to The Washington Post. Rather “lone offenders” pose the biggest threat, said the FBI bulletin.

And Trump himself may be driving online traffic to the topic, with Twitter mentions leaping from 300,000 to 3.9 million in the two days after the president tweeted he would declare it a terrorist organization, according to an analysis by media intelligence company Zignal Labs.

Sylvan E. says PopMob has taken a back seat role to the Black Lives Matter movement in Portland, although PopMob wholeheartedly supports Black Lives Matter and has used its platform to boost awareness. Sylvan E. said she has participated in the standoff between protesters and federal law enforcement officers that has taken place near the Hatfield Federal Courthouse over the course of many weeks, but her group did not play an organizational role in those demonstrations either.

“The protests for Floyd’s murder have been broader in terms of where they’ve taken place around the country, have involved a bigger cross section of the population politically and demographically, and have been more popular among Americans, especially Democrats and independents,” said Kazin. “I think antifa is a tiny, tiny part of these demonstrations.”

Talgo believes it’s the mainstream media, not Trump, that has portrayed antifa dishonestly.

“The media is portraying them as the moral opposition to Donald Trump,” said Talgo. “I am struck by how it seems that the mainstream media uses gentle language with antifa. It’s almost like they treat them with kid gloves like, ‘Oh, they are just out there trying to achieve social justice.’”

“I would definitely say what is going on in Portland and Seattle represents the more radical elements, and if you let this keep happening, if you keep emboldening them, it could spread like a virus,” said Talgo.  

Kazin maintains that the influence of antifa is exaggerated, but opinions on both the right and on the left are affected by points of view.

“The right likes to inflate it. Most people on the left wish it wasn’t around because it hurts the cause of the left,” Kazin said.

Even if antifa’s power is overblown, the movement is still worth talking about, said Segal.

“In a time where antifa is being used as a political talking point, where the concept of antifa is being used to create fear and anxiety, understanding what it actually is is more important than ever before,” Segal said.