Right-wing media and political figures have set their sites on “antifa,” the decentralized movement against fascism, alleging everything from terrorism to criminal conspiracy and playing on the current political tribalism motivating the Republican base. Just last month, Sen. Ted Cruz introduced a resolution to label the movement as “domestic terrorists” — something Donald Trump then supported via tweet, setting up a false dichotomy that has since been used to make broad attacks against activists and journalists.
For the record, antifascist activists have never killed anyone. They are usually on a mission to protect community members from the threat of white nationalists, whose ideology — conversely — can actually be connected to the murder of more than 175 people worldwide over the past eight years.
The most recent example of white nationalist terror is, of course, the mass shooting that took place in El Paso, Texas earlier this month. The shooter opened fire on a multiracial crowd in a Walmart, killing 22 people. In the manifesto he left behind, the shooter used standard white nationalist talking points — like the demographic replacement of white people by non-white immigrants — to explain his motivation.
Less than 24 hours later, a shooter in Dayton, Ohio took aim at a crowd of people, including his sister, killing nine. While his motives were less clear, since he didn’t leave behind a manifesto, that didn’t stop right-wing figures from suggesting that the killer was associated with antifa. They immediately seized upon some vaguely leftist opinions on his Twitter account as proof that he was politically motivated and associated with antifascist organizations.
The New York Post even published a story saying the Dayton shooter “may be antifa’s first mass killer.” Meanwhile, other right-wing outlets ran stories focused on what they saw as the shooter’s left-wing orientation, picking out Twitter posts as clear motivating factors for his violence. In one instance, the white nationalist podcast “The Daily Shoah” went so far as to say that the shooter was “definitely” a member of an antifascist gun club — an unsupported conspiracy theory first forwarded on 4Chan and other web forums.
Twitter as evidence
Right-wing media commentator Andy Ngo is perhaps the loudest voice spreading the false connection between antifa and terrorism. He wrote the New York Post story and has been generally outspoken on Twitter, where he has nearly 200,000 followers.
While Ngo has never once mentioned the white nationalist shooter in El Paso, he has made a point of reaching out to some of the activists and writers supposedly followed or retweeted by the Dayton shooter. (Those follows and retweets can no longer be seen, as Twitter has since removed the shooter’s account.) Among those Ngo targeted was organizer and researcher Emily Gorcenski, asking her the seemingly ludicrous question “Did you know him?” — simply because he had interacted with a few of her tweets. Of course, as is the case with most of her 62,000 followers, Gorcenski did not know him.
“Andy Ngo reached out because he is doing the bare minimum journalism to generate a whataboutism story,” she said. “He knows that the legitimate criticisms of right-wing pundits radicalizing terrorists hurt them, and he’s trying to do anything to return the favor. He also desperately wants to sell the narrative that antifa is a terror group, so he’ll latch onto anything vaguely resembling an act of leftist violence, even though the Dayton attack had no apparent political motivation.”
Gorcenski has been targeted heavily by the far right in the past, and when major right-wing media figures single her out it can guarantee an increase in violent threats. “[I] have to stay vigilant in case Tucker [Carlson] or, God forbid, the president ever decide to speak the names of any of my friends or me.”
Ngo later tweeted out links to a number of Twitter accounts that the shooter had supposedly interacted with. One of them was the account belonging to journalist Kim Kelly, who had not interacted with the shooter in any way.
Ngo’s accusation is only the latest right-wing attack Kelly has suffered. Earlier this year, she was added to a neo-Nazi-inspired kill list targeting journalists who — because of the accounts they followed on Twitter — were believed to be secret antifa supporters. Having received threatening messages from right-wing trolls, Kelly now fears increased harassment because of Ngo’s tweet.
“It is so, so dangerous [for Ngo to link the shooter to reporters],” Kelly said. “We know what kind of unhinged fascists he associates with and aligns himself with. We know how they feel about the press and antifa, and we know that their goal is, above all, violence. They want us dead, and Ngo just put out a handy little list of new targets.”
The fear is that far-right people with violent inclinations will see these associations being made and use it to validate an already maligned view of antifascist activists. Then they might see the reporters Ngo is identifying as potentially responsible, and act out with targeted violence.
False framing has real consequences
Donald Trump has now moved on to saying that he is concerned both about white supremacists and antifa, creating a false binary whereby they are presented as two threats of equal, yet opposite, importance. This also frames the recent mass shootings as the result of political extremism on two competing sides.
The reality is that there’s no actual connection between the Dayton shooter and antifascist organizing, other than the possibility that the shooter went to a protest and expressed progressive views on Twitter — something millions of people have done since Trump’s election. At the same time, the El Paso shooter left a 2,300-word manifesto that clearly outlined his goals and motivations, which were expressly white nationalist, while the Dayton shooter offered no formal insights into his motivation. The best clue as to what fueled the latter’s rage may end up being the lyrics from his “pornogrind” band, which were laced with misogynist venom and align with the ideology of the Men’s Rights and “Incel” communities.
“In a broader sense, this whole episode is an obvious and craven effort to distract from the role [Andy Ngo] and his fascist allies play in enabling, propping up, and in some cases, participating in the horrors of white supremacist terror,” Kelly said. “He is trying to force the same flawed, bad faith ‘violent antifa’ narrative upon which he’s built his career, because to do otherwise would be to admit that he is part of the problem. It is cowardly, malicious and evil.”
Aside from receiving threats or becoming potential targets for violence, the demonization of antifascist activists without cause will also lead to chilling effects throughout antiracist and left-wing political movements. Journalists who have been targeted are having to deal with the insinuation that they are aiding a movement that is being alleged to have mass murder in its sights, which is untrue on all counts. This broad net of accusation could have very real consequences, leading potentially to indictments, increased police repression, and grand juries for activists, as well as death threats and career consequences for reporters.
Organizers who are part of the larger antifascist movement have worked hard to state their intentions and ideological commitments openly and honestly, and to build a broad-based social movement that average people can relate to. These movements will find it important to keep that public face and separate themselves from any falsehoods that are being perpetuated by far-right media, giving people access to a more grounded narrative of strategy and tactics.
The reality is that the associations that are being made between antiracist activism and the shooting are fabrications, and so the best way to counter these false perceptions is by presenting the real picture of the organizing as plainly as possible. Journalists around the country have been writing articles and creating viral social media posts attempting to counter Andy Ngo’s messaging, giving another angle to the way he has spun these stories. This does not, however, come without its challenges, as trolls and right-wing pundits are able to dominate the online media cycle, and therefore shape the subjective understanding many people have of the world around them.
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