Sean Kealiher rarely missed a protest, and he would have been front and center last summer when the insurrectionary activity he had long advocated for became a staple on Portland streets. But he wasn’t. In October 2019, at 23, he was killed in front of the state Democratic Party building, which protesters vandalized on Inauguration Day this year. Kealiher’s death, which was ruled a homicide, shocked Portland’s activist community. These clips of interviews pay tribute to him and his spirit, and revisit the incident that occurred.
Gregory McElvey: I mean, it’s been so long and to not know who did it — and it really felt like the police didn’t care that much. Had he been someone else, his murder would have been solved. Especially because he’s white. And I feel like the police know. I feel like the police know. The police certainly all knew who he was. And I just think that like, I wouldn’t be surprised if police officers were not very interested in investigating his murder.
Gregory McElvey (radio interview): Today, we have a special guest. I’m here with Armeanio, and he is a local anti-fascist, which I think we should all be anti-fascist. But could you introduce yourself?
Sean Kealiher (Armeanio Lewis): Yeah. Sure. Hi, I’m Armeanio. I’m a Portland anti-fascist. And I’ve been doing this activity probably for the better part of 10 years now, since before Occupy Portland.
GM: I mean, I met him sometime in 2016. And by then, he was fully formed in his political thought, I think.
SK: I do not believe in left unity, personally. I believe in unity from the bottom. And what that means is in the context of fascist attacks, and labor disputes, I will unite with anybody. I will be on the picket line with anybody as long as you were there to hold that picket line.
SK: Outside of that, I have no reason to organize with Trotskyists, Maoists or anything like that.
GM: He knew so much. Like anything anarchist history-wise, he knew it. Like, where they have been persecuted and stuff like that.
SK: The Anarchist CNT, the biggest union — which is actually still around —
SK: — and the communists POUM, who were Trotskyists —
SK: — the Haymarket massacre, in which anarchists were killed by the police, and seven of them, the most famous being Louis Lingg, were executed for a bombing that they didn’t even commit —
GM: He was very funny, very fun to hang out with, smoked a lot of cigarettes. He didn’t usually bring up politics on its own. He was a good hang. He wasn’t famous, but he was incredibly influential, and potentially more so than almost anybody in our protest scene. And he was super not materialistic — he, like, he wore the same hoodie every day like a cartoon character; he wore the same shoes, like work boots type thing every day. He really just did not care about that kind of stuff.
SK: What we need to do is remove ourselves from that left-right, dogmatic spectrum that America has and really establish ourselves as communist, as socialist, and really make that point clear. You know, we want a free working class that does not have to have their surplus value extracted from them — as simple as that. But we’re not going to do that as long as we’re attached to the Democratic Party. They’re complete morons, and we need to just cut the slate clean.
GM: It really was often the more radical factions and anarchists and stuff who would protect people at protests when shit really hit the fan. Like if he saw somebody and knew they were like, a right-wing person, like he’s confronting them, for sure. Like, he could be alone, he could be with a group of people, it wouldn’t matter. And then the other thing is he’s not calling the cops, and none of his friends are calling the cops. So like, it was not abnormal to think: Oh, he could have gotten in a fight and it went bad, right? The person got in their car and drove him down after that is what I’ve just assumed happened. But I don’t know. I don’t know. Police seem to be using their authority in political ways and that intersected in his life and in his death.
AS: I think a lot of people felt that it was really unusual for a killing like this to go unsolved, particularly because the car that was used for this murder was left on the scene, so police have plenty of evidence to at least start their investigation with.
We don’t know a lot of details about what happened that night. What we do know is that on October 12, 2019, Sean was walking with two friends outside Cider Riot!, which was this pub that was popular among anti-fascists and leftists, and there was some kind of argument that erupted between him and his friends and another group of people. At some point, that group got into an SUV and drove away, and then pulled around, accelerated, and slammed right into Sean and crashed into the building, which was actually the Oregon’s Democratic Party headquarters. And then the driver of the car tried to reverse, one of Sean’s friends pulled out a gun and fired at the car. And he later said to his lawyers that he believed the driver was about to just drive over Sean again. And, at that point, the people in the car got out and ran off and left, and left the car behind.
Laura Kealiher: So when the murder happened that night, the first thing that the detectives wanted to know was who his friends were — who he was associated with. They didn’t want to know what had happened. They wanted to try to get somebody on the left for whatever charges they could get.
AS: Sean’s mom, her name is Laura Kealiher, I spoke with her a lot. And I am really grateful to her for opening up so much about her son and her own life. And a lot of the people that spoke with me only did so on the condition that they remain anonymous.
LK: Because at first I got the call, I thought, “Oh, what did Sean do now? You know, it’s probably gonna be something silly.” But I knew as soon as they said “chaplain” what that meant. They wouldn’t let me see his body. And they said, “Oh, it’s just too bad.” And what people don’t understand: I don’t care how bad it would’ve been. I needed to see him so I could say goodbye. My honest opinion is they know that the left knows who did it. And they’re hoping to get one of them to do something so they can target them. Because the only questions I really get from the police is: “Who gave you the information? Who was he involved with?” That has nothing to do with the case.
