As crucial legal test for Antifa ideology heads to trial, right-wing media also scrutinized

A criminal conspiracy case against a group of activists in San Diego is headed toward a trial that could prove crucial in defining the much-misunderstood political movement known as Antifa.

Six members of the “San Diego 11” have negotiated plea deals with the San Diego District Attorney. But the five remaining defendants have vowed to take the case to trial, aided by defense attorneys known for taking on high-stakes political cases in California.

The defendants are charged with felonies, including conspiracy to riot, stemming from a day of unrest in Pacific Beach on Jan 9, 2021. As a USA TODAY investigation found in 2022, groups of anti-fascists clashed with white supremacists and Trump supporters throughout a day of protests and counter-protests, but only the self-professed anti-fascists were ever charged with crimes, despite video evidence showing white supremacists attacking people.

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.

Experts say the San Diego case could inspire prosecutors around the country to take similar aim at anti-fascists, treating adherents as if they’re members of a gang or criminal enterprise, rather than a political movement. While the argument may sound conceptual, the legal impact is significant: gang-style conspiracy charges could also effectively double any prison sentences. 

So the San Diego case has become a bellwether during a time when leftist protests are flaring up across the country. 

This month alone, dozens of protesters who opposed an Atlanta police training facility were arrested in Atlanta and charged with domestic terrorism under a new Georgia state law, and in Ohio, two people were arrested during a faceoff between neo-Nazis and leftist supporters of a drag storytelling performance in a city park.

In Ohio:Nazi salutes, pepper spray and pistols: Drag event devolves into extremist melee

In Georgia:What is ‘Cop City?’ Why activists are protesting police training center in Atlanta

A makeshift memorial for environmental activist who was killed by law enforcement on Jan. 18 during a raid to clear the construction site of a police training facility that activists have nicknamed "Cop City" near Atlanta, Georgia.

The stakes grow higher as the country moves into a new election cycle, said Stanislav Vysotsky,  a professor of criminology and author of the book “American Antifa.” A successful prosecution in San Diego could become a model for conservative prosecutors around the country, he said.

“It would give a really powerful tool of repression that could be used against not just anti-fascist activists, but really any left-wing counter-protesters or left-wing protesters because you could just sort of slap them with a broad ‘Antifa’ label,” Vysotsky said. “It actually creates an ‘Antifa’ entity that doesn’t exist to begin with.”

But as trial draws closer, the case will also test the influence and conduct of right-wing media interests — some of the same elements  that have helped drive clashes between right- and left-wing activists. 

An attorney for one Antifa defendant has asked the court to ban one local journalist from covering the case, alleging that she obtained her media credentials by filing documents with the court under an assumed name — something the attorney argues is a felony under California law – and that her reporting was used for a right-wing harassment campaign against the defendants. 

The journalist in question has published stories for years under the false name, and recently co-authored a series of stories about the San Diego case with a far-right provocateur.   

The same defense attorney says he will also soon file another motion asking the judge to dismiss the case that takes aim at the prosecution’s key expert witness. The motion claims the witness — who, as USA TODAY reported last year, has a history of writing for far-right websites —  holds “speculative and biased” opinions that are not based on facts. 

In California:How one criminal case could redefine the murky left-wing movement known as Antifa

In Texas:A drag show, a protest and a line of guns: How one issue is tearing at America

The San Diego 11

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.

USA TODAY examined the case of the San Diego 11 in an in-depth investigation last September. At the time, a grand jury had recently indicted the defendants on a combined 29 felony charges including conspiracy to riot. 

The case is extraordinary not just because prosecutors chose only to charge one side involved in the day’s violence, but also because it seeks to define Antifa as a sort of criminal enterprise that “uses force, fear, and violence to further their interests and suppress the interests of others,” according to the District Attorney’s office.  

In recent years, Antifa has been portrayed by far-right-wing media, commentators and conspiracy theorists as a shadowy bogeyman intent on destroying America. Experts told USA TODAY that, if successful, the San Diego case could create a powerful precedent for prosecutors across the country — especially prosecutors looking to make a name for themselves with conservatives aligned with former president Donald Trump. 

The defense attorneys pledging to take the San Diego Antifa case to trial said it represents a watershed moment not just for anti-fascism, but for freedom of speech in America.

“This is the criminalization of an ideology,” said Curtis Briggs, defense attorney for Jeremy White, one of the remaining Antifa defendants. “Really it’s McCarthyism, and the United States went through this already.”

Briggs, who recently successfully defended Black Lives Matter protestor Tianna Arata, who was charged with multiple crimes for participating in a protest that blocked a California freeway, said he decided to take on the San Diego case after reading about it in USA TODAY.

