A district attorney pressing an unusual slate of conspiracy charges against anti-fascist protesters previously had a campaign site accusing philanthropist George Soros of funding anti-fascists to increase crime.
San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan has brought a sweeping new conspiracy case against left-wing protesters who counter-demonstrated at a pro-Trump rally in San Diego on Jan. 9. The result was a beachside brawl, during which rallygoers on the right flashed a knife and a BB gun and protesters on the left fired pepper spray. But rather than result in simple assault charges, Stephan is pressing conspiracy charges—and only against demonstrators on the left.
Stephan has a history of obsessing about the anti-fascist movement. In 2018, while running against progressive challenger Geneviéve Jones-Wright, Stephan’s campaign paid for a website that accused billionaire philanthropist Soros of supporting Jones-Wright because he “backs anti-law enforcement candidates over experienced prosecutors, trying to tip the balance to the criminals.”
The caption ran directly under a picture of black-clad anti-fascists—one of multiple such pictures that ran alongside photographs of Soros on the site.
The website, which has since been removed, drew backlash. Soros, a Holocaust survivor, is a frequent target of antisemitic conspiracy theories, including those that accuse him of funding “antifa.” (“Claims that George Soros funds antifa or is otherwise involved in fomenting civil unrest related to Black Lives Matter protests are false and touch on longstanding, sometimes antisemitic conspiracy theories,” the Anti-Defamation League notes.)
When the Times of San Diego questioned Stephan about the website and antisemitism in 2018, she walked away from the interview without comment.
In September 2020, Stephan again appeared to suggest that leftist protests were secretly motivated by nefarious interests.
“We’ve seen where there’s the peaceful protest and all of a sudden another group shows up without license plates, with generators and water, and there’s not good things that are happening,” Stephan said in 2020, adding that untoward events were unfolding “behind the scenes.”
“Somebody talked about subverting the truthful nature of the protesters, and that is going on,” Stephan said. “There are movements that are not what you would think of.”
Although a Stephan spokesperson declined to offer more information at the time, the Times of San Diego noted that online commenters interpreted Stephan’s remarks as another allusion to Soros.
A Stephan spokesperson did not return The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
Unfounded conspiracy theories about roving anti-fascists, especially in suspicious vehicles, were popular with elected officials in 2020, with one such hoax leading to an extensive police manhunt in California that year. Those theories promoted a vision of “antifa” as a well-organized, unified organization with significant funding, instead of what it is: a loosely affiliated political movement with some localized groups. People like Donald Trump, who promoted the myth of a vast anti-fascist conspiracy, sometimes stylize the movement as “ANTIFA.” Charging documents in the San Diego case do the same.
Those conspiracy charges rely on several misconceptions about the anti-fascist movement, experts say. It doesn’t help that Stephan has previously promoted some of those misconceptions on the campaign trail.
Michael Loadenthal, executive director of the Prosecution Project, a research program tracking felony prosecution of political violence, said that some of the case’s core conspiracy claims stemmed from simple acts, like defendants wearing black clothing.
“It has this equation of political organizing as akin to criminal conspiracy,” Loadenthal told The Daily Beast. “The ‘acts in furtherance of,’ which are always a big part of a charging document, in this case include things as mundane as clothing choices.”
The Jan. 9 brawl took place in the shadow of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The San Diego event, advertised as a Patriot March, saw participation from multiple far-right groups, and at least five people who had been present at the Capitol just three days earlier, the Appeal reported at the time. One journalist filmed a marcher throwing a Nazi salute at counter-protesters while fellow rallygoers shouted “fuck antifa.”
Reporters on the scene described a clash between the left, the right, and cops; an Appeal reporter was struck with a right-wing participant’s smoke grenade, and documented two Patriot March participants who wielded a knife or a BB gun. (Police reports also note the presence of those weapons.)
Charging documents filed by Stephan’s office this month only focus on the fight’s leftist participants. The case’s 11 defendants are described as spraying people with mace, throwing a chair and bottles, using a taser on someone, and striking people with fists and other objects.
