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'I Am Antifa': One Activist's Violent Death Became A Symbol For The Right And Left

A shirt and pins that belonged to  van Spronsen. He stood up to far-right leaders at local rallies, and he was a fixture at demonstrations against U.S. immigration policies, especially family separation. "Kids in cages," he called it.
Jim Urquhart for NPR
A shirt and pins that belonged to van Spronsen. He stood up to far-right leaders at local rallies, and he was a fixture at demonstrations against U.S. immigration policies, especially family separation. "Kids in cages," he called it.

News of an attack trickled out of Tacoma, Wash., just after dawn on a summer morning in July 2019. The details were fuzzy at first — one dead, a fire, the local ICE facility — but those who were close to Willem van Spronsen all said the same thing: They just knew.

Van Spronsen, 69, a Dutch-born immigrant, musician and father of two, was a lifelong activist and early member of the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club, an armed antifascist group in the Seattle area. He stood up to far-right leaders at local rallies, and he was a fixture at demonstrations against U.S. immigration policies, especially family separation. "Kids in cages," he called it.

Van Spronsen's belief in militancy to fight injustice showed up in his song lyrics and street protests. Eventually, friends say, it shaped what they call his "final action," which began around 4 a.m. that July 13. Armed with a semiautomatic rifle, authorities say, van Spronsen crept onto the grounds of a sprawling immigration jail, set his car on fire, tossed Molotov cocktails and died in a hail of police bullets.

As word of a death at the detention center got out, calls flew among members of the John Brown Gun Club. "Was it Will?" they asked, hoping to be wrong about their suspicions. Confirmation came that afternoon with the arrival of a farewell letter that van Spronsen had mailed in advance to a club member.

He sent versions of it to other close friends and family members — "those burdened by the wreckage of my actions." He wrote that he was "a joyful revolutionary," motivated by love, by a desire to be "useful."

"Detention camps are an abomination," van Spronsen wrote. "I'm not standing by."

Whether that's a legitimate cause, van Spronsen's words suggest a premeditated attack in service of a political goal — to federal authorities, that makes him a domestic terrorist. And a particularly rare one. In his letter, van Spronsen wrote: "I am antifa," a reference to antifascist activists who fight the far right in a variety of extrajudicial ways — but seldom with fatal violence.

"What they're not doing is killing many people. In fact, killing almost no one," said Seth Jones, a terrorism analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Trump administration portrays antifa, militant antifascists, as the leftist equivalent to violent hate groups on the right. By most any metric, that's simply wrong, extremism researchers say. In 2019, according to domestic terrorism statistics, far-right extremists killed at least 38 people. The death toll attributed to antifa: one. The attacker himself, van Spronsen.

That asymmetry is inconvenient for the Trump administration's search for a radical leftist boogeyman to bolster the president's "both sides" rhetoric on homegrown extremism. So, analysts say, van Spronsen's attack at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement center immediately was seized upon to show that President Trump and his supporters had cause to paint the far-left fringe as a deadly threat.

Surveillance video of van Spronsen's fiery attack was played over and over on Fox News as pundits warned of "a lot of lives in danger." Headlines and TV chyrons latched on to van Spronsen's antifa claim and dubbed him the "ICE bomber." One far-right commentator offered $1,000 for a copy of the letter. And about a month after the attack, Trump floated the idea of labeling "Antifa" a terrorist organization, a proposal he has since repeated even though it's widely panned as unfeasible for a variety of legal and other reasons.

Meanwhile, van Spronsen was memorialized, virtually canonized, in some leftist quarters. At the site of his death, supporters left signs saying, "Rest in power," and "Arm in arm with John Brown," likening him to the legendary white abolitionist whose violent crusade against slavery ended at the gallows. In a Facebook post, the Seattle Antifascist Action group eulogized van Spronsen as a "good friend and comrade," adding, "May his death serve as a call to protest and direct action."

A year after van Spronsen's death, NPR interviews with his daughter, Ariel, close friends and extremism researchers offer a closer look at the quixotic man behind the nation's only deadly antifa attack recorded in the past four years.

Shannon McMinimee, van Spronsen's friend and a fellow gun club member, said examining that night at the detention center is like looking into a kaleidoscope — people turn it around until they see what they want. In van Spronsen, the Trump administration sees a terrorist. Antifa groups see a martyr.

Neither version captures the complexities of what domestic terrorism analysts call a singular case, an outlier in almost every way. McMinimee said one point is not in dispute: "He went there that night knowing that it would be his last night on earth."

The gun club's first recruit

One day about three years ago, longtime activist Duke Aaron was taking a stroll in Seattle's Jefferson Park when he spotted swastikas scrawled on a playground. The same playground where he takes his child. Aaron, who's Jewish, was incensed. It struck him as another troubling sign of a resurgence of racist, anti-Semitic hate.

