Terrorist Or Hero? Politics Shape The Story Behind Antifa's Only Fatal Attack The White House describes antifa as a violent mob of leftist extremists. But the government's findings show that the U.S. anti-fascist movement is linked to one death — one of its own.
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Terrorist Or Hero? Politics Shape The Story Behind Antifa's Only Fatal Attack

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Terrorist Or Hero? Politics Shape The Story Behind Antifa's Only Fatal Attack

Terrorist Or Hero? Politics Shape The Story Behind Antifa's Only Fatal Attack

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The White House has said it wants to designate antifa a terrorist organization. Anti-fascist activists say they are the front line against far-right extremism. Those polarized views show up in the competing legacies of Willem van Spronsen, a 69-year-old Seattle area activist shot dead outside an ICE detention facility one year ago. NPR's Hannah Allam reports.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Before dawn on July 13 of last year, an emergency call came into the Tacoma police. A man with a rifle was outside the Northwest Detention Center. It's a sprawling jail in the U.S. immigration system.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM RINGING)

ALLAM: Surveillance video shows what officers found when they arrived - alarms going off, a car in flames.

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ALLAM: And at the center of it all, 69-year-old Willem van Spronsen, a longtime far-left activist who'd been at a peaceful demonstration at the jail just hours before. When he returned alone that night, he didn't come in peace. He was carrying a semiautomatic rifle and throwing Molotov cocktails. The officers opened fire on Van Spronsen. Police say Van Spronsen was struck twice. He died at the scene. He left a farewell letter to friends, and in it was one line that would turn Van Spronsen into a symbol for both the right and the left.

SHANNON MCMINIMEE: I am antifa. I stand with comrades around the world who act from the love of life in every permutation.

ALLAM: That's Van Spronsen's friend, Shannon McMinimee, reading the most talked about part of his note, the part where he says I am antifa. McMinimee belongs to an armed anti-fascist group. It's called the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club. Van Spronsen was also a member, but he'd abruptly quit just two weeks before his death. McMinimee now thinks it was to shield his friends from the fallout he knew was coming.

MCMINIMEE: I full well believe that he went there that night knowing that it would be his last night on earth.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You know, they show up in the helmets and the black masks. And they've got clubs. And they've got everything. Antifa.

ALLAM: President Trump and his supporters portray antifa, militant anti-fascists, as terrorists. They're held up as the left's equivalent to violent hate groups on the right. Analysts say that comparison is just plain wrong. There is no equivalency. But the far-left does have a militant fringe. Seth Jones is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

SETH JONES: The problem is not that people have views that are against fascism, against white supremacy, against racism. The problem is when you start getting into violence.

ALLAM: When anti-fascists are linked to violence, it's typically fistfights and vandalism at protests. In fact, domestic terrorism numbers show that far-right extremists killed at least 38 people last year. For antifa, the death toll was one - the attacker himself, Van Spronsen. Shortly before his death, he posted an album online. He called it his manifesto.

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WILLEM VAN SPRONSEN: (Singing) Welcome home. You've been away too long. Pull up a chair.

ALLAM: There are songs about love and friendship and also armed resistance.

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ALLAM: (Singing) And we'll lay down our arms and do it gladly, the day that we all walk free.

DUKE AARON: I think that if the federal government wants to criminalize being against fascism, then that is exactly why more people need to be anti-fascists. And so I have absolutely no problem saying I'm anti-fascist.

ALLAM: That's Duke Aaron. In 2017, he founded the local John Brown Gun Club. It's named after the 19th-century abolitionist. Van Spronsen was the first member. He was earnest and passionate. Aaron says that helped win over the skeptics who were wary of these leftists with guns.

AARON: But he built those connections that really launched out how people viewed us.

ALLAM: Aaron sits in a Seattle park with three other club members - the attorney, Shannon McMinimee, Nick Vasiliy, a web designer, and a Mexican American with a background in education. He asked to be identified only by his club nickname, Chicano, for safety reasons.

CHICANO: I'm a brown man living in Trump's America.

ALLAM: They say the past year's been rough. They're still grieving the loss of Van Spronsen and dealing with the repercussions. The antifa angle turned Van Spronsen's death into national news. Fox News aired segments describing the attack as an act of domestic terrorism.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: An antifa disciple armed with a rifle and homemade bombs attacked an immigration center. He died.

ALLAM: Meanwhile, in leftist circles, Van Spronsen was memorialized, mourned as a fallen hero. The John Brown Club cooperated with investigators. They turned over his letter unopened. But they do not call what happened that night an act of terror. Here's McMinimee.

MCMINIMEE: For me, my friend was killed by the police while trying to destroy buses that were being used or were going to be used to round up and deport my neighbors.

ALLAM: McMinimee describes Van Spronsen's death as a kaleidoscope. People turn it around and find what they want to see - to some, a terrorist, to others, a martyr. Somewhere in the middle, there is another version.

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ARIEL VAN SPRONSEN: Hello. Hi. Yes. We connected. Yay.

ALLAM: That's Ariel van Spronsen. She's Willem van Spronsen's daughter. This is her first interview about his actions. It's taken a year, she says, for her to talk about it. She lives in Montana but was back in Seattle for the anniversary of her father's death.

A VAN SPRONSEN: I believe I have my story of what was going on for him and why, but it took a long time.

ALLAM: Ariel doesn't dispute the role activism played in her father's life. She says his interest in guns started a few years ago, mainly as a gearhead's fascination with how they worked. Then he joined the John Brown Club, she says, and got deeper into the anti-fascist movement.

A VAN SPRONSEN: The way that he kind of explained it to me was that, you know, in a perfect world, we wouldn't have to have guns, but that there were so many factions out there that were rising up and really starting to do damage that that was the only way to properly defend ourselves.

ALLAM: Ariel didn't disapprove of the club, she says. She'd just assumed they were both opposed to gun ownership.

A VAN SPRONSEN: We kind of agreed to disagree about that and still love each other.

ALLAM: Ariel says her dad was outraged by immigration policies like family separation. He had already been arrested at the same ICE facility in 2018. But she doesn't think that's what pushed him over the edge. The real trigger, she says, was a bitter long-running custody dispute over his son.

A VAN SPRONSEN: Because my dad was involved with anti-fascist groups and because he, you know, he did say in his manifesto, I am antifa, I think it's been extrapolated into this much more nefarious thing than it actually was.

ALLAM: There are few public details about the custody case. It's in family court and involves a minor. But a month before the attack, Ariel says, there was a court order that her dad saw as an insurmountable obstacle to a real relationship with his son. He was devastated, she says, beyond hope.

A VAN SPRONSEN: It was no doubt to me that it was an orchestrated suicide with, you know, a big message.

ALLAM: After his death, Ariel says, a letter arrived from her dad. In it, he says he hopes she'd understand his actions. He even apologized for blowing up the Volkswagen she'd loaned him. She says they were the words of a distressed man who decided to end his life. It was more complicated than either boogey man or hero.

A VAN SPRONSEN: If you can make it about us versus them, humans crave that. And I think that's a lot of what this is about - simplifying it, creating a mythology that people can believe in and rally around.

ALLAM: One morning this month, just before the anniversary of Van Spronsen's death, Ariel and her former stepmom kayaked onto Puget Sound. They brought along Van Spronsen's ashes. Being on the water was an escape, Ariel says, from trying to reconcile her father's lessons about peace and the violent way his life ended.

A VAN SPRONSEN: There was this moment where the water got really calm. The sun came out from behind the clouds. And we thought, this is it. This was the moment. I released him into the water.

ALLAM: Hannah Allam, NPR News, Seattle.

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