The anti-vaccination demonstrators, Proud Boys and black-clad counter-protesters bobbed around in the street outside Los Angeles police headquarters on Saturday afternoon as if it were a boxing ring, talking trash and raising their fists to fight.
Within seconds a brawl erupted, with people pulling out weapons and throwing punches. By the time LAPD officers in riot gear separated the two sides, several people had been injured and two stabbed — an anti-vaccination activist who suffered a lacerated heart and punctured lung, and a counter-protester whose protective gear likely shielded him from more serious wounds, witnesses say.
The violence in the heart of downtown Los Angeles sparked widespread anger, along with questions about why authorities have repeatedly struggled to deal with such fights at recent protests around COVID-19 restrictions and national politics. The continued unrest has prompted some to question why the LAPD isn't cracking down more on the right-wing activists who have engaged in the brawls.
On Jan. 6, as right-wing extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington, fights broke out at a rally for former President Trump in the same downtown location as Saturday's brawl. A Black woman was assaulted and doused with pepper spray when she inadvertently walked past a rally of Trump supporters, some of whom face possible battery charges.
In recent weeks, fights broke out at an anti-transgender rights protest at a Westlake spa, an anti-mask protest outside a West Hollywood cancer center and an anti-vaccination protest at a West Hollywood restaurant. Across all three events, two people were stabbed, a cancer patient was assaulted and journalists were attacked.
Police say they have been caught in the middle of the opposing parties, trying to protect everyone's 1st Amendment rights while also trying to prevent them from engaging in violence or property damage.
"There is no place for violence in this city by any demonstrator, period," LAPD Chief Michel Moore said in an interview this week. "It doesn't matter where you are on the political spectrum."
Some activists, however, have alleged the LAPD has demonstrated bias against left-leaning protesters — many of whom are openly critical of the police — and sided with right-wing demonstrators who profess support for officers.
Feeding that perception are not only tactical decisions police have made at recent demonstrations, but also evidence of where many officers stand personally on some of the same political issues that are animating the protests — such as the low COVID-19 vaccination rate among officers, or the resistance many have shown to wearing masks despite orders that they do so in public.
Researchers across the country have repeatedly called out far-right extremism in the nation's police ranks, particularly since the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Local activists, meanwhile, have tracked LAPD officials' social media accounts and accused individual officers, including some who have served as incident commanders at recent violent protests, of aligning with far-right ideologies.
On Saturday, some questioned why police did not declare an unlawful assembly as the anti-vaccination rally devolved into a street fight, when they had shut down prior left-wing demonstrations where no one had been hurt.
The bias claims only increased after the LAPD released a statement describing Saturday's incident as a clash between "antifa and people gathered for the permitted event" — which was billed as a "Freedom March" by its organizers, who oppose COVID vaccination mandates.
Activists and other observers said the LAPD's statement mislabeled the counter-protesters with an overly broad term that has been used to disparage progressive activists, while ignoring extremists within the anti-vaccination crowd who they argue started the violence.
Sherrilyn Ifill, head of the influential NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, described a Twitter thread of videos showing the fight and accusing the police of standing by as "horrifying," and said it was "time for a federal investigation."
In response to the criticism, Moore said it was not the department's intent to vilify one side or the other.
"Both sides were causing problems," Moore said. "So let's be clear about that."
The department on Friday said its Major Crimes Division, which investigates individuals and groups that pose public threats or commit hate-based harassment, had been assigned to investigate the incident.
Moore also defended the department's initial description of what occurred, saying it was based on officers' observations of "flags that had the antifa postings" on them, as well as posts on "social media associated with antifa" that had called for counter-protesters to show up at City Hall.
Moore said officers had not observed people who identified as Proud Boys or as members of any other right-wing extremist organizations on Saturday. But both Brian Levin, who monitors extremists as the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, and a law enforcement official said there were members of the Proud Boys at the scene. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly.
