The Life and Death of an Anti-Fascist

Few anti-fascists were as influential on Portland’s recent protest scene as Sean Kealiher. He rarely missed a protest, and he would have been front and center last summer when the insurrectionary activism he had long advocated for became a staple on Portland streets. But he wasn’t. In October 2019, at 23, he was killed in front of the state Democratic Party building, which protesters vandalized on Inauguration Day this year. Kealiher’s death, which was ruled a homicide, shocked Portland’s activist community. But no arrests were ever made, and no persons of interest were ever named. Those in Kealiher’s circle saw his unsolved murder as further confirmation of the police’s double standards and antagonism toward the left. The Portland Police Bureau did not respond to a request for comment.

This week on Intercepted: While it was largely former President Donald Trump who elevated antifa, short for anti-fascists, to a household name, generations of Portland anti-fascists have for decades opposed far-right, racist extremists as well as police. Reporter Alice Speri dives into Kealiher’s ideology and murder, Portland’s legacy of anti-fascist activism and its deeply intertwined history of white supremacist violence, and how law enforcement’s obsession with antifa led to intelligence failures like U.S. Capitol riot.

[Introductory theme.]

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

Harris Faulkner: The FBI is involved in investigating the death of a man after a video surfaced showing a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck.

Jake Tapper: The video posted on Facebook goes on for 10 minutes. You can hear several witnesses ask the officer why does he still have his knee on George Floyd’s neck.

Chuck Todd: The video then shows Floyd repeatedly telling the officer that he can’t breathe. But the officer remains with his knee on Floyd’s neck for around seven minutes.

Protestor: What’s his name? 

Protestors: [chanting] George Floyd!

Protestor: Say it again!

Protestors: [chanting] George Floyd!

Newscaster: Federal agents sent to restore order in Portland have poured petrol on disorder. What was a largely peaceful protest has escalated into violence.

[Sounds of glass breaking, shouting, gunshots.]

Alice Speri: Very quickly, Portland became kind of the epicenter of the George Floyd protest movement this summer. There were almost uninterrupted protests for 120 days — basically like four months of protests, nonstop. And the police responded really brutally to them. There was teargas almost every other night and there were hundreds and hundreds of arrests. Trump really kind of fixated on Portland as like the example of what was happening, and he’s the one that really kind of trained the spotlight to Portland.

President Donald J. Trump: Portland is a disaster. It’s been a disaster for many, many years — lawless writers, and agitators, and anarchists, that’s what they are. Sick, disturbed people.

AS: The Trump administration reassigned dozens of Justice Department investigators and FBI agents who have been busy working on investigations across the country, including — mostly — on white supremacist, far-right violence. And he sent all those people to Portland in an effort to kind of build this case against antifa, right? Which had become Trump’s fixation, really.

DJT: The violence and radicalism is being led by antifa and other radical, left-wing groups who are terrorizing the innocent, destroying jobs, hurting businesses, and burning down buildings.

AS: It’s just so interesting that they were just fixated on this threat, antifa, that just never materialized the way that the far-right threat did.

My name is Alice Speri, and I am a reporter at The Intercept. This is the story of Sean Kealiher, who was a 23-year-old anarchist, anti-fascist activist, who was very well-known in Portland’s protest scene. It was a story of an unsolved murder.

Newscaster: The mystery began around midnight, and police say an SUV crashed into a building. And then they say, at some point, someone fired shots into that car.

Newscaster: A known Portland-area activist killed on the streets. Tonight, officers say the 23-year-old’s death is linked to a car crash and gunfire.

Newscaster: A victim had been taken by friends to the hospital where he was pronounced dead; police now naming him as 23-year-old Sean Kealiher. An autopsy concluded his death was a homicide caused by blunt-force trauma.

Newscaster: Sean Kealiher was active in the anarchist community. He also went by the name Armeanio, and there are reports he may have just left the nearby Cider Riot! bar. There had been a brawl there several months ago between left- and right-wing activists. 

