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New podcast explores how the unsolved murder of a protester helped radicalize others


Almost every major city in the U.S. saw protests over racial justice during the summer of 2020. In Portland, Ore., everything about these demonstrations seemed more intense. They lasted longer, and the human toll was greater. Sergio Olmos is a reporter for Oregon Public Broadcasting who covered more than 100 nights of those protests.


SERGIO OLMOS, BYLINE: Most nights, I'd go home bruised, my skin burning and my ears ringing. And then it went to another level. Federal officers would storm the city. One person would suffer a severe brain injury at the hands of those officers. The mayor was tear-gassed. I saw one person get murdered, take his last breath on a city street all over politics.

SHAPIRO: This is from Season 2 of the podcast "The Fault Line: Dying For A Fight." It investigates the unsolved murder of a young man named Sean Kealiher. He was killed at a Portland protest in 2019. The podcast host, Sergio Olmos, was interested in understanding how people become drawn to the political fringes.

OLMOS: Sean Kealiher is a case study in how somebody becomes radicalized - I mean, somebody who was kind of a regular teenager and becomes really interested in anarchy and anti-fascism and, you know, after years of it, becomes an extremist, to be honest, right? He's out there every weekend sometimes advocating for the abolition of police, advocating for, you know, restarting society in a different way. And, you know, more Americans kind of started talking about the ideas that Sean Kealiher was talking about years ago, right? The abolition of police, for example, became very popular last year.

SHAPIRO: And so as you explore how radicalization takes place, there's one key moment that you document in the podcast. Sean has an encounter with police. He's a teenager. He is at a demonstration years before he was killed. A YouTuber who goes by Mike BlueHair is there documenting the encounter. Sean gets punched in the face by police, and here's a clip from the podcast.


MIKE BLUEHAIR: Yeah, Portland Police Bureau radicalizing teenagers one knuckle sandwich at a time.


OLMOS: Portland police, he says, are radicalizing people through excessive force.


MIKE BLUEHAIR: One knuckle sandwich at a time. [Expletive] good job.

SHAPIRO: And that's not the end of the chain. As you document, Sean's death has the effect of radicalizing his mother, Laura. Tell us about how this works and what you found.

OLMOS: Yeah, so his mother, Laura, was at first when Sean was alive - you know, she was a supporter of police. She thought that they, you know, solve crimes, and she did not support her son kind of saying that all cops are bastards. You know, as time went on, she started to understand Sean's worldview a little bit more. But after he was killed, Laura, like any mom, you know, was grieving and was listening to police. They were asking her to cooperate, and she was. And weeks and months went by. And now it's been more than two years and Sean's mother, Laura, no longer believes that police are actually trying to solve her son's case, and she thinks that it's because that they despise who her son was, his politics, that they have a bias against the community he was a part of, that many of them advocate for the abolition of police. And she believes that for that reason, cops don't want to solve her son's homicide.

SHAPIRO: Based on the extensive reporting you've done, do you think there's something to that? You lay out many instances where officers in the Portland police were involved with racist groups and activities.

OLMOS: Yeah. You know, we go back to the '80s and '90s and also show you that there's kind of systemic issues at play here with Portland police. If you hear something like, hey, police don't want to solve this case because of political bias, you might throw that out the window and say, come on, that's ludicrous. However, when you listen to the podcast, you realize that, you know, there's a long history here of police taking sides in certain political conflicts, right? In the '80s and '90s, they thought anti-racist skinheads were just as bad as the racist skinheads, and they didn't want to intervene. And you fast forward to today where, you know, the last couple of years Portland police have articulated they will not intervene in Proud Boy fights in the streets. And so at the heart of this podcast is that there's a lack of trust with certain parts of the community to police and police to certain parts of the community. And this has been going on not just with anti-fascist. This has been going on a lot longer with communities of color, right? This is something that communities of color have been...


OLMOS: ...Experiencing for a long time. Anti-fascists are a very small part that are experiencing this, but really, this is a story that could be told anywhere in America.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about trust. Late in the series, your producer Jonathan Levinson sits down with police commander Jeff Bell, and they have a conversation about the lack of trust between the police and some of the people they are supposed to be protecting.


JONATHAN LEVINSON, BYLINE: It sounds like it's kind of like a chicken and egg thing where this community doesn't trust the police and doesn't want to talk to them, and that makes it hard for you to solve this murder, which makes them not trust the police and not want to talk to you.

JEFF BELL: Chicken and egg - exactly.

LEVINSON: How do you solve that?

BELL: I don't know.

LEVINSON: Isn't it sort of your job?

BELL: It is. It is. And I don't know what the answer to that is. I really don't.

SHAPIRO: It's quite a moment - I don't know, isn't that sort of your job?

OLMOS: Yeah, it's incredible. And he's the head of the detectives unit for Portland police. He was just moved to a different department. You know, that's kind of the question that we're asking in this podcast is, what happens when a community stops trusting the police and when the police stop trying to make an effort in a community? And I think you see a breakdown that happens not just with, you know, activists not wanting to talk to cops, but just everyday people starting to think, ah, I'm going to seek some alternative - like Laura, who, you know, was just a regular person who had no real problem with police, now just doesn't believe that they are of any use to her.

SHAPIRO: How tough was it for you to earn the trust of Sean's mother, Laura, of the other members of Antifa who talked to you who were really candid with you?

OLMOS: Yeah, it was really difficult. I think me being out in the streets for 100 days of the protests helped certainly, right? People see you out there getting tear-gassed alongside them and they think, OK, you know, I'll talk to you. It was very difficult. Of course, anti-fascists can be very secretive. And beyond that, any time there's a death, you know, that's a really sensitive subject. Nobody really wants to talk about a loved one being killed. And, you know, we appreciate that Laura was able to share that story with us. We try to be sensitive about it. That being said, you know, the work that we did to try to understand this case, to try to get people to talk is kind of the same work that a police officer would have to do in order to, you know, understand what happened. And so I think with the podcast, we lay out, like, this is the work you have to do. And if you're just going to not engage with the community, you're not going to get many answers.

SHAPIRO: It also shows us the seeds of something that sprouted into a national movement in the summer of 2020 with the racial justice protests. Sean was killed in 2019. And so what do you think this story tells us about the larger movement that took hold across the country the following summer?

OLMOS: I think Sean's story is a good way of understanding what happened in 2020. You know, you had these popular protests with, you know, tens of thousands of people in Portland. By, you know, the time federal officers came, you had 60 days of protests and just a really upset, really traumatized core of people. Sean Kealiher went through a lot of that, you know, years before. And, you know, the slow build to radicalization kind of happened very quickly last year in Portland. And so I think understanding how somebody goes from, hey, you know, a police officer hit me, I'm going to go back and protest against them, to, I want to abolish the police, I want to - I'm ready to break a window. I'm ready to, like, set things on fire. Like, you can't just write off people who get radicalized because the way police react to protests has a consequence. And I think Sean Kealiher's story shows that.

SHAPIRO: Sergio Olmos is host of Season 2 of the podcast "The Fault Line: Dying For A Fight" by OPB and Somethin' Else. Thanks a lot for talking with us.

OLMOS: Thank you, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF IMAGINED HERBAL FLOWS' "BREEZE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sergio Olmos
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.