One year later: Witnesses, law enforcement look back at the events of Aug. 9, 2020
By and large, freelance journalist Josh Wolf thought that the Black Lives Matter demonstration in Nevada City on Aug. 9, 2020, would be a relatively peaceful affair.
While a small group of counter-demonstrators, some loosely affiliated with right-leaning groups such as Blue Lives Matter, had gathered on Broad Street, Wolf had no reason to believe that either group had any intention of instigating violence.
“I immediately noticed that there were going to be two factions present that day — the flag ‘standers’ and the ‘kneel for the flag’ folks,” Wolf said. “It all looked like nothing was going to happen, like the whole thing was for the most part no big deal.”
It was, in fact, a big deal.
Wolf, who is also a documentary filmmaker, said that as he filmed the protest, he witnessed firsthand the demonstration’s downward spiral into what by the end more resembled a riot than a demonstration, with punches thrown, multiple injuries, and arrests after police had to intervene to prevent further violence.
Nevada City authorities later said that the confrontation was not equally instigated by both sides. The counter-demonstrators — somewhat affiliated with Nevada County Patriots (also known as “Patriots Pushing Back”) — were undeniably the primary aggressors, former Nevada City Police Chief Chad Ellis has said.
But the city did not go far enough in condemning the underlying issues that fueled the violence on Aug. 9, Wolf and several others present that day maintained. To Wolf, and Guarionex Delgado — executive director of the social justice organization Earth Justice Ministries — the counter-demonstrators who opposed the BLM marchers cannot be disassociated from white nationalists.
“The marchers were confronted by a group of white supremacists and racists, who were pretty well organized,” Delgado said. “At that point in time, I was hoping that the city and the county would come out in confrontation to racism locally, but in effect what they did was postpone a real response, and they’ve continued to postpone over time.”
Wolf, who was interviewed by The Union the day after the Aug. 9 events, had said that he was disappointed in the “lackluster” response by police to the counter-demonstrators, whose actions he said “evoked white nationalism.”
Bethany Denkers and Byron Jones, co-founders of the local pro-law enforcement organization “Back the Blue Nevada County,” both disputed the idea that the counter-demonstrators were motivated by racism or nationalism.
Instead, they claimed that the majority of the Nevada County Patriots who showed up to Broad Street that day were concerned about protecting their town in the aftermath of civil unrest earlier in 2020 in larger cities such as Seattle and Portland. The pair also repeatedly emphasized that their own organization was not even involved in the Aug. 9 violence, and should not be castigated in the same rhetoric as other right-leaning groups.
Nonetheless, Denkers said that the counter-demonstrators should not have resorted to violence, asserting that the aggression they displayed has distorted the communal perception of pro-law enforcement groups such as her own.
“The legacy of that event is not to treat any issue like that with violence whatsoever…we should learn never to be pushed over the edge like that,” she said.
According to some eyewitnesses, the violence on Aug. 9 originally started when the BLM demonstrators attempted to march past the counter-protesters, who had formed a line across Broad Street. Some of the Nevada County Patriots began “herding” the BLM protesters, and the “herding” quickly turned to shoving. That’s when things got ugly, witnesses say.
Numerous accounts emerged of BLM demonstrators being punched, slapped, kicked, and even body-slammed to the ground. Some of these incidents were recorded in Wolf’s video of the protest.
Three of the counter-demonstrators were ultimately arrested and charged with assault: Randy Matheson, 48, Joseph Alves, 48, and James Steven Smith, 40. Matheson pleaded guilty and received a plea deal that involved one year of probation. The charges against Alves were ultimately dismissed in return for his attendance to anger management classes and some restitution. Smith, who pleaded not guilty, has not had his case resolved yet, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
The response to the violence by the Nevada City Police Department officers present was widely criticized, as some participants accused police of standing by while BLM protesters were being assaulted, or even outright siding with the counter-demonstrators.
“It was a non-response to violence taking place against people peacefully demonstrating…in fact, it was a taking of sides with the aggressors, as the police stood behind the violent folks and took no action,” Delgado said.
While denying accusations of misconduct by officers, interim Nevada City Manager Joan Phillipe has previously said police were “insufficiently trained and equipped to handle the protest.”
