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.”
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.”