Louisville Antifa: Inside Two Of The City's Most Militant Activist Groups

Feb 19, 2020 at 11:16 am

The post on Facebook said that the Honorable Sacred Knights of the Ku Klux Klan would be meeting at Jaycee Park in Madison, Indiana on Aug. 31 for a “kookout” from 1 to 3 p.m., the group’s second gathering along the small town’s riverfront in two years. “Come support,” read the announcement, which included a phone number and email address, inviting the public to contact the HSK to become a member.

Sure enough, on the day of the event, about 18 people milled about in the wooden shelter house on the slice of city-owned green space, most wearing dark colors, a few with bandannas obscuring their faces.

A local counter-protester walked up to them, holding a “Racism is Ignorant” sign and jeering. But, the 18 people were not with the KKK. They belonged to the antifa movement, antifa being short for anti-fascism.

Once the counterprotester realized her mistake, she tentatively joined the anti-fascists, sitting down with her sign in her lap, waiting with them to see if the KKK would show up.

Holly Zoller, a member of Louisville Anti-Racist Action, or Louisville ARA, stood next to one of the shelter’s posts, scanning the roadway.

Louisville ARA was one of three anti-fascist groups that gathered at the shelter. One of them, March 4th Alliance from Louisville, hung a banner saying “Pinko Commie Birthday Party" and decorated the wooden picnic tables with handmade placards fashioned from pilfered “We Buy Houses”signs.

“We got here early and took the pavilion, which is the goal,” Zoller said. Thirty minutes after the KKK had planned to arrive, the stunt seemed to have worked.

But then, at 1:39 p.m., a small parade of cars and trucks drove slowly past the shelter house, one with a distinctive KKK flag hanging from its window. They drove out of sight before looping back around, heading for another shelter house next to where antifa had set up.

That’s when antifa switched to another one of its common tactics and ran toward the second shelter.

A confrontation was about to begin.

Antifa: Decentralized, Controversial 

The number of anti-fascists in Louisville is unclear, but they can be seen acting as individuals and in groups to confront far-right and hate groups directly, in person and online.

In April 2017, Louisville’s anti-fascists drove several alleged neo-Nazis from The Irish Rover restaurant in Louisville who had gathered there to celebrate Hitler’s birthday.

In August of the same year, Louisville anti-fascists traveled to Charlottesville to counter far-right protesters who planned to rally around a Confederate statue that the city said it would remove.

In 2018, Louisville antifa members doxxed (publicly revealed the personal information of) people in far-right groups who pepper sprayed Democratic Socialists of America members as they dined at The Silver Dollar restaurant on Frankfort Avenue.

LEO spoke to three Louisville anti-fascists who belong to two of the city’s anti-fascist groups: Louisville ARA and March 4th Alliance.

“We don’t believe in letting Nazis have the streets or letting fascism openly organize or recruit,” said Sean Liter, a member of ARA. “Because the more people they recruit, obviously, the bigger they get and the more dangerous they get.”

Louisville anti-fascists’ tactics and beliefs mirror those of antifa groups across the country and the world.

Anti-fascist groups have been around for over 100 years, first forming in the late 1800s in response to anti-Semitic and nationalist groups in Europe. The movement gained new relevance in the United States in 2016 as its adherents rose to confront far-right groups that were emboldened by President Donald Trump’s campaign and election. Both the Louisville ARA, in its most recent incarnation, and M4A began post Trump. Nationally, anti-fascists have protested far-right appearances at colleges (Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California Berkeley), shut down white nationalist rallies in Portland, Oregon, and battled the alt-right, tiki torch wielders in Charlottesville, Virginia.

For some people, the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally was their introduction to the masked, antifa movement, prompting questions about who the activists are, their strategies and what they want, even how to pronounce their name. (Some say an-TEE-fuh, while others say AN-tee-fah).

Antifa is not one homogeneous group, according to “Antifa: The Anti-fascist Handbook” by Mark Bray, a historian at Rutgers University and an anti-fascist sympathizer.

