The past four years have seen terms like “antifa” hit common parlance around the U.S., but have also seen confusing distortions of what that term means. As right-wing pundits work desperately to paint any and all potentially left-leaning protest action as anti-fascist, and then reframe anti-fascism as a series of nefarious terrorist plots, this has shifted much of the climate toward suspicion of anti-fascist activists. Despite the violence related to 2020’s protests being largely from far right vigilantes and the police, the mythology of “antifa violence” has still been spurred on by rumors, conspiracy theories and dubious allegations. This has provided cover to the far right, which uses claims of “community safety” to head into cities and attack anti-fascist protesters, as has been seen in a sequence of confrontations between far right and anti-fascist demonstrators in places like Portland, Oregon. This perception, along with attempts to crack down on activists through state repression, have led to what many people have alleged are excessive sentences that were disproportionate to the charges being faced.
In cases around the country, such as David Campbell in New York City, activists were facing prison terms for what they have claimed are self-defense against violence by far right groups, such as the Proud Boys. For many activists who have made it their job to try and prevent far right groups from parading into marginalized communities, threatening further attacks, they are finding that prosecutors’ offices see them as the antagonist in the situation.
This is what happened to Alexander Dial, a Portland, Oregon, resident who faced a series of serious felonies after a confrontation at an August 19, 2019, anti-fascist demonstration. Dial came to national prominence after photos surfaced of him taking a hammer away from a member of the fascist group the American Guard, which the Anti-Defamation League refers to as “hardcore white supremacists,” amidst what people on the scene referred to as an attack. Dial was wearing a mask and a shirt that said “Beta Cuck 4 Lyfe,” a play on the insult that far right internet trolls try to use to demean leftist men.
Dial said that he has attended protests most of his adult life, and had attended the August 17 event to show his support for the anti-fascists being targeted. The event was organized by the anti-fascist group Pop Mob and a coalition of other leftist and progressive organizations in response to a planned Proud Boys rally. The Proud Boys planned their event after another protest, just a few weeks earlier, where Pop Mob had created a dance party in response to another pair of planned far right demonstrations, one by the Proud Boys and the other by affiliates of a local far right group, Patriot Prayer. The dance party was named the “milkshake” after the then-recent “milkshaking” of English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson, known for agitating Islamophobic hatred in Britain, where activists threw milkshakes on him to humiliate him on camera and ruin his clothes. Far right media figure Andy Ngo had milkshakes thrown on him and was assaulted at that event in a well-publicized incident, which launched him to right-wing celebrity status. The Proud Boys, in response, planned a rally “against domestic terrorism,” and hundreds were set to descend on Portland.
The event itself was relatively peaceful as Pop Mob orchestrated a carnivalesque atmosphere less than a mile away from the Proud Boys, but in the same waterfront park. Black bloc activists, who dress in head-to-toe black outfits as a protest tactic and often take on more militant approaches, separated the two groups, ensuring that the Proud Boys could not attack those attending the Pop Mob event. Eventually, the police let the Proud Boys take to the bridge that separates the East and West sides of town. The American Guard members, however, allegedly took a bus back over to the Westside, near the anti-fascist demonstration, where they were met by anti-fascists.
“[I thought] those guys are here to cause trouble. Something is going to happen wherever they are,” Dial told Truthout. He then joined with a group of other activists he did not know to try and stand in the way of the American Guard from reaching other demonstrators. “They started to brandish weapons from inside. Knives. A clawhammer. They had guns,” said Dial.
Dial says that when they came out, one of the American Guard members tripped, was approached by someone else, and he grabbed the clawhammer from the man wielding it. Dial swung it to get them away, and threw it at them. The American Guard bus eventually left, and Dial was later circled by multiple police and arrested. It wasn’t until days later that he found out that he was being charged with multiple felony counts, including assault in the second degree and a riot charge. They charged five additional people with riot charges, making a total of six, the number legally necessary in Oregon to charge that an illegal riot had, in fact, taken place. Dial was taken from his arraignment straight to Multnomah County Jail, where he sat for 11 days until his bail was posted.
“The left is seeking progress, and that means changing institutions in ways that better more people. And if you are running the institutions that are capitalizing off of marginalized populations, you are going to fight back with all the powers of the system,” says Dial. “So overcharging anti-fascists is the easiest, cheapest thing to do.”