An after-action report on the incident states that no police officer violated any rule or law. Additionally, it states a highly edited video was posted to YouTube of the event, showing officers marching alongside the Nevada County Patriots. An officer’s body camera footage showed a different perspective, making it apparent officers were not showing bias toward either group.
Ellis has since retired as police chief, and current interim Chief Ted Stec, as well as Phillipe, could not be reached for comment. Vice Mayor Doug Fleming declined comment until Stec completes an assessment of police training and procedures.
Grass Valley Police Capt. Steve Johnson said that while the police officers present at the demonstration were clearly unprepared to handle the chaos that ensued, it would be inappropriate to insinuate wrongdoing on their part.
“I’ve been second guessed myself about things I’ve done out in the field when things are dynamic and changing, and when you have limited resources to deal with volatile situations like this…it’s just a difficult situation anyway you look at it,” he said.
Johnson said the events of Aug. 9 should be seen as an important wake-up call to Nevada County law enforcement agencies that this community isn’t immune from the kind of civil unrest that is more common in larger cities.
“August 9 was a paradigm shift for Nevada County law enforcement…we learned that this could happen in our region, it could happen quickly without a lot of notice.”
With one full year having passed as of this coming Monday, Wolf doubled down on his original remarks and said that he has seen few signs that the underlying factors behind the violence on Aug. 9 have been dealt with in any meaningful way.
“What we have in this community is really a deeply entrenched cultural disconnect,” Wolf said.
“For me, the August 9 events were evidence that there is a need for more engagement, dialogue and, yes, protests, to reach a common vision across what is an increasingly divisive community.”
Johnson agreed with Wolf and Delgado in that the violence of Aug. 9 was reflective of a significant cultural divide in the community. The amount of disdain for those on the other side of the political aisle has reached a level that the police captain said he’s never seen in his entire lifetime of living in Nevada County.
“In this community I do see a younger demographic at odds with an older demographic…I’ve lived here in Nevada County my entire life, and I recall when it was overwhelmingly conservative, but that’s completely changed…I do see that disconnect,” he said.
In preventing future similar eruptions of violence and hostility, Johnson said that Nevada County law enforcement has both a tangible and intangible role to play.
Practically, all law enforcement agencies in the county now mandate crowd handling training for police and provide their officers with specific riot gear when needed — neither of these policies were standard before the Aug. 9 events, Johnson said.
Nevada County police also make a point of reaching out to the organizers of protests and demonstrations. Local authorities sit down with organizers, and rather than discouraging peaceful demonstrations, instead iron out the details of when and where the protest will occur, what kind of law enforcement presence is needed, and what can be done to ensure the safety of those involved.
The goal is twofold — first to ensure that police are prepared in case demonstrations start to spiral out of control, and secondly to build relationships of mutual trust with these groups, Johnson said.
This strategy of having regular communication with protest organizers — including the local heads of groups such as BLM or Back the Blue — helps reassure activists that they can have confidence in law enforcement’s handle of the situation, a confidence that in turn helps prevent misunderstandings that can devolve into violence, Johnson said. The police captain called this strategy “relational policing.”
“We’ve learned that most of these groups don’t want violence, they don’t want things to go bad…that relationship and interaction helps prevent things going awry.”
Jamaal Walker, community relations coordinator with the city of Grass Valley, said that the violence at the demonstration along with similar events in recent years are reflective of a community and a society at large that is adapting to an unprecedented level of social, economic, and demographic change.
“Concepts of privilege are being questioned and challenged…consciously or unconsciously, there’s a fear among an entrenched, mainly white demographic that their country is being taken away from them, and those fears are starting to manifest in people’s behavior…”
The solution in bridging such a cultural divide is more conversation, more empathy, and more understanding of what it’s like to be someone else, Walker said.
“One of the things we have to do first is acknowledge everyone’s fundamental humanity,” he added. “We have become so polarized, all of us…one of the things we forget when we lump people together in groups, we make a determination that everybody on that side all has the same thinking and thought processes…I continue to choose not to do that…regardless of that other person’s different thinking, their different opinions, I say that those people have beauty, brilliance, and ugliness and everything in between —and so do I.”
Stephen Wyer is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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