Newscaster: That’s where he was injured. You can see there’s his nickname there, “Armeanio Rest In Power” written on the building in chalk, and then below that roses and candles to memorialize him.

Newscaster: Right now, police are not saying exactly what led up to the crash and also the gunfire here. They say if you have any information about this incident, you should call Portland Police. Back to you.

AS: Sean’s death was ruled a homicide, but no arrests were ever made; no persons of interest in the case were ever named. To this day, a year and a half after Sean was killed, there is no official update, nobody has been arrested, and the homicide remains unsolved. Even after people came to the conclusion that the killing was probably not politically motivated, a lot of people in Portland’s activist community thought that the lack of investigation was very much politically motivated. I was really interested in kind of understanding not so much what happened that night but what was the impact of this killing, and why was this killing not solved. Most of Sean’s friends from anarchist and anti-fascist spaces spoke with me on the condition that they remain anonymous. But I did speak with Gregory McElvey, who is a well-known Black Lives Matter activist in Portland and was a good friend of Sean.

Gregory McElvey: I mean, it’s been so long and to not know who did it — and it really felt like the police didn’t care that much. Had he been someone else, his murder would have been solved. Especially because he’s white. And I feel like the police know. I feel like the police know. The police certainly all knew who he was. And I just think that like, I wouldn’t be surprised if police officers were not very interested in investigating his murder.

Gregory McElvey (radio interview): Today, we have a special guest. I’m here with Armeanio, and he is a local anti-fascist, which I think we should all be anti-fascist. But could you introduce yourself? 

Sean Kealiher (Armeanio Lewis): Yeah. Sure. Hi, I’m Armeanio. I’m a Portland anti-fascist. And I’ve been doing this activity probably for the better part of 10 years now, since before Occupy Portland.

GM: I mean, I met him sometime in 2016. And by then, he was fully formed in his political thought, I think.

SK: I do not believe in left unity, personally. I believe in unity from the bottom. And what that means is in the context of fascist attacks, and labor disputes, I will unite with anybody. I will be on the picket line with anybody as long as you were there to hold that picket line. 

GM: Sure.

SK: Outside of that, I have no reason to organize with Trotskyists, Maoists or anything like that. 

GM: He knew so much. Like anything anarchist history-wise, he knew it. Like, where they have been persecuted and stuff like that. 

SK: The Anarchist CNT, the biggest union — which is actually still around —

GM: Wow.

SK: — and the communists POUM, who were Trotskyists — 

SK: — the Haymarket massacre, in which anarchists were killed by the police, and seven of them, the most famous being Louis Lingg, were executed for a bombing that they didn’t even commit — 

GM: He was very funny, very fun to hang out with, smoked a lot of cigarettes. He didn’t usually bring up politics on its own. He was a good hang. He wasn’t famous, but he was incredibly influential, and potentially more so than almost anybody in our protest scene. And he was super not materialistic — he, like, he wore the same hoodie every day like a cartoon character; he wore the same shoes, like work boots type thing every day. He really just did not care about that kind of stuff.

SK: What we need to do is remove ourselves from that left-right, dogmatic spectrum that America has and really establish ourselves as communist, as socialist, and really make that point clear. You know, we want a free working class that does not have to have their surplus value extracted from them — as simple as that. But we’re not going to do that as long as we’re attached to the Democratic Party. They’re complete morons, and we need to just cut the slate clean. 

GM: It really was often the more radical factions and anarchists and stuff who would protect people at protests when shit really hit the fan. Like if he saw somebody and knew they were like, a right-wing person, like he’s confronting them, for sure. Like, he could be alone, he could be with a group of people, it wouldn’t matter. And then the other thing is he’s not calling the cops, and none of his friends are calling the cops. So like, it was not abnormal to think: Oh, he could have gotten in a fight and it went bad, right? The person got in their car and drove him down after that is what I’ve just assumed happened. But I don’t know. I don’t know. Police seem to be using their authority in political ways and that intersected in his life and in his death.

