There was never any question about the potential for violence at Sunday’s neo-Nazi rally at the state Capitol.
Both sides had been warning over the internet for months that they expected a confrontation at the United Stand for Freedom rally planned by the Golden State Skinheads and the Traditionalist Worker Party group that took out the state permit for the event.
“The upcoming rally this weekend on the 26th promises to be one to remember, due to the fact many stand to stop us yet we refuse to yield!” the skinhead group wrote in a message on its website before Sunday’s event. “Although, our enemies have already openly planned to gather and use violence against us, as always we will stand our ground if forced to that point.”
That is precisely what happened Sunday before the start of the planned noon rally. Hundreds of so-called anti-fascists – self-dubbed “Antifa” – descended upon Capitol Park and sparked a brawl that left five people stabbed and five others injured. No one was arrested during the melee, which was observed by more than 100 Sacramento police officers and a separate contingent of California Highway Patrol officers.
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Demonstrators on both sides have questioned why law enforcement did not mount a more aggressive response when the violence started, and officials now are conferring over what could have been done differently.
California Highway Patrol Commissioner Joe Farrow met with Sacramento Police Chief Sam Somers Jr. on Monday as criticism mounted over the fact that some assaults were allowed to take place while officers watched from afar wearing riot gear.
“They met to discuss what happened,” CHP spokeswoman Fran Clader said Tuesday. “It’s still being evaluated, but I think the hope is maybe there are some takeaways and lessons learned about what happened.”
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson also is planning to meet with law enforcement officials to review what happened at the event, which both sides live-streamed over the internet and later boasted about online.
Anti-fascist websites carried declarations of victory – “we won again and we will always win in the end,” one posting read – while neo-Nazi sites celebrated what they billed as the Battle of Sacramento, complete with a song declaring, “You red scum, your day has come.”
Officials say it was the most violent confrontation at the Capitol in memory. Experts who monitor extremist groups say the violence has been building for years as anarchist and other left-leaning groups intentionally clash with neo-Nazi supporters.
“The anti-fascists for weeks upon weeks have been telegraphing that they were going to shut it down, and the violent imagery from both sides in their posters and social media was significant,” said Brian Levin, who has attended Klan and other neo-Nazi rallies for three decades monitoring their activities. “This was being well-telegraphed.”
Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, said law enforcement appeared to have had an adequate number of officers on the scene initially.
“One hundred officers is a pretty decent size; it’s larger than most departments in the United States, actually,” said Levin, a former New York City police officer. “But what I think is part of this is that they actually had a kind of dual mandate to provide perimeter protection to the Capitol grounds and to protect against breaches to the building itself.”
Police also had to ensure the safety of surrounding businesses and buildings and to keep the protest isolated to the Capitol Park area, Levin said, rather than allow violence to spill out onto the streets of downtown Sacramento, which was filled with tourists and residents packing into area bars and restaurants.
“These events are powder kegs,” he added.
Sacramento police say they were prepared in advance for the possibility of violence. More than 100 officers were stationed along the perimeter of the Capitol grounds to protect the city jurisdiction. CHP officers gathered in Capitol Park, the agency’s jurisdiction. The CHP would not reveal how many officers it had on hand but said there were dozens more than on a normal Sunday.
“A significant effort was made on our part to be prepared in advance for this incident in terms of allocating personnel,” police spokesman Matt McPhail said, adding that the city also deployed camera trailers that are now part of the investigation into finding those responsible for the violence.
Both the police and the CHP say there are hundreds of hours of video available from law enforcement, the media and online postings by individuals who were present that may lead to arrests.
“We are actively investigating what happened and are looking to make arrests,” the CHP’s Clader said. “We’re interviewing witnesses and reviewing news and online videos and collecting information with the goal of arresting those responsible for the assaults and the damage to the building.”
Many of the people at the protest wore masks and black hoodies, and they carried various weapons and protective devices, including sticks that had been removed from protest signs and tops of outdoor grills used alternately as drums and shields.
Police say the fact that many were wearing masks may not effectively protect their identities in the long run.
“Something to keep in mind in this day and age, despite people’s belief that they can remain anonymous, they often give themselves away through their own desires to be electronically connected to the rest of the world,” McPhail said. “People that attend these things are there to spread a message, and part of the effort in spreading their own message involves making recordings and then distributing them.”
Many other jurisdictions, especially in the Eastern U.S. where such confrontations have been fairly common in recent years, have passed various ordinances – including restricting wearing masks at nontheatrical events unless it is Halloween, and banning signs on sticks. Many also have adopted new police procedures to handle clashes at rallies, Levin said, and have emphasized gathering intelligence before an event.
“On the East Coast, what happens, and this started in the late 1990s, there was usually a massive police presence and an overwhelming allocation of personnel and assets,” he said.
Law enforcement tries to keep opposing factions separate with barriers or fences and restricts entry to protest areas to force chokepoints where police can more easily control what is happening, he said.
But he added that “each place has its own unique characteristics” and that a large public park like the Capitol grounds may not be suitable for such restrictions.
Levin also noted that police have to make quick judgments on whether to intervene inside a large crowd or try to avoid making the situation worse.
“So, if a officer sees a battery going on and goes to respond and someone in the crowd hits them over the head with a bottle and takes their gun, then you have bigger problems, “ he said.