Aaron already had been mulling more aggressive activism, he said, and the swastikas set his plan in motion.

In 2017, he founded the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club, part of a loose affiliation of armed leftists who offer firearms training to marginalized communities and who stand guard over unarmed protesters at rallies. In Washington state, the club is an aboveground legal group whose members wear insignia to identify themselves in public. As McMinimee put it: "We're nobody's secret girlfriend."

The official launch date was May 9, John Brown's birthday. Recruit No. 1 was Willem van Spronsen, a tall, lean European-born activist, carpenter and musician in his 60s.

Aaron laughed as he recalled how frustrated he'd get with van Spronsen when the two of them — the efficient former union organizer and the free-spirited musician — were passing out pamphlets to introduce the club to Seattle's bustling activist community.

"Will drove me nuts all day because he would start this conversation with somebody and end up with four or five people around him and it would take, like, an hour," Aaron said. But in time, Aaron said, he saw how van Spronsen's personal touch helped win over other activists who opposed guns and who had watched the club's formation with a degree of suspicion.

"He built those connections that really launched out how people viewed us," Aaron said.

Aaron was speaking in a joint interview along with three club members: McMinimee, a white attorney; Nick Vasiliy, a white Web designer who wears one of van Spronsen's Kalashnikov rounds around his neck; and a Mexican American who works in education and who for safety reasons asked to be identified only by his club nickname, Xicano.

"I'm a brown man living in Trump's America," Xicano said. Add a gun to the mix, he said, and "I'm the bull's-eye."

As a coronavirus precaution, they wore masks and sat spaced several feet apart one recent afternoon at Jefferson Park, the same place Aaron had seen the swastikas. Displayed on the grass were some of van Spronsen's belongings: a John Brown T-shirt, military-green tactical gear, anti-cop buttons. Vasiliy also brought a book that van Spronsen had given him about anarchists in Argentina during the 1920s.

The interview took place at the height of Seattle's latest unrest, part of the wave that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Seattle protesters made national news — and enraged the president — by carving out a self-proclaimed autonomous zone in front of a vacated police station. The John Brown Gun Club was among the groups providing armed security, their presence highlighted by conservative and far-right outlets.

"They see us as the militia of antifa," Xicano said with a shrug.

The protest camp's peaceful days were fleeting — it has since been dismantled after a string of fatal shootings. At the time, however, the area was welcoming and vibrant, with the feel of a street fair.

Van Spronsen's friends said they wished he had lived to see that moment: the gun club serving as the first line of defense for a bold experiment in police-free community.

"I can imagine him playing music on the sidewalk or just setting up a chair and talking to people," Vasiliy said.

The past year has left scars on the John Brown members. They're still grieving the loss of their friend while simultaneously dealing with the repercussions of his death. They face renewed scrutiny, partly for their role in the occupied zone and partly as a result of right-wing efforts to create an equivalency between the threat posed by antifa and the threat posed by far deadlier extremists on the right.

In a letter this month, two Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee asked the CIA and FBI to look into false information campaigns intended to whip up fears about antifa groups. The lawmakers asked for evidence on who's pushing campaigns in Idaho, North Carolina and other states about "apparently nonexistent Antifa gatherings and 'invasions.' "

Scenes of black-clad militants at protests have shaped antifa's image in the popular imagination in large part because the bulk of antifascist work is unseen, said Mark Bray, a veteran activist and Rutgers University historian who wrote Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook.

Bray explained that antifa is not so much a movement as "an activity." Many antifa groups focus primarily on "doxxing," identifying and exposing far-right extremists in the police, military and other positions of power. Bray said antifa groups generally turn to the use of force only after they've exhausted less risky avenues of attack.

"That, in many cases, is a last resort when the other methods have failed," Bray said. "It's just that those methods are more spectacular, public and newsworthy and generate a lot of the buzz around what antifa is."

Bray argued that it's unfair to lump militants like van Spronsen into the terrorism category without a discussion of the violent ideologies they were targeting. Antifascists, Bray said, aren't the ones going on hate-fueled rampages.

"Looking at how many people white supremacists are killing — shooting up synagogues and Black churches and so forth — it would be worse if antifa weren't stopping them from organizing and normalizing their politics in society," he said. "I understand the concerns about violence in general, but I think it needs to be situated in that context."

Jones, the terrorism analyst, said antifascist activism is protected — until it drifts into vigilante-style justice.

"The problem is not that people have views that are against fascism, against white supremacy, against racism. That's certainly defensible, and in fact it's a good thing," Jones said. "The problem is when you start getting into violence. That's where you start to cross a line in the U.S., and that's where it starts to get into the terrorism arena."