Dial says that the expanded charges came, in part, from the release of video that was taken on that day by Elijah Schaffer, a media person with the right-wing outlet The Blaze, and was amplified by Andy Ngo (including hosting the video on his YouTube channel). Two of the charges that had come down were what are called Measure 11 crimes, those that carry with them “mandatory minimum” sentences of more than five years. Measure 11 passed in Oregon in the mid-1990s as a way of getting “tough” on violent crime, and one of the cases that was used as an example of the time was when an antiracist skinhead shot and killed a neo-Nazi when defending himself during a New Year’s Eve attack.
Because of the current bail system, and the charges that had been tacked onto his case, Dial’s bail of over half a million dollars meant that he had to put up $54,000 to get out. Fifteen percent of that money, nearly $8,000, is kept by the county permanently, and he had to solicit donations from friends and family to get this money, clearing out his savings and “financially ruining” him. Once he got out, he had to pay to have an ankle monitor on, which he wore for months, as well as observing a curfew. Because his court case was extended for over two years, he had to get by on severely limited pretrial release conditions. His ability to work was hindered and he relied on many of these anti-fascist organizations to provide a great deal of support.
“[We] knew that what he needed most was a good criminal defense lawyer,” says “Walter,” an administrator of the International Anti-Fascist Defense Fund, which raises money for anti-fascist activists facing legal or medical costs. (Walter is using a pseudonym for fear of retaliation for their activism.) “All mutual aid in anti-fascism is important, but we believe the Defense Fund fills a gap by ensuring that anti-fascists who run into trouble don’t ever feel like they only have themselves to rely on.”
Support came internationally, with donations from across the world and thousands of people signing a petition demanding the charges against Dial be dropped.
Dial eventually took a plea agreement, and then in November of 2021, he had all but two charges dismissed by the judge, and he was given “time served,” three years of probation and 80 hours of community service, which Dial says he will try to complete by working with a nonprofit that helps upgrade the homes of people with disabilities to make them more accessible.
“No matter what you’re choosing to organize or whatever actions you want to take, [you need to] develop and maintain strong community ties with people you trust,” says Dial, who points out that this means real-world relationships and not just virtual ones mediated through social media. “You need connections with people who have your back and who know how to reach out to other people who might be able to help you in ways they can’t. What got me through all of this … was my community.”
These are the types of bonds that many anti-fascist groups are creating, and what can sustain many activists when targeted by state agencies. Community organizing is built on these bonds, and as was seen during the 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrations, mutual aid and fundraising support was a key part of sustaining the organizing itself. Without those levels of support for individual activists and long-term solidarity organizing, state repression could have a chilling effect on other organizers by making it appear too costly and dangerous.
The International Anti-Fascist Defense Fund addresses those needs by raising money and disseminating it where needed. Since 2015, the fund has disseminated over $150,000 to a total of 655 recipients who have faced financial hardship from their activism or have been targeted by the far right, according to Walter.
“[We] all recognize that standing up to bigotry [and] fascism is dangerous but necessary work, which is why it is important for everyone to stand behind anti-fascists when they run into trouble,” says Walter. “We believe that this is real solidarity and is true to the saying, ‘We keep us safe!’”
Dial’s story shows that it is these community connections that get activists through these situations, which may become more necessary as leftist protesters deal with the fallout from intense policing practices during the 2020 protests. By connecting different movements through bonds of resource solidarity, social movements become sustainable and individuals can come through these challenges with enough stability to continue.
Dial says that he is going to work to repeal Measure 11 in Oregon, which has reinforced a carceral culture that has been used disproportionately against marginalized communities. By sharing his story, he wants to give insight to those facing similar challenges about what it takes to survive overcharging by the state.
“You need connections to people who have your back and who know how to reach out to people to help you in ways they can’t,” says Dial. “That’s the whole point of why we’re all doing this in the first place. It’s about community.”
CORRECTION: This article was updated on January 6, 2022, to reflect that Alexander Dial took the clawhammer straight out of the American Guard member’s hand. This article was updated on March 8, 2022, to give a more accurate picture of the financials of the International Anti-Fascist Defense Fund.