Instead, antifa is a collection of individuals and organizations, often from different, leftist political persuasions (anarchists, communists, socialists and others). Antifa literally means “against fascism”, which many liberal groups are. But antifa, as most people know it, is militant anti-fascism, said Bray. Its goal is to use every possible strategy, no matter how unpopular with the mainstream, to stop groups of white supremacists and others on the far-right from organizing or spreading their rhetoric. The unacceptable alternative to not standing up, anti-fascists say, is eventual violence against minorities.

“The question is, how bad does it have to get, how much of a threat does the far right have to pose before it becomes legitimate,” said Bray, “and the anti-fascist answer is you treat every embryonic far-right group as if it could become something genocidal.”

To be sure, physical confrontation is one of antifa’s strategies, but it’s not the only one. Using interviews with 61 anti-fascists for his book, Bray cataloged the movement’s strategies, which include infiltrating far-right groups, doxxing members’ identities, “singing” over fascist speeches and, as antifa did in Madison, “occupying the sites of fascist meetings before they could set up.”

Antifa’s more extreme strategies receive criticism from the left, right and center.

After Charlottesville, Trump downplayed the confrontation between alt-right groups and anti-fascists who fought there by saying there were “very fine people on both sides.” In July of last year, U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and Bill Cassidy introduced a resolution to label antifa a domestic terrorist group. The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy group, says that antifa’s violent tendencies sometimes fuel a “self-defeating cycle of attacks, counter-attacks and blame,” playing into a white supremacist narrative that they are the victims.

But, the head of Louisville’s FBI field office, Special Agent in Charge James “Robert” Brown, defined antifa as more of an anti-government, anti-authoritarian movement at a roundtable discussion with Louisville media outlets about domestic terrorism in September. Antifa is different, he said, than Racially Motivated Violent Extremism (RMVE) groups such as the KKK or the Attomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi group.

“RMVEs are by far more dangerous and more lethal,” Brown said.

An ADL research fellow told Snopes.com in 2017 that out of 372 extremist killings carried out in the U.S. in the past decade, 74% were the fault of right-wing extremists, compared to 2% committed by those on the left. In 2018, all extremist killings in the U.S. had links to right-wing extremism, but, in 2019, there were instances of violence and property damage perpetrated by leftists.

In July, a lone activist who identified as anti-fascist was killed by police after throwing lit objects at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention buildings in Washington state.

That same month, a conservative journalist, Andy Ngo, was assaulted by counterprotesters while covering a far-right rally in Portland, Oregon.

But, the ADL warns against resorting to Trump’s “ both sides” mindset. “ ... It is important to reject attempts to claim equivalence between the antifa and the white supremacist groups they oppose,” writes the ADL. “Antifa reject racism but use unacceptable tactics. White supremacists use even more extreme violence to spread their ideologies of hate, to intimidate ethnic minorities, and undermine democratic norms.”

A confrontation in Madison, Indiana last year between the KKK and Louisville antifa. On the right, ARA member Sean Liter.
A confrontation in Madison, Indiana last year between the KKK and Louisville antifa. On the right, ARA member Sean Liter.

Who Are Louisville's Anti-Fascists?

I met antifa outside of a Subway in Louisville about a year ago.

Antifa as a person — not the monolith, shadowy organization that the name initially made me think of — turned out to be a man in his late 20s with long, dirty-blond hair, glasses and a dark fashion sense.

We first started talking through an encrypted messaging app where he introduced himself as AI. Meeting him in person, he revealed his real name: Greg.

In a later conversation, Greg, whose last name is Rodgers and who works as a fulfillment center employee, told me that he was partially inspired by activist Daryle Lamont Jenkins to remove the bandanna from his mouth and go on the record as an anti-fascist. Jenkins was interviewed in a Netflix documentary about the alt-right in which he said that he wanted the people in his life to know about the work he did doxxing neo-Nazis.