AS: I think a lot of people felt that it was really unusual for a killing like this to go unsolved, particularly because the car that was used for this murder was left on the scene, so police have plenty of evidence to at least start their investigation with. 

We don’t know a lot of details about what happened that night. What we do know is that on October 12, 2019, Sean was walking with two friends outside Cider Riot!, which was this pub that was popular among anti-fascists and leftists, and there was some kind of argument that erupted between him and his friends and another group of people. At some point, that group got into an SUV and drove away, and then pulled around, accelerated, and slammed right into Sean and crashed into the building, which was actually the Oregon’s Democratic Party headquarters. And then the driver of the car tried to reverse, one of Sean’s friends pulled out a gun and fired at the car. And he later said to his lawyers that he believed the driver was about to just drive over Sean again. And, at that point, the people in the car got out and ran off and left, and left the car behind. And the two friends who were with Sean didn’t call 911. I think that really speaks to that broken relationship with police that so many communities have, which in turn, makes it harder for police to solve crimes. But he was unconscious already. And he ultimately passed away.

Laura Kealiher: So when the murder happened that night, the first thing that the detectives wanted to know was who his friends were — who he was associated with. They didn’t want to know what had happened. They wanted to try to get somebody on the left for whatever charges they could get.

AS: Sean’s mom, her name is Laura Kealiher, I spoke with her a lot. And I am really grateful to her for opening up so much about her son and her own life. And a lot of the people that spoke with me only did so on the condition that they remain anonymous.

LK: Because at first I got the call, I thought, “Oh, what did Sean do now? You know, it’s probably gonna be something silly.” But I knew as soon as they said “chaplain” what that meant. They wouldn’t let me see his body. And they said, “Oh, it’s just too bad.” And what people don’t understand: I don’t care how bad it would’ve been. I needed to see him so I could say goodbye. My honest opinion is they know that the left knows who did it. And they’re hoping to get one of them to do something so they can target them. Because the only questions I really get from the police is: “Who gave you the information? Who was he involved with?” That has nothing to do with the case.

Then I didn’t hear anything. I didn’t hear anything, and I kept trying to get a hold of somebody, trying to get a hold of somebody. I’d call the detectives so many times; never a return call. Nothing. You know, still stupidly believed that there has to be some kind of decent justice system in America — they really are doing their job! And I realized at that point, maybe they’re not. They really hated Sean. I think I always worried that he could be hurt, but I didn’t think that he could be killed. But he wasn’t killed because of his activism — but he’s not getting justice because of it.

Sean was your very typical, very sweet, sheltered child. He was the crossing guard, he was a straight-A student, advanced for his age — very smart. He — oh, taekwondo was a huge part of his life. He even taught for Portland Parks and Recreation when he was 14. 

AS: Sean was the oldest of three children. Laura was a single mother and she raised them all by herself. She raised her kids in a fairly liberal, but not really political family. She was just like your kind of regular, middle-class American, white American. 

And then when Sean was 12, their life changed basically overnight. There was a family disagreement, and she was forced to move out of the middle class, white neighborhood where they lived all their life and into a much poorer one. And Sean had to transfer from a great public school into a struggling, much more diverse public school where he really kind of was exposed to the politics of segregation and inequality for the first time.

LK: I think he saw the injustice of what happened to us and really being poor, working class really affected him. He went from middle class to poor  — you know, poor, working class. I mean, there was one Christmas I had nothing under the tree for my kids [crying]. You know, I went without eating numerous times so they could eat. 

AS: And all of this kind of coincided with Sean being a preteen and an early teenager, and beginning to look at the world in terms of class politics and injustice. As a 15-year-old, he went on a school field trip to downtown Portland and saw an Occupy Portland camp. And he just kind of was captivated by this and he started lying to his mother about going to sleep at friend’s houses, and instead he would go downtown and camp there.

