Antifa on trial: How one criminal case could redefine the murky left-wing movement

A pedestrian jogs past counter-protesters, some carrying Antifa flags, as they wait to confront a "Patriot March" demonstration in support of Donald Trump near the Crystal Pier on Jan. 9, 2021 in the Pacific Beach neighborhood of San Diego, California.
Will Carless
  • Experts say the case could change how American law enforcement tackles the much-misunderstood movement known as Antifa.
  • Some also see the case as selective prosecution, when violence emerged on both sides.
  • But prosecutors want to make the case that the Antifa side acted more like a gang, with a unified goal and shared tactics.

On Jan. 9, 2021, three days after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, a mob of white supremacists, Proud Boys and other supporters of President Donald Trump descended on the neighborhood of Pacific Beach in San Diego.

Wearing body armor and carrying wooden sticks and flagpoles, the group marched through town holding up Nazi salutes, snarling at locals in the beachfront bars, and shouting the same chant that had been used on the streets of the capital days before: “F--- Antifa!”

Waiting to meet the mob was a horde of black-clad self-proclaimed anti-fascists or Antifa, who had organized to “protect” Pacific Beach from these outside provocateurs. As the two groups clashed, despite the efforts of dozens of police officers, brawls broke out. Supporters on both sides plus bystanders of all stripes had their phones up, ready to record the action on video. 

Anti-fascists, dressed head-to-toe in black, pepper sprayed Trump supporters in the face, gleefully shouting “Proud Boy killa!” Another group of counterprotesters confronted and attacked a Trump supporter who then drew a knife on them. In an alleyway, away from the main crowd, a group of assorted right-wing extremists surrounded a young man in a George Floyd T-shirt, sucker-punching him and smashing his nose.

In the months that followed, video was reviewed, warrants were issued and homes were searched. And almost a year later, a criminal case emerged, one that now stands to have an impact far beyond San Diego. Experts say it could be a landmark prosecution that changes how American law enforcement tackles the much-misunderstood movement known as Antifa.  

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced a raft of felony charges for the activities on Jan. 9, after an investigation of “multiple allegations of violent criminal conduct,” “video evidence analysis” and searches and arrests across two counties. 

And every person charged was from the Antifa side. No Trump supporter had been charged, or even arrested. 

Since then, prosecutors have added charges against more people identified by prosecutors as Antifa, for a total of 11 defendants.

Stephan’s office claims the Antifa side was “overwhelmingly” responsible for the violence. But experts familiar with the case say it was an extraordinary decision to not charge anyone in the far-right group that actually targeted the community, especially given the videos that exist showing them engaging in violence. The question is less about whether the Antifa charges are warranted and more about whether this is a case of selective prosecution, they said.

Counter-protesters, some carrying ANTIFA flags, stand beneath palm trees on the beach awaiting to confront demonstrators for a "Patriot March" demonstration in support of US President Donald Trump on Jan. 9, 2021, in the Pacific Beach neighborhood of San Diego, California.

Only prosecuting one side of a melee raises serious questions about Stephan’s political motives, said Patrick Cotter, a former Chicago federal prosecutor who has practiced criminal law for 40 years.  

“When you've got a situation where there's two organized groups who both decided to fight each other, and only one side gets charged and the other side gets to walk, it's idiotic,” Cotter said. “It's an insult to the public's intelligence to suggest that that's a legitimate prosecution. It's not. It's selective prosecution.”

A USA TODAY investigation revealed the victims in the DA's case include people identified by activists as white supremacist agitators notorious for spurring fights in neighborhoods where they're not welcome. At least one has a criminal record and has long been involved with neo-Nazi groups.

The victims also include other Trump supporters, some of whom remain unidentified by the district attorney. Local anti-fascist activists say they have identified several other white supremacists who were present at the rally.  

But the first-of-its kind Antifa prosecution could also have implications far beyond the parties to the case. 

Influential far-right commentators and conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones and Tucker Carlson and conservative politicians all the way up to former President Donald Trump have long claimed Antifa is not just a disparate social movement but an organized, shadowy army hell-bent on destroying America. 