Moore also said that, regardless of officers' perceptions of those in the crowds, there was no bias in the LAPD's approach to the demonstration.
"Our officers are individuals. Each of them have their own beliefs, their own understanding, their own political persuasions," Moore said. "But their actions when they put on this uniform are that of the Los Angeles Police Department."
Moore said LAPD officials had been in contact with the event's organizers before Saturday and had undercover officers monitor crowds as they grew, in order to "preempt escalation of these crowds where people come ready to fight, not just emotionally but with weapons," Moore said.
Jason Lefkowitz, a local activist who has organized several recent protests, including one that briefly shut down a vaccine site at Dodgers Stadium, obtained a permit for the event, records show.
Lefkowitz said he had private security on hand because "antifa," or anti-fascists, had called for counter-protesters to show up, and "they've already shown their colors and what they're willing to do, and it's violence."
Lefkowitz said those who worked security were friends of various organizers and he didn't know if they had any affiliation with extremist groups like the Proud Boys.
Police were prepositioned in the area before the crowds formed but remained in their cars, a decision made in part, Moore said, based on criticism that the department had stoked tensions by staging in riot gear prematurely at past events.
"Our effort is to deescalate situations and not lean into those groups by putting up, for instance, skirmish lines early on with riot gear — ballistic helmets, batons and so forth — when groups have actually separated themselves and are governing themselves," Moore said.
The two groups remained on opposite sides of 1st Street until around 2:30 p.m., when video posted online showed a group of young skateboarders saying they had been threatened by anti-vaccination protesters. When a counter-protester confronted the person pointed out by the skateboarders, that person violently shoved the counter-protester.
Multiple witnesses said this was the start of the chaos. As additional demonstrators on both sides rushed forward, an LAPD officer approached with her Taser over her head shouting unintelligible orders, and anti-vaccination protesters started screaming "F— antifa!"
Video shared by protesters on the right showed a counter-protester clad in black swinging what looked like a knife at anti-vaccination protesters. Police later released images of the man, saying he was wanted in the stabbing that sent the anti-vaccination protester to the hospital.
Counter-protesters also shared video that showed someone swinging what looked like a knife at a counter-protester who was being beaten by several others from the anti-vaccination crowd. Police said they were also investigating that stabbing but have yet to identify the victim, who did not file a police report.
Other people were also attacked in the fray, including KPCC-FM reporter Frank Stoltze and Jessi Keenan, 44, who said a member of the anti-vaccination crowd cracked her on the head with a metal water canister as she tried to help up the counter-protester who was stabbed.
Keenan said she was in the area to offer food and the use of her laptop to people experiencing homelessness. However, when she saw the counter-protester being attacked, she said she instinctively rushed forward to help him get back on his feet — then felt the impact of the canister.
Keenan said she saw officers putting on protective gear as she was rushing forward, which she believed slowed their response.
Despite the delay, the brawl lasted only a few minutes. Despite the assaults, no one was arrested.
Moore said that after the fight was broken up, the two sides largely returned to their respective spaces and supervisors decided that an unlawful assembly order was unnecessary.
In the moments that followed, anti-vaccination demonstrators approached officers on a line near the edge of City Hall's south lawn to thank them and express their support. Some started a "Back the blue!" chant.
Across the street, counter-protesters screamed at the police for allowing the violence to occur, accusing them of being deferential to Proud Boys and other right-wing groups that have been linked to violence in the past.
Among those they complained about was Tony Moon, better known as "The Roof Korean” to his 20,000 Twitter followers.
Moon, who has acknowledged being in Washington, D.C., on the day of the insurrection at the Capitol and was also present at violent clashes outside the Wi Spa in Westlake, spoke at Saturday's protest and was later seen screaming death threats at the counter-protesters and clawing at an independent journalist’s mask while yelling, "Unmask them all!"
Moon has defended his actions on Twitter, accusing counter-protesters of stoking the violence and sharing right-wing posts praising "patriots" for confronting "antifa."