“He said, I don’t discourage people who wear the mask so that folks don’t know who you are; you’re trying to protect your family. But I don’t do that because I want people to know. I want my friends, my family to know that I’m out here and this is what I do,” said Rodgers. “Which I thought was powerful.”

Plus, Rodgers said that he’s already been doxxed. And, he believes that if his enemies are getting media attention, anti-fascists should try and get their message out, too.

Rodgers’ political outlook began forming in eighth grade when he marked over a swastika that he found on the locker of a Jewish classmate at his Kentucky middle school. From there, his beliefs were shaped by watching “Schindler’s List” and reading “Night” by Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate. And then he studied the history of resistance to fascism within World War II era Europe.

After moving to Louisville from Crestwood, Kentucky, and experiencing Trump’s election, Rodgers said that he started seeing a rise in activity from white supremacist groups. At the time, Rodgers was working to promote reproductive justice and freedom of religion, but he decided he should do more and get into anti-fascism work.

“I don’t confuse myself as a patriot, never have. I don’t have a whole lot of that nationalistic pride in me” said Rodgers, who is now 30.“But, I do have a love for people, and fascism kills people.”

When Rodgers first got into anti-fascism, the Louisville ARA was the dominant antifa group in the city. By both his and the ARA’s description, they’re still the largest.

The ARA first appeared in Louisville in the ‘90s, according to Liter and Zoller, along with other anti-racist action groups across the country. When Louisville ARA formed, it was mostly punks from the music scene fighting racist punks. The Louisville ARA disbanded in the early 2000s after, they claim, they drove most of the city’s white supremacists underground.

“When I came into activism, the fight was more against police brutality than it was Nazis being openly in the streets,” said Zoller.

But, in 2016, Zoller and Liter were at a local metal show when they saw a man wearing a shirt that read “Support Your Local Honky Nation.”

Honky Nation was a group created by a Kentuckian who was a former recruiter for the Imperial Klans of America.

“We were like, ‘Oh, hell no: We are not going back to this,’” said Zoller.

And so, the Louisville ARA was reborn. Zoller and Liter declined to provide personal information, including their ages and occupations.

Rodgers considered joining the ARA at first, but he and other anti-fascists decided that they wanted to form their own group. They created March 4th Alliance in 2018, which is named for the date it was formed.

“We sort of just went with a different direction,” said Rodgers. “We realized that we could get stuff done on our own. And we just had ideas that sort of conflicted.”

Rodgers and the ARA declined to go into detail about their differences.

“They’re good people out there doing good work,” said Rodgers about the ARA. “It’s just we had differences on things like leadership and organization and what we wanted to do and what other folks wanted to do.”

In their current renaissance, Louisville’s antifa groups are not the old stereotype of young, “cis, white dudes,” as Zoller put it. “I think white, cis men make up maybe 10% of our membership,” she said.

Louisville ARA is made up of people of color, cis women, trans people, teenagers and parents, she said.

M4A’s membership is diverse as well, Rodgers said.

But, it’s difficult to confirm much of anything about the ARA and M4A’s membership. This is consistent with what Bray has seen with antifa members and groups worldwide.

How Many?

Anti-fascists are notoriously shy when it comes to revealing information, said Rodgers. “We are going against people who are known to target people’s families, target their place of business,” he said.

Plus, much of what anti-fascists do is controversial and maybe illegal.

Bray never met some of the anti-fascists he interviewed, talking to them instead through encrypted messaging. He could not say how many anti-fascists exist worldwide and what their demographics are. “It’s really hard to say, because some groups only exist on social media,” he said. “Others exist but don’t have social media. The membership is not public.”

Rodgers, Liter and Zoller said there are more members in their groups than themselves, and more anti-fascists work outside of M4A and ARA in Louisville.

But, I met only one other member of M4A who identified themself to me. They didn’t want to go on the record.