All those charges, if proven in court, could result in serious assault convictions for individual defendants. But the case is more complicated than in a typical street fight. Instead of holding each defendant accountable for individual acts, it accuses them, and potential other “unidentified co-conspirators” of a prearranged conspiracy to riot. This more serious charge would hold counter-protesters responsible for each other’s actions.
The argument poses a risk to people’s freedom of assembly, said Dylan Petrohilos, a graphic designer who faced similar charges in a now-dismissed 2017 conspiracy case.
“It was a bit of deja vu for me, seeing those conspiracy to riot charges,” Petrohilos said of the San Diego case. Social movements, even loosely affiliated ones, can be sitting ducks for conspiracy charges, so long as participants are seen as communicating with each other, he said. “It’s very easy for prosecutors then to add those [conspiracy] charges to social movements … Even things like bringing signs, a protected free speech activity, can easily be criminalized because prosecutors think everyone got a memo.”
Stephan’s office offers two pieces of evidence for the alleged conspiracy to riot. One was a social media post “calling for ‘counterprotesting’ and direct action” against the Patriot March. Alleged conspirators (unnamed in the charging documents) “pledged their support and participation by liking and sharing the post, in essence agreeing to take part in the ‘direct action,’” the charging documents read. Others allegedly conspired by showing up to the counterprotest in black clothing.
Wearing black, either as a fashion choice or as part of a popular tactic of blending into a protest, is a constitutionally protected right. Still, the specter of black-clad anti-fascists with conspiratorial intentions have featured prominently in Stephan’s past campaign literature.
“ANTIFA is known to use force, fear, and violence to further their own interests and to suppress the interests of others,” the document reads. “This tactic is referred to as ‘Direct Action’ and is known to mean acts of violence such as assault, battery, assault with deadly weapons, arson, and vandalism.”
That is not, in fact, what direct action means. A philosophy of pursuing a group’s goals without government involvement, direct action tactics can range from counter-protesting a rally (instead of calling on lawmakers to cancel the event) to personally distributing free pandemic-era aid (instead of lobbying for federal assistance).
The argument that “direct action” means violence was recently laughed out of court, when neo-Nazi Chris Cantwell invoked it in trial last month. Cantwell attempted to argue that residents of Charlottesville, Virginia were threatening violence when they called for “direct action” against a deadly white supremacist rally in 2017. Cantwell lost his case and now owes his victims $500,000 in damages.
In the context of protesting a far-right rally, “direct action could be community self-protection,” Loadenthal said. “Direct action could be patrolling a neighborhood to look for random assaults by right-wing activists. Direct action could be helping people across the street because people feel unsafe when there are right-wing demonstrations in their neighborhood.”
Loadenthal, who tracks conspiracy cases with the Prosecution Project, said that leftist and antifascist demonstrators have been slapped with conspiracy charges multiple times in the past decade, but that most or all of those cases involved property damage, not fighting.
One of those cases saw the arrests of hundreds of leftist protesters at Trump's Jan. 20, 2017 inauguration, including Petrohilos. Despite thin evidence (some defendants like Petrohilos were not accused of attending the protest), the group was accused of conspiracy to riot, based on supposed evidence of coordination, like wearing black clothing. The conspiracy charges held defendants responsible for the day’s accumulated property damage, even if they weren’t accused of committing it.
The case threatened decades in prison for defendants, but was dropped after prosecutors were revealed to have misleadingly altered video evidence.
But the San Diego case risks setting a similar precedent, casting a wide net of blame for specific actions at a street fight. That could mean trouble for future counter-protests where fights break out.
“The object of the far right assembly is to sow fear and insecurity amongst marginalized communities and to mobilize xenophobic and racist and nativist energy,” Loadenthal said. “Antifascists and other anti-racist activists and community members respond.
“It’s a response to that threat and that’s very different than conspiring to initiate a riot.”