WASHINGTON, D.C.—White nationalists gathered Sunday afternoon at a park overlooking the White House, a year to the day after a right-wing demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia turned to bloodshed.
Unite the Right II was planned for months, but it lasted barely a half-hour against the withering screams of thousands of protesters. Organizer Jason Kessler and a small cohort of supporters gathered in Lafayette Square flanked by cops, arriving with police escort via subway for the permitted event. Anti-fascist protesters attempted to block Kessler’s exit from the park, but he and fellow attendees slipped out of the park and boarded a van high tailing it out of the city.
Before they arrived, several thousand protesters flooded downtown, from casual residents to militant protesters waving signs like “Bash Fascism.”
Fears that anti-fascists would collide with white supremacists led to a mass mobilization of police and even the deployment of National Guard units. Police kept each side separated and in the end there was almost no violence between them.
Lafayette Square had been divided into different zones with police fencing, in an attempt to avoid clashes like the ones that broke out in Charlottesville. Signs posted around the rally area declared a “First Amendment Activity Area,” meaning firearms are prohibited within 1,000 feet.
“This is my neighborhood,” said a woman waiting for the far-right with a protest sign. “I want to show that this kind of hate is not welcome.”
Kessler was behind last year’s rallies in Charlottesville that saw torch-bearing men shout “Jews will not replace us” in front of a statue of Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee. A protester, Heather Heyer, was killed when a white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd and two officers were killed when their helicopter crashed outside of town.
Sunday's sequel came one day after the Charlottesville community gathered for a massive rally at the University of Virginia. The city had fought successfully to keep Kessler away this year. In response he chose D.C. for his second-annual event.
Kessler told reporters before the event he was there to promote free speech and protest “white civil rights abuses.”
White nationalists gathered at a Vienna, Virginia Metro station, where they waited on a bus, away from protesters, until police escorted them into the station. The group, led by Kessler, numbered several dozen. One man, apparently an anti-racist protester, was arrested for spitting from behind a police line.
The heavy police presence continued after white nationalists unloaded from a D.C. metro station and marched to Lafayette Park, directly in front of the White House, with officers pushing aside photojournalists who came too close to the small huddle of white nationalists.
A large crowd of protesters followed along, many expressing derision at the nationalists' tiny turnout. “You Nazi shitheads are outnumbered," read one poster," which a man held as he walked parallel to the group.
"That's all you've got? Really? There's like 20 of you," shouted a D.C. woman, who gave her name as Freedom. "Nobody's going to believe you, but that is my name," she told The Daily Beast.
Freedom, who identified herself as a veteran whose husband is a veteran and an immigrant, said she was furious at the sight of a nationalist demonstrator wearing the American flag around his shoulders like a cape, while the same people criticize black athletes for kneeling in protest of police brutality.
“To wear that as a Superman cape like he's in his pajamas, but we can't kneel? Are we serious?” she said. “That's fucking faking valor. That's disgusting.”
Bonnie Brown, a Des Moines, Iowa activist who was on the frontlines of the Charlottesville protests last year, said attending again felt necessary. “I always felt like it was necessary to fight against racism, hatred, and violence,” she said as the nationalists gathered in Lafayette Park. “I'm worried for other people about it turning violent, but for me, I think it's necessary to face that kind of hatred, to smash white supremacy ... I'm not afraid to face violence when it comes to injustice.”
After the Unite the Right ralliers entered Lafayette Square, a group of several dozen antifa activists took over the street leaving the park to block their exit carrying a banner in front that read: “it takes a bullet to bash fash.” A group of the activists linked up several shopping carts with poles in an attempt to make it harder for police to break their line.
Back at the Lafayette Square protest, speakers railed against police for using barricades to keep them separated from en route Unite the Right rally.
“We the people are perfectly capable of letting the Nazis and the Klan know they are not welcome,” said Brian Becker, the director of the ANSWER Coalition.
Anime fan Rena Finkel originally came to Washington this weekend for Otakon, an anime convention held on the other side of downtown. But after Finkel heard about Unite the Right, she decided to ditch the final day of Otakon to join a protest — albeit still in full costume.
“I couldn’t possibly just stay at my convention,” Finkel said.
Finkel joined a diverse range of protesters, including masked antifa activists, one man carrying a tuba to play over the Unite the Right marchers, and a group carrying a giant papier-mâché model of anarchist hero Emma Goldman.
Amanda Trebach, a nurse who was among the crowd attacked by a neo-Nazi in a car in Charlottesville last year, joined the anti-racist protesters in Freedom Plaza. She pointed to herself in a picture of the car plowing into the crowd.
“We wanted to make this as big and as safe as possible,” said Trebach, 32. “In numbers, we’re safer and more effective ... We don’t believe Nazis should be ignored or fought one on one.”
Jane, a local anti-fascist protester who declined to give a last name, showed a fading scar from a fight during the first Unite the Right.
“As someone who has been physically attacked by Nazis in Charlottesville last year," they said, "I’m expecting there to be brawl of some sort” today.