In Donald Trump’s presidency, the Antifa movement achieved a mythical status, portrayed by the former president and his supporters as terrorists. One Antifa activist’s journey, from college honors student to on-the-ground combatant, offers rare insight into this far-left movement and its motivations.
Nicole Armbruster, 37, poised for a run in a park this spring, donned an Ironman hat from her triathlon days, black running shorts and gray Brooks running shoes. She reached over to restrain her dog Azuri, a muscular Catahoula hound with pale eyes, so it wouldn’t chase a squirrel.
You wouldn’t know it, but Armbruster, 5'5" and under 130 pounds, is a militant activist in the far-left Antifa movement. She has clashed on the streets with the rightwing Proud Boys extremist group, with the alt-right movement and with police.
Her arrest record – in Washington, DC, Arizona, Virginia, Minnesota and Florida – dates to 2003, for charges of unlawful assembly, failure to disperse, violating the Riot Act and assaulting far-right leaders and a police officer. Most of her prior charges were dismissed by judges or prosecutors; she faces three pending cases.
“We are prepared to put our bodies on the line in the event of police or fascist or racist violence,” she said. “And it’s really, like, a duty to humanity to do that, right?”
Militant Antifa activists rarely speak publicly. Some have been hostile to journalists, shoving them, shining laser pointers at cameras and using umbrellas to thwart videography.
Armbruster agreed to talk with Reuters after conferring with family and her lawyer, and said she was willing to discuss anything except her ongoing criminal charges in Washington, DC. One case stems from December 12, when DC police charged her with assault for spraying bear repellent during brawls with the Proud Boys near the White House. In another case, police charged her with assaulting far-right activist Jack Posobiec in June 2020 by shoving him. Over months of interviews, she and some colleagues opened a window into the Antifa movement and its motivations.
Antifa, short for “anti-fascist,” achieved a mythic and mysterious stature in Trump’s America, serving as a whipping boy for the president and his supporters. The far-right Proud Boys organization often defined itself by its opposition to Antifa, portraying its foe as a dark and dangerous enemy.
In reality, Antifa is not a well-structured organization, but rather a loosely organized, secretive movement of like-minded far-left activists. There are no leaders, no hierarchy and no formal membership. Instead, the activists organize in small units called “affinity groups.”
They say their aim is to confront those they see as racist and fascist, with the activists employing anything from social media campaigns to public protests to street violence against their adversaries.
During his presidency, Trump threatened to designate Antifa as a domestic terrorist group, though there is no system for such designations. The U.S. Department of Justice said this year that white supremacist groups, not Antifa, stand as the most significant domestic terror threat to the country.
Extremists on both ends of the spectrum, however, have been more aggressive, a hallmark of the Trump era. The Center for Strategic and International Studies cited 73 domestic far-right terror plots in 2020, the highest since 1994, and 25 domestic terror plots by the violent far-left, also a peak in that period.
The former president alternated between warning about Antifa and mocking it. “Their arms are this big,” he said once, making a circle with his fingers to underscore the lack of bicep development of Antifa activists, in contrast to the brawny “Bikers for Trump.”
Armbruster’s arms are indeed slim, with a tattoo of a dog adorning her inner left forearm. “Antifa has become, like, the boogeyman,” she said.
She once lived a more conventional life in Washington, DC. Even as she engaged as an Antifa activist, she worked for six years as a day camp coordinator for the Girl Scouts of America National Capital Region. She’d been a Scout herself as a girl and can still recite the “God and Country” creed. “Camp,” she said, “is such an important part of kids’ growth.” Over the years, she has worked as a children’s camp director, nonprofit fundraiser and swim coach.
Armbruster now lives a nomadic lifestyle with another Antifa activist, plus her dog and cat, operating from a vintage canned-ham camper she tows from campground to campground. In one RV she sometimes lives in, a needlepoint sign on the window announces: “Come back with a warrant.”
She speaks the language of revolution. Her allies are “comrades,” the police “pigs,” and far-right protesters “Nazis” or “the fash,” for fascists.
That said, some of her views align with groups she opposes. Like many on the right, as well as millions in the American mainstream, Armbruster fiercely supports the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment and the right to bear arms. “If the government could have something, we should be able to have it too, right?” she asked.
