SAGINAW, Mich. (WOOD) — Antifa may be in the spotlight these days, but truly shedding light on the grassroots movement is no easy feat.
It took Target 8 weeks and a trip to Saginaw to find someone in Michigan who identifies as ‘antifa’ and doesn’t care who knows it.
Critics say far-left militants prefer the shadow for a reason. President Donald Trump has declared antifa terrorists and accused the loosely connected network of instigating riots nationwide.
But Tony Knoll of Saginaw says he’s no terrorist and the ideology he follows is no big mystery.
“I’d like to think that all Americans are antifascists,” said Knoll, who met up with Target 8 in an empty lot in Saginaw. “We fought Hitler and the Nazis and Mussolini, who were all fascists, but really it’s all about fighting oppression.”
Knoll is a part-time bouncer and former community mental health worker who grew up in Portland, Michigan.
Now 43, he says he has identified as antifa since high school, long before the movement gained national attention in 2017, when followers engaged in violent confrontations with white nationalists at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“All I can tell you is we’re not the evil boogeyman people think we are,” Knoll said. “(We are) people who care about our country, who don’t want to see it fall into the grip of fascism.”
Antifa, which is short for antifascist, has no organizational structure. Knoll says it’s impossible to estimate how many people in Michigan adhere to political movement.
“I speak for myself as a person who is antifascist,” Knoll explained. “There’s no leadership. There’s no membership dues. We don’t have any bylaws. There’s nothing there. It’s just people who are against fascism.”
Knoll acknowledges some antifa adherents likely instigate violent confrontations.
“There probably are some,” he said. “I’m not going to deny that. There’s those people in every group.”
He said he, however, will only engage in physical fights to defend others.
“We do go out to protest,” Knoll said. “But we’re not there to cause violence. We’re there to help protesters, to support the (Black Lives Matter) movement. If violence breaks out, we stand between the violence and the protesters because that’s what we’re about. We’re willing to take the punches to protect people.”
Knoll says the only time he engaged in a physical confrontation happened 20 years ago in another state when he stepped in to defend someone from skinheads.
“I punched a few Nazis… It was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There were a couple (skinheads) walking down the road messing with a guy,” Knoll said. “I was there looking at colleges and I just went up and beat the crap out of them. “
Knoll also said he does not support random destruction of property, though he believes targeted, politically-motivated vandalism can be a necessary tool to affect change.
“Rioting and destruction in any town is unfortunate. Everybody should be uncomfortable about it happening,” he said. “But I would think they’d want to look into why it’s happening and find out why they aren’t more uncomfortable about the reasons behind it as opposed to the actual actions.”
Knoll says the Saginaw-area network with which he’s associated works against fascism in part by identifying racist business owners in the area and outing them on Facebook.
He said he’s not aware of any antifa involvement in Michigan riots, nor does he know of anyone who paid rioters to engage in vandalism.
Nationwide, there have been few arrests clearly linked to the antifascist network. In Austin, Texas, police say they arrested three antifa members for breaking into a Target store and going live on Facebook to invite others to join in the looting.
“The three people arrested are known members of a local anti-government group, which is a self-identified communist/socialist ANTIFA group,” Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore wrote in a news release.
When Target 8 asked the FBI in Michigan about antifa activity, the agency said it could not comment on any “ongoing investigation.”
“Nationally, the FBI has seen a variety of actors motivated by several different ideologies involved in violence at the protests,” Special Agent Mara Schneider wrote in an email exchange with Target 8.
In Las Vegas, federal prosecutors charged three men with ties to the right-wing extremist Boogaloo movement with terrorism-related offenses after they allegedly conspired to incite violence at protests.
Tony Knoll wishes people would do their own research instead of believing everything that comes across their social media feed.
“It’s 2020,” he said. “With the technology we have, we have the ability to know so much, but people believe the stupidest things.”
When Target 8 showed Knoll an antifa “manual” that’s circulating social media, he laughed.
“I don’t even know where to begin to break this down,” he said.
The manual lays out, among other claims, how antifa is trying to create “a new world order.”
“That’s straight out old-school right-wing rhetoric,” said Knoll, who says it’s clear the document was written not by antifa but rather by its far-right opponents.
“This sounds like something neo-Nazis would write to try to fight against us, to encourage people who might be kind of on the fence about whether they want to be racist or not,” he said.
Knoll reiterated that antifa is a grassroots movement, not a secretive, members-only organization with centralized leadership and bylaws.
“We don’t hide things. We don’t have secret manifestos,” said Knoll, referring to the fake antifa manual being passed around the internet.
“It’s just people against fascism. I can’t stress enough, if you don’t like fascism, if you don’t like neo-Nazis, if you don’t like white supremacists, you’re probably antifa but you’re just not willing to admit it.”