When a group of white nationalists showed up for a rally in Sacramento, California, on Sunday afternoon, they expected to be massively outnumbered. But while they imagined the ratio of protesters to counter-protestors might reach ten to one, that estimate proved far too conservative. About 30 members of the Traditionalist Worker Party were met by some 400 anti-fascist types at the steps of California's State Capitol building. As footage posted to social media shows, a veritable melee ensued, leaving at least seven people seriously injured. Some were stabbed, while others were hit with the posts from signs that bore phrases like, "Nazi scum."
"They attacked each other without hesitation," counter-protester Chandra Zafra told the LA Times. "It was a war zone."
It's just the latest episode of extreme political violence as America gears up for a presidential election where one major-party candidate is making naked appeals to xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment seems to be gaining traction in some corners of the West.
The group behind the protest is led by 25-year-old Matthew Heimbach, who the Southern Poverty Law Center says is "considered by many to be the face of a new generation of white nationalists." He made his name founding a White Student Union at Towson University in Maryland in 2012 and became a leader in a neo-Confederate group called League of the South.
More recently, Heimbach started another group called Traditionalist Youth Network and its offshoot Traditionalist Worker Party, which supports candidates for local office in states like Ohio and Tennessee. Representatives of the Party, along with members of a group called the Golden State Skinheads, were behind the rally on Sunday.
But instead of signing up new followers to their cause, the right-wing crowd met activists apparently organized by a group called Antifa (or anti-fascist) Sacramento. Police Chief Sam Somers told the Sacramento Bee there have been skinhead rallies at the Capitol in the past, but "this time the anarchists have taken a much more aggressive stance to wreak havoc on the city."
Sunday's incident wasn't even the first time this year white supremacist types did battle with left-wing antagonists in the Golden State. Back in February, three people were stabbed in a similar confrontation at a Ku Klux Klan rally in Anaheim. That chaos seems to have sprung from a man punching a hate-group member in the back of the head.
The latest fracas comes as protestors gear up for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland beginning July 18. A series of restrictions imposed by the city of Cleveland, coupled with a uniquely tense political climate fueled by presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump—a sort of scion of white resentment—has some activists fearing the worst. The American Civil Liberties Union (ALCU) is currently fighting the city in court over the proposed parade route, which a judge last week agreed was, at least in its original form, too restrictive. Meanwhile, some have expressed apprehension that close quarters for activism will invite fighting, and that Ohio's lax gun laws could render them deadly.
Check out our documentary about Matthew Heimbach and white nationalism at a college in Maryland.
In March, Heimbach made news when a video surfaced of him shoving a woman at a Donald Trump rally while calling her "leftist scum." He blamed Black Lives Matter protestors for starting the scuffle, calling the movement a "general angry purpose mob." Meanwhile, an administrator for the TWP's Facebook page maintains the anti-fascist protestors started the fight on Sunday: "Y'all started the fight. Y'all escalated the fight. We won today and your leadership know it."
So far, according to the city of Cleveland, the Traditionalist Worker Party has not applied for an protest permit. But the group did not return requests from VICE for comment.
"The kind of people who actually go to the trouble to ask for the parade permits are the people who wanna obey the rules, who wanna cooperate with the government and make things easy," Chris Link, executive director of the ALCU's Ohio chapter, told me. "Meanwhile, there are thousands of people who will come to town and not bother."
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