The white nationalists and skinheads, clad in black, began to arrive a little before noon Sunday for their planned march on the state Capitol grounds. They were met by hundreds of protesters toting signs that denounced “Nazi scum.”
Violence began almost immediately, authorities and witnesses said, and by the time the clashes ended 20 minutes later, at least seven people had been stabbed, nine were hospitalized and many more suffered bruises, scrapes and cuts.
"They attacked each other without hesitation," said counter-protester Chandra Zafra, 50, a member of the Mexica Movement nonprofit. "It was a war zone."
For much of the afternoon, the historic domed Capitol was locked down, with staffers and tourists inside. Police swarmed the park-like grounds, but by Sunday evening there had still been no arrests.
The Sacramento stabbings came several months after another violent confrontation between members of a Ku Klux Klan group and counter-protesters at an Anaheim park.
Counter-protester Yvette Felarca, 46, said the marchers had been driven away and had not been able to recruit members.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, said he had long warned that the Capitol rally could erupt into violence. It had been planned for weeks, giving both sides plenty of time to organize.
Levin said such violence ultimately can play into the message of white supremacists who claim they are “under siege.”
“Make no mistake – I think the hatemongers wanted to have this violence take place,” Levin said. “And some of the anti-fascists very much wanted to have a violent confrontation.”
The Traditionalist Worker Party, known as a white nationalist group, said on its website that it had planned the Sunday event in conjunction with the Golden State Skinheads “to make a statement about the precarious situation our race is in” after “brutal assaults” at Donald Trump events in California.
Its vice chairman, Matt Parrott, blamed “leftist radicals” for instigating the violence Sunday. Videos and photos of the rally posted on social media showed the white nationalists vastly outnumbered by protesters from anti-fascist groups.
“We stood our ground. We will be back,” Traditionalist Worker Party Chairman Matthew Heimbach, who was not at the rally, said in a phone interview.
The anti-fascist organization Antifa Sacramento, which had been promoting a "Shut Down Nazi Rally" event on its website, did not respond to requests for comment.
"The Nazis are the violent ones — we are acting in self-defense," said Felarca, who sustained a bloody blow to the head. "We need to take them head on, confront them, but with as many people as possible."
The Traditionalist Worker Party had a permit to hold a rally at noon, said George Granada, public information officer for the California Highway Patrol’s Capitol Protection Section, which has jurisdiction over the Capitol grounds.
The violence erupted around 11:45 a.m., when word spread that roughly 30 people had shown up. Counter-protesters swarmed toward them and a fight immediately broke out, Granada said.
One person was stabbed within minutes, Granada said. Other stabbings occurred elsewhere on the grounds shortly thereafter. Fire and public safety officials said it was not immediately clear which groups the stabbing victims belonged to.
Robert Bautista, 65, said he saw a handful of white supremacists and skinheads arrive two or three at a time only to be immediately mobbed and chased away by the counter-protesters, who hurled water bottles and the wooden stakes that bore their signs.
“They beat the heck out of a couple guys,” said Bautista, a retired construction worker who came to partake in the counter-protest. “You could see their adrenaline was running high.”
Bautista also said he saw one counter-protester, a black man who appeared to be in his late 20s, convulsing on the ground with stab wounds to his chest and abdomen.
“He was a bloody mess,” he said.
Dozens of counter-protesters remained after the injured had been taken away, watching over the Capitol steps in sweltering heat. On the grounds, a lone white nationalist supporter approached with a cellphone and shouted about his constitutional right to be on site and shoot video. After exchanging heated words with the protesters, people erupted into a chorus of "Nazi, go home."
Parrott said the Traditionalist Worker Party supports ethnic nationalism, but was neither violent nor "a supremacist party.” Its website describes itself as “America’s first political party created by and for working families.”
Levin, of Cal State San Bernardino, described the group as “a Klan without robes” that had put “a new, hip wrapping” on white supremacist ideas. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, said the group advocates for a white nationalist homeland.
Heimbach “is the rising face of white supremacy in this country,” said Ryan Lenz, online editor and senior writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “He is this generation’s David Duke.”
Lenz said the group, however, was not a neo-Nazi entity because it wasn’t based on the ideology of the Nazi Party.
“The Nazi Party advocated for the genocide of everyone who was not Aryan. White nationalism does not advocate for that – but they want to be separate from everyone who is not Aryan,” he said.
Lenz said that such groups had been energized with the emergence of a political figure who they believed was willing to fight for them: Trump.
He pointed out that Heimbach was captured in videos yelling at and shoving a Black Lives Matter protester at a Trump rally this spring. (Heimbach later defended his conduct in a blog post for the Traditionalist Youth Network, saying that the “heated moments” happened after the protester herself had been shouting and shoving rally attendees.)
“They have been energized in a way that’s terrifying,” Lenz said.
Ulloa and Myers reported from Sacramento, Alpert Reyes and Kim from Los Angeles.
7:26 p.m.: This article was updated with additional reporting and editing.
4:40 p.m.: This article was updated with information on those hospitalized.
3:35 p.m.: This article was updated with seven stabbed, other details.
2:40 p.m.: This article was updated with information about a lockdown at the Capitol.
1:46 p.m.: This article was updated with information on counter-protesters.
1:35 p.m.: This article was updated with interviews from group members.
1:15 p.m.: This post was updated with new details.
1 p.m.: This post was updated with more information on injuries, and additional background.
This post was originally published at 12:35 p.m.