Erin Smith was at a GOP election watch party at Twitter headquarters in San Francisco on November 8, 2016. For the one-time deputy vice chair of communications for the city Republication Party, it should have been a time of jubilation.
"As soon as they announced Trump the presumptive winner, we're told, 'Hey, there's a mob of protestors out front,'" says Smith, who stepped outside to find the San Francisco cops being pushed back by a crowd, some in head-to-toe black: clothes, helmets, face masks.
A trans woman, conservative, and former tugboat captain who says she's "a weird activist/analyst-type person right now," Smith soon became galvanized to find out more about a group that dressed as revolutionaries and took their fight to the streets. What was animating them? Trump animus? The romance of revolution? The boredom and frustration of COVID sequestration? An unfocused desire to fuck shit up?
It takes a special moral blindness to see setting fires, breaking windows, and threatening journalists as the road to justice. I've seen this moral blindness rise along with the violence in Portland. Young activists have told me frankly that they don't give a shit if someone working in the basement of the police station burns to death because, hey, she chose to work there. I've seen activists cheer the murder of a member of the conservative group Patriot Prayer. You cannot employ the violence of your perceived enemies and expect your revolution to end in peace.
What Smith has experienced has not been peaceful. She's had friends beaten up by antifa. She's been threatened herself. It made her curious. This summer, she decided to find out more by going undercover with the black bloc anarchists in Portland.
I went out with Smith several nights, and while I could not follow her directly—black bloc avoids having those outside its ranks interview or photograph them—I was able to watch her, wearing all black and carrying a shield bearing an anarchist "A," slip into the group. I saw that she was present at the same locations where black bloc attacked buildings and set fires.
After one such night, Smith and I sat over a couple of hard seltzers and discussed why she decided to infiltrate the black bloc and what she found.
What did you know about antifa when you first encountered them in San Francisco?
I had a vague idea of what antifa was, but it wasn't nearly as big a deal as it is now, outside of maybe Berkeley or Seattle. I'd had friends that got attacked at the Trump rally they tried to hold in San Jose [in April 2016]. I'd had a year of watching that happen, and basically, I don't like bullies, so I started showing up at these things, at rallies and protests and places where my friends were getting beaten up. It felt like in 2016, everything really changed in the Bay Area. It stopped being so carefree, in a sense Everything started kind of feeling like it was for keeps.
April 27, 2017, was the first rally I went to, in Berkeley. This was a Trump MAGA rally. I started livestreaming in June and I got to be pretty good at talking to people from the other side. The first time I ever actually dressed in black and put on a mask on and tried to slip into the bloc was last weekend. It is a little scary, because I've faced them down so much. I'm like, "I'm going to dress in black and slip in?"
I've studied them for a bit, watching videos and stuff. I wrote a piece on antifa tactics for a monograph that's coming out next month, for the Center for Security Policy. And I have an advantage, having gone to the rallies. But they know who I am. When antifa hates you and know who you are, the best way to hide is right in the middle of their black bloc. That's the last place they think to look. It's one of the advantages of dressing in black and wearing your mask.
You had a shield tonight. Did you make it?
Actually, I acquired it at the riot. Someone set it down, and I'm like, "That's cool. It's communism, no property. This is mine."
How organized are things on the inside?
There are different types of bloc organization styles. The building block of antifa is what's called an affinity group, people you live and work with and trust and know in real life. All the planning is done within that closed bloc, and they don't let everyone know [what they're going to do]. I didn't know that they were going to burn the Portland Police Association when I joined. What they did was put a call out that said, "Anyone show up in black that night at this place, and you can join the action."
That's called a semi-open bloc. The planning is done within the closed group, but anyone who's dressed in black can come join the action. If you know what you're looking for, you can spot affinity groups that are working together. One thing they'll do sometimes is have written agreements with other protest organizations that aren't in black bloc. I know of one from Berkeley that illustrates this: "We agree that to not take pictures of anyone in antifa." It will say that literally in writing, so everyone's working together. It's like a combined arms type thing, almost like the military. They work together and are mutually reinforcing.
So your first night with them, you burned the Portland Police Association…
We get to the Portland Police Association and immediately, they blockade both ends of the street. They built the shield wall and they're hammering the door open. I went over and I'm standing in the bloc as they're breaking the door down. It took them a little while longer than what I thought. They could have found better ways to breach the building, but they had hammers and pry bars and they pry it open and pry the plywood back and they pour fuel and light it on fire and start burning stuff.