LK: Then he found Occupy, and I think he found his calling. He found his voice. He found a way to go out there and say: “This is what is going on. We need to fight this. The working class needs to stand up and we need to —” He really, really wanted to help all those that didn’t have a voice find their voice, and he fought for that. He took to the streets.

Speaker: I got you Sean. I filmed the whole thing. Angstrom punched you in the face?

SK: Yeah, that’s the one. That’s the one that punched me in the face.

Speaker: Wow. Yeah, Portland Police Bureau radicalizing teenagers, one knuckle sandwich at a time.

LK: And his first arrest, I can actually remember. I got called to downtown Portland. And when I went inside, there were 20 police officers surrounding me at the table and yelling at me saying that was the worst kid in the world, how horrible he was because Sean had a mouth. [Laughs.] And he’s like, “Fuck you. You can’t stop me.” So it started with that. They hated him because he was not afraid. And when I got him, I had to take him to the hospital. He was just covered in bruises; he had a sprained ankle. And as a mother, I feel horrible, because I raised my kids, “Oh, the police are good, they’re protecting you!” And that was the first time he saw the truth.

AS: After Occupy, Sean kind of moved in and out of many of Portland’s leftist groups, and she says that Sean is the one who radicalized her and opened her eyes to a different way to understand the world we live in. But she really understood and respected his passion, right? And she was proud that he was so devoted to social justice. And she credits him for really politicizing her and radicalizing her.

LK: I was so naive. I was the typical American that really believed, you know, you just gotta work harder, just gotta work harder, and the police are our friends, and the government’s great, you know, dah-dah, dah-dah. 

I thank God that Sean radicalized me enough to understand that the system is so broken. He believed that we need to be revolutionized, that the common people need to get out there on the streets. He really believed that the working class needed to get out there and on the streets. I mean, he stood up for anybody who couldn’t get their voices heard. He stood up for it and the police hated him. He was a proud anti-fascist. This was his life. He lived it. I mean, there was not a moment where if something was going down, he would be there. He wasn’t afraid to say what he thought. Sean was an asshole. I love him dearly, but he was an asshole. I mean [laughing] —

SK: Go join your friends, and have fun in Portland. Quit trying to fucking pick on people smaller than you, because you’re some — 

Far right group member: Who’s picking on anybody? 

SK: You’re some fucking sad-ass, insecure piece of shit. Go fuck yourself. You had 12 of your motherfuckers roll up on me and get in your shit. Go have fun with your friends.

AS: On top of what every mother who loses a child has to deal with, she also has just been bombarded by online abuse, just relentless harassment and hatred. And regardless of what you may think about Sean and his politics, the treatment of Laura has been pretty horrifying.

LK: So as far as the harassment goes, I fucking hate Patriot Prayer. I hate the goddamn Proud Boys. They pissed on my son’s vigil and sent me pictures. They tried to interrupt his memorial. They came to my home. I have a disabled child and an elderly mother. Sorry — they just — [voice breaking] — the things they said about my child. They said he was a terrorist, a piece of shit, a scum. It got so bad I couldn’t take any more than that. 

My son wasn’t just an anti-fascist. My son was my, my — he was my oldest child. He was my firstborn. He was so much more.

Stanislav Vysotsky: The spirit of anti-fascism as in an opposition to an ideology that believes in an inherent inequality between people and enforces that inequality through violence. I trace that all the way back to, in the U.S., the history of even the abolitionist movement.

AS: Stanislav Vysotsky is a sociologist who has written a book about the tactics and history of American anti-fascists. I spoke with him to get a better understanding of this history, and traditional anti-racist and anti-fascist activism in the U.S., which is a much longer and much richer history than I think most people realize.

SV: Opposition to slavery, and to the kind of authoritarian tendencies that developed in the slave states of the South, that people like John Brown, who are icons to the contemporary anti-fascist movement, are, in some ways, proto anti-fascists. So there’s this history in the United States of people opposing that kind of ideology, even before it had a name. And then it becomes formalized, obviously, with the growth of fascist movements in the interwar period. So, the German-American Bund.

