LOS ANGELES — When white nationalists failed to turn out in threatening numbers Sunday at a Huntington Beach rally, many counterprotesters viewed it as a victory.
"We've won the day," Los Angeles activist Najee Ali said several hours into the protest. "They're not going to show up. They're vastly outnumbered. The community of Huntington Beach won."
Yet those who track extremist movements say that the truth is more complex and troubling.
Infighting, disorganization and other factors could have prevented neo-Nazis and other extremists from showing up in the kind of force seen during the deadly "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
But they also warned that white nationalists appear to be exploiting the event's small turnout — and the fact that they were overwhelmed by counterprotesters — to bolster their recruiting under the narrative that white people are under attack.
"It feeds into the agenda that white men no longer have constitutional rights," said Peter Levi, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Orange County and Long Beach. "They try to assemble, and they can't assemble. They try to have free speech, and they can't."
The weekend fiasco in Huntington Beach, repeated in more than a dozen U.S. cities where similar rallies were planned, may not only play to an aggrieved base of white-centered groups but also could help them bond with other right-wing ideologies, extremist experts said. Far from signaling a breakdown of white supremacist activity, Sunday may be a curtain raiser for things to come, when issues such as immigration, border security and police reform will continue to roil politics.
"It was a cynical publicity stunt," said Eric Ward, an extremism expert with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Western States Center. "It fires up the base. It makes those individuals [who attend] automatic heroes."
Over the last few years, counterdemonstrators have increasingly confronted far-right protesters as passions have grown on both sides. During Sunday's event, opponents swarmed apparent supporters of white supremacy and like-minded demonstrators often charging them away from the Huntington Beach Pier amid chants of "Nazis, go home."
Several groups, including Black Lives Matter and the NAACP, made it clear prior to the rally that they didn't support the counterprotest. Some said the low turnout could have been a strategy and believe white nationalist groups have used similar events in the past to bait them into confrontations.