Crime & Justice

Charlottesville: Could it happen in Southern California?

FILE: White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the
FILE: White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" leap over barricades inside Lee Park during the "Unite the Right" rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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Three people died and dozens were injured this weekend after white nationalists demonstrated in Charlottesville, Virginia. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed when a man described as a Nazi sympathizer plowed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters. Two state troopers monitoring the unrest also died when their helicopter crashed. 

The violence in Virginia raises questions whether a similar situation could happen in Southern California. KPCC talked with Brian Levin, a professor of criminal justice, who directs the nonpartisan Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

Q: How likely is it that an incident similar to the one in Virginia could happen here? 

The potential is there, according to Levin. 

“We’ve seen 24 violent public political demonstrations in California since December 2015, and about a quarter of them have been in Orange County," Levin said.

These include a Ku Klux Klan rally in Anaheim in February 2016 that resulted in three stabbings and multiple arrests. Levin, who was observing that rally, himself wound up interceding when two Klan members were attacked by angry counterprotesters.

Levin attributes the violence to clashes between an energized alt-right, which includes white supremacists and neo-Nazis, and a smaller but also energized hard left. The latter is a small group of violent counterprotesters who differ from the usually peaceful majority, he said. 

Q: Are hate groups active in Southern California?

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 79 hate groups are believed to be operating in California. Roughly three dozen are in Southern California, according to a "hate map" published by SPLC. These are not limited to white hate groups, however. They range from white nationalists, neo-Nazis and anti-Muslim groups to anti-LGBT groups and black separatists.

Q: Why are white nationalists demonstrating?

The demonstrators who marched in Charlottesville carrying torches Saturday were protesting city plans to remove a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War.

But more generally, Levin said, white nationalist and supremacist groups have rallied around the campaign and election victory of Donald Trump and his administration's actions targeting immigrants, refugees and Muslims.

"While these groups are still relatively small, they have coalesced into a unified sociopolitical movement — under the leadership of President Trump, who may not have wanted that, but has amped them up because they believe that he is a re-transmitter, someone who they can pass the football to, to get it over the goal line," Levin said.

Trump came under harsh criticism from Democrats and Republicans for failing to name the white nationalists and neo-Nazis in condemning the violence in Charlottesville. He instead blamed "many sides." On Monday, two days after the violence, he called out the white nationalists and the KKK, saying racism is evil and "those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs...".

Levin said that while there have long been small rallies organized by these groups, there are now more of what he calls "mega-rallies" with more than 100 attendees, like the one in Virginia. 

Social media has also played a role as a "force multiplier" for radicalization, he said.

Q: What about the counterprotesters who instigate violence?

Most counterprotesters are peaceful, Levin said, but some splinter groups react with violence.

According to the center's 2016 report, these hard-left groups "not only attack street level hatemongers, but firebrand campus speakers, police, and businesses in acts of violent 'resistance' embraced in some hard-left circles."

The hard left is a much smaller, less organized faction than the alt-right, according to Levin, but it has also become energized in reaction.

"What they are generally doing is being responsive to the white nationalists," he said. "But we are just starting to see them try to plan for violence independent of that."

Q: Can we expect more violent clashes in California?

According to a report by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, "while 2015 saw arrests and some violence take place at various political, justice reform and labor rallies, they were often for non-violent offenses, or as offshoots of larger peaceful events." 

But public demonstrations in California have "become more violent in 2016 as white supremacists and hard left extremists, among others, became the focus of pitched armed confrontations, sometimes with each other," according to the report.

The report tallied 18 violent confrontations between Dec. 8, 2015 and April 15, 2017. Levin said more incidents have occurred since then. Confrontations occurred at events that included rallies by hate groups, campus speeches, Trump campaign rallies, and gatherings condemning police shootings, the center said.

However, Levin said it's unlikely Southern California would see demonstrations the size of the one staged by white nationalists in Charlottesville, "only because I think they'd be vastly outnumbered." 

The U.S. Department of Justice is opening a civil rights investigation into the violence in Virginia.