Berkeley teacher Yvette Felarca has been ordered to stand trial in a Sacramento assault case connected to a neo-Nazi rally and protest in 2016.
After a hearing last week, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Stacy Boulware Eurie bound over Felarca’s and co-defendant Michael Williams’ felony assault charges and misdemeanor rioting charges. She reduced the felony charge against a third defendant, Porfirio Paz, because he is only 21 and has a clean record, said a Sacramento County District Attorney spokeswoman Monday.
Felarca, who teaches part-time at King Middle School, was charged with assault after a video emerged showing the prominent activist approaching and hitting a demonstrator at a neo-Nazi rally. Members of the Traditionalist Worker Party and the affiliated Golden State Skinheads took out permits for the June 2016 rally. Dozens of anti-fascist protesters confronted them at the State Capitol, and violence erupted. Many people were injured and several of the anti-fascists ended up in the hospital with stabbing wounds.
The preliminary hearing was split between two sessions, and a third meeting Friday, where Boulware Eurie made her ruling.
She had indicated at a hearing earlier in the week, Tuesday, Jan. 22, that it would not be the end of the road for the case.
“It’s critically important to understand that whatever ruling I make, the only message is the very low burden of proof has been met,” she told her audience, staving off potential criticism that she was politically biased.
Defense lawyers have argued that law enforcement was politically motivated, mainly going after anti-fascists involved in the Sacramento rally. Felarca is a prominent figure in the radical group By Any Means Necessary, and her Michigan-based lawyer, Shanta Driver, is a national leader of the group.
The first preliminary hearing session, in December, focused on the video footage used by the prosecutors to charge the protesters.
One of the video clips shows Felarca and another demonstrator approaching a man, identified by prosecutors as Nigel Walker, who’s holding a flagpole. Felarca pushes her body into Walker, punches at him, and pulls on his backpack. He gets dragged to the ground, where he’s kicked by several people. Felarca follows behind until a police officer pushes her to the ground.
Another clip depicted a melée involving several men including, prosecutors said, Paz and Williams hitting two white-supremacist demonstrators with sticks.
Lawyers for the defense argued that the videos could be “doctored,” challenging the use of “unauthenticated” footage from a potentially fringe social media account, rather than an eyewitness retelling, to make serious felony charges.
The DA’s sole witness at the preliminary hearing, California Highway Patrol Officer Donovan Ayres, testified that he observed the brawling from his station on the roof of the Capitol, but could not see the specific assaults in question in this case. Ayres said he witnessed events leading directly up to the attacks, but said the violence shown on the videos occurred just out of his sight.
The defense questioned Ayres’ credibility.
“These are really serious charges and we’re left with this shell of a witness,” said Linda Parisi, Williams’ lawyer, on Tuesday, the second day of the hearing. “This is like a preliminary hearing I’ve never done before.”
Defense attorneys did not deny that their clients were at the rally, but mainly worked to establish that they were acting in self-defense.
Lawyers repeatedly tried to get Ayres to acknowledge that the people who took out permits for the Sacramento rally were “Nazis.”
While the officer agreed that the demonstrators were “white supremacists” and “white nationalists,” and that Felarca’s peers were “anti-fascists,” he looked visibly uncomfortable every time Nazism came up.
The defense appeared to believe that an acknowledgement of Nazism would confirm that the permitted group was inherently violent, and that anti-fascism was righteous self-defense.
“Fascists are responsible for the murder of, maybe, 50 million people in the history of civilization,” said Mark Reichel, Paz’s attorney, cross-examining Ayres. “Shouldn’t Mr. Paz be worried that dozens of white supremacists were coming after him? The Traditionalist Worker Party lives on violence — you don’t think the rest of the group should have been scared to death?” The Traditionalist Worker Party was involved in the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.
Deputy District Attorney Paris Coleman said the lawyers’ descriptions didn’t match what was caught on tape.
