Massive counterprotests dwarf white nationalist rally in DC

Massive counterprotests dwarf white nationalist rally in DC
© Emily Birnbaum

Thousands of anti-racist protesters drowned out a sparsely attended white nationalist rally held in Washington, D.C., on Sunday afternoon.

Roughly 15 to 20 people took part in the "Unite the Right 2" rally on the side of Lafayette Park closest to the White House, despite organizer Jason Kessler having originally estimated that between 100 and 400 people would turn up.

The event, which was scheduled to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the deadly white nationalist march that took place in Charlottesville, Va., was met by thousands of protesters, some of whom were affiliated with the "antifa" movement. The area permitted for counterprotests was far too small to fit all of those taking part; hundreds packed into the park while thousands swarmed the surrounding areas. 

"We got our message out," counterprotest organizer and Georgetown professor Mark Lance told The Hill. "All the communities were united in rejecting hate. We had thousands from every community in our wonderful city and a pathetic gaggle of 40 Nazis hopped into police vans to run away."

"So yeah," he added. "Success."

The "Unite the Right 2" attendees were escorted away from the park by law enforcement around 5:30 p.m., two hours before the rally was scheduled to end. 

Though the group of anti-racist protesters began to dwindle after the white nationalists left, crowds continued to demonstrate into the evening, marching throughout downtown D.C. 

The day was preceded by weeks of preparation from D.C. law enforcement, concerned that there could be an outbreak of violence similar to last year. But violent physical confrontations were few and far between. 

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Tension was high throughout the afternoon, however, as anti-racist protesters faced off directly against white nationalists, often jeering, chanting, singing and booing at the far-right groups.

"Shame, shame, shame!" the protesters could be heard shouting in a unified voice.

The passionate and sometimes aggressive crowd included strong showings from anti-fascist, anti-racist and anti-Trump groups, such as Black Lives Matter. Chants of "Go home, Nazis!," "Black Lives Matter!" and "f---- Nazis!" could be heard over the course of the afternoon. One man blew into a tuba every few minutes. 

Occasionally, the crowd broke into a chorus of boos when members of the press or law enforcement walked by.   

Protesters and white nationalists were barricaded into opposing sides of the park, while law enforcement officials, clad in neon vests, lined up in the center. Police officers sat ready on horses at either end of the white nationalist rally, ready to intervene if anything got out of hand.

Some protesters criticized law enforcement for what they saw as "special treatment" of the white nationalists. 

Black Lives Matter organizer Makia Green told The Hill that she believes law enforcement's role was to "protect and save the white nationalists coming into town," a sentiment echoed by many on the ground.  

Law enforcement accompanied the white nationalist group as they were transported from Virginia to Washington on the metro. Though reports circulated that Metro ultimately provided a private car for the white identity extremists, a spokeswoman for Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority told The Hill their car was "not private."

"The Vienna Metro remained open to the public and all trains are available to the public," WMATA spokeswoman Sherri Ly told The Hill. "Any decisions regarding crowd control and safety is a law enforcement matter and should be directed to the joint operations command and MPD the lead agency on the event."

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump threatens ex-intel official's clearance, citing comments on CNN Protesters topple Confederate monument on UNC campus Man wanted for threatening to shoot Trump spotted in Maryland MORE was a consistent theme of the event, with most activists drawing a direct connection between the Trump administration and white supremacy.

"I see Trump's rhetoric as clearly having given credence and a green light for white supremacists to gather in front of his house," Nora Leccesse, an activist with Showing Up for Racial Justice, told The Hill. 

"Organizers like Jason Kessler, some of these far-right, alt-right white supremacist organizations are the inevitable and most clear articulation of Trump's ideology that’s been allowed to flourish," she continued.

Trump on Saturday tweeted a denouncement of "all types of racism and acts of violence," a reversal from his refusal to denounce white supremacy in explicit terms after the violent rallies in Charlottesville last year. That rally ended with a car being driven into a group of anti-racism protesters, killing one and injuring several others. A man with alleged neo-Nazi ties has been charged with second-degree murder and federal hate crimes in the incident. Trump faced enormous bipartisan blowback for his comments that there were "fine people" and "blame on both sides" in Charlottesville. 

Several activists told The Hill they were not convinced by the president's tweet. 

"I think it's a very contrived political statement and that he had no choice but to say something after the reception he got last year," Ross Wells, an activist from the Washington Ethical Society, told The Hill. "At the same time, he insults and makes racist comments about [NBA player] Lebron James and newscasters. It's almost like he can't help himself."

At the other end of the park from the protesters, one "Unite the Right 2" attendee began his speech by thanking Trump for "making America great again."

One by one, the far-right attendees spoke to a dwindling crowd that mainly consisted of members of the press. One man spoke about "freedom of speech." Another spoke about "white civil rights." Several of them wore black helmets that read "reclaim your nation."

One demonstrator who identified himself as Carl told The Hill that Sunday was "the best day" of his life.

He claimed the white nationalist crowd would have been larger but sympathizers were "scared away" by the massive counterprotests.

Counterprotest organizers who spoke to The Hill described the protest as a "celebration" and "success" for those standing against racism and white supremacy.

"We are really pleased with how it went today and we hope that this is a sign that people will continue showing up," Leccesse said.

"I hope to achieve that [neo-Nazis] don't feel welcome here or anywhere else that they go in communities," Tim Berdibekov, a business analyst based in Virginia, told The Hill. "They've always been around, organizing on the internet, before that through their networks. They should go back to that and not on the streets."

As the event wound down, anti-racism protesters, still holding tight to wet and dripping signs, dispersed throughout the city. The white nationalists shuffled away under the close watch of law enforcement officials. 

"I hope to let white supremacists know that they are not welcome here," the Rev. Janelle Bruce of Church Without Walls told The Hill. "They're not going to spread the message of hate here in our cities, in our nation. People will not join in. So I hope to just spread the message of love and that we won't be silent."