And as a political anarchist opposed to hierarchies, she is inherently anti-government, saying she would never cooperate with police and opposes both political parties.
“Antifascism is more than just punching Nazis in the face,” she said. Nonetheless, she believes violence can serve a purpose. “You can embarrass Nazis, which makes it harder for them to recruit,” she said. “You can beat them up and then they’re embarrassed.”
‘Gotta get myself ready’
Armbruster was born to a well-off family in suburban New York. She says she was a Girl Scout from kindergarten through high school. Then, she packed up for college at St. Lawrence University, a liberal arts institution established in the 1800s in rural New York State, a half hour from the Canadian border. There, she engaged as an activist while a global studies major.
Professor Kenneth Gould, a sociologist now at CUNY Brooklyn, was on the faculty, and recalls Armbruster as a sharp student and “far-left progressive.” Her honors thesis focused on the “organizational structures” of protests against the Free Trade Agreement. Gould recalls Armbruster at one on-campus protest, where demonstrators had chained the main door of the economics building. A professor, upset by the picketing, grabbed Armbruster and hoisted her out of his way, Gould recalled.
“I just remember this big dude picking me up,” Armbruster said. “And I was one of the smallest people there.”
Armbruster said the seeds of her dissent were planted early. When she learned about World War II and Hitler’s Germany as a child, she developed a revulsion for Nazis, fascists and state wrongdoing. “My family is from Germany. And you learn all the horrible things.”
She first witnessed protest violence 20 years ago, when she joined a demonstration in Ottawa against the Free Trade Area of the Americas. “The police just opened up front with tear gas,” she said. She wore a vinegar-soaked bandana to help her breathe amid the gassing. “And it didn’t work,” she said.
“I was a teenager, and after your first time when you experience this, you’re like, ‘Holy shit! I gotta get myself ready.’ ”
She was more angry, she said, than scared. She trained in martial arts, fitness and emergency medicine, asking herself: “What can I do to protect myself so that I can continue to work with my comrades to protect our community?”
In 2007, she says she marched against a Ku Klux Klan rally at Harpers Ferry, where abolitionist John Brown launched an armed attack against slavery. A year later, when the National Socialist Movement marched toward the Capitol, flying swastikas, Armbruster says she joined other leftists in protest.
Arrests began to mount. She says her first arrest was for unlawful assembly in 2003 in Miami at a free trade protest; records show the charge was dropped. She got busted in DC in 2005 for unlawful entry involving a protest at a school; the misdemeanor case was dismissed in a sentencing agreement. Then in Minnesota in 2008, she was arrested for unlawful assembly during the Republican National Convention. Prosecutors dismissed the misdemeanor case, court records show.
In 2012, she was charged with assaulting a police officer after a World Bank and IMF protest. Though the charge was dismissed, a federal judge later said Armbruster had tried to pull a friend free from the police, by the arm, as the friend was being arrested. Two police officers held on to the friend in a tug of war. Armbruster sued the police for excessive force; her case was dismissed.
These days, she travels with her friend and fellow Antifa activist Jesse Schultz, a bearded former construction worker and IT administrator who just turned 70 and is not shy to scuffle with the far-right.
Antifa activists view their mission as “deplatforming,” a method of blocking opponents from spreading their message.
There is no central organization, but one Antifa network lists specific “points of unity” that Armbruster and other activists say they share. Key points include: “We disrupt fascist and far right organizing” and “We don’t rely on the cops or courts to do our work for us.”
Schultz said that while some in Antifa use social media to deplatform foes, by exposing far-right members online, he and Armbruster “deplatform with our hands and feet, maybe a piece of wood or something. You know, that means punching or kicking.”
‘You found the Antifa bus’
Last year, Armbruster bought a patch of land in Arizona, a lot in the barren desert with no signs or roads leading to it, no house and no water or sewage. Ranchers let their beef cattle wander, grazing on clumps of needlegrass. When Reuters visited in July, a black cow chewed on a windblown plastic tarp 50 yards away.
Armbruster and friend Schultz have a trailer and an RV rigged with solar panels. They have a 25-year-old bus they hope to retrofit into a large RV so friends can travel with them. It was once a Las Vegas party bus; they removed a stripper pole from the middle. Bus seats they’ve dismantled are spread out in the desert, their “amphitheater.”