Then I didn’t hear anything. I didn’t hear anything, and I kept trying to get a hold of somebody, trying to get a hold of somebody. I’d call the detectives so many times; never a return call. Nothing. You know, still stupidly believed that there has to be some kind of decent justice system in America — they really are doing their job! And I realized at that point, maybe they’re not. They really hated Sean. I think I always worried that he could be hurt, but I didn’t think that he could be killed. But he wasn’t killed because of his activism — but he’s not getting justice because of it.
Sean was your very typical, very sweet, sheltered child. He was the crossing guard, he was a straight-A student, advanced for his age — very smart. He — oh, taekwondo was a huge part of his life. He even taught for Portland Parks and Recreation when he was 14.
AS: Sean was the oldest of three children. Laura was a single mother and she raised them all by herself. She raised her kids in a fairly liberal, but not really political family. She was just like your kind of regular, middle-class American, white American.
And then when Sean was 12, their life changed basically overnight. There was a family disagreement, and she was forced to move out of the middle class, white neighborhood where they lived all their life and into a much poorer one. And Sean had to transfer from a great public school into a struggling, much more diverse public school where he really kind of was exposed to the politics of segregation and inequality for the first time.
LK: I think he saw the injustice of what happened to us and really being poor, working class really affected him. He went from middle class to poor — you know, poor, working class. I mean, there was one Christmas I had nothing under the tree for my kids [crying]. You know, I went without eating numerous times so they could eat.
AS: And all of this kind of coincided with Sean being a preteen and an early teenager, and beginning to look at the world in terms of class politics and injustice. As a 15-year-old, he went on a school field trip to downtown Portland and saw an Occupy Portland camp. And he just kind of was captivated by this and he started lying to his mother about going to sleep at friend’s houses, and instead he would go downtown and camp there.
LK: Then he found Occupy, and I think he found his calling. He found his voice. He found a way to go out there and say: “This is what is going on. We need to fight this. The working class needs to stand up and we need to —” He really, really wanted to help all those that didn’t have a voice find their voice, and he fought for that. He took to the streets.
Speaker: I got you Sean. I filmed the whole thing. Angstrom punched you in the face?
SK: Yeah, that’s the one. That’s the one that punched me in the face.
Speaker: Wow. Yeah, Portland Police Bureau radicalizing teenagers, one knuckle sandwich at a time.
LK: And his first arrest, I can actually remember. I got called to downtown Portland. And when I went inside, there were 20 police officers surrounding me at the table and yelling at me saying that was the worst kid in the world, how horrible he was because Sean had a mouth. [Laughs.] And he’s like, “Fuck you. You can’t stop me.” So it started with that. They hated him because he was not afraid. And when I got him, I had to take him to the hospital. He was just covered in bruises; he had a sprained ankle. And as a mother, I feel horrible, because I raised my kids, “Oh, the police are good, they’re protecting you!” And that was the first time he saw the truth.
AS: After Occupy, Sean kind of moved in and out of many of Portland’s leftist groups, and she says that Sean is the one who radicalized her and opened her eyes to a different way to understand the world we live in. But she really understood and respected his passion, right? And she was proud that he was so devoted to social justice. And she credits him for really politicizing her and radicalizing her.
LK: I was so naive. I was the typical American that really believed, you know, you just gotta work harder, just gotta work harder, and the police are our friends, and the government’s great, you know, dah-dah, dah-dah.
I thank God that Sean radicalized me enough to understand that the system is so broken. He believed that we need to be revolutionized, that the common people need to get out there on the streets. He really believed that the working class needed to get out there and on the streets. I mean, he stood up for anybody who couldn’t get their voices heard. He stood up for it and the police hated him. He was a proud anti-fascist. This was his life. He lived it. I mean, there was not a moment where if something was going down, he would be there. He wasn’t afraid to say what he thought. Sean was an asshole. I love him dearly, but he was an asshole. I mean [laughing] —
SK: Go join your friends, and have fun in Portland. Quit trying to fucking pick on people smaller than you, because you’re some —
Far right group member: Who’s picking on anybody?
SK: You’re some fucking sad-ass, insecure piece of shit. Go fuck yourself. You had 12 of your motherfuckers roll up on me and get in your shit. Go have fun with your friends.
AS: On top of what every mother who loses a child has to deal with, she also has just been bombarded by online abuse, just relentless harassment and hatred. And regardless of what you may think about Sean and his politics, the treatment of Laura has been pretty horrifying.
LK: So as far as the harassment goes, I fucking hate Patriot Prayer. I hate the goddamn Proud Boys. They pissed on my son’s vigil and sent me pictures. They tried to interrupt his memorial. They came to my home. I have a disabled child and an elderly mother. Sorry — they just — [voice breaking] — the things they said about my child. They said he was a terrorist, a piece of shit, a scum. It got so bad I couldn’t take any more than that.
My son wasn’t just an anti-fascist. My son was my, my — he was my oldest child. He was my firstborn. He was so much more.