That’s a caricature of Antifa that Stephan herself has previously embraced. She sparked controversy during her election campaign in 2018 when she paid for a website strewn with images of black-clad protesters that shared far-right antisemitic extremist conspiracy theories about billionaire philanthropist George Soros. 

If the case against the San Diego 11 succeeds, it could open the doors to conservative prosecutors around the country to target a progressive social movement that has been ill-defined and misunderstood for years, experts said.

“It could be used as ammunition by people who are opposed to Antifa, or what they think of as Antifa,” said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “And it might also inspire other conservative prosecutors in different places to try similar prosecutions, thinking ‘We might be able to replicate that success.’”

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'Making a presence and inciting some kind of retaliation'

When San Diego Deputy District Attorney William Hopkins set the scene for the 19 grand jurors gathered to hear the Antifa case in a downtown San Diego court building in May, he described the planned Pacific Beach event as “A conservative demonstration. A flag waving. A patriot march,” according to court records.

People bicycle past counter-protesters, some holding Antifa flags, awaiting demonstrators for a "Patriot March" demonstration in support of US President Donald Trump on Jan. 9, 2021 in the Pacific Beach neighborhood of San Diego, California.

But Mike Brown, who has lived in the Pacific Beach area for 30 years, said he didn’t see much patriotism on display on Jan. 9, 2021. 

A history teacher and surfer, Brown said he was riding his bike in Pacific Beach when he was shocked to see the crowds of far-right and far-left protesters in the largely peaceful neighborhood. The pro-Trump group were not your average political crowd, Brown said.

“These guys weren't just Trump supporters, a lot of them were Proud Boys – you know, wearing the black and the yellow,” Brown said. Those outfits can be seen in some of the videos. “I don't know where they were from, but what pissed me off about it all was that they came into our community and disrupted business, took over the streets, created a lot of tension for a whole afternoon and it wasn't even a local grassroots movement.”

What Pacific Beach witnessed that day was a typical incursion into a mostly liberal neighborhood by far-right agitators who wanted to cause trouble, said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

Far-right extremists have long used the same tactics, Levin said: Arranging a hostile display of force in a neighborhood that they know is likely to oppose them, then stirring up violence from anyone who confronts them. 

“The history of these paramilitary groups on the far-right is really about two things: making a presence and inciting some kind of retaliation, and then using that as an excuse to significantly escalate violence,” Levin said. 

San Diego Police Department logs from the day describe the same chaos seen in the videos. The logs describe people in "Antifa gear" chasing and fighting with others wearing "Trump gear." At 4:31 p.m. the police log reads, "Protest being hijacked by Proud Boys. Very anti-police and refusing to comply."

A pepper ball (L), exits the barrel of a San Diego Police Department (SDPD) officer's Tippmann FT-12 paintball gun while firing pepper balls towards counter-protesters at a "Patriot March" demonstration, Jan. 9, 2021 in the Pacific Beach neighborhood of San Diego, California.

The indictment against the Antifa defendants lists 11 incidents in which prosecutors allege they committed crimes ranging from illegal use of pepper spray to punching, kicking and striking their opponents with a baseball bat. 

Antifa activists, holding a banner reading “Antifascist Action” and chanting “racists go home” can also be seen in videos on YouTube attacking people marching on the pro-Trump side. In numerous altercations, black-clad counterprotesters chase people down the street, hit them with flagpoles and skateboards and spray pepper spray in their faces. Antifa activists also faced off against San Diego Police officers, who used less-than-lethal force against them.   

But apparent assaults committed by the other side were also caught on camera.  

Brown said he witnessed the attack by far-right extremists on the man and his female companion in an alley. He said a group had broken off from the main protest and assaulted the man, who was wearing a shirt with George Floyd’s image on it and the slogan “No Justice, No Peace,” on the back. The attack was unprovoked, Brown said.

“One guy comes up and just totally sucker punches him and takes him to the ground and then they move on,” he said. 

