Preliminary theater

Hearing continued to December 18, when judge will also consider defense motion to dismiss charges in Nazi showdown case

Defendants and their attorneys discuss their motion to dismiss assault and riot charges stemming from a June 2016 melee between white nationalists and protesters.

Defendants and their attorneys discuss their motion to dismiss assault and riot charges stemming from a June 2016 melee between white nationalists and protesters.

Photo by Raheem F. Hosseini

More than two years after the state Capitol served as the stage for one of the most violent clashes between white supremacists and demonstrators prior to Charlottesville, a prosecutor auditioned his office’s case against three defendants who were there to confront Nazis.

Yvonne Felarca, Porfirio Paz and Michael A. Williams face felony assault and misdemeanor riot charges stemming from the June 2016 melee that seriously injured 10 and previewed an ugly resurgence in racial animosity across the country.

On December 6, Felarca’s attorneys told supporters outside the Sacramento Superior Court that they expected to get the case dismissed on grounds that the district attorney’s office had singled out their clients after the California Highway Patrol, which investigated the riot, “colluded” with Nazi sympathizers and forwarded more than 100 arrest warrants, most against anti-fascist demonstrators. The DA’s office has only charged one white nationalist. Before entering the courthouse, Felarca expressed confidence that her side’s motion to dismiss would “stop this witch hunt.”

What the antifa three got instead was a first glimpse of prosecutors’ plan of attack.

A scheduling judge clipped any notion that defendants’ motion would be heard when he sent the parties to the third floor for their scheduled preliminary hearing.

In Sacramento County, prelims are held so that judges can determine if there’s enough evidence to warrant a jury trial. While they generally favor the prosecution, Deputy District Attorney Paris Coleman was slowed by numerous objections arguing that his sole witness, CHP Officer Donovan Ayers, did not actually see the fights he was there to testify about. Defense attorneys Linda Parisi and Mark Reichel, representing Williams and Paz, respectively, also pounced on Coleman’s attempts to have Ayers describe video footage that hadn’t been authenticated.

The prolonged hearing resulted in a continuance to December 18, when Ayers will continue his testimony and Judge Stacy Boulware Eurie will consider defense’s motion to dismiss the charges.

Before the clock expired, Ayers provided the first detailed account of what his tight-lipped agency says happened that Sunday afternoon two summers ago. The 12-year veteran testified that he arrived about three hours before the event and positioned himself on the roof of the Capitol as part of a tactical team assigned to cover a permitted event on Capitol grounds.

Weeks before, the CHP granted a permit for approximately 50 people to attend a rally organized by the Traditionalist Worker Party, a white nationalist political group that was backing then-candidate Donald Trump and getting RSVPs from local hate groups. The CHP quickly became aware of fliers and social media posts promising a confrontation between TWP and hundreds more who opposed its message, Ayers testified.

Asked to name the protest groups, Ayers recalled By Any Means Necessary, or BAMN, a Bay Area group fronted by Felarca, a Berkeley school teacher. But he had to be prompted by Coleman to also name antifa. “There was a strong indication of violence through these sources,” Ayers said.

While the CHP has the authority to rescind permits, it didn’t do so. Instead, the agency spearheaded a security plan that allowed CHP officers on horseback and city police officers in riot gear to be quickly outflanked by waves of combatants. Around 11 a.m., Ayers said, protestors started gathering on the Capitol’s west side. “It was clearly not the permitted party,” he testified.

Asked how he knew, Ayers said he could tell by the banners and clothing, which he described as identifying with “socialist” and “communist” ideologies, prompting derisive scoffs from the defendants’ supporters in the gallery.

Coleman asked Ayers to focus on two of the six fights the CHP investigated—a skirmish at 10th and L streets allegedly involving Felarca, and one on the south portico of the Capitol allegedly featuring Paz and Williams. Regarding the first event, Ayers testified that he recognized victim Nigel Walker as a member of the permitted group because he was flying a flag with a “white nationalist-type symbol.”

Ayers testified that he saw Walker crossing the lawn toward protesters, recognized that “he was likely not going to be welcome” and attempted to whistle out a warning. Instead, Walker waved his plastic flag pole at the protesters and shouted, “antifa, here I am,” Ayers said.

Ayers’ view of what happened next was obscured by trees, he testified, but he later found a video that picked up the action with Walker back on 10th and L. Titled “nazi looking for trouble,” the clip was played in the courtroom on mute only after defense attorneys successfully objected to Ayers testifying about a video that wasn’t going to be shown. The clip shows Walker, wearing a black T-shirt, green trucker cap and backpack, walk down a sidewalk toward cops in riot gear. As Williams, a plastic pole couched under his arm, speaks to officers, Felarca enters the frame close to Williams.

At first, she just stands near him. Then she begins to gently tap her fists against his midsection. Walker shoots the officers a look. Someone pulls Walker’s backpack as an unidentified man knocks Walker to the ground with an awkward jump kick. Other hard-to-see individuals descend, kicking Walker. Officers flood the frame and yank people off. One riot cop shoves Felarca entirely out of the frame.

A second video clip, recorded by a state library employee, is bathed in the shadows of the Capitol’s south portico, making the attack on two skinheads by a group of protesters difficult to see. In his testimony, Ayers identified both Paz and Williams as assailants. This scene unfolded directly under where Ayers was standing on the roof, so he only saw the crowd’s approach.

While Judge Boulware Eurie allowed the videos and Ayers’ testimony about them, Coleman may have a harder time getting both allowed at trial. That’s when the prosecutor would likely have to authenticate the source of the videos, which he was unable to during the prelim.

The day came to an end as Coleman tried to nail down the people’s allegation that Felarca incited a riot.

Asked to recall the comments Felarca reportedly made through a bullhorn that afternoon, Ayers said, “The thing that stands out clear to me was, ’We beat their asses.’”