Trial opens in first of its kind ‘antifa’ conspiracy case arising from Pacific Beach political protest

More than three years after a political rally and counter-protest turned violent on the streets of Pacific Beach, a trial related to that bloody day began Tuesday in San Diego Superior Court in what experts in extremism have described as the first prosecution ever brought against an “antifa”. » plot.

A prosecutor told the jury during opening statements that the trial’s two defendants, Brian Cortez Lightfoot, 27, and Jeremy Jonathan White, 41, were self-described anti-fascists who showed up ready to attack their political enemies on Jan. 9 2021., “Patriot March” organized by supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump. Defense attorneys told jurors that their clients were there to counterprotest the march and that any violence they may have participated in was self-defense against provocateurs and armed members of the pro-Trump group.

Lightfoot and White each face a charge of conspiracy to commit riot. White also faces an assault charge. Lightfoot faces several assault allegations and charges related to the use of bear spray. Their nine co-defendants had already pleaded guilty to various charges, with some receiving prison sentences and others still awaiting sentence.

Experts who study domestic extremism said the criminal case marked the first time prosecutors used a conspiracy charge specifically to pursue suspected members of Antifa, which is generally considered a decentralized movement of street activists, often composed of socialists, anarchists and other members of the left. ideologues.

Assistant Prosecutor Makenzie Harvey opened the trial Tuesday by telling the jury that freedom of speech and assembly and equal protection of the law – rights enshrined in the First and 14th Amendments – “will be the foundation” of the case of the government. She said Lightfoot and White “came prepared for violence” and had a plan to attack the pro-Trump group in defiance of free speech protections and the law.

After playing several videos of the 11 incidents at the heart of the case, Harvey said the jury will not be asked “what you think about patriot groups,” Trump or anti-fascist ideology.

“You will be asked to condemn them for these attacks,” she said.

Curtis Briggs told the jury that his client, White, was “not even close to or involved in most of the incidents” that Harvey played out in court. Briggs said most of the videos showed the actions of the co-defendants and were only relevant to the government’s theory that White conspired with the others.

“You should ask yourself, ‘Where is Mr. White?’ What is he doing ?’ ” Briggs told the jury. He said the videos and photographs Harvey presented in his opening statement left out important context and sought to portray violent and sometimes armed pro-Trump protesters as innocent victims.

John Hamasaki, Lightfoot’s defense attorney, told jurors that prosecutors were seeking “guilt by association” by presenting incidents in which the two defendants in the trial were not involved. Like Briggs, Hamasaki said some of the people attacked by the antifa group wore reinforced gloves and armed with knives.

“The idea that they were just looking for a peaceful patriot march — I think the evidence will show that that’s not accurate,” Hamasaki said. “Some of these people here were looking for trouble, conflict and a fight. … This was not a one-way street as prosecutors claimed.”

Hamasaki told jurors they were dealing with a “complicated and messy case” that would not be easy to decide. And he said there are times when they might say, “’Damn, Brian. Did you have to do that?’ » But he told jurors that there is a difference between a mutual fight and an assault, and that Lightfoot acted in self-defense.

Briggs previously sought to have San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan’s office disqualified from prosecuting the case, arguing that the office showed political bias by prosecuting only antifascists and not those who attended the event in support of Trump. He argued that Stephan showed his bias with a controversial 2018 campaign website that featured a threatening image of antifa protesters behind a superimposed photo of George Soros, the billionaire liberal activist who is often vilified in conservative circles and who had donated money to a super PAC supporting Stéphane’s opponent.

Briggs also argued that Stephan’s office has a history of refusing to prosecute members of far-right organizations who commit violence. Superior Court Judge Daniel Goldstein, who is presiding over the trial, denied the motion.

The District Attorney’s Office previously stated that “analysis of video evidence shows that the overwhelming majority of violence in this incident was perpetrated by Antifa affiliates and was not a mutual brawl, with both sides moving from legal expression of the First Amendment to rioting and violence.”

The trial is expected to last at least four weeks. Lightfoot and White are expected to testify.

City News Service contributed to this report.

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