Right-wing activists fight counterprotesters in downtown Berkeley on April 15, 2017. Although police had the rally cordoned off early in the day, they withdrew after tensions escalated into violence, allowing both sides to engage in a running battle that left at least 11 people injured. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

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In Charlottesville, Virginia, police stood by as white supremacists fought counterprotesters and onlookers this past weekend, according to video footage.

Similar scenes played out earlier this year in Berkeley, San Bernardino and Portland, with police at times refusing to intervene to stop right-wing activists and white nationalists from openly fighting with extreme leftist activists and other counterprotesters.

The police, militia groups and white nationalists aren’t unknown to each other. Before the rallies even begin, they’ve already been in contact. Police departments, for example, speak with the militia groups that protect white nationalists and other hard-right speakers at assemblies ahead of the events.

These interactions between the police and such groups are an example of the line police have to walk at these events: balancing public safety with the right to free speech. But they have also raised questions about how much coordination goes on between the authorities and participants, some of whom may engage in violence.

In the Bay Area, the Berkeley Police Department consulted with militia members who attended a pro-Trump rally on April 15 before and during the riot between white nationalists and members of antifa, the loose-knit, far-left-leaning militant groups that resist neo-Nazis and white supremacists at protests and other events.

A member of the Oath Keepers  — a group of ex-military and police officers who often show up legally armed, they claim, to protect speakers at right-wing events — told KQED that they spoke extensively with a lieutenant in the Berkeley Police Department about the group’s logistics and planning of the event.

Clyde Massengale of the California State Militia, who worked alongside the Oath Keepers in Berkeley, said both groups had coordinated with the police.

Berkeley Police Department Sgt. Andrew Frankel confirmed the department was in contact with the Oath Keepers during the rioting, as well as with “people from a number of different organizations.”

Frankel wouldn’t elaborate about the nature of the conversations, but Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin defended the police outreach. He noted it’s common for police to coordinate with event leaders, regardless of politics.

“As with any event, our police reach out to people who are identified as organizers,” Arreguin said. “Often times, most groups do cooperate with the police department and events go smoothly. These groups had no intention to cooperate.”

The paramilitary protesters often dress like armed officers and many of them are veterans of the military, so the line between cooperation and coordination can seem to blur. For example, in Portland, right-wing militia members aided U.S. Homeland Security officers in arresting leftist protesters.

In Charlottesville, the white supremacists who helped organize the march said they were in constant contact with police.

“I had been coordinating with police for two months, including the day of,” Eli Mosley of the California-based white nationalist group Identity Evropa told KQED. “They had my phone number and I had theirs.”

A UC Berkeley police officer watches as a large and sometimes violent crowd protests against the scheduled appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos on campus on Feb. 1, 2017. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

These interactions come just as the Trump administration halts federal funds for investigating far-right organizations. Some of that money was previously used by local police departments.

Violence and White Nationalist Recruitment

As state law enforcement officers watched the violence unfold in Charlottesville from behind barricades, white nationalists were filming the fights to be used in later propaganda efforts, according to ProPublica.

According to white nationalist leaders who spoke to KQED, such riots and street fights help recruit new followers.

“Political violence has returned,” white nationalist leader Richard Spencer told KQED. “I think it probably has ultimately helped us. If someone is caught in a melee, well look … all rules are off.”

Criminal justice experts say police have little choice but to let these fights happen.

“Sometimes intervention by police will result in everyone attacking the police,” said CSU San Bernardino professor Brian Levin. “If there’s one thing that can unify rival protesters, it’s the presence of the police. They’re making a tactical judgment.”

Levin has studied violence on the extremes for more than two decades. He said these so-called free speech rallies have “really become roving street fights” that are growing in size.

“In the last couple years, we’ve seen mega-rallies,” Levin said. “The number of people has gone up exponentially. There have been 24 violent political rallies in California since December 2015. We’re going to see more of this.”

As for police consulting with right-wing militias and white supremacists, Levin said, “the optics are horrible.”

“But they’re not as horrible as someone getting shot to death,” he continued. “Sometimes, all you have is a bunch of lousy options. What police will generally try to do is keep thoroughfares and roads open, and do the best they can to protect the general public.”

