What began as a peaceful demonstration against police brutality in a small Northern California city turned tense and at times violent when a contingent of counterprotesters showed up to confront them.
The second group waved flags, snatched away cardboard signs and at least two men threw punches, shouting at the first set of demonstrators to get out of “our town,” dramatic videos posted online show.
It was one of two recent incidents in Nevada County where demonstrations went off the rails.
Social media posts ahead of Sunday’s event called the initial demonstration a march “through the streets of residential Nevada City making noise for Black lives and defunding the police.” A poster for the march asked those participating not to widely share details about the event in advance online, beyond their own private social circles, “for our safety.”
Counterprotesters nonetheless arrived in numbers and, in one instance seen on video, blindsided a participant of the initial protest group with an open-hand slap to the face. At another point, several people carrying either American or “thin blue line” flags started holding their flagpoles sideways and using them like moving barricades, pushing protesters along the street in a move evocative of law enforcement crowd control.
Opponents of the Black lives demonstration in several other instances also shoved people and grabbed at protesters’ phones or cameras as well as their signs, videos show. They harangued the marchers intensely, trailed them as they walked the streets, called them communists, screamed profanities and insulted them with other derogatory language. Some of the protesters shoved back in response, and in a few instances, tensions nearly boiled over into larger brawls.
The day before, in a separate incident nearby in Grass Valley, aman was suspected of using an airsoft rifle at a Back the Blue rally. The suspect — identified Monday as Jace Samuel Manoguerra, 21 — faces a felony assault charge, the California Highway Patrol said. Several people were struck by the pellets around 7 p.m. Saturday, including a juvenile, but no one was seriously injured, authorities said.
However, no one from Sunday’s incident has been arrested, as groups quickly called on Nevada City police and local government officials for a response.
Attached to the videos on social media were dozens of comments accusing the Nevada City Police Department of inaction, saying officers did not do enough to defuse these moments of violence. Some critics went further, writing that police supported or “protected” the counterprotesters.
Ellis met with a city council member who was present at the incident and reported being “assaulted by the hostile counterprotesters,” he said.
The chief says he has assigned a special investigator within the department to work exclusively examining Sunday’s incidents, and that the department will continue to review video provided by the community as well as police body camera footage.
What Sunday’s videos showed
The initial protest started around 6:30 p.m. in the heart of small, rural Nevada City, and the videos show all the confrontations taking place in daylight. There’s no indication that the effort was formally organized by a local chapter of the Black Lives Matter activist group.
The Bee reviewed about an hour of footage from Sunday’s events, including a 45-minute stretch of it livestreamed by a local activist group called Nevada City Resist; a five-minute video filmed, edited and produced by a local filmmaker; and a handful of other shorter clips posted to social media by participants. The Bee could not find any videos taken from a counterprotester’s perspective.
The videos appear to show that a group of well over 200 protesters took to the streets and sidewalks of Nevada City, chanting phrases such as “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace” and clanging pots and pans, but marching peacefully. Early in the demonstration, as the marchers began to pass through Nevada City’s downtown area along Broad and Commercial streets, they were met by several dozen so-called “Blue Lives Matter” or “Back the Blue” supporters who opposed them.
Many of the counterprotesters held American flags, wore red, white and blue, or donned pro-Trump apparel. A few propped up their flags in pickup trucks.
They formed a loose line in the middle of Broad Street, in front of the large brick Nevada Theatre building before the marchers arrived there, making the protest campaign pass through a moderate gauntlet of flags and shouting.
As the opposing demonstrators encountered the marchers, altercations mainly consisted of minor scuffles. But counterprotesters escalated physical contact several times, numerous videos show, and police appeared to step in minimally.
Musillani told The Bee that that the initial march was planned by local teens and young adults “basically as a noise-making parade to support the Black Lives Matter movement.” She said that a few hours before the march, “some of the local right-wing groups got aware of it and passed it along on social media.”
Musillani decided to show up because her daughter and other youths were likely attending, and she wanted to make sure they got home safely, she said.
At one point in the video, Musillani approaches a demonstrator in a cowboy hat carrying a thin blue line flag who tells her she’s being “lied to by the communists.”
“I ain’t walking backwards. I ain’t gonna hurt a lady,” he says as the two face off.
“Yeah, you are. Yeah, you are,” Musillani responds.
Musillani, who’s in her mid-40s, said that shortly after her video ended, a different man knocked into her twice with an American flag, leaving her with bruises.