“You can tell everyone you found the Antifa bus,” said Schultz with a grin, referring to an urban myth that Antifa agitators arrive in cities by the busload.
Armbruster says she doesn’t much care whether Democrats or Republicans hold power. But from the early days of the presidential race of 2016, an alliance of Trump supporters became natural targets of Antifa.
One pro-Trump activist, Richard Spencer, was a prominent “alt-right” leader who aspired to create a white “ethnostate.” “America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us,” Spencer has said.
On Saturday, November 19, 2016, less than two weeks after Trump’s election, Spencer’s organization, the National Policy Institute, had a conference planned in Washington. Antifa activists learned the group had planned a Friday dinner at an Italian restaurant in Northwest DC.
“We’re, like, kind of on this hunt around the Friendship Heights area,” Armbruster recalled. They found the restaurant, Maggiano’s Little Italy, where Spencer’s group was meeting upstairs. The Antifa activists rushed up the large staircase, burst in and shouted at the attendees, all the while trying to calm the other guests, Armbruster said.
“Everyone was telling the diners, ‘We have nothing against y’all. We’re not here to protest you, but there’s Nazis upstairs!’ ”
The DC Antifascist Coalition hoisted signs saying, “No to Racism and Fascism.” Someone inside tweeted a photo of some at the dinner raising the Nazi salute. Spencer and the NPI fled the restaurant.
Two days later, Maggiano’s corporate headquarters apologized for hosting the group. “We were not aware that NPI was dining with us or what the group represents,” a statement said.
Spencer, who now lives in Montana, told Reuters he remembers the fracas vividly. “That was one of the actions where things started to get violent,” he said. Spencer has dropped out of active extreme-right organizing, and he says Antifa helped push him off the public stage.
“Any event was impossible because they were willing to fight,” he said. “They made things so violent and toxic that I could never go to these events again.”
Antifa people refer to their major battles by the first letter of the month and the date they occurred. January 20, 2017, the day Trump was inaugurated, is “J20.”
That day, Armbruster joined hundreds of Antifa members dressed in “Black Bloc,” a European protest tactic in which demonstrators wear all black. The idea is to project solidarity and make it hard for police to identify individuals to arrest. Antifa activists cluster into “affinity groups,” informal units of three to eight people who trust and protect each other during protests.
Schultz stood ready with a bicycle as Bikers for Trump motorcyclists headed down an alley. “I got this bicycle if they attack. I’ll just throw it at them,” he said. Before he could act, police moved in from two locations. “And then they just pepper sprayed me. Really good spray.”
Across L Street and 12th, as Ambruster joined hundreds holding signs that said “Make Racists Afraid Again,” the activists were surrounded by police. She says her affinity group had spent months planning for the day, and the police operation shut them down fast.
Armbruster and Schultz were among over 200 arrested that day, mostly for violating the Riot Act, a rarely used DC law that allows prosecutors to bring charges in cases where more than five protestors gather. Months later, the bulk of cases were dismissed, after 21 people agreed to take pleas. Armbruster’s case was dismissed in March 2019.
“Nobody cooperated with the state because anarchists do have a sense of solidarity,” she said.
Schultz is lead plaintiff in a class action federal civil lawsuit against the District of Columbia government alleging wrongful arrest. His lawyer and those for the city have filed court papers saying they plan to settle for $995,000 split among plaintiffs.
In 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, as white supremacists gathered in throngs in an infamous alt-right rally, a rightwing activist drove his car into a crowd of people, killing a nonviolent protester.
Armbruster was there. She says she was in a long-term relationship at the time, and with other criminal charges pending, she promised her then-boyfriend she would not engage on the street. Instead, she says she operated in Charlottesville out of a church, dispatching emergency medical help for activists as she monitored police scanners.
In January 2019, she focused on Jovanni Valle, a pro-Trump activist holding a protest in front of the White House in support of James Fields, the self-described neo-Nazi charged with killing the woman in Charlottesville. Valle has been videotaped wearing a swastika necklace. “I do appreciate the goals of National Socialism,” he told Reuters. The swastika, he said, is “a symbol of love and peace.”