“There is no self-defense in the video,” he said later in the hearing. Walker never punched Felarca back, he said.
“Witch hunt” or “standard procedure”?
The defense has argued throughout the case that CHP and the Sacramento DA unfairly targeted anti-fascist counter-protesters.
Attempting to get the charges dropped, lawyers noted that CHP recommended charges against 100 counter-protesters and only five people from the Golden State Skinheads and Traditionalist Worker Party. Law enforcement officers, including Ayres, have acknowledged that nine anti-fascists sustained stabbing wounds, and that members of the permitted group were shown in photos with knives, yet they failed to bring charges against the stabbers, lawyers said.
At the hearing, the defense criticized CHP for looking into their clients’ political affiliations before deciding to charge them. Ayres acknowledged that officers sought search warrants for membership lists of Facebook antifa groups but did not do the same for the neo-Nazi groups. He said he did research the affiliations of the alleged victims, including Nigel Walker, but couldn’t come up with anything.
One suspected neo-Nazi, William Planer, is on trial for assault at the rally. Ayres is testifying in that case as well, which the defense tried to use to demonstrate the officer knew that side was violent.
The defense also brought up the transcript of an interview Ayres did with Doug McCormack, the Traditionalist Worker Party member who took out the original permit for the rally. In the conversation, Ayres warns McCormack that the permit is public record and that law enforcement would not be able to deny any requests to see it. Ayres volunteers to redact McCormack’s name from the document.
“You told him you’d protect him, you’d shield him, you’d stand with him,” Reichel said. “You told him if anyone made inquiries, you’d let him know.”
“If I could, yes sir,” Ayres said.
“You interviewed individuals who were anti-fascist, right? Did you make promises to them that you wouldn’t release their names?” “It’s standard procedure. It’s likely I did,” responded Ayres.
Felarca will be back in court Feb. 13
During her final argument, Driver said Felarca should not be facing a felony charge.
“There’s no showing that Mr. Walker was ever injured in a way that could rise to ‘great bodily injury,’” as alleged, she said. Felarca “looks like she’s about half his size.”
Coleman said he agreed that Walker was probably not seriously injured, but said Felarca intended to hurt him.
“Ms. Felarca grabbed his backpack and dragged him back to the people who were waiting,” he said. “Did the initial punching constitute felony battery? I don’t think so, itself. And the pulling on the backpack? No. But pulling the backpack towards the crowd, where she knew people were waiting…”
Driver also contested Felarca’s misdemeanor rioting charge.
She noted that Ayres had agreed Walker had “taunted” the left-wing protesters by showing up early to the event and calling out for “antifa” to come over to him.
“I think that Mr. Walker made clear that he had come to the event to provoke violence…to try to initiate a riot himself.”
Boulware Eurie did not make an immediate decision after the hearing Tuesday, postponing her ruling until Friday so she could watch the video again.
Both court dates, and previous hearings, drew a packed room of supporters for the teacher. In some cases, they rallied outside the courthouse, holding signs that criticized President Donald Trump and said, “Defend Yvette Felarca! Stop neo-Nazis! It’s now or never!” Throughout the hearings, court staff and the judge often admonished the chatty group, telling them to quiet down.
If Felarca is convicted, her future with Berkeley Unified will be uncertain. Information on the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing website indicates a felony assault conviction could result in revocation of a credential, but a spokesperson could not be reached for confirmation.
In September, BUSD said the district does not have a policy on employees facing felony charges.
“We are continuing to monitor developments in this case,” said spokesman Charles Burress at the time. “Should an occasion arise for the district to take action, we will respond in an appropriate manner at the time.”
Felarca has long had a contentious — and litigious — relationship with her employer.
The teacher has declined to comment on the record throughout the preliminary hearing.
The arraignment is set for Feb. 13.
Ed. note: This story initially said the trial was set for Feb. 13. The arraignment is scheduled to take place that day.