On Tuesday, a Florida judge sentenced Daniel Baker, an anti-fascist activist, to 44 months in federal prison for social media posts that called for armed defense against possible far-right attacks on the state’s Capitol in the wake of the January 6 riots. Baker, a 34-year-old yoga teacher and emergency medical technician trainee, had no previous criminal convictions and has already been held for 10 months of harsh pretrial detention, including seven months in solitary confinement. He never brought a weapon near a government building; he amassed no armed anti-fascist forces; he made no threats on a single individual.
Baker will, nonetheless, face considerably more prison time than most January 6 defendants, including those who crossed state lines, small arsenals in tow, with the aim of overturning a presidential election.
It goes without saying that a United States federal court is no place to appeal to ethical grounds for militant anti-fascist resistance. Yet Baker, while prone to hyperbolic and sometimes paranoid rhetoric, was certainly not alone in fearing that there could be January 6-style events in statehouses nationwide ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration and that local police could hardly be trusted as a bulwark. The Federal Bureau of Investigations warned of the potential for armed protests at state capitols. Florida is home to over 60 far-right, white supremacist, and neo-Nazi groups recognized by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and there are well-reported links between Florida police departments and far-right militiae.
If there are moral arguments for physically confronting fascists — and I believe there are — they would have been of scant relevance in Baker’s case: zero such confrontations took place or appeared on the horizon, and no far-right mobs amassed at the Florida Capitol around Biden’s inauguration. This should have been a straightforward First Amendment case, with Baker’s online speech, albeit bellicose, judged as constitutionally protected. Instead, the formerly unhoused veteran has been made a victim of government efforts to draw false equivalences between fascistic far-right forces and the anti-fascists who would see them opposed.
“The overall message people will get from this is that online speech calling for militant antifascist action will send you to prison for much longer than actually taking militant action with fascists.”
“The American government has chosen to side with white supremacists, except when their own bureaucracy forces them to prosecute the most blatant offenders, albeit gently,” Baker told me in an email from prison. “They criticized me for supporting Black Lives Matter, Feminist Liberation ideologies, Global Revolutionary movements and direct democracy. … The government has made its stance clear throughout my hearings.”
During his sentencing hearing on Tuesday, Baker’s attorney highlighted the case of a Georgia man who drove to Washington, D.C., with guns and ammunition and sent private texts threatening to shoot Rep. Nancy Pelosi in the head. The Trump acolyte had missed the storming of the Capitol by one day due to car trouble. Like Baker, he was charged with the interstate communication of threats. Unlike Baker, he had a history of hideous, racist online speech, and direct threats. And unlike Baker, he could leave prison soon: He will be sentenced in December and faces between six months to two years in prison; his eight months of pretrial detention will count as time served. Taking into account time served, meanwhile, Baker will spend another 34 months — almost three years — in prison.
“Dan’s case speaks volumes about how the state represses the left much differently than it treats the far right,” Brad Thomson, civil rights attorney at the People’s Law Office, who did not represent Baker, told me. “Here, Dan was sentenced to three and a half years for online posts opposing another January 6 incident. But for actual participants from January 6, we’re seeing charges and sentences far below that.” Thomson added that “every case is unique, but the overall message people will get from this is that online speech calling for militant antifascist action will send you to prison for much longer than actually taking militant action with fascists.”
Baker was convicted at trial earlier this year on two counts of “transmitting a communication in interstate commerce containing a threat to kidnap or injure another person.” The threat of kidnapping charge stemmed from a feverish public Facebook post in which Baker put out a general call for anti-racists and anti-fascists to encircle the state Capitol, should far-right groups attack it “on or around inauguration day,” and “trap” right-wingers inside with cops. In the very next sentence, though, he wrote, “we will drive them out of Tallahassee with every caliber available!” The right wing militiae were thus to be trapped in and driven out at once, on an unspecified day, by an unnamed collaboration of counterprotesters.
The “call to arms” posts — of which Baker posted a number — were reflective of his genuine and rightful rage against white supremacist violence, but were disorganized and inchoate. Other social media posts that prosecutors pointed to as evidence at trial included memes featuring Homer Simpson, Baby Yoda, and a picture of a kangaroo. “It was truly a surreal experience being in a literal kangaroo court,” Baker told me. His prosecution, conviction, and sentencing exemplify the government’s commitment to conjuring a left-wing extremist threat when none is there.
Baker, slight and sinewy at 5 foot 8, lived in Tallahassee at the time of his arrest — just over one week after January 6. Federal agents raided his apartment with guns drawn and a flashbang grenade. “I thought we were going to die when the FBI broke down our door, the whole experience has been excruciating and traumatizing,” said his best friend and roommate Eric Champagne, an artist and former Hindu monk who had traveled with Baker to support Black Lives Matter protests around the country last year — a fact that was cited by the prosecution as proof of Baker’s extremist bent.
With his knowledge as an EMT trainee, Baker would, Champagne told me, run to the aid of injured protesters. In their hometown, the friends regularly brought food and necessities to the unhoused community, Baker having previously experienced homelessness himself. “My heart is about helping people who are homeless. I know how bad it can be,” he told me on a phone call from prison.
There can be little doubt that Baker’s online posts were reckless at a time when federal law enforcement had made clear its desire to demonize radical left-wing politics — to conjure extremist forces equal, if not greater, to those very real and deadly threats from the far right. Following Baker’s arrest on January 15, U.S. Attorney Larry Keefe, who led the prosecution, pronounced, “Extremists intent on violence from either end of the political and social spectrums must be stopped, and they will be stopped.”
