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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Two months later, the sheriff doubles down - and picks fights - over antifa narrative

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich speaks during a news conference at the Spokane Public Safety Building on Tuesday. Knezovich defended his office’s arrest of a political protester, arguing he had a valid felony warrant in an incident that has drawn national media attention.  (Kip Hill)
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich speaks during a news conference at the Spokane Public Safety Building on Tuesday. Knezovich defended his office’s arrest of a political protester, arguing he had a valid felony warrant in an incident that has drawn national media attention. (Kip Hill)

Two months after peaceful protests turned destructive downtown, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich wanted to remind everyone who he said was to blame.

Outside agitators. Socialists and antifa warriors.

All funded and organized by some shadowy sponsor, sending teams of violent agitators into cities across the country.

Knezovich remains devoted to this explanation though it has not, so far, been buttressed by the public evidence. It has prompted a measure of skepticism and scoffing that was ramped up during a recent dispute over his agency’s arrest, at a Black Lives Matter demonstration, of a local Democratic Socialist activist on a seven-year-old warrant from another county.

So the sheriff staged a 45-minute press conference last week to scold, lecture, score-settle, attack a journalist, critique the media, slam Council President Breean Beggs as an ally of the agitators, and double-down on the antifa explanation, which he said his agency is still investigating.

“We want to know who’s funding these riots,” he said. “We want to know, and we are working toward it.”

It was a bizarre, wandering performance, and watching it, you got the feeling that our lightning-rod sheriff – whose tendency toward feuding seems to have become more pointed and personal as he draws to the end of his final term – has simply lost every ounce of patience for the bothersome public that he ever possessed.

The past year has seen the sheriff personally blame past office-holders who refused to expand the jail for the deaths that have occurred there – on his watch as sheriff. It’s seen him insult criminal justice reformers, asserting that “activists don’t care about people.”

He has defended his support for “Killology” training in the face of widespread opposition – calling some of his critics liars and hypocrites. When organizations supporting racial justice called upon him to cancel that training and have a community conversation about race and policing, he said those organizations were riven with dissension.

Before they criticize him, he told the Inlander, “Maybe they need to fix their own damn house, and I’ll be there to help.”

He’s always been combative, and it’s not hard to see how that might happen to someone in his shoes. He takes a lot of criticism, after all, and a good deal of it is pointed and personal. But that comes with the territory, and if he can’t even try to hear differences of opinion without insulting those expressing them – or abide listening to the concerns that people have about policing right now without resorting to extreme defensiveness – it’s a problem.

Beyond that, the question of antifa, for whatever violence and unrest has been associated with the movement in Portland and Seattle – and especially the assertion that it represents an organized nationwide threat – is prompting all manner of conspiracy-oriented, self-declared militia types to believe they need to take up arms against it. Retailing that conspiracy to the public, and lending it official credence, only fuels this problem. The latest example of this insanity involves people claiming that antifa is setting these wildfires.

The author of a book on antifa, Rutgers historian Mark Bray, published an op-ed in The Washington Post debunking five myths about the movement. Top myth: “Antifa is a single organization.”

Antifa “is not an organization,” he wrote. “Rather, it is a politics of revolutionary opposition to the far right. There are antifa groups, such as the Rose City Antifa in Portland and NYC Antifa, just as there are feminist groups, such as Code Pink. But neither antifa nor feminism is itself an organization.”

The other myths, Bray wrote, are: Antifa masterminds violence at BLM protests. Antifa is affiliated with the Democratic Party. Antifascists are the real fascists.

And “Antifa is funded by liberal financiers like George Soros.”

Quoting Lenin

On Tuesday, Knezovich called in local reporters to present to them what amounted to a series of score-settling assertions and reiterations of past points, backed up with a slideshow.

