A large crowd stomps down Capitol Mall, donning black clothing and shouting anti-police slogans, before pausing in front of the federal building. Individuals toting black umbrellas scurry toward the entrance, then others dart from the crowd. Cans of spray paint emerge. One person tags graffiti on the facade. Another slams a skateboard against the glass doors, which echoes through the night.
Less than a block away, a fleet of law enforcement vehicles overtakes two lanes, lights flashing and radio’s crunching. Dozens of police officers on bicycles speed into the intersection: They’ve been shadowing the crowd for blocks.
It was a tense weekend downtown as Sacramento Antifa, which local officials have referred to as a “domestic terrorist” group, organized two demonstrations against police brutality and the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Law enforcement responded with an extraordinary police presence, motivated by the shattered windows and graffiti Antifa activists left in their wake last week.
But racial justice advocates note that these protests, however contentious, are not new; the latest actions are a continuation of a larger social-justice movement, both locally and sweeping the nation, since police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May. And local organizers say all protest tactics — even Antifa’s — are necessary.
Tanya Faison, founder of Black Lives Matter Sacramento, said most activists share similar frustrations with a lack of change or reform by government leaders when it comes to policing.
“I feel like Sacramento’s in a weird place that we haven’t been at before, because there’s so many people that want things to change, but our local government isn’t moving with the rest of the country,” Faison said. “Every method of fighting needs to happen, so if Antifa wants to … do things in different ways than we did, then it may just be needed.”
Community activist Sonia Lewis agreed. “I understand that frustration, and I don’t want to be the ‘protest police,’” she said of Antifa critics. “There’s room for all of it, and it’s all necessary. All of it brings attention to the unjust way that the system has leveraged its power and authority over people.”
In Sacramento, these new crowds of activists since the start of the summer are younger and more diverse, according to organizers.
“I really and truly think there is an awakening of non-Black people, and that is extremely important and crucial, and we need to recognize and leverage this moment,” Lewis said.
Two Style Of Protests, One Fight For Equality
Despite the variety of protest approaches in recent weeks, last Thursday night’s Antifa demonstration drew increased attention from public officials. Protesters walked through downtown streets targeting government buildings — tagging them with anti-police graffiti, smashing windows and even lighting a small fire in the district attorney’s office.
“It is not a protest, it is an attempted insurrection,” Sheriff Scott Jones said last week, after demonstrators broke windows at his office’s headquarters. He described Antifa’s tactics as “mayhem,” and District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert referred to them as “rooted in organized violence and terror.”
The focus on Antifa overshadowed an earlier protest that evening, put on by Justice Unites Individuals and Communities Everywhere, or JUICE, a regional group founded in June to fight for racial justice. Mayor Darrell Steinberg lauded this protest while denouncing Antifa.
“Tonight we expect two protests,” Steinberg wrote on Twitter earlier that day. “I am grateful people care enough to take to the streets after a hard day's work to stand in solidarity with one another and communities in pain. It's the second, after-dark protest where I have an issue.”
Steinberg attempted to join marchers during the JUICE protest, but was rebuffed by demonstrators. The group’s organizers — Nehemiah “Nuk Nuk” Johnson, Meg White and LaTanya Lyons — say they were disappointed by the mayor’s comments.
“We don’t knock how other people feel they need to show their protest to what’s going on, I have to understand,because I feel their pain,” Johnson said. “Although I personally may not want to do that, I can’t knock a person for feeling that pain that they feel.”
White added that she believed Steinberg was leveraging the protests for his own gain.
“Performative politics, where in front of the media camera, there’s all this talk about feeling where the community is coming from and being committed to change,” White said. “We’re concerned about comments politicians made vilifying these actions but not taking any steps to stop it in the first place.”
In a blog post last week, Steinberg wrote that the city “will uplift those protesting loudly and peacefully. At the same time, we will hold those who destroy property fully accountable.”
This past weekend’s Antifa protests came amid national headlines that a white, teen-aged militia member in Kenosha fatally shot two demonstrators, and also President Donald Trump supporters converging on downtown Portland, Oregon, in pickup trucks decorated with Confederate flags. One pro-Trump demonstrator was killed during that protest, although police have yet to disclose what caused their death.
Antifa attracted several hundred activists to Cesar Chavez Plaza on Friday. But their presence, and warnings by elected officials, did not dissuade diners at La Cosecha, the Mexican restaurant also in the park: Just before 9 p.m., an hour after the rally started, its patio was brimming with customers.
During the protest, young people stood on the plaza stage, sharing a megaphone to address the crowd. They urged demonstrators to put away their phones and not take photos or videos during the night. “If you wanted to see this, you should’ve been here,” one speaker said. “This is part of history.”
At the march, which lasted just over two hours, people held umbrellas to obscure the view while others sprayed graffiti or attempted to vandalize buildings.
Despite these tactics, and the loud condemnations from public officials, the march was not unlike the many other protest gatherings Sacramento has experienced in recent years. CapRadio did not witness a single broken window on Friday night. But there was a museum of anti-police taggings, including on property that was not owned by the city, county or state. And, on at least two occasions, marchers attempted to take a phone from someone trying to snap photos or video.
‘This Movement Is Really Special’
Experts on social movements say that, even though there is debate over these Antifa tactics, the broader racial-justice demonstrations are changing American viewpoints.
“I think this movement is really special. I think that it has gotten more attention and there’s been a ripple effect that I haven't seen in American society,” Denise Herd, associate director of the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley, said of the George Floyd protests this summer. “I do think this movement has reached a momentum that it had not before, and I think that’s primarily because whites have started paying attention to what Black people have been experiencing for many, many years.”
Herd also says officials who criticize or speak out against Antifa-style protest tactics are unfairly targeting Black-led movements.
“There’ve been protests around people sheltering in place, where people have been armed, and there’s been very little evidence paid to that level of potential violence,” she said. “Some of those protests have turned violent, and there’s not been nearly the focus on that kind of violence as we see turned to Black communities with many of the people protesting peacefully.”
And Kula Koenig, of the group Social Justice PolitiCorps for Sacramento County, said she thinks the base of support for racial justice movements is widening, in part due to the coronavirus.
“Being in a pandemic, where people are starting to see that you may have thought that you were living your best life because you had all this money but you could lose your job in an instant, you could get sick in an instant,” Koenig said. “The pandemic really leveled and humbled a lot of people.”
Katie Valenzuela, who will take over as City Council representative for the central city this December after winning election in the spring, also expects more actions in solidarity with racial justice.
“Folks kind of thought it would be done now, but we haven’t passed the big moment in Sacramento, it’s still coming,” Valenzuela said. “We’re building toward something bigger in a movement that isn’t going to go away anytime soon.”
Antifa Sacramento has not announced any more actions this week as of Monday. A spokesperson with the Sacramento Police Department says “a number of” California law enforcement agencies partook in enforcement in the city this past weekend, and that two arrests were made on Saturday.
The spokesperson says when it comes to future demonstrations, the department will be “proactive.”
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