Brown’s account is backed up by a video taken by Amie Zamudio, a local homeless activist, who can be heard pleading with the aggressors to leave their victims alone. Zamudio told USA TODAY she was concerned the man might be homeless because he was walking barefoot, and when she approached him, she saw the pro-Trump aggressors attack him without any provocation.  

Brown and Zamudio both said they have never been contacted or interviewed by the District Attorney’s office or investigators with the San Diego Police Department. The man seen in that attack has not been publicly identified, and it's unclear if anyone has filed a police report about the incident. 

In another incident, a group of black-clad activists chase three men down the street. One of the men turns and advances before them holding a knife in his right hand.

And another video shows one of the Trump supporters picking up a smoke canister and throwing it towards the anti-fascists as at least a dozen San Diego police officers look on.  

Levin and others familiar with the case said given the wide array of violence from both groups,  it’s hard to understand why only one side of the altercation is facing charges.

“I am not excusing, in any way, possible criminal conduct on the left,” he said. “But when we look at the array of antagonists that showed up, and their record of criminality and violence, it causes a particular question in the public's mind: What kind of fair-handed investigation was done by authorities and what evidence was reviewed?”

Cotter, the former federal prosecutor, said there’s a simple answer to those questions: politics.

“This is about votes,” he said. “It's about politics. It's about some prosecutor trying to burnish their brand, looking at voters, and saying ‘Who can I prosecute that will give me the most votes?’ and, “If I prosecuted these other guys, would that give me votes or cost me votes?” 

The San Diego District Attorney’s Office did not agree to an interview with USA TODAY, but provided a statement including:

“When evidence and facts support criminal charges, we will file them, as we did in July 2020 with a white supremacy group that attacked Black Lives Matter peaceful protesters and when we charged a white supremacist with murder and a hate crimes allegation for killing an innocent Jewish woman at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in April 2019. We obtained convictions in both cases.”

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Prosecutors want victims' names hidden

In an unusual legal twist, the prosecutors of the San Diego case asked the superior court judge overseeing it to grant a protective order forbidding the defense attorneys from copying or sharing any documents that identify the alleged victims of the attacks by Antifa with anyone outside the legal team. 

That means even if they’re asked, the defense attorneys can’t provide documents identifying who the alleged victims are, even to their clients. 

The move, usually reserved for cases involving organized crime like the mafia or gang cases, is designed to protect witnesses and victims from being further targeted by their aggressors. In this case, the prosecutors argued, the victim’s names needed to be kept secret because they might be targeted by Antifa’s network of online sleuths, who might “doxx” them – a slang term for publishing personal information about someone on the internet, for the purpose of intimidating or encouraging others to target them. 

The timing of the protective order was unusual, too.

The names of several of the victims have already been shared by Antifa-affiliated social media accounts multiple times. Indeed, in making their case to the judge that the names should be kept secret, prosecutors presented a screenshot of a local anti-fascist Twitter account sharing the names of several people USA TODAY confirmed are among the victims attacked by Antifa. That screenshot remains in publicly available court records. 

A USA TODAY investigation found that people named in that tweet have histories of associating with white supremacist organizations and local racist groups in the San Diego area. They include two people  from San Diego who have been identified by activists marching in several pro-Trump rallies wearing shirts emblazoned with the logo of American Guard, which the ADL describes as “Hard core white supremacists” and which grew out of two other racist organizations.     

Almost all of the victims referred to in court documents only by their initials have long been well-known to local anti-fascists. Indeed, that’s why they were targeted with violence in the first place, three local anti-fascist sources told USA TODAY.

USA TODAY confirmed the names publicly announced by the Antifa Twitter account @SDAgainstFash with one of the defense attorneys on the case.

Antifa both 'a real thing' and a boogeyman

Perhaps more than any other extremist group in America, Antifa has been hard for academics and experts to pin down.

Unlike the Ku Klux Klan, which has a defined leadership structure, or the Proud Boys, which has a clear membership process, Antifa typically eschews any sort of organizational architecture. There’s no central leadership, no set membership process, and no real prerequisites for being an anti-fascist other than simply acting like one. 