Strategically what they're doing is, they're forcing a dilemma action. A dilemma action is when you put your opponent in a no-win situation. Your enemy has to react. If they don't react, they look weak; if they do react, they have to react in a certain way where it looks like it's an overreaction.
When the feds were in Portland, they were presented as overreacting, a presentation helped by innumerable people with PRESS written across their clothing flooding the internet with images that presented protesters wholly as victims of an authoritarian regime.
That's their [antifa's] objective. It's not a tactical thing. That's why all the "press" is there, the sympathetic press. They're trying to create propaganda. They know how the police are going to react, so they carefully calibrate what they do to try to provoke the police into reacting and then filming it. They want to try to push public opinion in favor of removing the police. The police aren't perfect, but what a police force is, it's putting force under an objective third party, under government control. Antifa wants to separate the police from the populace.
This is basically guerilla warfare. They're trying to undermine legitimacy of the state. The police right now, I think some of them are catching up. There's a playbook for how police respond to riots and they're not actually doing it; it's not an actual riot. I mean, it is a riot, but at the same time, it's a specific type of riot that's trying to make the police respond in a certain way.
Meaning, they're able to provoke the police into taking the bait.
Yeah. Basically they're baiting the police into overreacting.
So how did you feel when the police station was on fire?
It was pretty wild, actually. Right when the fire was lit, the police announced, "This is a riot" and they [the black bloc] started marching. For me it was really kind of amazing, because they were incredibly proficient. This was 600, 700 people. They moved a group of people through the city in close order, quickly and efficiently, and attacked a target and caught it on fire and then escaped from the police.
I describe it as an open-source networked insurgency. They were incredibly efficient. They hit a target and vanished into the city and got away. Basically, they're like skirmishers: They come in, they attack the cops, they get out.
Antifa goes for a certain type of violence, a mid-level violence. Most people aren't practiced in violence, and what they'll do is, they'll either back down or they'll overreact. Antifa basically as a group does the equivalent of just pushing someone on the shoulder, and again, and again.
They keep it at a simmer.
Yes. It's very tricky to react to because people get angry. If you just go in public and pick someone and start pushing them, if you keep pushing them, they're going to slug you; it's just how it's going to work, at the individual level but also at the group level too. I'm also speaking metaphorically, in a sense. Of course if you hit them, they're going to fall down and go, "Oh, God, you're violent. You're a Nazi!"
What they're intending to do is use that level of violence that will scare people enough to back down. [The radical left] learned in the '70s that killing people is bad PR. A body count is horrible.
So we're not going to see another Weather Underground?
Not at this point. They've learned and adapted. What they want to do is make it difficult for people [they don't like] to organize.
So that's really the two responses. Most people don't know how to handle that mid-level force. So they either back down or they slug people; either way is a win.
When you don't know what you're looking at, you see a lot of random, rage-filled kids. You sometimes wonder: Do they even know how to formulate a plan? But you go out with them a few nights and understand, people are actually working together.
It's really interesting. I did a breakdown of the Grant Park video, the tech they had. And that was freaking incredibly sophisticated. This is Grant Park in Chicago, when they attacked the statue and put like 49 police officers in the hospital. [Tonight] was so much like this, in terms of operational sophistication, how coordinated everything was.
But not centralized.
Let me explain that a little more. People keep looking for a chain of command, and you don't necessarily need that, as long as everyone understands a basic level of instruction it works.
What are the basics?
Basically, don't talk about it. Don't photograph people's faces. "What did you see?" "I didn't see shit!" is a chant you'll hear. You can go to websites like CrimethInc. and they'll have a lot of breakdowns of tactics. It's an anarchist website. It's an open-source network insurgency, not so much a chain of command.
People think antifa and they picture people in black. Antifa is bigger than that. Black bloc is a tactic. Dressing in black, it's a tactic. You don't have to dress in black to be antifa. You don't even have to hit the streets. There are people who work in tech, hackers who never hit the streets, and they're still antifa. [The media] play these little word games, "Oh, antifa doesn't exist." Yes and no. It's not an organization where you have to sign up for a membership. It's one of those things where it's just a loose-knit network of people.