Armbruster and two others were busted for hurling balloons filled with red paint at Valle. She was charged with assault for throwing the balloon and “attempted possession of a prohibited weapon” for carrying it. After hearing from witnesses, a judge acquitted her.
In 2020, someone “doxed” Armbruster, posting information about her on a website called “antifa watch.” The posting included her age and a mugshot and photo of her emerging from a swim, apparently after a triathlon.
After the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, protests consumed the country. With the United States aflame in unrest, Ambruster and other Antifa activists joined in support of Black Lives Matter protests.
President Trump blamed Antifa for inciting riots across the country. “It’s ANTIFA and the Radical Left,” he tweeted. “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.” No such designation followed.
Some cities, including Portland, were gripped by violence involving leftwing extremists who clashed with police in intense civil unrest. Little evidence has emerged, though, to support Trump’s sweeping claim of a central Antifa role in triggering disturbances around the US.
Armbruster, who is largely based on the East Coast, said she has not been involved in Portland.
Her alleged assault on far-right activist Posobiec came on June 26, 2020. The Southern Poverty Law Center says Posobiec “collaborated with white supremacists, neo-fascists and antisemites for years.”
Posobiec, for his part, has written in his book The Antifa: Stories from Inside the Black Bloc, that Antifa’s “ultimate goal is the destabilizing of our nation and the undermining of our democracy.” A spokesman for Posobiec called SPLC’s characterization false and “preposterous.”
In some protests, Black Lives Matter and other groups tried to topple statues of General Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders. A statue in Washington’s Emancipation Park shows a black man kneeling before Abraham Lincoln. Civil rights activists since Frederick Douglass have objected to the statue, citing the abject portrayal of the black man, and BLM protestors pushed to remove it.
That’s where Posobiec showed up in June 2020, at the time working for the far-right news outlet One America News. Police say Armbruster stood nearby, wearing a helmet, goggles, black clothes and a backpack.
In his book, Posobiec said he was “surrounded by a swarm of black-clad Antifa adherents” who “attempted to push me down the steps.” Though Posobiec doesn’t name her in his book, Armbruster shoved him, police allege. A DC police report refers to her as D-2 (defendant number two) and Prosobiec as V-1 (victim number one), and says: “D-2 shoved V-1 in the chest, causing him to stagger backward down the steps.”
DC police arrest forms include a section titled “caution and medical conditions,” with headings such as “armed and dangerous.” For Armbruster, who has been arrested at least five times in the U.S. capital, there is a checkmark for “violent tendencies.” She was charged with assault and has pleaded not guilty.
Posobiec did not respond to texts and emails requesting comment.
At war with the Proud Boys
For four years, the Proud Boys and Antifa have scuffled. “Fuck Antifa” became a Proud Boys mantra. The group’s chairman, Enrique Tarrio, told Reuters the Proud Boys oppose Antifa because of the “mass unrest they are causing.”
In December, Proud Boys descended on Washington just days before various states were scheduled to certify their election results.
On December 11, the day before a big rally in support of Trump, Armbruster said she was walking with friends to Black Lives Matter plaza. They were passing Archibald’s, a strip club on K Street, when they encountered Proud Boys in their telltale Fred Perry yellow and black polo shirts.
“Whose streets?” Proud Boys shouted. “Our streets!” One Proud Boy reached out to taze Schultz with a cattle prod, Armbruster and Schultz said. Another, she said, lunged at her.
The next day, Trump backers thronged DC as the outgoing president flew over the crowd in the Marine One helicopter. Armbruster was arrested when, police said, she sprayed someone with pepper gas and carried seven packages of “commercial grade” fireworks and two cans of lighter fluid. In the street warfare of extremism, it’s not unusual for dueling groups to throw firecrackers at each other.
Armbruster said her body armor protected her from a beating during her fracas with the Proud Boys. “I was being kicked in the chest and in the head, and I’m a 120-pound girl.”
She was charged with assault, pleaded not guilty and spent two nights in jail. After her release, she said, she was diagnosed with COVID, so she self-isolated in a campground in Florida with her dog and cat.
Back on her feet, she’s primed for the next engagement. “We’re not done,” she said.
By Aram Roston
Photography: Jim Urquhart
Photo editing: Corinne Perkins
Art direction: John Emerson
Edited by Ronnie Greene