I Counter-Protested A White Nationalist Rally. Here’s What I Learned

I’m deeply saddened but not shocked by what happened in Charlottesville over the weekend. These white nationalist demonstrations have been happening with increasing frequency across the United States over the last year and a half. They go by titles like “pro-Trump” marches, “f*ck Antifa” and “free speech” rallies, but let’s call them what they are: alt-right hate rallies. And they are multiplying, with more planned later this month, including ones in San Francisco and Berkeley.

If you plan on going to one of the upcoming counter protests in one of these places, good. One of the most important ways to help is simply showing up. But as someone who has protested white nationalist rallies before, please understand:

You need to be prepared.

Last summer, in Sacramento, I was there when two well established neo-fascist organizations– the Traditionalist Workers Party, (commonly abbreviated as TWP) and the Golden State Skins (or GSS)– attempted to hold a rally like the one that happened in Charlottesville. Their goal was to unite white supremacist, fascist, and far-right speakers together in the capital city of a state known for its progressive views. I guess they figured if they could have a rally in Sac, they could have a rally anywhere.

So on that morning, I got up and packed a backpack: milk of magnesia, masks, basic first aid supplies, and a baking sheet to fortify the bag against potential attack. I rendezvoused briefly with a few friends before making the long drive to Sacramento. Despite the smothering heat, when we arrived the park around the Capitol building was full of antifascists dressed in the traditional black. They were wearing masks, hauling banners, chanting, and honking the occasional vuvuzela. Some clutched large poles and shields or moved throughout the crowd distributing water bottles.

We waited in the sun for what felt like hours. I remember briefly chatting with a 20-something guy standing next to me — maybe he was a few years older than me, but not much. He held a skateboard and played music from a boombox. I think I complemented the song he was playing, then he smiled and cracked a joke and we laughed. It was an unexpectedly sweet moment. Everybody was just trying to stay in good spirits while we waited, tensely, for something to happen.

Moments later, we heard a shout: “They’re coming.”

The swarm of black-clad counter-protesters split. A small group of antifascists rushed forward to meet the first skinheads to show up. The rest, including myself, slowly trailed behind, not willing to get too close too fast. Yelling echoed across the field, followed by the sounds of blows landing on bodies. In the distance, through the crowd, I caught occasional glimpses at the whirling, brawling mass.

This was no peaceful, pink-hatted women’s march or rainbow colored anti-Trump dance party. It was scary on a level unlike any protest I had ever been to before. The entire day, I feared for my safety and the safety of my friends. Between the beatings, the pepper spray in the air, and the occasional police flashbang, it felt like I’d stepped into a domestic war zone.

As I ran across the grass, I came upon a small group of people crouching, huddled in a circle. Someone was laying on the ground between them, unresponsive, shirt covered in blood. As I got closer I recognized him as the guy with the boombox from earlier. One of the neo-nazis had pulled out a knife and stabbed him, possibly targeting him because he was a person of color. I felt helpless and sick, but there was nothing I could do except let the street medics take care of him.

By the end of the day, nine people were hospitalized, seven with stab wounds, including the man with the boombox. During the protest, none of the police officers present did anything to prevent anybody from getting injured. They made their all arrests after the dust had settled. Fortunately, everyone survived.

Much of the media coverage of the demonstration painted the white supremacists and the counter-protesters with the same brush, boiling the day down to a clash between two violent groups with equally extreme political views. President Trump repeated this rhetoric in his initial remarks (which he later reiterated) to Charlottesville, saying there was blame to be had on “both sides.”

That’s bullsh*t.

Sure, the antifascists brought sticks and shields to Sacramento, but the TWP and the GSS brought knives, and tried to kill people with them. For all I know, they might have found opportunities to use them even if we hadn’t showed up. These violent clashes haven’t stopped, and will continue to happen in other cities across the country where white nationalists are planning their next rallies.

I have counter-protested at hate rallies since then, all located much closer to home. I was there the night Milo Yiannopoulos was chased off Cal campus, and I was there during the “Battles For Berkeley.” At each event, I flash back to Sacramento: tension and fear and confusion, sudden outbursts of violent struggling, twisted rage in the faces of “patriots,” police that stand back and record video but do nothing to keep the peace; and afterward, media narratives that reopen all these wounds by creating false equivalencies between far right hate groups and those who protest racist, xenophobic ideologies.

As new white nationalist rallies loom, there are lessons to be learned. These organizers and their followers aren’t simply willing to hurt people to achieve their goals: hurting people IS their goal, and the police don’t do anything to stop them.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which just released a new guide to combating hate groups, is urging people not to engage white supremacists at their rallies. “Do not attend a hate rally,” the guide says. “Find another outlet for anger and frustration and for people’s desire to do something. Hold a unity rally or parade to draw media attention away from hate.”

I know from personal experience: It’s incredibly dangerous to attempt to shut down a hate rally. It takes preparation, fortitude, and lots of back-up. But from where I’m sitting, if a huge mass of people hadn’t turned out to literally block the TWP and the GSS from having a platform in Sacramento, they would have had their event and recruited new members on the Capitol steps. Leaving them alone would have allowed them to grow.

Seeing white supremacist violence up close was bone-chilling, but I couldn’t afford to do nothing. Over a year later, I still can’t. And if you oppose white supremacy, then neither can you. Your neighbors, friends, and family can’t afford it either.

Hate groups have been testing the waters with these rallies for over a year now, trying to push their beliefs (and the violence they use to back them up) as far into the realm of acceptable discourse as possible.

And if you want to make a difference, you need to be ready.

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