Sunday’s mayhem in Sacramento began as the white nationalist group Traditionalist Worker Party, along with the Golden State Skinheads, were setting up for a state Capitol rally the group characterized as a response to aggression against supporters of Donald Trump.
WASHINGTON — A group of white nationalists and skinheads who held a rally in Sacramento, Calif., over the weekend where at least seven people were stabbed plans to show up at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland next month to “make sure that the Donald Trump supporters are defended.”
The violent clash at the California state Capitol accentuates concerns about the RNC, with political tensions high and thousands of pro- and anti-Trump protesters expected to descend on Cleveland.
“I think everybody is concerned about the potential for violence at the convention,” said Ryan Lenz, senior writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremists and hate groups.
Sunday’s mayhem in Sacramento began as the white nationalist group Traditionalist Worker Party, along with the Golden State Skinheads, were setting up for a state Capitol rally the group characterized as a response to aggression against supporters of presumptive GOP presidential nominee Trump.
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Brawls quickly erupted between the group of fewer than 30 skinheads and the estimated hundreds of anti-fascist protesters that left at least 10 people injured. Police have made no arrests.
Traditionalist Worker Party spokesman Matt Parrott, who blamed the anti-fascists for the riot, said about 30 members of his group would come to Cleveland.
“We’re essentially just going to show up and make sure that the Donald Trump supporters are defended from the leftist thugs,” he said.
Parrott said he expected Cleveland police to largely prevent violence with heavy security, although “there might be a couple of isolated skirmishes.”
“You’re going to have a relatively civil event where you’re going to have the leftists protesting Trump and you’re going to have us arguing up against the leftists,” he predicted. “And you’re going to have the police there ensuring that you’re going to have a first world situation and not some sort of ‘Gangs of New York’ knife fight.”
City of Cleveland spokesman Dan Williams said the city had a “robust plan” for security during the convention.
Lenz, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said it was a “wild card” whether violence would erupt. He described the head of the Traditionalist Worker Party, Matthew Heimbach, as an ascendant leader of the white racist movement and “the new face of hate.” A video shows Heimbach shoving a female African-American protester at a Trump rally in March in Kentucky.
Cleveland has designated a protest parade route that’s a third of a mile from the convention site, leading to complaints from groups planning to hold protests that they won’t be seen or heard.
“Anybody that wants to come to the city and let their voice be heard in a lawful manner, we’re here to assist them,” City of Cleveland Assistant Police Chief Edward Tomba said last month. “Anybody that goes sideways and is not following the law, there’s going to be consequences. … It’s going to be swift and it’s going to be very professional, and I can assure you of that.”
Joanna Mendelson, a researcher with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said the event seemed to follow a strategy used frequently by white power groups in recent years. The groups will often announce a rally, seemingly bait counter-demonstrators into violence, and then use video footage of the attacks as further evidence of the “white genocide” they use as a rallying call.
The pattern was similar to an incident in Anaheim earlier this year, where three people were stabbed after protesters attacked a small band of Ku Klux Klan members.
“Their biggest kind of whine right now is the idea that white people are being subjected to genocide,” Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine said of the violence in Anaheim. “That kind of video simply illustrates how white people and particularly white nationalists are under attack.”
The Traditionalist Worker Party had obtained a permit for the Sunday event, and the California Highway Patrol said the violence was sparked by counter-protesters.
“If I had to say who started it and who didn’t, I’d say the permitted group didn’t start it,” said CHP Officer George Granada, a spokesman for the agency’s Protective Services Division. “They came onto the grounds and were met almost instantly with a group of protesters there not to talk.”
Seven people were stabbed and nine others were injured in Sacramento, according to police, who said that the injured belonged to both the far-right groups and the counter-protesters. Only one of the stabbing victims was among the Traditionalist Worker Party and skinhead groups, according to Matthew Parrott, a spokesman for the party.
Antifa Sacramento, the anti-fascist group that organized the counterprotest, said in a statement Monday that eight of its members had been injured in the melee.
