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How Washington, D.C., Silenced the Second Unite the Right Rally

An on-the-ground account of how the residents and authorities in our nation's capital dealt with a gathering of white nationalists in their city.
Counter-protesters march from Freedom Plaza to Lafayette Park before the Unite the Right rally on August 12th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Counter-protesters march from Freedom Plaza to Lafayette Park before the Unite the Right rally on August 12th, 2018, in Washington, D.C. 

Jason Kessler and his small group of white nationalist supporters were greeted with hostility the moment they stepped out of the Foggy Bottom Metro stop in the District of Columbia on Sunday.

Escorted by police officers, they shuffled into the permitted rally area in Lafayette Park sometime after 3:30 p.m. After setting up their stage, making about 20 minutes of barely audible speeches, and briefly talking to the press, the 20- to 30-strong white nationalist rally snuck out—again, alongside police. By about 5 p.m., Unite the Right 2 was over, before it had even been scheduled to truly begin.

Nobody had known what to expect, but Sunday's rally could easily have gone the way of the one Kessler led in Charlottesville last year, which erupted into violence, ending in numerous injuries and the murder of antiracist protester Heather Heyer. It didn't go that way.

Unite the Right 2 was not the first or even the second time that white supremacist groups have chosen D.C. as a site for a showy demonstration. But over the past few decades, locals have put up a strong resistance, often outnumbering the participants of the original rally. In that sense, this Sunday was tradition. They have made this choice over an alternative some had advocated: Staying home to avoid violence, and to keep from lending credence to a fringe movement.

Thousands of counter-protesters from all corners of the city—and beyond—showed up. They all had different priorities and tactics, but a shared goal emerged: to drown out the ideology of the white nationalists in town through their sheer numbers, and the volume of their collective voices.

"On the one hand we're expressing our absolute denial of the legitimacy of a group like this to march through our city," said Mark Lance, a longtime organizer and D.C. resident, who helped put together the Shut It Down DC coalition. "On the other hand, we're aiming to demonstrate just how different Washington is from this hateful ideology."

As they marched into Lafayette Park to greet Unite the Right, the local Black Lives Matter members danced to Childish Gambino's "This Is America," and yelled out their slogans. Local queer groups also arrived dancing. A large contingent of militant antifa trudged around the square, clad in black, faces masked and hooded. Some wore body armor and carried wooden shields. Local and nationally based activists from Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) Coalition had set up in the park as early as 8 a.m.

There, activist Eugene Puryear reminded protesters how a "Free Speech" rally in Boston was dismantled last year by a flood of counter-protesters that overshadowed white supremacists almost 800 to one. "We need to confront them directly," he said. "To say wherever you go, wherever you try to come and bring your message, you will be opposed, and you will be outnumbered."

Some antifa factions had clearly come prepared to oppose. At one point, they burned a Confederate flag, its black smoke wafting up above H Street. But even among them, some viewed the best case scenario as the white nationalists being "too intimidated by our numbers" to make it to Lafayette Park. Other anti-fascist and socialist organizations emphasized a non-violent approach.

"I understand the urge to punch Nazis," said Scott McLemee, a D.C. resident and an organizer with the International Socialist Organization, which brought contingents from D.C., Baltimore, and New York. "But having the numbers to oppose their ideology is the better tactic."

Washingtonians deployed similar strategies in 1982, 1990, and 1999, when white supremacist turnout in the double-digits was overwhelmed by opponents. In fact, if the number of counter-protesters in Washington had turned out in Charlottesville last year (a significantly smaller city), they would have significantly outnumbered the hundreds of Unite the Right representatives there. But there was a time in the 1920s when D.C., too, was less willing to challenge white nationalist movements.

In Ku Klux Klan demonstrations in 1925, more than 25,000 hooded members showed up who were reportedly welcomed by many white residents of then-segregated Washington.

For the local Black Lives Matter chapter, showing up to oppose the Unite the Right 2 rally as a part of the Shut It Down DC coalition wasn't just about this protest. Apart from making white nationalists uncomfortable in "Chocolate City," Neenee Taylor and her co-organizers also wanted to send a message to their own communities: The real work against white supremacy happens locally every day—and this counter-rally was just an extension of that work.

"If we can show up to defend ourselves against white supremacy, we should be able to come together to empower our communities to take back what we're entitled to as black people," she said. "This is a way that we can speak to the community as well, and tell them: We are here, we're not going anywhere, and the work don't stop today."

In pursuit of safety and solidarity for protesters of color, Taylor led a group of activists handing out fliers in far reaches of the District on Saturday.

"We didn't want a black person here and a black person there, because it's unsafe," she said. "We're asking everyone to come to one space, where we have lawyers, legal observers, medics, de-escalators, marshals, police liaisons ... and the goal is that we outshine the alt-right message."

