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Protesters keep their cool at pro-Trump, anti-Trump rallies. ‘Empathy tent’ helps

'Unite America First Peace Rally' held at Capitol

Trump supporters and anti-Trump protesters kept the peace by keeping their distance at competing rallies at the state Capitol and Fremont Park on Saturday, July 8.
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Trump supporters and anti-Trump protesters kept the peace by keeping their distance at competing rallies at the state Capitol and Fremont Park on Saturday, July 8.

Trump supporters and anti-Trump protesters kept the peace Saturday by keeping their distance during competing rallies at the state Capitol and Fremont Park.

The peaceful gatherings came a year after an unrelated march at the Capitol erupted into violent clashes between neo-Nazi marchers and anti-fascist groups.

On Saturday, about 150 people gathered at the state Capitol for a “Unite America First Peace Rally.” Organizers said it was aimed at bringing together disparate political views, though most in the crowd appeared to be supporters of President Donald Trump.

Blocks away, a small counter-rally formed in Fremont Park at 16th and Q streets. The local chapter of Act Now to Stop War and End Racism hosted the anti-Trump event. About 15 people gathered under a tree, holding yellow picket signs with messages such as “Solidarity Trumps Racism.” Passing cars honked in support.

At the Capitol, bikers on Harley-Davidsons rumbled down L Street to bolster the United America First rally. Many attendees planted “Make America Great Again” signs, wore Trump T-shirts, or carried Trump flags. A couple of people wore flak jackets and one carried a homemade shield.

Organizer Will Johnson, a 46-year-old Bay Area resident, told the crowd that he wanted to see Americans unite and support the military.

“The hate today is driven by the media,” he said. “Hollywood, politicians – they’re very poisonous to America. They serve only one purpose, and that is to divide us.”

The crowd agreed, sporting signs reading “CNN Lies,” “Not my Sanctuary City” and “Constitution not Sharia.”

About a dozen California Highway Patrol officers stood off to the side of the crowd, as four others on horseback roamed about. A couple of Sacramento police officers on horseback also patrolled the area, but there was no massive police presence as there was a year ago, when a neo-Nazi rally erupted into violent clashes with anti-fascists.

That June 26 clash left at least 14 people injured, including five who were stabbed, and led to a 2,000-page CHP investigative report that recommended criminal charges against more than 100 people.

The Sacramento District Attorney’s Office has reviewed video footage and other evidence since last year and has “made a lot of progress,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Grippi said.

“We will have a public statement in the next week or so,” Grippi said, but declined to reveal whether any arrests have been made.

Instead of bloodshed, Saturday’s right-wing rally featured booths supporting gun rights and protesting gas taxes. There were no counter-protesters, just people listening to a country band and speakers who included political candidates and activists.

The event also sported an “empathy tent,” where organizers promised “10 minutes of deep listening” without judgment, advice or interruption.

Edwin Rutsch, head of the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy, spent the afternoon sitting face to face in folding chairs with people who stopped by to talk politics, religion or whatever else struck them.

Rutsch said his group has been operating for 10 years and goes to areas of conflict to offer people a safe zone to talk. In recent months, he was at protests in Berkeley and at a pro-impeachment rally in Los Angeles, he said.

“We like the conflict zones,” said Rutsch, a 61-year-old El Cerrito resident.

“We came here, and people recognized us from Berkeley and welcomed us with hugs.”

Several people in the crowd said they did not want to give their names because they were concerned about backlash from co-workers or friends if they were identified as attending such an event.

Two sisters wearing American flag tops and Trump pins said they had lost friends on Facebook because they supported Trump and did not want to cause themselves further problems by giving their names.

Others were happy to talk.

Jordan Whitecar, 27, of Folsom, said he came with the idea of “just celebrating freedom.” Clad in slacks, a black vest and white dress shirt with an American flag draped around him as a cape, Whitecar said he had not seen any anti-Trump sentiments at the event.

“It’s a pro-liberty rally,” Whitecar said.

Most of the people present wandered away from the wilting heat before the event ended around 4 p.m., leaving a few dozen to listen to closing speaker Kyle Chapman.

Chapman became well known after a video of him at a March 4 rally in Berkeley went viral. That video showed Chapman hitting an anti-Trump protester with a stick, leading to him being hailed on far-right websites as a “hero.”

Chapman appeared Saturday with a group of men he said were there to ensure no violence occurred from “antifa,” or anti-fascist, groups.

None did, and Chapman delivered remarks criticizing immigration, denying he was a white separatist and warning the congregants that their jobs may be imperiled in the future by immigration.

He also said he had given up his six-figure salary as a diver, and noted that his supporters can visit his website to purchase clothing and other items.

In Fremont Park, Jamier Sale, a spokesman for the ANSWER group, said members cared about many of the same issues addressed at the Capitol rally, such as immigration, terrorism, and health care – but from an opposite perspective.

“We’re concerned about the same issues, but when we say we’re concerned with terrorism, we talk about the terrorism of the alt-right,” Sale said. “They’ve used each of these issues to attack each of those communities.”

The location for the counter-rally – about a half-mile from the state Capitol – was chosen to create a buffer between the group and the Unite America First rally.

Sale said he considers Saturday’s action, and similar ones held by conservative groups around the nation since Trump’s election, a tactical move to provoke conflict and land counter-protesters in jail.

He mentioned last year’s Capitol rally and efforts by local police to prosecute counter protesters.

On Saturday, attendees passed out information about the group’s goal to attend the People’s Congress of Resistance in Washington, D.C., in September.

Oliver Harvey hoped to encourage community members to participate politically and educate themselves.

“Even if one person grabs a flyer and Googles it, that’s what I want,” Harvey said. “That’s why I’m here.”

Sam Stanton: 916-321-1091, @StantonSam

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