SACRAMENTO, Calif. _ By 11 AM on Sunday morning it was 103 degrees, and everyone gathered at the California state Capitol expected violence. The mounted police expected it. The riot police on their bicycles expected it. The counterprotesters expected it. The television news reporters circling on the edge of the action seemed anxious for it. We all waited for blood, and no one who welcomed its sight left disappointed. By the end of the day 10 people had been critically injured, 7 had been stabbed and dozens more suffered cuts, scrapes and bruises.
WARNING: GRAPHIC – REPORTER ZARON BURNETT’S VIDEO FROM THE SACRAMENTO NEO-NAZI RALLY
It was billed as a rally for the Traditionalist Workers Party. The TWP is a new type of white nationalist group. It downplays the racism and, like its European cousins, it plays up its nationalism. Its traditions. The leader of the TWP is a man named Matthew Heimbach. He first made national news when he was caught on camera shoving a black woman at a Trump rally. She reported that he called her a nigger and a cunt. Heimbach parlayed his notoriety in the national news to catapult himself into the role of high-profile leader for American bigots and racists who miss the days of David Duke and Tom Metzger.
To show the conviction and strength of his nationalist movement, Heimbach had called for a rally in one of the most progressive states in the union. On social media, an allied hate group called the Golden State Skinheads partnered with the Traditionalist Workers Party to promote the white nationalist rally. Everyone at the Capitol wondered how many bigots would show up.
Being a journalist, and a black man, and having grown up near Sacramento, I attended the Neo-Nazi rally because I wanted to talk to skinheads about the the rise of nationalism in America, particularly during this election season. Had anything changed? Did they still hate black people more or less than Muslims? And did they hate Muslims more or less than Jews? Also, were they likely to vote for Trump? I had questions only the bigots could answer. But mostly, I genuinely wanted to ask them: Why do you hate me? To dig at the fear within the core of this bullshit movement. But I never got the chance. As soon as they arrived at the state Capitol the skinheads started stabbing people. (The report on the ground, from the medics, was that it was counterprotesters getting stabbed. From what I saw, the counterprotesters mostly used bats, sticks and rocks.)
The Traditionalist Workers Party rally had been permitted and scheduled to start on the Capitol steps at noon. At around 9 AM counterprotesters arrived and surrounded the Capitol grounds. They had been organizing online for weeks. They swore they’d shut down the white nationalist rally. The anti-racist counterprotesters blocked all approaches to the Capitol. They crowded the Capitol steps, prepared to hold their ground by any means necessary.
The police were across the street, gathered at all four corners, in clusters. They blocked off the city streets. The Sacramento police were dressed in full riot gear. Meanwhile, the California Highway Patrol was mounted on horseback and ready for crowd control. Together, we all waited for the skinheads and bigots to arrive. Tensions between the cops and counterprotesters steadily rose, just like the hot summer air that was already well past 100 and still climbing. Over the complaints of the heat, occasionally you’d hear a counterprotester taunt the police. Mostly it was bad jokes like, “What animal has a dick on its back? A police horse!”
The anti-racist counterprotesters were a mix of groups and agendas. The original organizer was Antifa, the worldwide anti-fascist organization. It was joined by a few different groups of anti-racists. One of the most recognizable were the Sharps, which stands for Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice. The Sharps made the situation confusing because that meant there were skinheads on both sides. The largest contingent, the most vocal of the counterprotesters, the ones clearly eager for a violent exchange, were the young Black Bloc anarchists. They were dressed in black and wore masks to hide their identities. They showed up armed with bats and protest signs that were clearly designed to become weapons.
The battleground had been decided. Now it was just a matter of when the fight would erupt. We waited for the racists to arrive.
I asked the CHP officers and the Sacramento police if they had any coordinated plans in place to safely escort the white nationalists past the counterprotesters to the state Capitol. They didn’t. Public Information Officer Matthew McPhail explained to me in his perfectly calm and modulated tone: the police were only there to ensure everyone’s right to peacefully protest and exercise their First Amendment rights of free speech. The skinheads would have to find their own way to their rally.
The battleground had been decided. Now it was just a matter of when the fight would erupt. We waited for the racists to arrive.
At around 11:45 AM the first wave of white nationalists was spotted at the south side of the Capitol. There were roughly 20 members of the Golden Gate Skinheads, carrying Nordic-style painted shields to protect them from rocks, bottles and thrown debris. They attempted to push their way to the Capitol grounds. They were met by roughly 200 counterprotesters, easily outnumbered 10-1. The number of counterprotesters swelled as soon as word got out that the Neo-Nazis had arrived. People from all four sides of the Capitol rushed to confront them. The sweltering Sunday morning, just before noon, exploded into chaos. Pepper-spray choked the air. People on both sides, dressed in black, wearing masks, and with shaved heads, tried to figure out who to hit and who was on their side.
Once the Neo-Nazis saw that they were vastly outnumbered, they fled. They started to stab people as they made their escape. In the footage below, you’ll see a counterprotester who’s already been assaulted get savagely knocked out by a fleeing skinhead.
A young man from the Bay Area filming the event was stabbed in the gut by a fleeing white nationalist as the skinheads ran away from the Capitol. The counterprotesters chased the Neo-Nazis for a few blocks back the way they’d come. The mounted police trotted along after them. Presumably to keep the peace.
