What struck Paul Georgei was Bakersfield's Republican Mayor Karen Goh standing next to legendary labor leader Dolores Huerta — and both women condemning in no uncertain terms the racism and hate espoused by white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, Va., last week.
The two local leaders, along with Georgei and scores of others, attended a march and rally Sunday night that began at Central Park near Mill Creek and ended at the Liberty Bell in downtown Bakersfield. The event was planned as a vigil in support of Charlottesville and the family of 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer, who was killed when a car allegedly driven by a white supremacist plowed into a crowd of counter-protesters.
Despite the deep polarization that has characterized the divide between America's two major political parties, Georgei believes the image of torch-carrying white nationalists in Charlottesville served to bring together reasonable people from both sides of the aisle — to rally against a common enemy.
"They're all to the left of this hate," he said. "In that sense, I am heartened."
Georgei is doubtful that a Charlottesville could happen here.
Not so, said Jessica Nix, who helped organize the event.
"I believe Charlottesville could happen anywhere," Nix said. "And Heather could have been me, or any of my friends."
Both Georgei and Nix were critical of President Donald Trump for his rhetoric during his campaign that they say gave comfort to those who hold extreme views. And they believe Trump's initial reluctance to condemn the anti-semitism and racism embodied by the torch marchers further enabled them.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides,” the president said early on, not focusing on the neo-Nazis.
Many other Republicans were more specific.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, said "we should call evil by its name. My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican and the father of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, tweeted: “‘White supremacy’ crap is worst kind of racism-it’s EVIL and perversion of God’s truth to ever think our Creator values some above others.”
And Bakersfield's own Rep. Kevin McCarthy said on Facebook and Twitter, "The actions of malice and hate by white supremacists simply have no place in society."
Trump spoke out more forcefully Monday on the weekend violence, denouncing "the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans."
Jeanine Kraybill, assistant professor of political science at Cal State Bakersfield, said Monday the blame for the violence "ultimately resides with the individuals who acted in hate over the weekend."
However, Kraybill said white supremacists and those who seek to divide the nation through racial hatred have been "emboldened, and our leadership needs to recognize this and how their polarizing rhetoric has added to what we are seeing."
Trump's delay in condemning racism and the white nationalists also served to embolden them, she said.
Kraybill noted that the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that has tracked hate groups for decades, has identified 917 hate groups that are spread throughout the country, with dozens located in California.
"In 2016, there was a KKK rally in Anaheim that turned violent," she said. "Could it happen here? I would certainly hope not."
Kern County has struggled in the past with an undercurrent of racism and Klan activity that has included white-robed marchers in Oildale in the 1980s and '90s, occasional incidents of cross burnings targeting blacks and Hispanics, and even violent assaults like one in Oildale in 1992 that saw a black man stabbed nearly to death by a white assailant after his car had broken down.
That same year, a Hispanic couple in Oildale were awakened before dawn by a flaming cross on their front yard.
And again in 1992, a black family in the Rexland Acres neighborhood south of Bakersfield felt it had to move after enduring a year of unrelenting death threats and racial slurs.
Like it or not, this kind of activity goes way back in Kern's history.
In the spring and summer of 1922, The Californian and other area newspapers reported extensively on whippings, tarrings, beatings and other attacks committed by bands of hooded men who claimed to be Klansmen. In addition to blacks, the Klan's targets in the 1920s included Irish Catholics, Jews, Asians and labor unions.
In 1922, a list of about 350 names of alleged Klan members was published by The Californian. The list included the Bakersfield chief of police, a county supervisor, the Taft city marshal, two justices of the peace, four sheriff's deputies, a Bakersfield police officer, four members of the Taft City Council, four Bakersfield city firefighters and scores of other government officials and businessmen.
Unceasing news coverage and editorial criticism of area Klan activities, coupled with a Kern County grand jury investigation, eventually resulted in the disbanding of klaverns in western Kern County and Bakersfield — at least temporarily.