In the course of his presentation, he:

  • Attacked a Huffington Post reporter by name (including screening up a tweet from a rabidly anti-media account with zero followers who accused the reporter, Christopher Mathias, of being an “Antifa larper”);
  • Relayed the tale of an insulting email he received from a man who claimed to have written for the Washington Post, but who was obviously not a staff representative of that organization, as a groundless indictment of the whole media (“These are journalists, folks,” he said, adding “Washington Post-type” journalists);
  • Took an extended dive into the social media posts of the man his agency had arrested at the demonstration, and insisted the controversy over the arrest had been politicized by, among others, Beggs, who had requested documents about the arrest when it first went public;
  • Displayed a quote from Lenin about socialism;
  • Claimed there are some who want to create a version of the CHOP/CHAZ Seattle zone in Spokane, which would be called the SPAZ – Spokane Autonomous Zone;
  • Showed photos of protesters wearing symbols of antifa groups as a way of demonstrating that antifa is a centralized, organized machine, and other photos showing them with “high-speed radios,” a gas mask, and a sledgehammer that he said was evidence of an outside funder;
  • And traced the history of our current cultural divide to the outcry that erupted after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, a situation that he said was exploited by the Russians to divide us.

He did not suggest at any point that the protests – or the violence that has come at the fringes of them – might have had been borne of any legitimate concern or outrage about policing in America, or pause to note the deaths of George Floyd or Jacob Blake or Nicholas Chavez – or, or, or, or – as potential reasons people are outraged.

Disputed arrest

The arrest of Jeremy Logan at the Aug. 30 BLM demonstration downtown was the spark for it all.

Logan, who identifies himself as a leader in the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, was picked up by plain-clothes deputies in an unmarked vehicle on a seven-year-old warrant out of Douglas County, issued because he failed to appear in court to face drug charges. He complained – in a story first reported by Mathias at the Huffington Post – that officers had not identified themselves and secreted him away without identifying the reason.

Much of that was disputed by the sheriff’s department, which said at least one deputy was wearing a badge and that using unmarked cars is not an uncommon tactic when trying to arrest someone in crowded circumstances, or someone who has been difficult to track down.

Logan also complained that the timing of the arrest made it clear it was retaliation for anti-police comments he had made online. One of the oddest things about Knezovich’s press conference was the degree to which he proved this was true.

Knezovich posted several images from Logan’s social media accounts, including photos and comments harshly critical of police. “I want to take these pigs’ heads off with a hand saw,” Logan wrote in one.

Knezovich said this escalating rhetoric was a key reason for arresting Logan, and said his department had been trying to arrest Logan for a while before the protest. He shared photos from Logan’s Facebook page, and, oddly, called him out for not being as much of an opponent of racism as the sheriff is.

“I don’t remember him being in Millwood when I was helping the mayor pick up KKK flyers,” he said. “I don’t remember him doing anything in this community.”

He also tripled-down, as noted above, on his claims that out-of-town antifa teams caused the destruction downtown. The trouble with this is that virtually everyone arrested – so far – was from here.

Inside agitators, in other words.

But Knezovich insists that he was right all along – that it was all driven by coordinated, organized outsiders, equipped with gear by some nefarious sponsor, all of whom are part of a network traveling city to city, hijacking protests and committing violence.

He seemed to have presented his best evidence so far at the press conference, and it was unconvincing. He showed photos from local demonstrations of antifa-associated logos – from the large, disparate, uncentralized constellation of different people and groups who identify themselves that way – on a few protesters’ jackets. He screened up comments from a couple other police chiefs who blamed their civil unrest on outside agitators, too. He showed photos of protesters with a sledgehammer, a leaf blower, and another couple with two-way radios.

“That is a high-speed radio, folks,” he said. “I wonder who’s funding this.”

He seemed, throughout, angry and appalled that anyone could not see how dispositive this was. When asked for more evidence, he said his agency is still investigating, two months down the road, and intends to crack the case.

Maybe that will happen.

Until it does, though, there is about as much reason to believe the Spokane window-smashers and bottle-throwers were a part of a coordinated national network of evil leftists as there is to believe that antifa set our current wildfires.

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