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On Saturday morning, a Portland-area man was killed under mysterious circumstances.
Twenty-three-year-old Sean Kealiher, who was known locally in the Antifa community under the pseudonym “Armeanio Lewis,” died of blunt-force trauma after being hit by a car, according to police. The vehicle that allegedly hit him had been shot at and was found crashed outside the building of the Democratic Party of Oregon. Local politicians, media and activists are praising Kealiher as a progressive hero. Full disclosure: I had numerous run-ins with Keahiler in my capacity as a journalist documenting antifa’s activities.
So far, no one knows what really happened on early Saturday morning when Kealiher was killed. Portland Police have mostly kept mum about their early investigation, though they are pleading for witnesses to come forward. Antifa ideologues have a code of never allowing each other to cooperate with police. Police did confirm that the crime scene and car showed damage from gunfire. Unsurprisingly, the police and emergency responders were never called by Kealiher’s comrades. In fact, a homeless man who lives in a tent across from the Democratic Party headquarters told local media he saw Kealiher’s friends drag his body into a car, leaving a trail of blood.
Despite the uncertainties, this hasn’t kept the local media from running stories that insinuate—without evidence—that he may have been targeted for his left-wing activism. Many headlines have focused on the fact that Kealiher was fatally injured after leaving Cider Riot, an antifa pub found by state regulators this year to be a militant left-wing hotbed where patrons were allowed to carry illegal weapons.
Still, Kealiher’s death has reverberated across the mainstream left in Portland. Mayor Ted Wheeler took the rare step of publicly expressing shock and sadness. Brad Martin, executive director of the Democratic Party of Oregon, said that because Kealiher “was involved in progressive causes…it makes it all the more sad and concerning.” Other media pieces have focused on remembering Kealifer’s social justice “activism.” One publication ran a story where he was described as having a “soft heart.”
I first crossed paths with Kealiher in spring 2016 at Portland State University where I was a graduate student. On my first assignment for the student paper, I documented how around a hundred people, many who were non-students, shut down the inaugural meeting of the “PSU students for Donald Trump” group. I recorded Kealiher, who was not a student, jump on a table to try and fight a student who was filming. He had to be separated by his comrades. The event was widely covered on conservative media at the time as the country was awash in incident-after-incident of campus agitators shutting down speakers.
This was all before the election of Trump and before antifa became widely known in the U.S. but it was an important step in galvanizing Portland for Nov. 2016. After the election results were announced, Portlanders protested violently for days in downtown, causing over US$1 million worth of damage. It was on one of those nights that I came face-to-face with antifa “black bloc” for the first time. Wearing masks and black uniforms, they ran around the city destroying property with weapons and started fires on the streets. Interviewed by the Washington Post at the time under his pseudonym, Kealiher defended the violence, calling it “an unleashment of rage” against Donald Trump’s rhetoric.
A couple months later on the presidential Inauguration Day in Jan. 2017, thousands of Portlanders again amassed to protest the election results. Entire blocks of businesses in downtown closed and boarded up their windows, fearing a repeat of the rioting.
Kealiher was with a large group of antifa black bloc militants that day. They came together with banners, flags, sticks and other melee weapons. He was one of the few who was unmasked. I attempted to record footage of the black bloc for an assignment for the student paper, where I was now a multimedia editor, but was accosted by Kealiher. He warned me not to record his comrades or they “might do something” to me. This was the first time I had been threatened while working as a student journalist. Later that night, the protests devolved into chaos when demonstrators shut down the streets and refused to obey orders to disperse. One of the protesters told me on camera: “We must use violent revolution, there’s no other way to deal with [white supremacy].”
In Feb. 2017, Mike Bivins, a student journalist colleague at the time, was confronted by Kealiher outside city hall. Kealiher blamed Bivins for recording video footage of the riots in Nov. that led to his comrade, Mateen Abdul Shaheed, pleading guilty to five counts of first and second-degree criminal mischief. “It’s your f—ing fault someone is facing a felony f—ing charge,” shouted Kealiher to Bivins. “So you know what’s going to happen next time? I’m going to break your f—ing camera.” Kealiher also called for others to attack Bivins’ in a post on social media.
It remains to be seen what really happened that led to the untimely death of Kealiher. The circumstances are mysterious and antifa activists are encouraging others to stay silent. A tweet by the Pacific Northwest Antifascist Workers Collective, a regional antifa group, tells the public not to help police on the investigation and says his family is asking no one speak to the media. A GoFundMe for his family has already surpassed its goal by thousands. Kealiher was reportedly killed after leaving Cider Riot. The pub has a security camera system but it also has a documented history of concealing or destroying evidence, according to state regulators who investigated the business earlier this year following the May Day riot.
On Sunday night, dozens of masked antifa militants amassed in the dark carrying flares.
They vandalized the state Democratic Party office with graffiti to turn it into an antifa memorial. Messages on the building now urge others to kill law enforcement. The executive director for the state Democrat group expressed support for antifa black bloc’s actions, saying, “It’s just paint.”
Others are claiming online he was martyred by the far-right but what’s telling though is how antifa groups themselves have been uncharacteristically restrained in their statements. Rose City Antifa, the Portland antifa cell that claimed responsibility for beating me in June and a group Kealiher was associated with, tweeted this: “Our hearts go out to the friends and family members affected by the death of Sean Kealiher. Our sources indicate that this was not related to fascist activity.”