Capitol offense: Activists nervous about CHP recommendation to charge 106 people in summer clash with neo-Nazis

Legal group to offer free representation if ‘peaceful activists’ are charged for participating in Capitol protest that turned violent

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the March 16, 2017, issue.

News that the California Highway Patrol has recommended criminal charges for more than 100 people involved in a melee at the state Capitol last summer has some activists worried that their efforts to stop a neo-Nazi rally that day will put them behind bars.

The CHP announced on March 8 that it had completed its investigation into an eight-month-old case that brought national infamy to the city of Sacramento.

On June 26, 2016, about two dozen white nationalists and skinheads attended a permitted rally of the Traditionalist Worker Party on the western grounds of Capitol Park. That faction was confronted by a much larger group of so-called anti-fascists intent on preventing the rally from happening. Both sides had been stoking their supporters for weeks on various social media platforms to show up in numbers, and the results proved combustible.

Despite a large law enforcement presence that was aware of the possibility of violence, the groups clashed almost immediately, taking part in chaotic, swarming battles fought with knives, signposts and projectiles as officers with the CHP and Sacramento Police Department largely held back.

According to SN&R reporters who were there, horseback-mounted CHP officers avoided getting between combatants. One SN&R reporter saw a highway patrol officer shove his boot into a female demonstrator, who fell at his horse’s feet. Other CHP officers deployed crackling Taser wires and tear gas to quell the crowd, but the reporters heard no calls for dispersal.

After the dust settled, seven people had been stabbed as part of 14 reported injuries. No arrests were made. More than eight months later, that remains the case. CHP and police officials say their efforts were hampered by the unwillingness of victims and witnesses to cooperate with the investigation. Rather than talk to the cops, people affiliated with each side urged a code of silence and flirted with online vigilantism instead—posting their opponents’ personal information on social media.

Still, recriminations that authorities didn’t do enough to stop the violence have now turned into concern about overreaction.

The CHP announced last week it had completed an exhaustive investigation that included hundreds of interviews and a review of hours of video footage from multiple sources, culminating in a 2,000-page report delivered to the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office. The agency is recommending 68 felony charges and 514 misdemeanor ones, ranging from assault with a deadly weapon to unlawful assembly, for a total of 106 people.

That number represents approximately one third of the people the CHP estimates were there that day. That has alarmed some activists and groups who fear that law enforcement has cast too wide a net.

“The National Lawyers Guild of Sacramento is concerned about [the] protected rights of peaceful activists, who were only at the Capitol to express themselves peacefully under the U.S. and state constitutions, but who now might get rounded up in an overzealous prosecution,” board member Cres Vellucci wrote in a statement to SN&R. “That may or may not be the case, but we are monitoring the situation closely.”

The local chapter of the NLG has requested the names of the individuals recommended for criminal charges. Vellucci said its pro bono legal team is preparing to offer its services if any peaceful activists are charged.

The unlawful-assembly charge, in particular, could be applied to those who attempted to stop white nationalists from participating in a rally the CHP had given them permission to hold.

“Apart from some serious felonies alleged in this case, we do know that the CHP and Capitol Park have ’rules’ that are questionable from a constitutional point of view that, in fact, may well violate people’s rights,” Vellucci said. He added that his chapter was optimistic District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert would be “judicious in her decision.”

In an email, DA spokeswoman Shelly Orio said there was no timeline for the office to complete its review of the CHP’s report and decide what charges to file, if any. “We are more interested in getting it right than in getting it fast,” Orio wrote.

Orio added that the office would carefully consider the evidence against each person named in the CHP report and would “take into account the overall circumstances surrounding each incident, including recognition of the public’s right to free speech in our State Capitol.”