Suffolk County District Attorney: The conviction in Suffolk County of a German-American Settlement League and its incorporators is notice to Hitler that America intends to shape her own destiny. We want no citizens here who pledge our allegiance. And at the Nazi camp in this county, the swastika flag was saluted, Hitler recognized as their spiritual leader, and the members of the Bund pledged allegiance to him.

SV: There was anti-fascist opposition by the people who were being targeted by those organizations, primarily from the Jewish community. And certainly people on the left as well.

Newscaster: Even then, there were those who foresaw the evil future Hitler would bring. In New York and Philadelphia, thousands marched in protest against the man who wants to lead the world in the most savage war in history.

SV: So it’s this coalition of the historically marginalized people who are being targeted in the interwar period, and the communist, and socialist, and anarchist groups in the United States. And so, of course, immediately after World War II, you have the development of George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party, and the rise of the segregationist movement in response to the civil rights movement, were explicitly anti-fascist in their anti-racism. 

James Zwerg: Segregation must be stopped. It must be broken down. We’re dedicated to this. We’ll take hitting; we’ll take beating. We’re willing to accept death. But we’re going to keep coming.

SV: Contemporary anti-fascists look to those kinds of groups as, again, being sort of in that historical tradition. 

And then there’s contemporary anti-fascism in the United States. And that really appears in the 1980s. The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee comes out of that movement and out of those Marxist movements, and becomes a formally organized group that represents the transition from that kind of 60s radical tradition into the modern, contemporary anti-fascism. 

Vivian Altmann: In the cities, it is the racist skinheads that are the most visible recruits to the Nazi cause. Gangs of young white skinheads take their racist ideology to the streets and music clubs, inciting violence against people of color, lesbians and gay men, Jews, and any whites they consider race traitors.

SV: They were some of the earliest people to oppose racist skinhead organizing in the United States and oppose it militantly. So they were willing to use force and confrontation. And this brought them into the same kind of milieu and into the same scene as people involved in the punk scene. It’s in that that we see the beginnings of what would become the contemporary anti-fascist movement in United States with the formation of Anti-Racist Action out of the Baldies from Minneapolis who allied with other anti-racist punks and skinheads throughout the United States, and formed the Anti-Racist Action Network.

Newscaster: Not all skinheads are racists. 

SHARP member: True skinheads, that’s not what we’re about. We’re about racial harmony. We’re of all racists. And those people who shave their heads and have, you know, copied our style aren’t skinheads, they’re boneheads. 

VA: Groups such as Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice, or SHARP, Anti-Racist Action, and the Syndicate actively confront racist skinheads.

SV: Anti-Racist Action becomes the framework, and that’s where anti-fascism starts to come in. And the first group to formally call itself anti-fascist was Northeast Anti-Fascists out of Boston, which formed in 2002. They wanted to be explicit about what they were doing: they were not engaging with these structural systemic issues, at least not through that organization, and they were chasing fascists. So they used that. But also because there was a strong influence of European and Latin American activists in that group. And so they brought that European tradition of anti-fascist action to the name. And in 2007, Rose City Antifa forms, and they’re the first group to use the shortened “antifa,” the grandparent of American anti-fascism. They’re the old school anti-fascists, and they’ve been following this kind of morphing and change over the last 13 years.

AS: Portland has a long, decades-old history of anti-racist and anti-fascist activism, which is deeply connected with its history of white supremacist violence. Oregon was founded as a whites-only state and has remained a hotbed of white supremacist groups throughout its history. In the 80s and in the 90s, it was kind of like a playground for racist skinheads and white supremacists, and in Portland that really culminates in the 1988 murder of Mulugeta Seraw, who was an Ethiopian student who was beaten to death with baseball bats by three members of the White Aryan Resistance Gang, which was a neo-Nazi gang.

Journalist: You watched the fight? 

“Julie”: Yes. 

Journalist: Were you horrified?

“Julie”: No. 