It would be naive and ahistorical to hope that the U.S. government would draw a moral distinction between militant acts carried out in the service of genocidal white supremacy on the one hand and militant resistance to such acts on the other. Even a week after January 6, when it seemed that racist Trumpians had made undeniable their singular role as an extremist threat to this country’s already diminished democracy, the government once again doubled down on its baseless two-sidesism.
This came as no real surprise. The far right has for two decades been responsible for the vast majority of deadly extremist attacks, while both Republicans and Democrats have endorsed the targeting of leftists on the flimsiest of grounds — all the more so when righteous, Black-led uprisings swept the nation last summer. It was among the defining qualities of Donald Trump’s presidency, to condone neo-Nazis and condemn with theatrical fervor the dangerousness of anarchists and antifa. The Biden administration, while making greater overtures to the dangers of the far right, has been no less keen to make fallacious “both sides” claims about the threat of far-left extremism.
After January 6, national security experts and liberals urged Biden to take on right-wing extremism through a strategy of counterterrorist law enforcement. I noted at the time that it would be misguided to treat the state’s law enforcement apparatus as an ally in the struggle against white supremacist violence.
Cases like this exemplify how the invocation of domestic counterterrorism efforts against the right will inevitably harm the left, given the state’s reactionary ideological tendencies.
As Branko Marcetic argued in Jacobin after Baker’s arrest, cases like this exemplify how the invocation of domestic counterterrorism efforts against the right will inevitably harm the left, given the state’s reactionary ideological tendencies. The government made much of Baker’s “dangerousness,” citing his ownership of two firearms and the fact that he had placed an order for one more — hardly proof of a planned attack: Gun sales jumped 80 percent nationwide in January following the Capitol riot.
The prosecution focused, too, on Baker’s brief military training. He had joined the U.S. military in his late teens but refused to be deployed overseas. “His conscience prevented him from deploying with people he didn’t trust to uphold human rights in a far off corner of the world,” his friend, Champagne, told me. Baker then received an “other than honorable” discharge, receiving no benefits.
Baker would later choose to use his military and medical training for a cause he believed in. Like dozens of other anarchists, communists, and socialists from around the world, Baker spent his savings to fly to Syria to join the feminist-led, environmentalist, and directly democratic political project in Rojava. There, he fought with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units against ISIS. From his Kurdish comrades, he told me he learned the concept of “welatparazi,” which, he said, “denotes a sentimental feeling of loyalty and obligation of service towards one’s community which shelters and nourishes us.”
The internationalist involvement in Rojava has been compared to the communist International Brigades who fought against Francisco Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War. Despite the fact that the U.S. had backed the very same Kurdish units in their fight against ISIS, Baker’s participation was consistently cited by the government as proof that he poses a terror threat.
At his sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, a Trump nominee whose appointment was vehemently opposed by a coalition of over 200 civil and human rights groups, said that Baker had intended to commit acts of violence, “like he went to Rojava to do.”
“The government’s case relied heavily on the fact that Dan is anarchist,” Thomson, the civil rights attorney, noted. “There is a long history in this country of police, prosecutors, and courts targeting anarchists for trumped up charges and excessive sentences. This legacy goes back to Haymarket and continues to today, with Dan’s case being the most recent example.”
Baker described his first months held at the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee as harrowing. “I was placed in a cell covered in feces and rotated to other tainted cells every three weeks,” he wrote via email. Another man held next to him in the Special Housing Unit — solitary confinement — was severely mentally ill, traumatized, and autistic. “He was soiling himself and throwing his waste all over the cells and out under the door several times a day,” Baker told me, noting that the “crueler guards” would consistently taunt and abuse the man. “I eventually contacted his family with the help of a sympathetic guard,” Baker said.
The quotidian cruelties of prison life abounded. Baker had to plead for weeks to get vegan meals; as a Hare Krishna, he does not eat meat as a point of respect for human and nonhuman life and is lactose intolerant. “It took nine months to get them to stop sending me dairy products,” he said. He’s had equal trouble accessing prayer beads and says his legal mail was opened by prison staff, which is illegal. He has filed a civil suit against the prison and a number of named guards in relation to the alleged violations. The Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on Baker’s lawsuit or the conditions of his confinement.
“When you remove one person from that sort of support network, it creates a great burden on the people who are left.”
Baker’s friends in Tallahassee are concerned for his emotional and psychological well-being. Music teacher Desiree Gattis described herself as playing “sisterly/motherly role” to Baker. She met him while he was unhoused and helped him get back on his feet. Gattis, who has helped organize Baker’s legal and financial support, is less interested in his lionization as a political prisoner and would rather he be primarily recognized as a vulnerable person, who has suffered serious trauma from seven months in solitary confinement. She called the government’s treatment of her friend “cruel and absurd.” “This is not a threatening person,” she said.
Gattis said that prior to his imprisonment, Baker helped her “a great deal” with her regular work with the city’s unhoused community. ”When you remove one person from that sort of support network, it creates a great burden on the people who are left,” she said. In a separate conversation, Champagne echoed the same message: “For each person in jail, a community suffers.”
Baker worries that, because of his felony conviction, he “won’t be able to find work or continue to rescue injured people” and that he will face far-right violence after his release and possibly while in prison too. He will be appealing his conviction, but the likely venue — the conservative 11th Circuit Court of Appeals — will not be a welcoming one. In the meantime, he told me that he plans to read and learn more about liberation movements and abolitionist histories.
At the end of our phone call on the day following his sentencing, he hurriedly read off a quote from the philosopher Bertrand Russell, which he had recently come across. “‘Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind,’” he said. “That’s how I feel.”
Correction: Oct. 16, 2021, 3:05 p.m. ET
A previous version of this article misspelled Brad Thomson’s last name.