Plus, anti-fascist activists constantly engage in a semantic dance, employing the rejoinder “If you’re not anti-fascist, then you’re a fascist,” defying easy answers about whether anyone is a member of the movement. 

This vagueness has led to a concerted effort by far-right-wing commentators, conspiracy theorists and pundits to discredit Antifa whenever possible. In the absence of a clear definition of the group, Antifa is often portrayed, even on mainstream channels like Fox News, as a highly organized, malevolent force with massive numbers and a clearly defined goal: To sow chaos and disorder on America’s streets. 

Anti-fascists certainly do communicate with each other, said Mark Bray, a lecturer in history at Rutgers University and author of "Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook." Anti-fascists in certain regions occasionally hold meetings, but the movement is still far from the regulated force that has been depicted.    

“As it's become something more well known, it's become a real thing, but it's also become a boogeyman,” Bray said. "A very common phrase in right-wing circles is ‘BLM-slash-Antifa, which is, I think, essentially, their way of saying violent black leftists and violent white leftists.”

Stephan’s 2018 campaign website appeared to endorse this perception of Antifa. The website, which disappeared after negative media attention, claimed that left-wing philanthropist George Soros funded “anti-law enforcement candidates over experienced prosecutors, trying to tip the balance to the criminals.” 

In 2020, Stephan again made headlines after her office charged Black Lives Matter activist Denzel Draughn with eight felonies after Draughn pepper-sprayed SDPD officers he said were attacking a fellow protester. Draughn was acquitted of all the charges at trial.

Dawn Perlmutter, the main expert witness who will testify about Antifa for prosecutors, also has a history of writing for right-wing websites. Perlmutter is an academic who teaches police departments about symbology and extremist movements, but she is also an adjunct professor of osteopathic medicine.

In one article, she described the Black Lives Matter racial justice movement as an “anti-police hate fest.” She decried pro-BLM protestors as “self-loathing affluent white middle-aged women attempting to show how woke they are.” Perlmutter acknowledged to USA TODAY that she wrote the stories. 

The San Diego prosecution aims to prove that the black-clad people who committed violence on Jan. 9, 2021, in Pacific Beach weren’t just fired up by a common philosophy or hatred of Trump, or animosity towards authority. By charging the defendants with conspiracy, the prosecutors want to make the case that they acted more like a gang, with a unified goal, common symbols and shared tactics. 

From a strictly legal perspective, that could have a significant impact on the defendants who are charged with conspiracy, because the charge could effectively double their sentences for other crimes. 

People eating a meal at the beach take pictures as counter-protesters, some carrying Antifa flags, march in opposition to demonstrators holding a "Patriot March" in support of President Donald Trump on January 9, 2021 in the Pacific Beach neighborhood of San Diego, California.

But cases like this aren’t just about the individual outcomes for the San Diego 11, said Cotter, the former federal prosecutor. In a country supercharged by political division, animosity and violence, prosecutions like this are often as much about sending a message out into the world as they are about bringing justice to people who may well have committed crimes, he said.

“If a prosecutor anywhere is successful prosecuting any kind of unusual new kind of case, other prosecutors pay attention,” Cotter said. 

He compared the Antifa case to the widespread prosecution of American labor organizers in the early 20th Century. Until unionization was protected by Congress, the movement was a soft target for conservative lawmakers obsessed with targeting progressive causes, Cotter said.  

”Prosecutors are politicians looking for ways to build their brand,” he said. “If it’s politically to their advantage to be seen prosecuting these kinds of cases, whether it's Antifa or Hells Angels, or Mexican drug cartels, then other prosecutors pay attention and say, OK, well maybe there's a blueprint there.”

One of the San Diego 11 remains in custody. He and the other 10 defendants face a trial that has been continually delayed but will likely start in the spring. 

The trial will be closely watched not just by anti-fascists across the country, but also by conservative pundits, politicians and prosecutors who will finally see whether their perception of Antifa as America’s dark, mysterious underbelly really stands up in court.

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