Still, Jones said, the number of far-left incidents is minuscule, typically only a couple a year, and in the case of antifa, they mainly involve spontaneous "melee violence" at demonstrations. He said that's what makes van Spronsen's case so unusual. A 69-year-old lone gunman carrying out a premeditated operation with a fiery, fatal end is not the usual antifa playbook.

"This is one of the few cases where it appears," Jones said, "that someone was being proactive and potentially plotting an attack."

Because they are armed and were close to van Spronsen, members of the John Brown Gun Club said, they've been called "domestic terrorists" so many times that the label has lost its sting.

"There's no fear for me of, 'Am I going to be labeled antifa? Am I going to be labeled a terrorist?' " Xicano said. "I am absolutely antifascist. Who wouldn't be antifascist?"

In the weeks before van Spronsen's "final action," members said, he cut official ties with the John Brown Gun Club. In hindsight, they get why he took extra time with those last goodbyes.

"I remember him giving me a hug and telling me to keep up the good work," McMinimee said. She had assumed he was withdrawing because of problems in his personal life.

"Now I realize he was distancing the club from the fallout of what he was going to do," she said.

After van Spronsen's death, McMinimee said, the group voluntarily met with authorities and turned over the letter — unopened — that had arrived in the mail that afternoon.

"Ultimately, we decided as a club, unanimously, that we were not going to hide from this and that we were going to lean into what happened and to tell Will's story," McMinimee said.

The Tacoma Police Department's version goes like this: Before dawn on July 13, 2019, officers responded to a report of a gunman at the Northwest Detention Center. Van Spronsen toted an AR-15-style rifle and was throwing homemade explosives. He also had flares; police say he placed one underneath a 500-gallon propane tank. Footage released from that night shows van Spronsen's car ablaze, the flames so big they fill the frame of the surveillance camera.

Even as sirens signaled the arrival of police, the Tacoma police statement said, "He made no attempt to flee."

At the scene, according to the police, officers ordered van Spronsen to drop the gun. When he didn't, police said, the officers fired, striking van Spronsen with two fatal rounds. Later, investigators recovered van Spronsen's rifle, which appeared to have malfunctioned.

The Geo Group, which owns and operates the facility, said in a statement that the surveillance video "shows the seriousness of the threat to our employees and immigrants" at the center. The company praised the Tacoma police for "heroic actions in responding to this horrific act of terrorism."

Van Spronsen's friends from the gun club insist that, based on his location in a transportation yard across the street from the main detention center, his target wasn't the jail but nearby buses that were to be used to enforce family separations. They believe he deliberately chose the middle of the night when no one was milling around.

McMinimee said anybody who knew van Spronsen's dedication to the families at the center would know that he'd never deliberately put them in danger. In her telling, there is no terrorism: "For me, my friend was killed by the police while trying to destroy buses that were going to be used to round up and deport my neighbors."

Aaron agreed, calling van Spronsen a hero.

"People taking militant action, whatever that militant part means, is what keeps fascism at bay," Aaron said. "The fact that the federal government is now trying to turn being against fascism into some sort of wrongdoing, some enemy of the state, says a lot more about them than it does anybody who's ever confronted a Nazi or a militia guy."

Xicano said he was moved by how van Spronsen, a European immigrant, stood up for Latino immigrants by "making the ultimate sacrifice."

"This wasn't, 'Oh, I'm going to go do this and we'll see what happens,' " Xicano said. "He knew what the outcome was going to be."

A daughter's heartbreak

Ariel van Spronsen's parents divorced when she was a toddler, and she grew up in a comfortable suburban life with her mom and stepfather. On weekends, she got to visit her dad, Willem van Spronsen, who delighted in showing her Seattle landmarks like Pike Place Market.

"I was a total daddy's girl, madly in love with my dad, and we just had a really close bond," Ariel recalled one recent afternoon, speaking by phone from Seattle.

Ariel is a 46-year-old hairstylist in Montana, but she was back in Washington state to mark the anniversary of her father's death. The interview was her first time speaking publicly about what happened that night.

At the time of her father's death, Ariel released a single statement that praised her father for his activism while making clear that she didn't share his stance on violent protest. In the year since, she has been silent, out of grief and the sensitivities of being linked to a domestic terrorism case.

"Part of that was self-protection and then part of it was: How could he do this?" Ariel said. "I was mad that he ended it. I wanted him around still."

In the early days of the investigation, the FBI showed up at her doorstep while she was in pajamas. A news outlet mistakenly reported that her name was an alias of her dad's. Headlines reduced her to "antifa daughter." Ariel said she had long understood the risks involved in her father's activism, but the publicity around his death left little space to process the shock and grief of actually losing him.

"You can't possibly be ready for something like that," she said.