Lefkowitz, the event organizer, said he didn't want to focus on the fight, which lasted less than five minutes, but on the rally, which lasted hours. He called it an "amazingly positive event," which people left feeling "excited" about their ability to turn the tide against COVID-19 restrictions.
Medical experts say that vaccines are safe and have been proven effective at protecting people from COVID-19 and lessening symptoms if they are infected with the coronavirus, but Lefkowitz doesn't believe the experts.
As for the fight, Lefkowitz alleged anti-fascist members purposely started it in an effort to get the police to move in and shut the rally down.
"The other side is there to antagonize, period," he said.
Counter-protesters said their goal was to disrupt the event, but not incite violence. Emanuel Padilla said he tried to occupy space in the park Saturday morning before the anti-vaccine crowd arrived but was chased off by a group that included Moon.
Padilla — who last year was arrested by L.A. County sheriff's deputies and charged with trying to derail a train in Compton, only to have those charges dropped after video evidence raised questions about the deputies' description of events — said he believes that demonstrations that attract fringe right-wing figures pose a legitimate public safety threat to everyday Angelenos like those young skateboarders.
"The point of us coming out is that, if we don’t come out, they are going to hurt people," Padilla said.
Traci Carr, an L.A.-based activist who has attended several contentious protests in recent months, said the LAPD has a track record of crushing protests led by progressive activists while allowing rallies organized by right-wing figures to go on for hours, even when they result in violence.
Police let right-wing demonstrators continue protesting at both the Jan. 6 rally for Trump downtown and at the Wi Spa, even after people were assaulted and stabbed by right-wing demonstrators, Carr said. Meanwhile, she said, more than 180 people, including several journalists, were detained or arrested during a left-leaning protest against the closure of a homeless encampment at Echo Park in March simply because police said protesters were shining strobe lights at them.
“In Echo Park, we were kettled and 180 of us were arrested, yet nothing happens to the anti-vaxxers who were out there screaming … looking for a fight,” Carr said.
The city attorney's office declined to prosecute anyone arrested in Echo Park for unlawful assembly, a decision Moore has criticized.
Levin, the extremism researcher and former police officer, said he was hesitant to criticize the LAPD, as members of both groups had clearly shown up Saturday ready to fight.
However, such demonstrations are only likely to continue — and get more violent — as the pandemic continues, he said, echoing recent warnings from the Department of Homeland Security. The LAPD, he said, could avoid bias complaints by establishing clearer guidelines for how it will police such demonstrations going forward.
"The department would be well suited to establish standards that would be based on threats that immediately emerge at these protests, without respect to ideology," Levin said. "They have to publicize this and lay it out: If we see people acting violent, we’re shutting stuff down — irrespective of who is doing the protest and what side is doing what."
Moore agreed that differences in opinion around the pandemic and government responses to it are not going away, and that officials — including himself and others within the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police — are trying to come up with better ways to police events where opposing factions converge.
In the meantime, he said, the LAPD will vigorously pursue those who commit violence, regardless of their political stripes.
Capt. Stacy Spell, a LAPD spokesman, said investigators have spent more than 40 hours investigating Saturday's events and reviewing video. They are actively seeking suspects in both stabbings, as well as the victim in the second one, who has yet to come forward, Spell said.
Spell said the department is not pursuing an investigation into the assault on Stoltze because the veteran reporter has "declined to cooperate" — though he did write about his experience and post several videos showing the assault. Stoltze told a Times reporter on Saturday he was livid but not seriously hurt.
The LAPD is still investigating multiple reports of battery and assault with a deadly weapon and a robbery from the Wi Spa incident, Spell said.
As for the Jan. 6 possible hate crime incident, Spell said investigators identified two alleged assailants and presented battery cases against them to the L.A. County district attorney's office, which referred the cases to the city attorney's office, suggesting prosecutors did not believe a felony occurred. They remain under review.
A third suspect in the alleged assault remains unidentified and is still being sought, Spell said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.