“This was a political case from the start, and it required a specific type of lawyering,” Briggs said. 

Vysotsky said experts across the country who study the anti-fascist movement are closely watching the San Diego case. A successful prosecution defining Antifa as an organization, rather than a political movement, could have serious repercussions, he said.

“There’s definitely something about this case that makes it unique in terms of the precedent it is going to set,” Vysotsky said. “If this is successful, this will be a prosecutorial strategy that will be picked up by other prosecutors.” 

The five remaining defendants are due to stand trial in November.

The strange saga of Eva Knott

The San Diego Antifa case also took a bizarre turn last month when one of the defense attorneys filed a motion accusing a local journalist of committing numerous felonies.

According to the motion, filed by attorney John Hamasaki, journalist Catherine Cranston has, for years, used the false name “Eva Knott” to write for the San Diego Reader, a local free magazine. The Reader’s editor and publisher did not respond to a request for comment but previously confirmed to USA TODAY that Eva Knott is a pseudonym.

Under the Knott byline, Cranston recently co-authored several stories about the San Diego case with far-right political antagonist Andy Ngo, who has made a name for himself as an antagonist of anti-fascists across the country. He is the editor-at-large of the Canadian conservative website the Post Millennial, for which he regularly writes stories that are highly critical of Antifa. Ngo and Knott’s stories about the San Diego case, similarly, are critical of the defendants. 

Hamasaki’s motion notes that Cranston filed paperwork with the San Diego court seeking permission to record and take photographs in hearings for the case. She filled out multiple court documents in the false name of “Eva Knott,” Hamasaki claims, which the court filing asserts is a felony under California state law.

Cranston then shared the photographs she took in court with Ngo, who published them on social media and on his website, the motion claims. As a result of this publicity, the “defendants were subject to a campaign of harassment by right-wing extremists,” the motion states.

John Donohue, a professor at Stanford Law School, said it’s doubtful Cranston’s actions fell afoul of the law cited by Hamasaki. Cranston would have to be filing the documents with “improper intent,” Donohue said. 

“If she regularly writes using that pen name, one imagines that she could make an argument that she was using an official name,” Donohue said. “In the same way that maybe a movie star might have a name that they’re using in their movie performances.”

Cranston did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement, Ngo wrote:

“The San Diego Antifa conspiracy case you contacted me about involves suspects who have already pleaded guilty to planning and carrying out extreme acts of violence on the public, something they’d likely wish on my colleague and me for reporting about their crimes.” 

(As USA TODAY reported last year, the victims attacked by the anti-fascist activists 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.)

A USA TODAY reporter asked Cranston about the name outside a court hearing for the case last year. Asked if Eva was her real name, Cranston stated “Yes, didn’t you see my press pass?”

“My name is Eva Knott,” she continued.

Knott’s press pass was revoked by the San Diego Police Department in October. (While a press pass is not required in California to attend court hearings, it can be helpful to access areas from which the public have been prohibited.)

The San Diego Sheriff’s Department, which has jurisdiction over crimes committed in San Diego Superior Court, did not respond to a request for comment asking whether Cranston is being investigated for her alleged misrepresentations. 

In a recent hearing for the Antifa case, Cranston was asked by the bailiff to leave the front row of the court, where media usually sits. It is unclear whether she will be allowed to continue to attend the hearings. 

Defendant seeks to dismiss case

Hamasaki said he will move to have  the case against his client dismissed because, he says, it is based upon inaccurate and misleading testimony from the prosecution’s main expert witness, who testified during the grand jury that indicted the San Diego 11 last year.

Dawn Perlmutter, who bills herself as an expert in investigating religious terrorism and symbology, as USA TODAY reported last year, has a history of writing screeds against Antifa and Black Lives Matter protesters in right wing publications.

Hamasaki said he will argue Perlmutter provided the grand jury with “incompetent and irrelevant evidence” that “tainted the grand jury proceedings to such an extent that the Indictment was obtained in violation” of his client’s constitutional rights. 

An argument against the main witness will be, in essence, a microcosm of the case itself. 

Hamasaki’s argument is that Perlmutter’s definition of Antifa, as described to the grand jury, is inaccurate, biased and not borne out by facts. Her description of the movement was so far out of sync with the reality of what Antifa is, Hamasaki argues, that it unfairly tainted the grand jury’s decision to indict his client. 

In a separate case, a Pennsylvania court issued an injunction against Perlmutter for claims that had already led her to be dubbed a “vexatious litigant.”  The injunction stems from  civil lawsuits that Perlmutter filed, unsuccessfully, “for more than a decade, in seven different lawsuits filed in federal and state courts,” according to court records.

Perlmutter did not respond to a call for comment.

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