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- Photo by Xander Peters
Although there's no physical headquarters nor an actual hierarchy within the group, antifa, like most modern activism, proliferates via the web. The micro-movement's roots in the U.S. date back to the punk-rock era of the 1980s, then called "anti-racist action." Only recently have these protesters found their way back into the national periphery, at the same time that militia-like far right-wingers, including the groups affiliated with the notorious alt-right, have trekked their own paths into the American consciousness.
Last year, antifa demonstrators grabbed the nation's attention with their protests of President Donald Trump's inauguration and the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August. White supremacists and neo-Nazis descended on the college town to protest the removal of a Confederate statue; by the end of a day full of gun-waving and violent clashes, an alt-right demonstrator had used his car to mow down a group of protesters, injuring 19 and killing one woman.
Even prior to Charlottesville, though, the Department of Homeland Security had formally classified antifa's activities as acts of "domestic terrorist violence." On paper, that means authorities view antifa protesters through a similar lens as, say, white supremacists, anti-abortion extremists and radical animal rights activists.
As a result, antifa quickly became a conservative boogeyman, and Spike's Tactical – the firearm manufacturer with the slogan "The Finest AR-15s on the Planet" – decided to use that boogeyman to sell guns.
Following the release of the two company's joint ad, publications like Vice News and Newsweek (and, yes, Orlando Weekly) criticized the companies' scapegoating of activists. While OW stopped short of directly referring to the ad as anything besides "completely insane," in Cope's words, reporters at Vice News and Newsweek went a little further in that the publications "straight-up called us Nazis." (They didn't.)
Because of that, during the sit-down interview that day in their warehouse, Cope told OW that Spike's Tactical was looking at pursuing a libel suit against at least one of the publications.
Cope says the company had already decided on the ad's general concept before deciding on a bad guy. "We could have put 'Not Today, Nazi Motherfuckers,' or anything," Cope says. In fact, Cope adds, he and two others in charge of the ad – Cole Leleux, general manager at Spike's Tactical, and Lincoln Osiris, president of Pipe Hitters Union – had initially wanted to show armed men facing off against neo-Nazis. They thought it would complement last year's ad, which depicted radical jihadists alongside a young blonde woman in an orange jumpsuit, with text reading, "They're already here ... Are you prepared?"
But putting Nazi symbols on any sort of advertisement, whether for firearms or anything else, has a way of complicating things with the customer base. So, instead, they settled on antifa, because, as Cope says, "now they're actually training in violent arts."
"There are so many gun owners who aren't going to stand for a bunch of loud-mouth, illegal ruffians marching down their neighborhood, breaking car windows and stuff," he says. "So what's going to happen? There's going to be a standoff – and it's not going to be between Nazis and antifa. That's happened."
Spike's Tactical, in other words, is selling safety, not a piece of machinery?
"We're selling firearms," Cope says. "We're selling guns. But we're also selling a culture." It's what he calls a "pro-American, pro-law enforcement, pro-veteran, pro-Second Amendment way of life."
But what does it mean to be pro-American, as Cope puts it? Selling weapons goes hand-in-hand with exploiting insecurities; historically gun sales have spiked following mass shootings. As Cope suggests, does a more heavily armed society actually make for a more polite society?