Trump’s America: Where activists face felony charges

With hundreds of activists facing felony charges, critics say Trump has emboldened authorities across the United States.

Yvette Felarca - DON''T USE
Yvette Felarca, right, has been charged with a felony over riots in Sacramento last June [File: Eric Risberg/Associated Press]

After being hit in the head and stabbed in the arm during clashes with white supremacists at the California State Capitol in Sacramento last June, Yvette Felarca was defiant in an interview with local television news. 

“Everyone who came here today … came here united with one goal, and that’s to shut down the Nazi scum. And we did that,” said Felarca, a 47-year-old anti-fascist activist, with a bloodied bandage plastered to the side of her head.

“They are not nonviolent. They are organising to attack and kill us,” she said of the white supremacists. “So, we have a right to self-defence … that is why we have to shut them down by any means necessary.”

The brawls that took place on June 26, 2016, had erupted as more than 300 activists protested against a white supremacist rally organised by the Traditionalist Worker Party and the Golden State Skinheads, both labelled as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

Last month, Felarca, a middle school teacher whose legal name is Yvonne, became one of hundreds of anti-fascists, leftists and anarchists currently facing felony charges across the country when police arrested her after she exited a flight in Los Angeles.

More than a year after the Sacramento violence, she has been charged with felony assault likely to inflict bodily damage and a pair of misdemeanour charges related to rioting. Altogether, she could face up to six years behind bars and $12,000 in fines.

Felarca is an organiser with By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), a militant left-wing civil rights group that called for that counterprotest along with other anti-fascist groups in northern California.

‘Policy of targeting anti-fascists’

Although anti-fascists accounted for six of the seven people who were stabbed in last summer’s free-for-all at the capitol, only one of the four people arrested in relation to the incident was a white supremacist, court documents show.

Several protesters were hospitalised after the June 2016 Sacramento riots [File: Steven Styles/Associated Press]
Several protesters were hospitalised after the June 2016 Sacramento riots [File: Steven Styles/Associated Press]

Felony charges were also issued to counterprotesters Michael Williams of the Brown Berets, a pro-Chicano group, and Porfirio Paz and to white supremacist William Scott Daley, who was detained in Colorado Springs after putting an anti-Semitic sticker on a local synagogue. 

Shanta Driver, BAMN’s national organiser and Felarca’s lawyer, said the arrests were “politically motivated”, arguing that “there is a policy of targeting anti-fascists” across the country.

READ MORE: US anti-fascists – ‘We can make racists afraid again’

“In Sacramento, the police allowed knife-wielding fascists on the grounds of the State Capitol and stood by doing nothing when the fascists stabbed Yvette and other anti-fascist protesters,” she told Al Jazeera by email.

In a statement, the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office said it had considered issuing arrest warrants for 101 individuals believed to have been involved in the riots, but that it could only charge individuals “whose conduct represented the most egregious offences” due to a lack of evidence. 

After the four arrests were made, there were no more outstanding warrants, the statement said, explaining that the office was unable to successfully link anyone to the stabbings. Contacted by Al Jazeera, the office declined to provide further comment.

‘A giant message’

In nearby Berkeley, the Federal Bureau of Investigations is investigating violent protests that led to the cancellation of a speech at the University of California – Berkeley by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos in February.

Writing on Twitter at the time, US President Donald Trump threatened to pull federal funds to the university if action wasn’t taken.

Kim Kelly, a journalist and a member of the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council (MACC) press collective, said that police, district attorneys and other authorities have been emboldened to stifle anti-Trump protest movements since the president’s election. 

Meanwhile, Kelly argues, the government has not carried out a similar campaign against those on the far right or the alt-right, a loosely knit coalition that includes white supremacists and neo-Nazis. “It’d be an insult to Janus to refer to the situation as two-faced; rather, let’s call it what it is, state-sanctioned repression tactics,” she told Al Jazeera. 

Since Trump’s election, dozens of anti-protest bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country, many of which seek to introduce harsher penalties for actions such as blocking traffic or to make it illegal to wear a mask in public.

“That ensuing wave of anti-protest legislation that broke across the country was another harbinger of what was to come, as were the continued arrests of anti-fascist protesters at political demonstrations and the administration’s own threatening postures towards free speech, free assembly, and dissent in general,” Kelly added. 

In Washington, DC, nearly 200 people – among them activists, legal observers, medics and a pair of reporters – are facing upwards of 70 years in prison after being issued a slew of felony charges related to their presence at an anti-fascist march against Trump’s inauguration on January 20.

You can basically have your future seriously compromised by felony convictions.

by Alexander Reid Ross, author of Against the Fascist Creep

On June 7, a group of 16 defendants appeared before a judge in New Orleans, Louisiana, over their alleged involvement in riots on the night of Trump’s inauguration.

Described by the local police superintendent as anarchists, the defendants are each facing at least one felony charge and misdemeanour counts of inciting a riot and wearing masks in public, according to local media reports.

Alexander Reid Ross, author of Against the Fascist Creep, said the Inauguration Day arrestees – known as the J20 defendants – represent a concerted government crackdown on anti-fascist and anti-Trump activists.

“That case sends a giant message to anti-fascist and anti-Trump activists that if you participate in a protest you can be held responsible for anything that might occur and subjected to some 75 years in prison,” he told Al Jazeera. “You can basically have your future seriously compromised by felony convictions.”

And last month, activists in Virginia delivered a complaint to the Charlottesville Police Department accusing officers of surveilling and arresting left-wing activists in advance of far-right rallies.

‘Trifecta of repression’

Referring to the “definite surge” in anti-fascist activism taking place in the United States right now, Ross said that activists face a “trifecta of repression” from the far rightists fighting them in the streets, the police and the government.

“I think that it’s a testament to people’s bravery that, after the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements, they’re so willing to stand up again to the violence of fascism that has emerged,” he said.

Community members and activists have rallied in support of the Sacramento defendants [Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press]
Community members and activists have rallied in support of the Sacramento defendants [Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press]

Ross argued that the far right understands the US government has not identified it as a threat in the same way it has anti-fascists.

Mike Peinovich, an alt-right activist who also goes by the name Mike Enoch and founded The Right Stuff podcast network, recently praised Trump for “giving us the space to destroy”.

“We have to use these four years to grow into something that can’t be defeated,” Peinovich said on the “Fash the Nation” podcast programme, referring to the increasingly vocal and violent far-right movement.

READ MORE: Threats and attacks as white supremacists target campuses

He went on to laud Steven Bannon, a top Trump strategist who used to be the executive director of Breitbart News, who he said “wants us (the alt-right) to be able to operate in that space”.

Back in Sacramento, the local Antifa (anti-fascist) group condemned the arrest of Felarca, Williams and Paz. “This persecution is an attempt by the state to silence our movement, to silence dissent against the fascist creep,” the statement reads.

BAMN’s Driver insisted that measures to crack down on anti-Trump dissent will only serve to galvanise activists. “The movement against Trump and the fascists has shown a lot of strength and will continue to grow,” she said. 

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

Source: Al Jazeera