For months, observers have noted the violence behind Donald Trump’s message and the bigotry and xenophobia it has stirred up. As the grassroots opposition to Trump and Trumpism has grown, the call for nonviolent resistance to the politics of hate has grown as well. But a violent melee at California’s Capitol Building in Sacramento on Sunday between neo-Nazis and sectarian leftists demonstrates how difficult it may be to contain the extremist tendencies now stalking the land.
For the past month, the Ku Klux Klan, various neo-Nazi groups, and the Traditionalist Worker Party, a far-right nationalist party established last year to promote the values of “faith, family, and folk,” have been preparing for a demonstration on the steps of Sacramento’s capitol. In response, an array of ad-hoc anti-fascist and anti-racist groups announced they would blockade the capitol to prevent the Nazis from gathering.
From 9am this Sunday, anti-fascist groups began gathering on the streets surrounding the capitol. There were people flying banners with traditional civil rights and anti-hate messages; individuals flying gay-pride banners; representatives from immigrant-rights organizations; and student activists from the local community colleges and California State University campus. But there were also an array of sectarian groups—masked anarchists, waving their black-and-red flag, many carrying sticks and makeshift Plexiglas shields—through to revolutionary organizations like the Marxist-Leninist Progressive Labor Party. These groups had come from as far afield as San Diego and Portland—and they weren’t aiming for a simple statement of disgust at the Nazis; rather, they were pledged to shut them down.
At 9:55, the PLP adherents, marching behind a red flag, came north up 9th Street, on the west side of the capitol, chanting “Death! Death! Death to the Fascists! Power! Power! Power to the Workers!”
By mid-morning, as the temperature soared past 100 degrees, each entrance to the capitol was covered by large throngs of anti-Nazis. Roving groups, many of them masked, patrolled the park trying to spot incoming fascists. In clusters around the statehouse and in the streets surrounding it, the police stood by, in heavy riot gear, some on foot and others on horseback.
The neo-Nazis started making their way into the capitol grounds at about 11:30. Within minutes, the beautiful park surrounding the soaring, domed capitol was a bloodbath.
Every time the crowd spotted a skinhead or other white nationalist trying to move toward the steps, they surged forward, north, south, east, west, chasing down and beating the skinhead. But the Nazis had also come armed and prepared. Wielding knives and sticks, they hurled themselves into the enraged crowd. A 46-year-old anti-Nazi, Yvette Felarea, was wounded, her left arm and head streaming with blood. As she was being attended by fellow demonstrators, she was defiant and somewhat jubilant. “Let them know they got worse,” she said of the Nazis, who had been run off somewhere to the south of the capitol. “I’m proud we made this happen. And I’d do it again. The Nazis were scared, and they needed to be. They stabbed someone.”
Just a few feet to the east, a young African-American man lay on the sidewalk, blood pooling around him. He had been stabbed by a gang of white nationalists. As ambulances, fire engines, and police rushed to his assistance, the crowd gathered to offer him solace. He seemed to be smiling, though it could have been a grimace of pain. The neo-Nazis were rampaging—around the park, reports started coming in of other stabbing victims. Three, four, five—the numbers varied depending on whom you asked. Other people were sprayed with Mace. The protesters stood around in disbelief, sharing stories, instantly creating their own street-fighting mythology.
And then, suddenly, the crowd surged again, in a mass, up toward the south entrance of the capitol. There, two tattooed skinheads had somehow managed to wrestle their way up to the top of the steps, where they promptly gave the Nazi Sieg Heil salute. “Fuck Nazis! Fuck Nazis!” the crowd chanted. “Fuck Nazis! Fuck Nazis!” Once more, the crowd rushed them, pushing the police back, and—in a frenzy, at the entrance to a statehouse where the governing deliberations of the most populous state in the country take place—began to beat the skinheads to a pulp. A line of mounted police desperately tried to protect the entrance to the capitol, finally managing to hustle the bleeding Nazis into the building and then over to the protected security entrance off to the side, where, on a normal day, visitors have to go through metal detectors to gain admittance to the statehouse. Finally, the ambulances arrived, and, through a phalanx of jeering, booing anti-fascists, the Nazis were carried out and taken away.
The violence continued for hours. Hundreds of anti-fascists claimed the three staircases on the south, west, and north sides of the statehouse as their own. Every so often, a white nationalist would try to storm through but, time and again, would be beaten down. The police lines held; they didn’t move forward to rescue the Nazis, but waited until they managed to stumble back, their faces bloodied and swollen, into the police line, and only then offered them a semblance of protection from the furious crowd.
The brawl was savage, elemental, horribly akin to a lynch-mob atmosphere.
This is the poison now coursing through our body politic. As in Britain, with Brexit and the anti-immigrant populism behind it, here Trump’s moment is unleashing demons. This happened in Anaheim last month, with the KKK violently rallying and being met with a street-fighting response. It happened in San Jose at a Trump event. There have been violent white nationalist rallies in Georgia and elsewhere that have also sparked violent reaction.
We haven’t seen this sort of street-fighting politics in America for nearly half a century. A horrifying growl is rumbling to the surface, the sort of growl that, on the right, led to cross burnings, church bombings, and lynchings in the 1960s; and that, on the left, led to the insanity of the Weather Underground. It’s the sort of growl that led to savage street brawls in early 1930s Europe as the old order collapsed.
Trump thrives in an environment such as this. He thrives in an atmosphere where one group attacks another, where chaos begets chaos begets chaos, and where power is determined by brute force rather than debate. That has always been the way of demagogues. Trump must be stopped; and so too must the miscellaneous supremacist movements that, taking advantage of this raw, ugly, moment, are now coming out from under their rocks to demonstrate and sow mayhem in one city after another. But he must be stopped through nonviolent protests. And the supremacists who feel empowered and emboldened by his candidacy must also be met, time and again, by nonviolent actions.
No one of good will wins when scenes like the one that unfolded in Sacramento Sunday become the norm. Only the vicious skinheads and the demagogic hate-mongers gain when they succeed in provoking their opponents—who, one would hope, come out to protest because they believe in a better, more inclusive, more peaceful vision of humanity—into the sort of violence that was on display in Sacramento this weekend.