A website for Anti-Racist Action groups lists 12 groups in North America, including the Hoosier Anti-Racist Movement, or HARM, which was at the Madison counterprotest. The website doesn’t include Louisville’s ARA group. Another website, The Torch Network, claims seven more anti-fascist groups. (Two of the antifa groups were on each website.) And those reflect just a small number of anti-fascist groups throughout the world, said Bray.

Who Are They Against?

In U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s resolution calling for antifa to be labeled a domestic terrorist organization, he and his co-sponsor U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy cite incidents of anti-fascist and left-wing activists harassing ICE agents, assaulting a conservative journalist and suppressing the free speech of right-wing protesters.

“Time and time again their actions have demonstrated that their only purpose is to inflict harm on those who oppose their views,” said Cruz in a statement.

But, if you ask the ARA or March 4th Alliance if they target all those who disagree with them politically, they would say: no.

“We’re not going after anybody’s fucking grandma unless they’re a Proud Boy, and we’re not attacking random Republicans,” said Liter. “While we disagree with them, that’s a lot of people to punch, you know?”

Bray said, in his experience, anti-fascists go after organized far-right groups.

Rodgers said he’ll call out your average racist on Facebook, but “it’s not going any further than that.”

You’d have to do something like organize on a neo-fascist website like Iron March, for him to act.

“If you decide to go out and go Sieg Heil-ing and go goose-stepping in the middle of the street, expect somebody like me to come along and confront you about it,” he said.

For Rodgers, a fascist is defined as someone who, above all, blames a marginalized group or community for all of society’s problems.

In his book, Bray cites several definitions of fascism, but one he focuses on is from the political scientist Robert Paxton. Paxton defines fascists as, essentially: a party of nationalist militants who are obsessed with community decline, humiliation or victimhood, who pursue redemptive violence and who want to purify their culture and spread their beliefs elsewhere.

Fascists are antifa’s main targets, but they also do not like law enforcement, especially ICE officers.

Rodgers dislikes police, he said, because the function of law enforcement is to uphold the law even if it is immoral, harmful or unnecessary, and laws are made by the “ruling class” and to “uphold the status quo.”

Still, Louisville anti-fascists said that they do not tussle with law enforcement like they would white supremacists.

“It’s what we call a three-way fight,” said Liter. “So, we’re fighting the capitalist system; we’re fighting the government or the state, police officers, ICE and all that stuff; and, at the same time, we’re also fighting organized fascists in the street and in our neighborhoods.”

The way anti-fascists “fight” police officers, Liter said, is through building alternative, community policing systems that don’t involve law enforcement.

“We don’t get into fistfights with police,” said Liter. “You get into a lot of trouble, and that’s just not what we are, that’s a pointless venture ... Like, we’ll be resistant to them, and we’ll try to do whatever we want or whatever we feel like we need to do, but we’re not there to fight cops, not right now.”

Once you attract antifa’s ire, there’s a simple way to shake it off, said Rodgers.

“If you are a fascist and anti-fascists come for you, there is a way to make them stop,” he said. “Stop doing fascist shit.”

For anti-fascists, whom they oppose is their entire reason for existence.

Historically, after defeating far-right opposition, anti-fascist groups have disbanded, said Bray, like what happened with the Louisville ARA in the 2000s.

“Pretty much all the anti-fascists I interviewed were also union organizers or environmental organizers or what have you,” said Bray, “and so, in that way, would really much rather be spending their time on the productive work of building a new world rather than having to respond to the growth of a far-right threat in their community.”

What Do They Actually Do?

On April 20, 2017, a crowd of around 40 people marched into The Irish Rover on Frankfort Avenue, walking past framed beer advertisements and scenes of the Irish countryside before stopping in front of a corner table occupied by a group of white men. A video taken at the scene and posted to YouTube by a local journalist shows the mob clapping their hands and chanting “Nazi’s out.”

The men seated at the table avoided eye contact, except for a bearded man in a T-shirt who faced the group silently, his head swiveling to observe everyone.

