Capitol Alert

Should we restrict white nationalist demonstrations? California Democrats say yes

Has America gone too far in allowing white nationalist groups to hold public demonstrations?

More than half of the state’s registered Democrats say that’s the case, according to a new survey by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. Another 39 percent said their protest rights should be unrestricted under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Half of Republicans said the rights of white nationalists to organize in the street should be protected, compared with 42 percent who say demonstrations that can lead to racial tensions and violence should be limited.

The survey follows a wave of rallies where white nationalists and neo-Nazis clashed with counter-protesters, including the leftist group Antifa. The events in Charlottesville, Va., last month, unleashed by a decision to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, reverberated across the country and to the highest levels of politics. Some of the toughest criticisms were directed at President Donald Trump over his initial statements, which critics suggested put white supremacists and neo-Nazis on the same level as their protesting detractors.

Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll, said he believes Democrats want stricter controls on white nationalist demonstrations because they believe the groups are contributing to poorer race relations. The poll also found that two in three California voters believe that race relations in the U.S. have worsened over the last year, including majorities across each of the major racial and ethnic subgroups.

Democrats “make the linkage that (white nationalists) are one of the reasons for that,” DiCamillo said. Given that more than one in eight Democrats see race relations are worse than last year, “They don’t want that to continue, and these demonstrations in their mind aren’t helping.”

California officials have moved to quell the demonstrations, citing concerns over violence. Ahead of a planned “Patriot Prayer” rally at Crissy Field in San Francisco, Democratic politicians urged the National Park Service to rescind their permit. Texas A&M canceled a planned Sept. 11 “White Lives Matter” rally that was to feature Richard Spencer, a white separatist.

California lawmakers also have taken steps to voice their displeasure, issuing nonbinding resolutions such as one by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, that strongly denounces “the totalitarian impulses, violent terrorism, xenophobic biases and bigoted ideologies” promoted by white nationalists and neo-Nazis and urges federal law enforcement to prosecute those who commit crimes and violence.

The poll asked voters to say which of two statements most closely expressed their views about such events: “We have gone too far in allowing these groups to carry out these types of demonstrations, which can increase racial tensions and lead to violence” or “We should not restrict the ability of groups to carry out these types of demonstrations, which are guaranteed under our First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and assembly.”

Republicans and strongly conservative and white voters were more likely to believe that the protest rights of white nationalist groups should not be restricted.

Overall, two in three voters say they have little confidence in Trump’s ability to handle the country’s race relations.

But California supporters of Trump and his 2016 Democratic rival Hillary Clinton differ markedly in their views. Thirty-two percent of Trump voters say race relations are worse, while 53 percent say they are about the same. Thirteen percent think they are better now than they were a year ago, when Democrat Barack Obama was president. Among Clinton voters, 87 percent see things as worse and 10 percent say they are about the same.

Clinton, in one of several recent interviews promoting her new book, “What Happened,” delved into questions of race and said Trump tapped into resentment of white voters during the campaign. She described his January inauguration address, which she attended, as a “cry from the white nationalist gut.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago