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This article previously ran in Mountain Xpress.

ASHEVILLE — Chances are you’ve seen the pictures on TV, online or in the local paper — swarms of protesters, signs in hand, gathered in the public square or before a government building, mouths open in mid-scream at some bastion of bureaucratic power.

With political tensions running sky high across the United States, movements outside the historical mainstream such as Black Lives Matter, antifa and the tea party have captured national headlines in recent years, drawing praise, provoking criticism and forcing Americans to evaluate their own stances on social issues. While the protests garner national headlines, people seldom see the work these activists engage in behind the scenes.

In Western North Carolina, homegrown activists of all stripes are working to effect change among an increasingly divided populace, drawing on historical ideals and using new technologies to spread their messages.

Xpress reached out to local activists from across the political spectrum to share their motivations, challenges and techniques. While one may not agree with the methods or message, scholars say these activists play an essential role in defining and shaping region’s future.


Behind the bandana

In an Aug. 30 blog post on the Buncombe County GOP website, party Chair Carl Mumpowerwrote a diatribe against what he deemed “[t]he left’s fledgling para-military branch – antifa,” equating its motivations and methods with those of the terrorist group ISIS.

Mumpower’s denunciation of antifa activists — short for “anti-fascist” — echoes similar concerns raised by sources as diverse as The Washington Post and President Donald Trump. However, such characterizations often fail to take into account some fundamental aspects of the antifa movement.

“Really, if you oppose fascism, you’re antifa,” says Frida, an Asheville resident who identifies with the movement. “You don’t have antifa membership, meetups or a newspaper. They are primarily made up of different kinds of groups of people.”

Frida spoke with Xpress on the condition that we not use her real name; she says she has been a target of “doxing,” a practice of leaking personal information online as a means of harassment. At the same time, Frida admits she and other antifa activists also engage in doxing to reveal the identities of activists on the far right.

While beliefs and philosophies vary among activists, a core strategy of antifa protesters is denying those who promote fascist ideology a soapbox. “We will show up when there’s a neo-Nazi rally, or when people are using their platform of ‘free speech’ that’s really hate speech advocating for genocide or things that are obviously anti-humanitarian,” Frida explains.

Arguments that antifa activists are as violent as the alt-right demonstrators they oppose aren’t supported by facts, Frida adds. “Both historically and presently, [the far right] have a higher body count,” she says. According to the Anti-Defamation League, between 2007 and 2016, roughly 74 percent of extremist-r