Whose message can be a sweet song, not just young people looking for identity, or those for whom COVID-19 has cooped up, but anyone wanting to be part of what they see as a fighting force for justice.
People want to fight through things. I first heard of CrimethInc in 2000. I've got their seminal work, Days of War, Nights of Love. I've got it inscribed, "Love and insurrection"; it's anarchist stuff. I'm not an anarchist or a communist or anything like that. But it is a siren song. Young people, they sense there's something wrong, and they want to fight. That's a human instinct. Francis Fukuyama talks about it: People want to struggle. And if everything is fine, they'll struggle against democracy.
I understand where some of that comes from. People want community and want to feel like they're fighting. That's why we love Star Wars. We love the underdog fighting. And I think young people that don't have a network, it's just something very intoxicating.
And totally honestly, when I was out there with black bloc [and] busted open a door to a police station, set it on fire and ran from the cops? It was fun. I know that sounds weird. I don't support that as a policy, but when you're there in the street, it's fun.
Violence is fun. This is one of the things we don't talk about as a society. It's like, wow, this is pretty fun, especially when you feel like you have grounds for any type of legitimate complaint. It's easy to knock on these people. And I still do. I don't agree with what they're doing, but I respect them. I've been facing these people down for four years. I take them seriously and I respect their skill at what they're doing and their dedication.
What are the ages of the people you were hanging out with?
Anywhere from twenties to thirties.
Do you have any idea what they do for work?
In the Bay Area, we've had people arrested that were physicists. Look up Freddy Martinez. He was arrested for punching some guy in Berkeley. And Freddy Martinez is the director of Lucy Parsons Labs. I know there's another guy who was a Johns Hopkins grad. You can dismiss them as a bunch of losers, but I've seen some incredibly smart people.
I've told some demonstrators mouthing off to me to read Utopia or Auschwitz, about the 1968 generation in Germany who were livid with their Nazi-collaborating parents and were going to build a better society. The movement became progressively less peaceful and eventually took to bombing and murdering people. Antifa right now is able to keep things at a simmer and provoke others into behaving badly, but history tells us things usually don't stay at a simmer. Do we get to skip the part where people are building bombs in basements in Portland?
Well, they are making those primitive small IEDs made out of commercial grade fireworks. They're roughly about the power of police flash-bangs. I've had them go off right next to me and you feel it; you feel the heat wave hit you. But a big thing for them [antifa] is they have convinced themselves that they're doing something good. They're very big about trying to maintain, at least in their eyes, the moral high ground. Part of that is not killing people. They want that moral high ground and they construct it. And that's kind of what they do by using that mid-level of violence. They want you to overreact because not being extremely violent is how they convince themselves they're better. And it's also great propaganda.
Do you see antifa as getting more than a toehold in city government here?
Quite possibly, yes, I think by weakening the police, or defunding the police. They have the organization that if the police went away tomorrow, you would basically have an antifa police force. They wouldn't call themselves antifa, but they have the organization that, if there's no objective third-party security force, then who's going to stop it?
I think the worst case is if they weaken the police; they don't go away because then the police are still there and they'll be able to target the normal law-abiding people. It's what we have in San Francisco. It's anarcho-tyranny. It's like the law really only applies to people that are trying to follow the law.
I wouldn't say the majority of people in Portland are sympathetic to antifa, but you've got a lot of people that either are apathetic or don't think it matters or they're scared. You put all of those people together, maybe you have a majority. There's a woman running for mayor that is openly pro-antifa, a woman who was photographed wearing a skirt with Chairman Mao's face on it. It could be that Portland is the place where antifa goes Main Street.
I think that in many areas they are already there. I don't think antifa will get out there and start dressing in police uniforms and be the official police. I think they'll always stay kind of a paramilitary. But the police are weakened to the point where they can barely oppose [antifa] now as it is. So the police go away, it's operant conditioning. If every time I grabbed this [hard seltzer] I got shocked, after a while I would stop grabbing it. And that's basically how they operate. It's not so much a matter of ruling the whole city, it's the sense that antifa [moves] the Overton window. "If this person is advocating for something we don't agree with, we can go punish them and we can punish their friends and family." It's a self-censorship. If the cops are a token force now, and they can't stop anyone, and antifa can destroy your life, then people are going to know that.
And they're going to shut up and just try to go about their lives.
That's what they're going to do.