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Antifa rumors and hoaxes have stoked real fear in Philadelphia neighborhoods

The fear has spilled over from social media into communities already roiled by civil unrest and racial tension — including South Philadelphia, Fishtown, and now Gettysburg.

A man who didn't want to be identified carries a rifle as he and others stand in front of the Christopher Columbus statue at Marconi Plaza on June 13.
A man who didn't want to be identified carries a rifle as he and others stand in front of the Christopher Columbus statue at Marconi Plaza on June 13.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Over the last month, South Philadelphia resident Andre DeFrancesco felt that he had plenty of reason to be fearful: It was constant, the stream of memes, photos, and posts pinging his phone via Facebook, Instagram, and text messages.

The images, he said, that showed proof of an antifa plot included a screenshot from @Antifa_US, an account that was removed from Twitter in early June after it was exposed as a fake account run by white nationalists. There was also hyper-local content: a photo of a pickup truck parked in Philadelphia and filled with broken cinder blocks, possibly antifa munitions. There was a screenshot from a South Philadelphia Facebook page that “Antifa supposedly called for 20,000 more of their membership to descend on Philly.” There were even what appeared to be joke posts — or were they? — threatening antifa attacks on the Christopher Columbus statue at Marconi Plaza .

Although President Donald Trump has proposed labeling antifa a terrorist group, a nationally organized antifa network as imagined in Twitter pranks does not exist.

Yet, fears about antifa — spread online through earnest warnings, hoaxes, and even jokes — have resonated widely. And, they have spilled over from social media into communities around the country already roiled by civil unrest, including South Philadelphia and Fishtown, and, on July 4, in Gettysburg. In each case, residents tense from weeks of civil unrest organized to fight threats that scarcely materialized, sometimes with serious and violent consequences.

“We know antifa is real,” said DeFrancesco, who responded by showing up to help protect the South Philadelphia Columbus statue in June. “We don’t want to have to keep dealing with these political plots that cause us danger.”

In Fishtown, they brought concerned citizens, some bearing baseball bats, to the Philadelphia Police 26th District in early June. “There was word going around on social media that antifa was coming to Fishtown with the intention of destruction,” Capt. William Fisher said later.

On June 22, the Facebook page Taking Our South Philadelphia Streets Back posted two photos of shopping carts containing broken cinder blocks; the post, which did not explicitly mention antifa, was shared nearly 500 times. “Looks like they’re getting the blocks ready for tomorrow’s protest,” one commenter said. The next day, demonstrations on South Broad Street devolved into a brawl.

And, last weekend, after a fake Facebook post promoting an antifa-led American flag burning in Gettysburg spread widely, hundreds of people reportedly arrived with weapons ready to oppose them.

» READ MORE: Armed militias and far-right groups flock to Gettysburg to foil supposed flag burning

To Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, all of this shows the need to question what people mean when they say antifa — and to recognize that the meaning is being constructed in real time.

“The first thing to ask is: What is antifa? How would I find antifa? Can I go to a building? Is there a membership list? Do people carry a card? When you use the word antifa, you’re creating the sense that it actually does exist, normalizing the language of ‘antifa,’ without knowing what the reference is,” she said.

“It is becoming a ‘devil term’ on the right — a term that is used to encapsulate everything you’re afraid of,” she said. “Can you make an enemy out of thin air?”

A contraction of anti-fascist, antifa is often described as a loosely organized far-left movement.

Daryle Lamont Jenkins, executive director of a self-identified antifa organization, One People’s Project in New Jersey, said it’s really an ideology.

“Antifa is strong in Philadelphia,” said Jenkins.

But, “It has never been about violence.” He accused right-wing groups of fabricating that narrative. “They have been dealing in the politics of fear and intimidation to get people to leave them alone — and the people that don’t leave them alone, they try to demonize.”

James Gitto, 29, a South Philadelphia resident, learned firsthand how potent this narrative can be. In mid-June, as statues of Christopher Columbus were being defaced and toppled around the country, he retweeted a sarcastic comment: “Oh man I really hope no one does this to the statue located there at 2800 S Broad Street.”