In the meantime, white nationalists like Identity Evropa’s Nathan Damigo use the space that is void of police to fight — for the moment, and for future recruits.

Damigo told KQED that even the video from Charlottesville showing a driver running over a crowd of counterprotesters — in which a woman was killed and many others injured — will help his cause.

“Every time there is a major incident like this, people will look to the media,” Damigo said. “And then a handful of them will go online and see what they weren’t being told by the media. And they’ll say, ‘Wait a minute, why is the media trying to manipulate my perception on this?’ And they realize they’re being lied to.”

Do Police Allow Safe Spaces for White Nationalist Violence? 17 August,2017John Sepulvado

  • virgil

    What is needed is some version of Fight Club—let the Alt Right fight it out with say the Black Bloc anarchists. Could even be a pay per view-….

  • Grover

    The police are in a complete no-win situation with these protests. On the one hand, if they try to stop or disperse protesters, they risk being called out for squelching the basic free speech rights of Americans; on the other, if they do not act, these people will find a way to do exactly what it is they came to do – fight with one another. If two adults, or groups of adults, want to fight it out, they’re going to find a way to do it, police or no.

    Note also that the police are generally massively outnumbered at these protests and that many on the left would just as gladly attack the police as they would those on the right. A squad of 12 officers trying to wade into a crowd of 100 that are fighting is setting up a situation where an officer gets attacked or knocked down, justifying the officer(s) defending themselves with lethal force, which would turn a street brawl into Kent State.

    While it was not a problem in Berkeley, the issue of right-wing protesters showing up with rifles capable of going right through police body armor also adds a huge danger to the mix to all. I’m certain that some of these right-wing idiots would love nothing more than a Boston Massacre type incident.

    Finally, most police departments try to coordinate with any group holding a demonstration. The goal is to facilitate the 1st Amendment to protest and petition for a redress of grievances while trying to prevent damage to life and property and to maintain at least some basic level of order. Note that Berkeley PD facilitated numerous “F*** the Police” marches by blocking streets and permitting marching; however, because of the stated purpose of the march, coordination with the police was, to say the least, not wanted on the part of the organizers. On the other hand, because of their orientation and their desire to seem legitimate, the right-wingers coordinate with the police, hoping to look like good guys and increasing the chances that they will be allowed to carry on their idiocy while following lawful police directions.

    I, for one, am proud of the way that Berkeley PD and other departments have tried to handle these protests. There is much hand-wringing about police not stopping the violence, but there is only so much that can be done to keep people intent on doing harm to one another away from each other, especially when the police are outnumbered and risk becoming exactly what these protesters want – the agents of government oppression. All of these groups, left and right, feel that they’ve got the “one true answer” to all of society’s ills and that it’s them against an evil, oppressive state or culture: giving them the police and the government as a boogeyman would only make the situation far worse…

  • fattrad

    The writer seems a bit biased. Perhaps the question should be phrased “do the police allow safe space for radical leftist Marxists to fight?”. Particularly with the leftist government in Berkeley.

    • Strandwolf

      Sepulvedo is the moron who claims that California is 500 miles wide–clearly “he ain’t from around these parts”.

Author

John Sepulvado

John Sepulvado is the morning host of The California Report. Prior to joining KQED in September 2016, John was the local host of NPR’s Weekend Edition at Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB). He has also served as a producer for America Public Media’s Marketplace Weekend and worked as a national correspondent for CNN and as news director at WUSF in Tampa, Florida. John has earned prestigious RTDNA Murrow and PRNDI awards for investigative reporting, and helped CNN take home a Peabody Award for coverage of the 2010 Gulf oil spill. John attended Florida A&M in Tallahassee and is also a member of Phi Theta Kappa.

Author

Bert Johnson

Bert Johnson is a multimedia journalist and KQED contributor. His work has also been published in the Sacramento News & Review and he was previously the Multimedia Editor at the East Bay Express. He covers social movements, the justice system and extremism. Email: bjohnson@kqed.org Twitter: @bertjohnsonfoto Instagram: @bertjohnsonfoto