During the Anaheim rally, police also said the Klansmen who stabbed demonstrators did so in self-defense.
The Traditionalist Worker Party “bridges the gap between pseudo-intellectuals and racist skinheads and describes itself as a banner organization to unite white supremacists,” Mendelson said.
The group symbolizes the shift away from organized white extremism, according to Mendelson, who said the party does not have many members. The group may be best known for its chairman, Matthew Heimbach, who is considered “the face of a new generation of white nationalists,” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Heimbach, who did not attend the Sacramento event, does have a history of activism in California alongside the Golden State Skinheads group. Heimbach was one of the keynote speakers at a 2015 gathering of white nationalists in Bakersfield known as “Camp Comradery,” according to Mendelson.
“Our values are normal, they are not fringe. Right now we are living in an environment where the entire Western world is, for better or worse, doped up on Jewish propaganda and on this idea of multiculturalism,” Heimbach said, according to a recording of the speech he posted on his YouTube channel.
Other speakers at “Camp Comradery” included William Johnson, a Los Angeles attorney and self-described white separatist who leads the American Freedom Party. This year, Johnson was listed as one of GOP front-runner Donald Trump’s California delegates for the Republican National Convention, though the Trump campaign later claimed his addition to the list was a mistake.
Parrott, however, described the Traditionalist Worker Party as a peaceful pro-white advocacy organization and blamed the violence entirely on the counter-protesters, whom he described as a group of “stoner college kids … cutting loose on our guys.”
He did not believe the Antifa group, described as skinheads against racial prejudice, incited the violence.
Experts say the Golden State Skinheads, however, are more illustrative of the traditional white supremacist image. Generally speaking, skinhead groups in California tend to function like criminal street gangs, with their political ideologies secondary to robbery and drug trafficking, according to San Bernardino County Deputy District Attorney Britt Imes, an expert on white supremacy groups.
“They tend to be very loosely affiliated outside the prison structure,” Imes previously told the Los Angeles Times. “Their criminality is based more on associations rather than political ideologies. … We don’t see a lot of running around doing robberies of particular ethnic stores or victims.”
Groups like the Golden State Skinheads often claim not to be involved in violence or criminality, Mendelson said. But “what happens in reality is certainly very different.”
Parrott denied the skinhead group had been involved in violence in the past, referring to suggestions they had been involved in criminal activity as “propaganda.”
“If I did believe they were, our organization wouldn’t be affiliated with them,” he said. “Our relationship is contingent upon them having a positive, nationalist, pro-white message.”
Parrott said the point of the rally was to protest what his group sees as police indifference toward violence against “right-wingers,” including the attacks on Klan members in Anaheim and Trump supporters in San Jose and Costa Mesa. His group chose to work alongside the Golden State Skinheads for a simple reason, the need for protection.
“In California, it’s got to be a fight to the death with these people,” Parrott said. “They made it very clear, they were coming there to kill us.”
But although extremist luminaries like Heimbach prefer to call themselves white nationalists, as opposed to the supremacist term that connotes violence, experts say interactions with skinhead groups might serve to pierce that veil.
“What Heimbach was trying to do was to sugarcoat his white nationalist message just enough so he could play both sides of the fence, but eventually that log roll tips over, and when you’re sharing the stage with the Golden State Skinheads, that tells you a lot,” Levin said. “If you had to do a hate rally and you wanted some big people who are capable of punching back, those are the folks you’d invite.”
Levin said the violence in both Anaheim and Sacramento seems to highlight a legitimization of brutality in political discourse, driven by an especially toxic election cycle. Pointing to attacks on protesters at Trump rallies nationwide, as well as protester-incited violence at the candidates’ events in San Jose and Costa Mesa, Levin said incendiary behavior may be the only common ground shared by groups on either side of the political divide.
“Risk of violence shouldn’t just be viewed as coming from one side of the ideological spectrum,” he said. “Once the effectiveness of violence is perceived, particularly in the publicity area, it then crosses the fire lines.”