The Louisville ARA took credit for organizing the confrontation. It said that the men they surrounded had used the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer to arrange their gathering to celebrate Hitler’s birthday. They provided evidence in the form of screenshots to the owners of The Irish Rover, Michael and Siobhan Reidy. When the Reidys learned who the men were, they kicked them out of the restaurant.

“It was the right thing to do,” Michael Reidy told WAVE-3 news at the time. “And we feel good about it. We feel it was handled appropriately.”

For the ARA, The Irish Rover affair was an example of their first and most important guiding principle, or “point of unity” in action: “We go where they go.” “They” being fascists.

“Anytime they’re organizing in the streets, we’re there,” said Liter. “If we know about it, we’re there immediately.”

For Louisville anti-fascists, this also has meant showing up to Jefferson County court when a neo-Nazi leader, Matthew Heimbach was there for a probation violation hearing, just to make their presence known. It’s included travels to Dayton, Ohio for a Honorable Sacred Knights of the Ku Klux Klan demonstration in May and to Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally where Liter said he skirmished with fascists, and Zoller was injured by a far-right rally-goer who drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer.

Sometimes, direct confrontations can get violent, as was the case for Liter in Charlottesville. While there haven’t been any publicized incidents of Louisville antifa getting physical with fascists in the city, local activists said they wouldn’t be afraid to fight if necessary. Rodgers said that he used to get into bar scuffles with fascists in his hometown.

“Anytime somebody comes up flying with a swastika, to me, that’s provocation,” said Rodgers. “Fascism is, in itself, a very violent rhetoric.” Still, Rodgers said, anti-fascists use violence as a means. “We don’t celebrate it,” he said.

Often, said Rodgers and Liter, simply showing up to a fascist gathering is enough to accomplish antifa’s goal.

Bray said that the first thing to know when talking about antifa and violence is that, historically, most violence has been instigated by fascists with anti-fascists responding. But, there’s also the notion of “pre-emptive self-defense,” said Bray, which, he admitted, sounds like a paradox to some.

“What I mean by that and what anti-fascists generally argue with it is that fascism’s far-right politics are inherently violent,” said Bray, “and so rather than waiting for such groups to attack marginal members of the community, they need to be shut down by any means necessary.”

Sometimes, confrontation takes place on the internet. Rodgers said he monitors fascists on social media in addition to in person, including on alternative platforms where they swarm after being kicked off sites such as Facebook. Since Charlottesville, anti-fascist activities seem to have revolved mostly around doxxing and other behind-the-scenes work rather than going head to head with fascists in the streets, said Bray. (The exception being Portland, Oregon, where far-right protesters keep holding rallies and anti-fascists keep countering them.)

“I do think, though, that after Charlottesville, the ability of the far-right to publicly mobilize was hampered, in part, because of a bit of a more media awareness of opposition to them but also because of doxxing,” Bray said.

Anti-fascists dox for a couple reasons: To inform communities that white supremacists live in their midsts and to drive those white supremacists out of mainstream society by getting them fired or by scaring them into going underground.

“They don’t get to enjoy the nice things that we enjoy,” said Zoller. “But they also don’t get to present themselves as safe people and then lure other people in, either by recruiting or by people just simply not knowing that that person is a fascist and then turning around and trusting them enough to say ‘let’s go do this’ or ‘let’s go to the park,’ and then wind up getting beat up.”

After the Madison confrontation, M4A and a separate anti-fascist group, not based in Louisville, Super Queer Super Punks + Friends, posted photos of the unmasked KKK members they believe showed up to the “kookout,” along with information about where they lived and worked. In 2018, in response to the pepper spraying of a group of Democratic Socialists, the ARA doxxed the hecklers, who they said included members of the Proud Boys. The Medium web page where the information was posted no longer exists. An archived version of the web page said that the story was under investigation or had violated Medium’s rules.

M4A also tears down fliers and other propaganda that far-right groups post around town. Recently, the Patriot Front hung a banner from a bridge in Louisville. After finding out, M4A returned to the area with propaganda of its own: stickers saying “Nazi Scum, Fuck Off” and “Bash the Fash.”

