A rally by a small group of neo-Nazi demonstrators at the state Capitol on Sunday erupted into a violent clash with protesters that left at least 10 people injured – five of them stabbed – and closed down streets as more than 100 police in riot gear and on horseback intervened to halt the mayhem.
Demonstrators battled with sticks, protest signs and other weapons as the Traditionalist Worker Party group – which said it wanted to assist supporters of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump – began setting up for a scheduled noon rally on the west steps of the Capitol.
Even before the event began, clashes broke out at numerous locations around the Capitol grounds among the 400 people gathered for and against the rally, which had been heavily promoted – and denounced – in recent days on various websites. Injuries were reported on both sides of the altercation.
“We had some pretty dynamic and chaotic situations,” said Sacramento Fire Department spokesman Chris Harvey, who arrived as a public information officer and quickly found himself working as a paramedic.
“We had a number of times where we had a patient on the ground and crews were trying to do triage and take care of them and the chaos was enveloping them. They were surrounded by the CHP and police officers just trying to keep the general surge of people away.”
Witnesses said the violence erupted at different locations around the Capitol grounds, hindering the initial law enforcement response as confrontations began before the event was scheduled to start.
The first sign of violence came just before 11 a.m., when KCRA reporter Mike Luery and his cameraman were caught in an altercation with anti-fascist protesters shouting “no cameras” and demanding they leave.
“We’re not causing the problem; your belligerent people are causing the problem,” Luery told the crowd before someone knocked his mike from his hand and others tried to grab the camera. The pair were eventually shoved out of the crowd and crossed the street away from the protesters.
Damion Osborne, a Sacramento community activist who came out to join the anti-Nazi protesters Sunday, said more trouble erupted about 11:20 a.m. when a neo-Nazi with a stick, a sign and shirt with a swastika and the words “White Power” approached the crowd.
“He dodged a bottle and then a rock, then someone broke a rock over his back,” said Osborne, 26. “The organizer said, ‘Stop, let him speak.’
“Then some folks came up to take his sign away and he wouldn’t let go, so a girl from the anti-racist side punched him. As soon as he was getting beat down, the cops came and grabbed him and started shooting rubber pellets.”
By 11:40, an African American man had been stabbed in the left arm, and police formed a circle around him as he lay on the ground being attended to by Andrea Combs, a medical assistant from Sacramento who was part of the protests.
“He’s 25, he’s from Carson City, his name is Nate,” said Combs, 43. “The Nazis are after the black people. I saw the second stabbing victim drop, too.”
Sean Moore, 23, of Sacramento was bleeding heavily from his right side just above his thigh, and bystanders said he was part of the anti-Nazi protest.
By 3 p.m., officials said the total number of injured was at eight, including five people who had been stabbed. Three of them were considered in serious condition and officials said one victim left the scene in his car, then called for an ambulance from his home near 65th Street and Fruitridge Road.
“It’s a highly volatile situation,” Sacramento police Chief Sam Somers said in the midafternoon, before the Capitol grounds on the west side were cleared.
Somers said there have been other skinhead rallies at the Capitol, but “this time the anarchists have taken a much more aggressive stance to wreak havoc on the city.”
“Regardless of the message, it’s the skinheads’ First Amendment right to free speech,” he added.
The CHP, which is responsible for security on Capitol grounds and had officers standing by along with Sacramento police in riot gear, said it was ready for the event.
“We were prepared for an encounter between these two groups not getting along,” CHP Capitol spokesman George Granada said. “We do the best we can with the situation that’s handed to us.
“It’s very fluid, moving from the west side to south to the north side. Now everything is calm. After the first violent event, we revoked the permit for the event.”
Police fired pepper spray balls at times as protesters hurled some large firecrackers at each other and at the CHP horses, but no arrests were reported as of 8 p.m. Sunday. Sacramento police said a person notified them of a loaded handgun on the Capitol grounds, and the weapon was taken in as evidence.
Many of the protesters were dressed all in black, some wearing face masks and hoodies zipped up to their chins, and it was difficult to tell at times who was on which side as they waved sticks, chanted and occasionally set off large fireworks.
One woman approached the anti-fascist crowd with a “Love conquers hate” sign because she thought they were the fascists. There was a brief period of yelling between her and the crowd before the misunderstanding was straightened out.
Despite the initial outbreak of violence, law enforcement appeared to be holding back from wading into the crowd once it appeared to settle back into groups shouting at each other. By 1 p.m., the anti-fascist group had taken over the steps of the building and chanted against the skinheads, while officers in riot gear and on horseback stood back in the shade near the sidewalks along L and 10th streets.
At one point, the anti-fascists tried marching down L Street toward 15th Street, but turned back and ran to the steps when a handful of skinhead protesters began advancing on them.
As the standoff continued, tourists wandered around the east side of the Capitol seemingly unaware of the tense scene. Nearby restaurants and bars remained jammed with patrons escaping the fierce summer heat and watching soccer matches.
Police closed off portions of L, N and 10th streets during the protest, which ended about 3 p.m.
Yvette Felarca, with the By Any Means Necessary group, came from Oakland to join the protest against the neo-Nazis and said it was a successful effort because the fascists fled.
“They came out of this in worse shape than us,” said Felarca, who suffered a head injury in the heat of the hostility. “Not just physically, but politically, they lost. The Nazis did not recruit anyone new today, and our side did.”
At least two of the injured were pulled inside the Capitol so they could be treated, the CHP said.
The Traditionalist Worker Party bills itself as a group of about 500 followers nationwide “defending faith, family, and folk against the politicians and oligarchs who are running America into the ground.”
“We intend to achieve that goal by building a nationwide network of grassroots local leaders who will lead Americans toward a peaceful and prosperous future free from economic exploitation, federal tyranny, and anti-Christian degeneracy,” the group states on its website.
The group and its California affiliate, Golden State Skinheads, sent about 30 people to speak up for Trump supporters who have been denied their freedom of speech, spokesman Matt Parrott said after the violence.
“The purpose of the protest was actually a reaction around the Donald Trump rallies where working-class white Americans were trying to peacefully organize, not on racial terms,” he said. “We wanted to have a march to show we will not back down in the face of radical leftists, who threatened violence beforehand.”
Parrott said his group was “prepared for a fight; they were prepared to defend themselves.”
The party’s chairman is Matthew Heimbach, who reportedly is Parrott’s son-in-law and briefly was a Trump delegate until his racial views became known. He sparked national headlines when he was accused of shoving an African American woman at a Trump rally in Kentucky in March.
Heimbach could not be reached Sunday, but anti-hate groups that monitor such organizations have labeled Heimbach as a rising leader among white nationalists.
“He’s part of the dry-cleaned Klan, if you will,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
Levin said a similar outbreak of violence occurred at a Ku Klux Klan rally in Anaheim in February where three people where stabbed and he ended up sheltering two injured Klan members from angry counterprotesters.
He said he had planned to attend Sunday’s rally to observe because so much publicity had been generated in advance of it, but changed his mind at the last minute because Heimbach began talking of canceling it.
Typically, violence at such rallies stems from the white nationalist side, Levin said, but the left is now organizing rapidly to challenge the neo-Nazi groups.
“One of the things we’re seeing this election season is an increase in the violence,” Levin said. “It started on the right, and now we’re seeing it on the left as well. It wouldn’t surprise me if a good portion of the people involved were anti-fascists.
“The anti-fascists were broadcasting that they were going to shut this rally down, and I think it’s pretty clear that they were looking for a confrontation.”