Checking the aftermath once the first wave of skinheads was turned back, I saw a woman who’d been stabbed in the chest. She lay bleeding on the Capitol lawn as people attended to her injuries and waited for paramedics to arrive. Eyewitnesses I spoke with said that a skinhead who was trying to fight his way out of the Capitol had swung a stick and impaled it in her chest. He hit her just above her sternum. On the sidewalk, a trail of blood marked the skinhead’s retreat. Meanwhile, the counterprotesters, those not needing medical attention, gathered and waited for the Neo-Nazis to return.
At first, no one seemed to notice them when they arrived. One was in a wheelchair, pushed by his racist buddy. But their prison tattoos gave them away. The Celtic cross on the back of the shaved head told me that the one pushing the wheelchair was a Neo-Nazi. The wheelchair-bound racist got stuck in the grass, so he lifted himself up and out of the chair, and he began to limp across the Capitol grounds. As they hobbled along, a few counterprotesters still on alert for any skinheads in the area noticed the two men in the middle of the crowd.
An anarchist woman attempted to block the limping skinhead and his buddy who was pushing his wheelchair. When she reached into her back pocket for what looked to be a weapon, cops on horseback rushed over and got between her and the two skinheads. Most of the counterprotesters were reluctant to attack the wheelchair-bound bigot or his skinhead buddy. Instead they let them approach the Capitol steps. The mounted police used their horses to climb the steps and shield the two men as they ascended. I’d slipped behind the police line, so I joined the two skinheads on the Capitol steps as rocks, bottles of water and chunks of concrete debris were thrown by the counterprotesters. One anti-fascist with terrible aim hit me in the back of the head with a rock.
The limping bigot and his racist little buddy had triumphantly climbed the Capitol steps. The racist buddy raised the Nazi salute. That fully unleashed the crowd’s anger. The counterprotesters no longer cared if the bigot was wheelchair-bound or not. A few men slipped past the mounted police and rushed the steps. Some were armed with sticks. Others squared off looking for a fistfight. The skinheads attempted to hold their ground. Both men were beaten in the head with sticks. The wheelchair-bound bigot tumbled back down the steps as the crowd cheered.
The mounted police used their horses to protect the Neo-Nazis and usher the two bigots with the broken skulls and blood running down their shaved heads into the Capitol for medical treatment. After a long while, the last two skinheads on the capitol grounds were carted away in the back of an ambulance. The crowd cheered.
After they successfully turned away two waves of skinheads, the crowd of counterprotesters vowed to hold their ground against any third wave that might attempt to retake the Capitol steps. Soon reports spread that the rally had been canceled officially. Although the rally was over, curiosity-seekers began to show up to livestream the event, drawn by reports of violence on social media.
One of the livestreamers was a man dressed in Lycra from head to toe like he’d just quit the Tour de France. He started livestreaming the event on his phone. He was accosted. When people didn’t like his answers, he was attacked. He swung his expensive road bike to defend himself. After he was blinded by pepper-spray, he rushed toward the police line for protection.
When I spoke with him (he refused to reveal his name) he said that he was filming the protest for a “conspiracy website from Sweden.” Someone else asked him point-blank if he was a white nationalist. He denied he was and said that he wasn’t even white, that according to Ancestry.com he’s “25 percent Native-American and 75 percent European mutt.”
The other guy attracting attention was an overly-curious Republican named Toby Wenning. He and his 15-year old son read about the event on Twitter and decided to see what it was all about for themselves. But the crowd determined that they were Nazis, or at least Nazi sympathizers. The father and son were told to fuck off as anarchists threw water at them. When the 15-year-old threw punches at the anarchists, the father and son had to be separated from the crowd by police.
When I spoke with Wenning, he explained that he was aware of the Traditionalist Workers Party. But he wasn’t an “official” fan of the party. When I asked him, he said he was a ”nationalist.” But he’s no Nazi, he said, since they had their time and place in history. He’s a new type of nationalist. Wenning attempted to explain how much he agreed with Hitler. He blithered some nonsense about fighting Communist oppression. Basically, he and Hitler agree that Communists were bad people.
As the media seized on him for an interview I checked back on the counterprotesters. They’d achieved what they come to do. They held the Capitol steps. They barred the Neo-Nazis from holding a rally and spreading hate-speech. But the scene did not look good. Everyone had expected violence from the Neo-Nazis. Yet the black-clad anarchists looked eerily similar in appearance and tactics to the racist skinheads when they attacked the wheelchair-bound bigot and his racist buddy on the Capitol steps.
As people left the grounds, some of the counterprotesters snapped pictures of the skinhead’s blood on the capitol steps. They were delighted. I heard their gleeful comments at the sight of the racists’ spilled blood.
As I left the state Capitol I felt disappointed with some of the counterprotesters. Because of their violence, they’d made me feel a small measure of sympathy for the skinheads. It was a bitter irony to swallow. I could still hear someone shouting in a bullhorn about how they had shut down the Neo-Nazis hate speech, how they denied the violent extremists their right to be heard (by, I found myself thinking, being violent just like them). It made it difficult to cheer for the counterprotesters’ success.
The television news portrayed the scene as a clash between skinheads and violent anarchists. And it was. But everyone had expected violence. The trouble was no one had a plan to keep it from exploding. Which is why it didn’t feel like anyone had won. It felt like democracy had lost.