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Why haven't Portland police charged anyone in the death of Sean Kealiher?

Back in October 2019 an Antifa activist in Portland was killed not far from a well-known anti-fascist bar called Cider Riot. There were immediate suspicions on the left that Sean Kealiher may have been targeted for his extremist political views but it quickly turned out that wasn’t the case. It appeared that Kealiher had gotten in an argument with some people who then got into an SUV and drove into Kealiher. The SUV crashed into the Democratic Party headquarters and when one of the victim’s friends saw the driver backing up he pulled out a gun and fired at the vehicle. The passengers all got out of the SUV and ran away on foot. Kealiher’s friends put him in a car and drove him to the hospital where he died from his injuries.

When I wrote about the story a year and half ago, I said it shouldn’t take long for the cops to wrap it up: “Since they have the SUV it shouldn’t be very hard to tie the vehicle to a driver.” But here we are in 2021 and no one has ever been arrested or charged for Kealiher’s murder.

Last week the Intercept published a lengthy piece about the case which is rife with the suspicion that the cops haven’t arrested anyone because they don’t care about anti-fascists being killed.

The death was ruled a homicide, but no arrests were ever made and no persons of interest named. In the absence of official updates, speculation about what happened swirled for weeks. None of the people involved spoke publicly about it, and most of Kealiher’s friends honored his mother’s request not to speak with journalists. Nearly all those who spoke with me did so on the condition of anonymity…

But more than a year after her son’s death, Kealiher regrets trusting police, whom she now believes had no interest in solving the murder of an activist who made no secret of his contempt for them. She and others have come to the conclusion, based on their own investigations, that Kealiher’s killing was not targeted, but rather the result of an argument that had nothing to do with his politics or those of his killer…

Kealiher’s mother and friends believe that police had plenty of evidence, including security camera footage and the suspect’s car, which she and others quickly connected to a registered owner and his relatives. “It really does appear that the police are just refusing to do anything with this case,” said a friend. “They know who owns the car, I think everybody knows who owns the car. … You’d think they’d just go arrest the guy, but they haven’t. And they won’t, because Sean was somebody they hated.”

Kealiher’s mother was initially told about a year ago that an arrest and trial were imminent and then for most of 2020 she heard nothing. Last October police did issue a call for more information on the 1 year anniversary of Kealiher’s death. But in December his mother decided to take things into her own hands:

Then last December, tired of waiting, Laura Kealiher wrote a private Facebook message to the man she believes killed her son. When he didn’t respond, she identified him in a TikTok video, in a desperate effort to force answers about her son’s death. The video was quickly reported and taken down, though another video in which she named the man remains online. (The Intercept has been unable to verify her account.) Kealiher faced much criticism over it, including from her son’s friends. “I really caution people running around posting people’s faces and names,” one of them told me. But she finally got a call back from police. When she spoke with Broughton, she said he yelled at her and demanded to know how she had learned the identities of the people in the car. She refused to answer and stopped taking his calls. She is no longer collaborating with the investigation, she said, because she does not believe police have any intention of solving the murder of an anti-fascist. “He wasn’t killed because of his activism,” she told me. “But he is not getting justice because of it.”

The failure to arrest the driver in this case does seem somewhat inexplicable to me. Police had Kealiher’s body, they had the SUV and they allegedly had a homeless witness who saw what happened, not to mention Kealiher’s friends. So why not just arrest the driver and charge him?

The only thing that makes sense to me is that maybe Kealiher’s friends are refusing to cooperate with the police, meaning they don’t have anyone willing to testify under oath to what happened. If that’s the case, then the failure to prosecute isn’t entirely on the police. Still, you would think there is enough circumstantial evidence to prove the driver was involved. Why wouldn’t they at least try to bring charges?

As for the idea that this is some kind of police conspiracy against Antifa, I don’t buy it. I’m sure the cops hate anti-fascists for the months of verbal and physical abuse they’ve endured. But then you have to remember that the Antifa goons who beat up Andy Ngo have never been arrested or charged either. Do the police have it out for him too? Or maybe, once again, the problem is that no one who witnesses the crime will cooperate.

As for Kealiher’s mother, in keeping with her son’s views about prisons (he was an abolitionist) she says she doesn’t want her son’s killer to go to jail. She just wants “him to say he’s sorry.” But while she doesn’t want the system to work as it’s intended to, she still holds the lack of charges against the police, “I want them accountable for not doing their job.” Maybe if she hadn’t told her son’s friends to remain silent, they could have.