Understanding the term "antifa" isn't difficult at all; it's just short for "anti-fascists."
Understanding the movement, however? Now that's a bit more complex, but it's worth exploring, especially given a few recent events.
The most notable of such events is the much-publicized riot that broke out at UC Berkley in early February, which stemmed from alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos' schedule speech at the university.
Yiannopoulos never actually got the chance to speak, as antifa activists showed up on campus to protest. The protest resulted in arson and damaged school property, which prompted Yiannopoulos to evacuate.
The incident sparked a discussion revolving around Yiannopoulos and the right to free speech.
One of the questions germane to that discussion was whether or not all speech should be free.
For antifa, there's a simple answer to that question, and that answer is one of the many things you need to know about the modern day anti-fascist movement, and what it generally believes.
Normalizing hate speech is dangerous.
Anti-fascists believe in free speech, except for what they deem as hate speech. Mark Bray, a visiting historian at Dartmouth, explained this belief in a conversation with WNYC radio, saying,
They [antifa] argue that given the horrors of Auschwitz and Treblinka -- the destruction that Nazis have caused -- that fascists, white supremacists, should not be granted the right to express their ideas in public in part because, they argue, had that been done early in the 1920s or the 1930s we may have been able to bypass what ended up happening.
Their position is simple: Certain types of speech has been proven to lead to destructive consequences. So why give racist, anti-feminist speech the chance to flourish again?
Antifa disagrees with liberals.
Antifa activists may be considered to be on "the left" of the political spectrum, but they have very distinct differences with liberals.
The most obvious difference is the view on free speech and the "marketplace of ideas." The marketplace of ideas is the belief that if everyone is free to project their speech, the best will rise to the top, while the worst messages won't survive.
Liberals accept this notion, while antifa rejects the idea.
Antifa cites history to support its view, and Bray explained this to WNYC as well, saying,
Antifascists recognize that in the 1930s, 1940s, the police supported fascism. The fascists didn't actually stage a revolution to come to power, they worked within the political system, and all the reasonable dialogue and debate that one could muster did not do the job.
The goal is to nip fascism in the bud.
Antifa's goal is clear: The movement wants to stop what it perceives as a rise in fascism, racism, nationalism and xenophobia before they all become huge problems.
That's the reason the riot at Berkeley was labeled a success by Yvette Felarca, the Northern California coordinator for By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), an antifa group.
Felarca told Al Jazeera,
The movement effectively shut down Yiannopoulos because it was a mass action with thousands of people who were united in the immediate goal of preventing fascists from gaining a foothold at UC Berkeley.
Antifa strives to do what wasn't done to successful fascist regimes in the past; it tries to nip them in the bud.
"By Any Means Necessary" can include violence.
You don't need to look back any further than Inauguration Day to see the lengths to which antifa is willing to go in order to disrupt their opposition.
Among the many protests was the antifa "Disrupt J20" demonstration (an obvious allusion to the date, January 20). J20 saw over 200 demonstrators arrested, while six police officers were injured.
In one video captured during the day, a CNN reporter recorded one protestor yelling at other, more disruptive protestors who were setting fire to a limo.
However, those protesting the #J20 arrests, argue that police made no attempt whatsoever to distinguish who had done what within the crowd, and rather barricaded a group of people. These detainees were indefinitely stripped of their personal belongings, and are now facing felony riot charges.
They're easy to spot.
Antifascists and anarchists are known to use a tactic called black bloc.
Engaging in black bloc generally means dressing in all black and being prepared to cause chaos, if necessary, as this clip for Inauguration Day shows.
When used at UC Berkeley, the black bloc tactic resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage in Berkeley, according to Newsweek.
They seek to counter the alt-right online.
If there's one reason antifa could be seen as an "alt-left" response to the alt-right, it's because antifa activists seem most willing to be as aggressive as their counterparts.
That aggression has only increased in recent months, said Phyllis Gerstenfeld, a criminal justice professor at California State University.
She told Wired,
Most of the trolling had been coming from the right. Suddenly, we see a lot more nasty trolling coming from the left. It's a reaction to power shifts.
Take the practice of "doxxing," for example. Doxxing means publicizing are person's personal information online with their consent.
An anonymous Antifa activists explained to BBC Trending,
Antifascists absolutely do engage in doxxing active members of hate groups. To ensure the safety of those who they would victimize from the shadows, we must bring them into the light.
Antifa doxxes racist individuals in hopes of getting them fired from their jobs, or made public, for posts they've made. Again, the effort is to nip racists in the bud, by showing them there will be consequences for a white supremacist attitude.
No action is made for the sake of pure bullying, but again, to eliminate harmful rhetoric.
Doxxing is one area in which antifa very clearly matches fire with fire.
Antifa doesn't trust the media.
On one popular antifa website, ItsGoingDown.org, you'll see titles about what the media is "missing," and frustration about certain behaviors being normalized in mainstream culture.
Clearly, an aversion to the media is not just a right-wing sentiment. But why?
Antifa believes the media cushions the platform of the alt-right. Most recently, this was seen when Bill Maher profiled and interviewed Milo Yiannopoulos on his "liberal" show. Antifa is against giving alt-right ideas a comfortable platform to speak from.
They're responsible for the "Nazi question."
The now infamous clip of white nationalist Richard Spencer being punched while giving an interview was the work of a individual dressed in typical black bloc gear.
In honor of Richard Spencer saying Depeche Mode is "the official band of the alt-right," here he is getting punched to Just Can't Get Enough pic.twitter.com/iV9HSoNMwu — shauna (@goldengateblond) February 23, 2017
The video prompted a question that began doing the rounds online: Is it OK to punch a Nazi?
Why antifa faces criticism.
A neo-Nazi rising would not be a good thing. There is no arguing that.
But there is an argument to be had about who exactly is a Nazi. Who creates the definition for what that looks like? Once we normalize the idea of "punching" them, what will stop the opposition from doing the same?
Those are the types of obvious questions that the antifa movement will invite, especially if activists don't appreciate when certain tactics get used against them.
On the subject of doxxing, the same anonymous antifa activist that spoke to BBC Trending about doxxing alt-right members explained why it was wrong when antifa members who demonstrated for J20 were doxxed themselves.
Many of those arrested in DC had absolutely no connection to any illegal action. Now, they face the threat of harassment by the most hate filled elements of society.
Such a quote brings to light the most obvious criticism of antifa: that their idea of who can and cannot be silenced or punched eventually may lead to a dangerous double standard.
But it seems if fighting Nazis is "wrong," antifa doesn't care about being right.