Multiple people were stabbed and beaten in a brutal clash between white nationalists and counter-protesters just outside the California capitol building in Sacramento on Sunday, city fire officials said.
Sacramento police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Photos and video posted online showed chaotic fights between people clad almost entirely in black and other protesters, some of whom carried signs labelled “anti-fascist”, “Nazi scum” and “smash patriarchy + racism”.
Despite the presence of police in body armor and mounted on horses, violence broke out, leaving blood spattered on sidewalks and people visibly wounded.
People used pepper spray and flagpoles to attack each other, and video showed others swinging blunt objects wildly, beating people to the ground and dragging and kicking bodies.
Police intervened, sometimes riding horses to break up crowds, but they were unable to separate all combatants before serious injuries were inflicted.
At an impromptu briefing, an officer told reporters that the force was working to disperse the protests while respecting peaceful demonstrators’ right to free speech.
“Our primary focus was to de-escalate the situation,” the officer said. “We are going to continue working with the California highway patrol to ensure that the event is held in a relatively calm fashion.”
A group calling itself the Traditionalist Workers party had planned a rally near the capitol for several weeks, and some arrived bearing shields and shirts covered in Nazi imagery.
Counter-protesters also spent weeks planning what they called a “shut down Nazi rally”. Dozens turned out to protest.
The march was organized by the Golden State Skinheads, the California wing of the group. Their leader is Matthew Heimbach, a 25-year-old former radical rightwing student organizer whom the SPLC describes as “the face of a new generation of white nationalists”.
In a post to the organization’s website, Heimbach wrote that he was aware of plans to counter-protest but said: “After carefully weighing the pros and cons, we have decided that this would be our Thermopylae, no matter what it costs.
“We will defend ourselves by any means necessary, and if the police in Sacramento do not protect our right to speak, we will do it ourselves.”
The counter-protesters organized in part via Facebook, writing: “Anti-Fascist Action Sacramento does not believe in allowing hate to have a platform and we are calling upon the community to shut down their rally. Fighting fascism is a moral duty, not a political one.
“We believe most people are good and are willing to stand up against racial hatred,” they added. “Our objective is to force the nazis off our streets and to send a strong message that they are not welcome in society and especially Sacramento.”