Journalist: Did you enjoy it?

“Julie”: I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it. I would say it didn’t bother me.

Journalist: But an Ethiopian was killed. 

“Julie”: We didn’t know he was gonna die. 

Journalist: But somebody hit him with a baseball bat. 

“Julie”: He didn’t cover up his head.

Tom Metzger: He’s dead. I don’t cry for him. I didn’t ask the Ethiopians to come over here. And they should have never been here. 

Journalist: Do you feel you’re partly responsible for his death? 

TM: The only thing I regret is that a good, young, white man is doing life in prison for doing it.

SV: You see a period starting in about 2015 and moving into certainly 2017, where the far-right becomes much more confrontational and violent in its responses to their opposition. And, at that point, law enforcement, of course, is going to focus on who’s fighting. You’ve got these fascists on one side who are coming prepared for violence, and then you have their opposition. Law enforcement, in their search for order, also has a kind of authoritarian tendency to them and so they identify the anti-authoritarian, and certainly the more radical-left, anti-fascist elements as being the instigators of the conflict. And this aligns, to a certain extent, with the explicitly rightward shift with Trump and the Republican Party. So that you saw in 2017, these mobilizations that were nominally in support of Donald Trump that were almost entirely consisting of fascists.

Newscaster: We did just hear from Attorney General William Barr who says that the protests have been hijacked by professionals who are professional at provoking violence and unrest. Barr says they have seen evidence of antifa being —

Bill Barr: In many places, it appears the violence is planned, organized, and driven by anarchic and left, extremist groups — far-left, extremist groups — using antifa-like tactics, many of whom travel from outside the state to promote the violence.

SV: So the right then gets this enemy, this villain, here is this left out of control that’s coming for you, and it’s violent, and dangerous, and foreign, and they’re wearing all black, and they’re really scary, and they’re gonna burn your whatever down, and they’re gonna come and beat you up because of your conservative beliefs — not because those beliefs are authoritarian, and hierarchical, and are supporting of violence against marginalized people. They’re coming for you because you just believe something that’s quote-unquote unpopular. And that’s the origin of the antifa boogeyman, really. 

It produces and reproduces itself in right-wing media as these far-right mobilizations happen, as there are these clashes, as these things occur. By doing so, what they’ve done is they’ve allowed the far-right, the racist right, to move into mainstream discourse. It’s how the Proud Boys have become the street-fighting force of the far-right is that they’re the defenders of conservatism in Western civilization against this antifa threat.

Newscaster: Boiling out of control as antifa and right-wing activists clash during a conservative march. Watch this. [Sounds of protest.] Anti-fascists pelting eggs, water bottles, and even firecrackers at the Patriot Prayers group. Portland police making several arrests —

DJT: Somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem. 

President Joe Biden: His own FBI director said that — antifa is an idea and not an organization. 

DJT: Oh, you gotta be kidding me. 

JB: His FBI director —

AS: For many years, I’ve been doing reporting on political policing. You know, all policing is political, but I’ve been really kind of focused on the policing, and the surveillance, and the targeting of dissent. It became pretty clear to me in the last few years that there was a deliberate attempt to build this big conspiracy case against anti-fascists and the far-left. But there was obviously a false equivalency that was drawn between the supposed threat posed by anti-fascists and the much greater, much more violent threat that white supremacists and far-right groups have posed for decades. 

And so, to me, it was just staggering to see people, including police, talk about how shocked and surprised they were by the Capitol attack, when anyone who paid any attention to these groups saw that coming. The problem is law enforcement were too busy worrying about Black Lives Matter and antifa all this time to see that coming. And I think what happened after Sean’s death speaks to this climate that’s certainly very real in Portland and has been for a long time, but I think that’s something that exists across the country — these escalating tensions that have just been inflamed over and over in the last four years and that are not going anywhere now that Trump is gone, I think.

[Credits music.]

JS: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted. You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Lucie Kroening. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. 

Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill. 

 

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