Ariel said she has spent the past year trying to come to terms with her father's death and how it has been mythologized by both the right and the left. Yes, she said, her father's actions fit the technical definition of domestic terrorism. But she said the deep personal problems van Spronsen was going through challenges the easy casting of him as either villain or martyr.

"If you can create a boogeyman and if you can make it about us vs. them, humans crave that," Ariel said. "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."

As a young girl, Ariel said, she moved overseas when her stepdad got a job in Saudi Arabia. Her cherished weekend visits with van Spronsen ended, and from around age 6 to her early teens, she had only sporadic contact with her father through letters and visits during summer break. But when she moved back to Seattle in high school, Ariel said, she and her dad soon eased back into their old bond.

It was the grunge era, Ariel recalled, and he introduced her to the music, art and punk-inflected politics of the moment.

"My dad's life was always very artful, very cool," Ariel said. "I always used to tell people who didn't know my dad that he was cooler than I was."

Van Spronsen had long described himself as an anarchist; "antifascist" came later. In the early 2000s, Ariel said, her dad married for the fourth time and had a son. The family lived in a converted bus on Vashon Island, a hub for artists and activists.

"He believed only in home schooling. They did a lot of herbalism for their medicine," Ariel said.

Ariel said her father seemed to be a good parent, though at times she privately wished he'd lay off the anarchist rhetoric in front of her little brother.

"He would say things like, 'The revolution is coming and I plan to protect my family,'" Ariel recalled. She said she didn't say anything because she didn't see any harm to her brother, who was around 10 at the time, but she remembered thinking that it was "a little much for him to process at his age."

Ariel said the only thing she recalls as a red flag was her father's growing interest in guns, which she said started around five years ago as a nerdy, gearhead's fascination with the technical side of how firearms work.

Ariel said she was surprised when her father joined the John Brown group in 2017. She said she didn't disapprove; she'd always just assumed they both were opposed to gun ownership.

"The way he explained it to me was that, 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 it was the only way to properly defend ourselves," Ariel said. "And we kind of agreed to disagree about that and still love each other."

Ariel says her dad was outraged by immigration policies like family separation; he'd already been arrested at the same ICE facility in 2018 in connection with assaulting an officer. 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 that followed the end of his fourth marriage. Van Spronsen once described it to friends as a "personal hell."

The ex-wife involved in the dispute, who asked not to be identified by name for security reasons, said van Spronsen wasn't some peacenik who just snapped one day.

"He got to be a martyr and end his life and not have to deal with the consequences he created," she said.

In a phone interview from Seattle, van Spronsen's former wife said he had shown violent tendencies for years, stalking and threatening her. She obtained four protective orders against him over the years; she also was awarded full custody.

"My son is safe and I'm safe — that's all I wanted," she said. "What I really wanted is for him to be a regular person who gets divorced and is a good dad."

Ariel said her father saw the conflict as doing irreparable damage to his relationship with his son. Recent developments in the case had left van Spronsen devastated, she said. Hopeless. Still, she had no hint, she said, of what he was planning in secret.

Word of his death came when a message popped up on her Apple watch as she was working on a client's hair at the salon in Montana. She quickly drove to Seattle, handled arrangements for her father's cremation and got in touch with authorities. The family decided to postpone a memorial service.

"I didn't think that a gathering of people at that point in time was appropriate — or safe," Ariel said.

After a week or so in Seattle, Ariel said, she drove back to Montana, where she found a package from her father waiting for her. It included a private letter that she said made clear that her father never intended to make it out alive that night. For one thing, she said with a wry laugh, he apologized for blowing up the Volkswagen she'd loaned him.

"He expressed his love for me and hoped that I would understand his actions," she said.

And does she?

"I believe I have my story of what was going on with him and why, but it took a long time," she said. "A very long time."

Ultimately, Ariel said, she believes her father's militancy was driven by his strong sense of love and justice; she doesn't think he belongs on the same domestic terrorism list as violent white nationalists and others on the far right who massacre civilians out of hate.

"No doubt to me that it was an orchestrated suicide, with a big message," Ariel said. "So when I was seeing people talk about this wild, crazed man, I'm like, 'No, that was not the case.' "

Still, Ariel said, she can't get past the gun.

"There are so many things that I love and stand by about who my dad was," she said. "I don't condone the fact that he was carrying a weapon."

On a warm day this month, just before the anniversary of van Spronsen's death, Ariel and her dad's second wife, Susan Harrell, kayaked onto Puget Sound. They brought along Van Spronsen's ashes, tucked inside a biodegradable flower-shaped container.

Being on the water was an escape, Ariel said — from the debate over her father's legacy and her own struggle to reconcile his lessons about peace with the violent way his life ended.

"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 is the moment,' " Ariel said. "And so we went ahead and released him into the water."

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