Far-right groups including the Proud Boys and their allies rallied in downtown Washington, D.C., on Saturday, but were vastly outnumbered by counter-protesters and hamstrung by a muddled message, a depleted lineup, and a bungled stunt by their founder.
Many of the pro-Trump personalities who spoke to a few hundred people at the so-called “Demand Free Speech” rally at D.C’.s Freedom Plaza complained about social media bans that have cratered their careers and left them marginalized within the conservative movement. But that message was often overshadowed by threats of violence from the rally’s other speakers and a booming rival demonstration nearby.
Social media giants like Twitter and Facebook were name-checked often during the speeches, but some speakers veered off on tangents.
“I may have been the first person in history completely banned from Tinder,” speaker Greg Aselbekian shouted.
Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes took the stage in fake handcuffs meant to symbolize the effect of online censorship on his politics. He then attempted to wrench the handcuffs off himself to prove that he could overcome his social media bans—but could not manage it and had to be helped by someone else on stage. After the rally, McInnes claimed that was all part of his plan.
McInnes went on to praise the fighting prowess of the all-men’s Proud Boys group that he founded but claims to no longer lead. McInnes compared the Proud Boys to German soldiers fighting waves of Soviet troops in World War II.
“That’s how it feels to fight antifa,” McInnes said, referring to left-wing antifascist demonstrators participating in the counterprotest.
The event often seemed to be as much about reminding Trump supporters about the fading right-wing stars’ new endeavors as it was about making a coherent point about social media bans.
Anti-Muslim activist Laura Loomer, who has been kicked off of Twitter, Facebook, and even food delivery service Uber Eats, urged the dwindling audience to subscribe to her newsletter. McInnes, meanwhile, wore a shirt promoting his new video site. Milo Yiannopoulos, an anti-Muslim British activist, took the stage in a wig to perform an unflattering impression of Loomer, and used much of his speech to insult right-wing personalities who had bailed on the rally.
At the counterprotest across the street, hundreds of people listened to speakers critical of the right-wing rally and danced to go-go music.
The right-wing rally came a week after contentious dueling rallies in Portland, in which conservative journalist Andy Ngo was injured by antifa activists. The Portland events had ratcheted up tensions for the D.C. rally, and groups of Proud Boys in their yellow and black polo-shirt uniforms patrolled the event’s edges. But D.C. police mostly managed to keep the two sides apart. As of 3 p.m., an hour after the Proud Boys rally had ended, police said they had not made any arrests.
The rally lost some of its most prominent speakers in the run-up to the event. Former Pizzagate promoter Mike Cernovich bailed. Another speaker, perennial congressional candidate Omar Navarro, also bowed out amid a feud with the Proud Boys that involved allegations of cocaine and sex. Former Trump adviser Roger Stone was listed as a headliner, but also failed to show.
On the day of the rally, notorious conservative operative Jacob Wohl, who was listed as a speaker, messaged The Daily Beast to make clear that he wouldn’t be appearing after all. Wohl claimed, vaguely, that he’d been called out of town on business.