When far-right activist Kyle Chapman took to Facebook last week urging followers to attend upcoming rallies in the Bay Area, he was downright gleeful about taking the fight to the celebrated liberal bastion.
“Talk about kicking the hornets nest! This is sure to be barn burner,” wrote Chapman, who became a hero to the extreme-right and earned the nickname “Based Stickman” when he battled counter-protesters armed with a shield and staff earlier this year. “Let’s show these intolerant Communist we will not be silenced or intimidated!”
Left-leaning, multicultural California might not seem like an ideal place for the extreme-right and white-nationalist groups to make a stand. But the movement has increasingly targeted the state in recent years, with optics as much as membership in mind.
Seeking media attention and validation for their “us vs. the world” narrative, far-right activists find desired attention and conflict in California, leading to clashes that often end in blood and bruises, experts say.
Some of the biggest clashes have been in Berkeley, where a swath of far-right combatants ranging from ardent supporters of President Trump to avowed white nationalists have engaged in rolling street brawls with masked anti-fascists and anarchists who also see violence as the only way to defeat their rivals.
In the wake of violence in Charlottesville, Va., that left one woman dead and sparked furious debate about the limits of free speech and the need to condemn white supremacists, some of these groups are again turning to California, to the dismay of some local officials.
“I don’t think it’s an accident that Berkeley is being targeted. The home of the free-speech movement. The home of liberalism in academia. A place where they don’t feel welcome,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino. “This is about battles over symbology and turf.”
There have been at least two dozen political events that ended in violent conflict in California in the past two years, including Trump campaign events that devolved into pugilism and clashes between white supremacists and anti-fascists, said Levin, who has been tracking the events.
Officials in San Francisco and Berkeley are trying to stop far-right protests planned for this month. And the American Civil Liberties Union of California this week took the unusual step of releasing a statement saying the First Amendment does not support activists bent on violence.
“If white supremacists march into our towns armed to the teeth and with the intent to harm people, they are not engaging in activity protected by the United States Constitution,” the statement said. “The 1st Amendment should never be used as a shield or sword to justify violence.”
While the organizer of the San Francisco event has disavowed white nationalists, far-right figures linked to past violence and the Charlottesville fiasco have said they will attend. Anti-fascist groups in the Bay Area — who have been criticized by police for their violent behavior — have already condemned the events as white-supremacist gatherings and vowed to disrupt them.
Experts say those who identify as white nationalists or white supremacists often travel to diverse, liberal areas hoping to prompt a violent reaction. Footage of their members being physically assaulted makes for effective propaganda videos, experts say.
Members of the Loyal White Knights, the largest segment of the Ku Klux Klan in the U.S., staged a demonstration in Anaheim that resulted in several stabbings last year after counter-protesters assaulted the Klan members, law enforcement officials have said. Seven people, all counter-protesters, were charged with crimes.
A bloody street battle between anti-fascists and members of the Golden State Skinheads and Traditionalist Worker Party, a well-known white-nationalist group, ended with seven people stabbed last summer near the state Capitol. Earlier this year, four people were criminally charged in that spasm of violence.
Joey Gibson, who is organizing the Aug. 26 rally near Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, said the event has nothing to do with white supremacy. Gibson is Asian, and the list of speakers for his event includes a black man and a transgender woman. He said he has disavowed white nationalist groups in the past and is simply aiming at San Francisco to reach people whose politics may be at odds with his own.
“There’s no point in going into areas where there’s not a bunch of hatred and there’s not a bunch of misunderstanding,” said Gibson, of Vancouver, Wash. “You’ve got to go into these areas where the kids have been lied to, where the kids have been deceived.”
Gibson distanced himself from violence and the events of Charlottesville, but also acknowledged that added media attention could attract extremists. At least two of the figures expected to speak at the weekend rallies have also been linked to violence in the past.
Chapman, who did not respond to a request for comment, gained notoriety for filmed brawls with anti-fascists and has formed a group called the “Fraternal Order of The Alt-Knights” with the purpose of fighting off counter-protesters.
Augustus Invictus, described by the Anti-Defamation League as a Florida-based white supremacist, has said on Twitter that he plans to speak at the Aug. 27 rally in Berkeley. Invictus filmed himself among a mob of torch-carrying demonstrators chanting “blood and soil,” a known Nazi refrain, in Charlottesville last weekend.
Joanna Mendelson, an investigative researcher with the California branch of the Anti-Defamation League, said far-right groups hold events in historically liberal cities because they expect, and desire, a confrontational response. When their events gain strong media coverage, they tend to return, according to Mendelson, who said such tactics have made several cities in California, as well as Seattle and Portland, Ore., prime targets.
“Targeting progressive bastions is a strategic approach by these groups,” she said. “For where there are flashpoints and conflict, there is media attention and publicity.”
The Bay Area is certainly familiar with that result. In April, hundreds of protesters representing forces aligned with and opposed to President Trump clashed before a “Patriot’s Day” rally that ended with 21 arrested and countless people injured by pepper spray, improvised weapons or thrown rocks. A similar clash erupted in March, and violent protests at UC Berkeley led to the cancellation of a speech by far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.
Gibson’s rally is set to take place on federal land, in Crissy Park. The National Park Service has issued a permit to the group but is conducting a public safety review in conjunction with local officials before making a final decision, according to a statement released by the agency.
Several California lawmakers, including San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, issued a letter this week asking the park service to rescind the permit, citing concerns over the violence in Charlottesville.
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin said he is also considering ways to block the Aug. 27 event, described online as an anti-Marxism rally, including declaring a state of emergency.
“We welcome peaceful assembly and debate, but what we’ve seen is people coming prepared to fight with helmets and shields and knee pads,” he said, referring to past violence.
Counter-protesters say they believe the furious reaction to the Charlottesville rally will draw more people to their side, creating a situation where the rallies can be defeated by speech instead of fists.
Shanta Driver, a Chicago-based civil rights lawyer who serves as executive director of the group By Any Means Necessary, said her group is hoping to avoid the one-on-one brawling that has marked past clashes in the Bay Area.
“The alt-right will be defeated in San Francisco and Berkeley, and that’s extremely, extremely important after Charlottesville,” she said. “They claim they are able to grow. … They want to prove they can take the streets.”
Times staff writer Matt Pearce contributed to this report.