One of the most dramatic encounters came in a highlight video posted to Facebook by Josh Wolf, an independent journalist who gained notoriety in 2007 after serving 226 days in federal prison for refusing to give San Francisco police video he’d shot of a violent demonstration there. He told The Union newspaperhe had moved to Nevada City about a year agoand his Facebook profile lists him as the founder of a Nevada City business incubator.
A segment early in the video shows a man with a dark T-shirt and a bandanna around his neck facing off with a counterprotester in a red tank top. The first man stands in the path of the second, who grabs him by the arm in an effort to get past him before quickly letting go.
Within about a second of this relatively mild exchange, a third, uninvolved man’s hand comes swinging into frame and strikes the man in the bandanna squarely in the face.
The camera pans to reveal the third man, who’s wearing a gray shirt and camouflage shorts, standing with a clenched fist as bystanders confront him. The other two parties walk a short distance away from him and continue a brief verbal spat before the man in the bandanna walks back toward the main protest group.
The altercation fizzles, but immediately after, the man in the red tank top charges off camera before appearing alongside yet another counterprotester, this one wearing a dark shirt reading “Trump Strikes Back.” Together, the two successfully rip a cardboard sign out of protesters’ hand.
“Get the f— out of town,” the man in the Trump shirt screams as he tosses the sign aside, onto the ground. “F— you!”
The man in the Trump shirt appears throughout many videos posted from Sunday’s events. A Nevada City resident posted cellphone video of him appearing to challenge someone off-screen to a fight before the camera shows him grab toward the phone filming him. “Video stops with this guy grabbing my phone from my hand then kicking my a–,”Graham Hayes wrote on Facebook.
Nevada City resident Olivia Steele posted several videos of the aggression to Facebook as well, in one video documenting a flagpole tug-of-war that emerged as the conflicting groups clashed on Broad Street.
In the majority of incidents The Bee could find from Sunday, the counterprotesters appear to clearly be the initial aggressors. In multiple instances, they can be seen pushing protesters from the side or behind not preceded by any visible physical provocation from the protest marchers. Often, those being shoved are walking away.
In a couple of cases, it’s less clear who may have instigated contact. One clip, for instance, shows a woman striking a counter-demonstrator in the chest using her “Black lives” sign, but the immediate lead-up and aftermath are obscured by a shaky camera.
In videos from multiple other users, a man in a light blue shirt and an American flag-themed bandanna covering his face can twice be seen lunging after a protester, pushing aside another person who tries to intervene. Later, he shoves at another small group of protesters, echoing the man in the Trump shirt: “Get the f— out of my town. This is my town, not yours.”
How did local officials respond?
Ellis, the police chief, wrote in Monday night’s statement that his small staff was more or less overwhelmed by Sunday’s activity. Nevada City, which has a population of roughly 3,000 people, has 10 sworn officers.
The department had just three officers on duty at the time of the protest, the chief wrote.
“Given the extremely volatile situation the officers attempted to manage the crowd and prevent any additional escalated violence. During the incident officers were instructing individuals to contact the police and file reports at a later time.”
The Bee reached out to Ellis for further comment Tuesday morning, but a clerk at the Nevada City Police Department said he was unavailable because the department is assisting with crowd control for a separate protest happening in front of the Nevada County administrative office located in the city. That protest involves business owners impacted by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic shutdowns, the clerk said.
The chief’s statement also quashed rumors about the Black lives protesters, affirming that they were “local community members and not people ‘bused in’ as rumors suggest.”
The Bee reached out to all four current council members for comment Tuesday morning but did not immediately receive a response. The council’s next regularly scheduled meeting is Wednesday.
“The videos were incredibly disturbing,”Minett told The Union on Monday. “What we had last night was a number of families and young people doing a peaceful protest. The other group was looking to be violent, and it really is unacceptable.”
The Nevada County District Attorney’s Office, in a statement posted to Facebook, briefly addressed the weekend’s incidents in Grass Valley and Nevada City, promising to “zealously prosecute all those who break the law or seek to use fear, violence or intimidation to silence others … regardless of political viewpoints or perceived alignment toward one cause or another.”
Grass Valley Mayor Lisa Swarthout and city Police Chief Alex Gammelgard both told The Union that the Back the Blue protesters targeted Saturday in Grass Valley do not appear to be the same group who caused problems in Nevada City the next evening.
“What I’ve seen is peaceful protests on both sides,” Swarthout told the local paper. “Our community has always had a diversity of opinions, but (in the past) we’ve all managed to live together peacefully.”