A Different Kind of Policing

Last year's Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville unfolded in a city unprepared for hundreds of white nationalists, some armed and bearing torches, clashing head-on with their counter-protester opponents.

But the Charlottesville police were accused by some of escalating the aggression through their own actions, armed with riot gear and lashing out at antifa. Saturday's anniversary in that city—this time, without a strong showing of white nationalists—attracted dozens of officers, who were again clad in riot gear. "It seems like who they're gearing up to monitor and observe and contain and discipline are those of us who want to resist fascism and racism," Lisa Woolfork, an activist with Charlottesville Black Lives Matter, told the Washington Post. At Portland's neo-Confederate rally of "Proud Boys" last weekend, the Oregon American Civil Liberties Union alleged that police used excessive force, reacting with far more hostility to the antifa protesters than the white nationalists.

Sunday's protest in D.C. was different. The Parks Department had issued permits beforehand, and worked with the city to make sure that both sides would remain separate.

"We feel strongly that [our approach] led to a relatively peaceful day," D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser later told DCist. D.C. police chief Peter Newsham called it "a well-executed plan to safeguard people and property while allowing citizens to express their First Amendment rights."

How the city chose to do that has elicited criticism. Initially, the regional transit authority, WMATA, had promised it would not run special Metro cars to transport Kessler and his group from the Vienna station in Virginia into D.C., after the D.C. Metro Workers' Union—which is 80 percent people of color—and local residents pushed back. For all intents and purposes, though, the white supremacists did get special treatment: Under a train line description that read "Special," according to photos tweeted by Ford Fischer of N2S Reports, Kessler and his Unite the Right 2 collaborators rode the Metro alone with only the police, and some press.

Metro spokesperson Sherri Ly first denied reports of a specially commissioned train, and later put the onus of segregating the white nationalists on law enforcement. But the transit union, Local 689, was not happy. "Today, the public was lied to..." read a statement on Local 689's Twitter page. "The special accommodation for a hate rally in Washington, D.C., was dishonest, unprecedented, and not a reflection of the principles of ATU Local 689 or #DCValues." They are calling for the firing of WMATA's general manager, Paul Weidefeld.

At the protest site, and along the roads leading up to it, droves of D.C. and federal police were everywhere—on horseback, motorcycles, bikes, and vans; accompanied by bomb-sniffing dogs and Homeland Security officers. But they mostly limited their interactions with protesters. Counter-protest groups were permitted to stand on one side of Lafayette Park, separated by barricades and a line of police officers from the handful of white nationalists on the other side. Unlike in Portland or Charlottesville, the police weren't in riot gear. They also didn't didn't shoot rubber bullets or spray tear gas, or charge into crowds.

Later in the day, though, skirmishes broke out. Irate because of the level of protection Kessler's colleagues were getting, factions of antifa blocked the exit out of the park, and chucked eggs, bottles of water, and fireworks around the time the white nationalists exited, reportedly in United States Secret Service vans. And, at another point, protesters tried to intercept a couple of white nationalist stragglers.

The police deployed pepper spray on the crowd once, according to DCist, and threatened to use it another time, according to reports from the scene. By the end of the day, they had made two arrests: One counter-protester was arrested in the district for allegedly pepper spraying someone in the face; and one was charged for allegedly spitting on a police officer near the Vienna station.

Some of the anger among counter-protesters arose from the fact that the National Parks Service had permitted the group to rally in the first place—Charlottesville, after all, had denied Kessler's permit for an anniversary event. Others had been wary of the heightened police presence.

"The police are not here to protect us, they're here to serve and protect [the Nazis]—people coming to our city—and using our tax dollars so that the Nazis feel safe," BLM's Taylor said on Saturday. At Sunday's protest, too, several groups confessed their lack of trust. Protesters from the ANSWER Coalition were frustrated that the police evacuated the protesters multiple times throughout the morning to conduct security sweeps. "Our relationship with the police has never been friendly," said Kei Pritsker, a representative for the ANSWER coalition.

Kessler's own view of the event was ambiguous. He dodged questions from the press and stuck to his usual talking points. He blamed the death of Heather Heyer on Charlottesville security and antifa, and complained that a few of his men had been left behind in Vienna. But it had never been clear if the 100 to 400 participants he had originally predicted were ever going to materialize—whether because his former allies wanted to distance themselves, had soured with the mission, or were simply too scared to try and repeat last year's drama in a city like Washington. Most of the few dozen who were present covered their faces with American flag bandanas and masks, wore helmets (though tattoos of Nazi and white supremacist numerology were clearly visible), and made a dash for it abruptly after speaking to reporters.

Counter-protesters stayed for a while before realizing Kessler had gone. Then they trickled back through the streets, eventually fanning out back into the D.C. neighborhoods most of them called home.

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.