An area resident took that and other tweets by Gitto, and “cobbled together a story that I was coming for the statue with antifa,” he said. A Facebook post on the Friends of Marconi Plaza page singled him out, too. Within hours, Gitto was fielding death threats, and staff at BarkPark, his pet-care business, were afraid to come to work. (The friends group, which later posted an apology, did not respond to requests for comment.)

It was the very next day that dozens of people gathered around the statue with baseball bats, rifles, and golf clubs — many of them for a time watching a school bus parked nearby that they said could be filled with antifa. The bus eventually pulled away without incident.

Gitto said that he has not shaken the cloud of suspicion. Recently, he said, “I was accused of rolling carts of bricks into Girard Estate.”

» READ MORE: Police under fire for ‘coddling’ violent groups of white people in Fishtown, South Philly

He’s not the only one whose joke posts were mistaken for threats.

Shawn Whyte, 34, a pandemic-unemployed bartender, laughed when a reporter told him concerned citizens had shared screenshots of his post to the Facebook group South Silly. The post read: “We are coming for the Columbus statue. Sometime between 8 a.m.-5 p.m. on Monday. Or maybe Tuesday. Could be later. --ANTIFA.”

“Oh yes, the antifa cable guy,” Whyte remarked wryly, and not at all remorsefully.

Though he acknowledged it was a sort of trolling, in his view it should have also been obvious that the post was satirical.

As those incidents make clear, though, intent is not always relevant to how information spreads, said Whitney M. Phillips, an assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University.

“It’s helpful instead to think about the process of spread, and the role that everybody plays in contributing to that spread,” she said — including those crafting antifa hoaxes, those making antifa jokes, and those sincerely trying to warn their neighbors of perceived antifa threats.

Collectively, that creates a chain of amplification, she said. “When we share things [for any reason], we are helping spread them, and ensuring those memes and hoaxes are going to continue moving through our networks and polluting the information landscape.”

» READ MORE: Protest observers say police allowed South Philly Columbus ‘defenders’ to assault them

Even sharing to debunk might be counterproductive, she said — noting that deep-seated ideas are hard to shake because they are embedded in a larger framework.

“Conspiracy theories are narratives that shape a person’s worldview. They’re a part of a person’s identity,” she said.

In South Philadelphia, DeFrancesco said he no longer lives in fear of antifa. But he is still convinced an antifa plot was perpetrated in South Philadelphia, including several acts of vandalism he observed or heard about in the community.

And he is not alone. Pasquale Bianculli, 67, said he wondered why The Inquirer had not previously reported the presence of rocks that had been discovered, removed from planters on Broad Street and scattered on the ground in the run-up to a protest on June 23.

He provided photos and videos that he said were sent to him by a neighbor concerned about property damage or injury. To Bianculli, the rocks, the protests, and the threat to the Columbus statue were all connected.

“I believe there’s a deeper organization that is involved. Call it Black Lives Matter. Call it antifa. Call it what you may.” He said he was saddened by young protesters who were either being misled or were being paid by a coalition funded by George Soros. “Young people are being manipulated. It breaks my heart,” he said.

The Anti-Defamation League has called fast-spreading conspiracy theories around Soros, the Jewish billionaire philanthropist who backed District Attorney Larry Krasner and other progressive candidates for office, a “gateway to anti-Semitism.” It found negative Soros tweets went from 20,000 per day up to 500,000 per day in just a week in May as protests spread.

As a result of all this, Erika Morgan, 34, feels some lingering unease — but it’s not about antifa.

Morgan, who lives about a block from Marconi Plaza, used to meet up with friends there about once a week. They were there June 12 when a group of people spotted some fresh graffiti on trees nearby, and came to investigate.

“They were screaming, ‘Do you see what antifa is doing to our community?' And we were like, ‘It’s a flower spray-painted on a tree.’”

But word of the vandalism spread online — one more perceived antifa warning the night before unrest at the park began. The next day, Morgan said, her husband went to check out the protest — and was threatened with violence and accused of being a paid actor before he fled. The couple have not returned to Marconi Plaza since. And they are now moving out of South Philadelphia.

“We had already been talking about moving and then the vigilantes happened,” Morgan said. “We were like, ‘Time to go.’”

Staff writer Anna Orso contributed to this story.