The work of anti-fascists in Louisville sometimes goes beyond sparring with fascists. When Occupy ICE protestors camped outside of Louisville ICE offices in 2018, M4A provided security, said Rodgers. Members of the ARA were involved in the protests, too, said Liter. M4A and Louisville ARA use social media to promote other causes, such as advocating for Louisville’s homeless population and immigrant communities. The two also say that building community defense networks so that minorities can protect themselves without calling the police is a priority. They wouldn’t provide details of their efforts.

Last year, Rodgers and at least one other M4A member helped organize the Dark Side of Derby, a protest of Louisville’s world-famous sporting event, which, Rodgers said, exploits those living in South Louisville and working at Churchill Downs.

Chanelle Helm, a core organizer of Black Lives Matter Louisville, said that March 4th Alliance is a particularly important ally for her group, although she wouldn’t provide specifics about how Louisville anti-fascists support BLM.

“Every day they are working to eliminate the physical barriers that are complicating work for Black and brown folks,” she said. “Making sure that they complete those actions against those things and standing up against these crazy, right-wing people.”

A sticker posted by the March 4 Alliance, from its Facebook page.
A sticker posted by the March 4 Alliance, from its Facebook page.

Does Anti-Fascism Work? 

After my first meeting with Rodgers, I gave him a ride to his job. On the way, he told me about Oswald Mosley and the Battle of Cable Street, a slice of history that I had never heard about.

Mosley was an English politician who founded the British Union of Fascists around the same time Hitler took control of Germany, according to Bray’s book. With the help of the The Daily Mail newspaper, Mosley attempted to sow anti-Semitism throughout the United Kingdom.

On Oct. 4, 1936, the fascist leader and his followers planned a march through a mostly Jewish neighborhood of London. British police attempted to forge a path for the fascists, but 100,000 anti-fascist Jews and Irish Catholic dock workers battled law enforcement with stones, bombs made out of boxes of gunpowder, bricks and more. Mosley did not pass, and his opponents hailed the standoff as a victory, using the example of the Battle of Cable Street as a model for future protests against the far right. Three years after the Battle, WW II broke out, Mosley was imprisoned and his fascist movement died.

Charlottesville is something of a modern parallel. In both cases, said Bray, the far right wanted to establish a street presence and intimidate its enemies. Both marches never happened as planned. And after the chaos, far-right groups weren’t able to show up in public again without facing intense opposition.

Before the Unite the Right rally, far-right sentiment had almost been normalized as an accepted political persuasion, including in television interviews, Bray said. Afterward, it became anathema to associate with. This was in part due to the anti-fascists who responded to the rally. But, people not associated with antifa also doxxed far-right protesters after Charlottesville, said Bray. Still, it’s hard to measure the success of modern-day antifa due to the nature of the movement, according to Bray.

“There’s kind of a paradox, because the more successful an antifa group is, they manage to stop far-right organizing before it even gets off the ground,” said Bray, “and when they do that, no one ever hears about it. And if they do hear about it, they don’t think it’s important, because they stopped something that was very marginal.”

Back in August in Madison, the KKK and counterprotesters converged onto a small patch of gravel in front of the second shelter house. As plainclothes protesters with signs argued with a swaggering member of the KKK, Louisville anti-fascists mostly hung back, arms folded, eyes covered with sunglasses and their heads fixed forward. Some held baseball bats that they had grabbed from a wagon belonging to M4A.

“We don’t shout a lot usually,” said Liter later. “We let, especially local folks get out there. Also, when we shout, it escalates things.”

Surrounded by police officers who also rushed to the scene, TV reporters and anti-fascists, the KKK left after nine minutes, carrying with them unopened Domino’s Pizza boxes. There had been no violence. No chance for the KKK to recruit. A “failure” for the white supremacists, said Liter.

For antifa, a success.