The prosecutor, Summer Stephan, has a history of amplifying antisemitic conspiracy theories and groundless claims about “antifa,” particularly the far-right accusation that financier George Soros secretly funds them. Her case seems predicated on the MAGA right’s running smear campaign demonizing antifascists.
Stephan’s case against the antifascist counterprotesters of the Jan. 9 “Patriot March” pro-Trump rally in the San Diego suburb of Pacific Beach—organized as a defiant gesture of support in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, and featuring several people who were in the crowd in Washington, DC, three days before—raised eyebrows among legal experts when she announced it. For starters, conspiracy cases typically don’t hinge on evidence that includes ordinary speech and behavior—such as simply agreeing to show up to an event in response to a social media post—as this case does.
Stephan’s criminal conspiracy complaint lists 68 overt acts by the antifascists, including seemingly innocuous actions like dressing in black clothing. Others include violent acts like kicking victims or spraying them with mace, as well as striking people with sticks and flag poles or pushing them to the ground.
It presents no evidence that any of those actions were agreed upon beforehand by the participants, however. Rather, prosecutors allege that the agreement to commit these acts was ratified by the defendants on social media or simply through their presence at the designated time and location of the counterprotest.
“The Defendants are alleged to be affiliated with ANTIFA and are organized into two groups, one originating from Los Angeles and the other from San Diego,” reads the charging document. “ANTIFA is known to use force, fear, and violence to further their own interests and to suppress the interests of others. 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. The alleged object of this conspiracy was to incite and participate in a riot using direct action tactics.”
However, that’s not actually what “direct action” means. Rather, the phrase describes a set of tactics intended to achieve goals outside of government involvement, including counter-protesting rallies as well as distributing free pandemic-era aid. Claims that “direct action” indicates a violent intent have been laughed out of court, most recently in Charlottesville Sines v. Kessler verdict.
Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, told the San Diego Union-Tribune that no federal conspiracy charges have ever been leveled against antifascists.
“It’s fair to say this (case) is both unique in its prosecution and its charges,” Hughes wrote in an email. “(Department of Justice) has flirted with the charge in the past, meaning that they’ve used the possible investigation of that charge to secure federal search warrants against self-described antifa members, but ultimately did not bring criminal charges.”
Longtime Pacific Beach resident Mike Brown told Carless that he was shocked by the violence in his neighborhood—and said the pro-Trump “Patriots” were not your average political protesters.
“These guys weren’t just Trump supporters, a lot of them were Proud Boys—you know, wearing the black and the yellow,” Brown said. “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 and local grassroots movement.”
Carless’ investigation found that a number of the people identified by prosecutors as victims have histories of associating with white supremacist groups in the San Diego area. Two of the men from San Diego have been identified participating in a number of MAGA rallies wearing shirts bearing the logo of the American Guard, a Proud Boys-adjacent group that recruits from the ranks of racist skinheads. The ADL describes them as “hard core white supremacists.”
The listed victims also include other Trump supporters, some still unidentified by the prosecutor. Several other white supremacists who were present at the rally have also been identified by local antfiascists.
Moreover, these extremists were captured on a number of videos engaging in thuggish violence and unprovoked assaults, including one on an African American man whom they surrounded in an alleyway.
The “Patriot March” violence broke out when several dozen black-clad antifascists showed up near Crystal Pier to counterprotest. As has been the case at nearly all such confrontations, it is unclear where the violence originated. However, at least five people who’d been at the Capitol three days earlier were among the crowd, and as The Daily Beast’s Kelly Weill notes, journalists that day described a typically complex confrontation clash involving both left- and right-wing activists and police . One 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.”
Nevertheless, Stephan has refused to budge. “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,” her office responded in a statement.
Legal experts pointed out how problematic her approach is. “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,” Patrick Cotter, a former Chicago federal prosecutor, told Carless . “It’s an insult to the public’s intelligence to suggest that that’s a legitimate prosecution. It’s not. It’s selective prosecution.”
Stephan has previously pandered to the radical right, buying into its conspiracism. She offered up anti-Semitic far-right propaganda about Soros as part of the 2018 election campaign in which she first won office, as Weill reports for The Daily Beast. Her campaign paid for a website attacking her Democratic opponent, Geneviéve Jones-Wright, as a pawn of Soros, who “backs anti-law enforcement candidates over experienced prosecutors, trying to tip the balance to the criminals.”
The website (since removed, but archived) was essentially a scrolling ad warning: “San Diego Public Safety Under Attack,” and then claiming: “Billionaire Social Activist George Soros has brought his war against law enforcement to San Diego and he’s spending more than $1 million to support anti-law enforcement candidate Genevieve Jones-Wright for District Attorney,” with a photo of Soros with his hands folded, superimposed over a backdrop of black-clad antifascists at a protest.
When Stephan was confronted in October 2018 about the website by a Times of San Diego reporter at a hate crimes vigil organized by San Diego’s Congregation Beth Israel following the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue a few days before, she turned and walked away, and her security detail blocked any further queries.
“Do you regret putting up a website that labeled George Soros as a funder of your opponent?” the reporter asked her.
After Stephan walked away, her security detail blocked the reporter. But a few moments later, she was asked again: “Why did you take down that website?”
At that point, she was led to an outside porch by a bodyguard, who told the reporter: “We’re done here. This is a restricted area.”
Stephan’s belief that nefarious forces were behind leftist protests never went away. In September 2020, the Times of San Diego reported that Stephan told a bench-bar media forum that “movements” were behind the protests that erupted throughout the summer around the nation in the wake of a Minneapolis cop’s murder of a Black man named George Floyd , which went viral after being caught on video.
“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, adding that nefarious doings were being planned “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.”
In Cotter’s view, Stephan’s actions have irreparably tainted her case—although if she should actually succeed, her novel strategy identifying “direct action” with a conspiratorial call to violence could have long-lasting repercussions. He believes it all comes down to partisan motives.
“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?’”
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Good judges are more important now than ever. In some states, judges are on the ballot this November. Tune in to it The Downballot to listen to Justice Richard Bernstein talk about what being on the Michigan Supreme Court has been like, and how his re-election campaign is shaping up.