Washington • A short and sparsely attended white nationalist rally broke up late Sunday as police ushered the attendees into white vans and drove them away from a crowd of thousands of angry protesters in downtown Washington.
The rally’s end followed a day in which large numbers of police officers sought — for the most part successfully — to keep the two sides from clashing in a repeat of last year’s deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
The small band of demonstrators at the “Unite the Right 2” rally, who numbered about two dozen, were being transported to the Rosslyn Metro station, a Fairfax County official said. From there, they would take a train to Vienna, where they would be greeted by county police who could escort them to their cars if necessary.
The demonstration’s message of “white civil rights,” delivered in an overwhelmingly liberal city where African Americans outnumbered whites at the last Census count, was angrily denounced by those who flocked to Lafayette Square.
A brief speech by rally organizer Jason Kessler — also one of the lead organizers of last year’s rally — was drowned out by the cries and chants of those massed around him. Many in the crowd of counterprotesters wore the signature black masks, helmets and body armor of the Antifa movement, which clashed violently with white supremacists in Charlottesville.
Scores of police officers kept them separated from the white nationalist demonstrators - and ultimately drew the renewed anger of the masked counter-protesters after supporters of the white supremacist rally were long gone from downtown D.C.
As evening came on and rain began to fall, the black-clad group launched flares and fireworks toward the White House compound. Roughly 200 of them then moved east in a group down I Street NW, turning over trash bins and chanting anti-police slogans.
Police later clashed with the counterprotesters at 13th and G Streets NW, after the activists tried to push past a line of officers on motorcycles engaged in crowd control. Some officers scuffled with the activists and used mace in response, though police said no one was immediately arrested.
Counterprotester Mike Isaacson said the group had planned to march to the headquarters of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) but were thwarted by police and rerouted to the Department of Justice. He said they had not planned to have a confrontation with police. “We were just taking the streets,” he said.
The white supremacist gathering falls on the anniversary of the Charlottesville violence, which killed an anti-racist protester, Heather Heyer, and took the lives of two Virginia State troopers whose helicopter crashed as they returned from monitoring the day's events.
Both Kessler and opposition groups obtained permits from the National Park Service to demonstrate at the park, a leafy, seven-acre enclave across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. Authorities confined the groups to opposite sides of the park and separated them by a barrier.
From the moment they set foot in the District, Kessler and his supporters were escorted by police in riot gear. They arrived in the city after boarding a train — with police officers stationed in each car — at the Vienna Metro station in Northern Virginia.
Before boarding the train, Kessler told reporters they were promoting free speech and abuses of “white people’s civil rights.”
“I am not a white nationalist. I’m a civil-rights advocate,” he said. “I’m focusing on white people because we don’t have civil-rights advocates.”
Kessler offered his “condolences” to Heyer’s mother but said that police in Charlottesville should have blocked off the street where she was killed last year.
The train carrying Kessler (and with several police officers standing on each car) made stops along the way from Vienna toward Foggy Bottom. At Clarendon station, officers on the platform warned waiting passengers that the coming train was carrying Unite the Right participants, and directed people to board at the front of the train, away from Kessler's car at the back.
Protesters awaited the train when it arrived at Foggy Bottom station, but they were separated from Kessler by about 60 feet, with police officers instructing the protesters that they weren't allowed to get any closer. None of the protesters physically tried to get past the police.
When Kessler emerged from the car, surrounded by a swarm of photographers and TV cameras, the protesters started booing, yelling “F--- you,” and chanting “Black Lives Matter.” Once the white supremacist group went up the escalator and past the fare gates, the people standing on the platform could hear a slow rumble of screams and yells erupt from the people waiting at the surface.
Members of Kessler’s group said they weren’t sure how many people would show up to demonstrate with them but that it “doesn’t matter.”
As the group was escorted into the station, a crowd of counterprotesters shouted “go home Nazis” and told the group whose faces were covered to “take off your masks.”
Meanwhile, in Washington, the number of protesters continued to grow.
At about 2:30 p.m., several dozen masked counterprotesters, many of them wearing helmets and body armor, moved north on 13th Street. Many carried black umbrellas that they extended to form a shield when journalists approached them to ask questions and take photographs.
"We're not talking to press today," said one man with a black scarf tied across the bottom half of his face. "We prefer to let our actions speak for themselves."
As the group approached intersections, those at the front and rear would call out commands for others to halt. Eventually they stopped in Franklin Square Park, sitting down to rest and drink water.
One demonstrator, who wore dark sunglasses and had tied a bandanna across his face, declined to give his name but said he works full-time in the health care industry and has children.
“People like to think that we’re a bunch of jobless hippies,” he said.
He said he drew his own inspiration for involvement in black bloc in part from his study of German history, saying that the passivity of Germans had enabled Hitler's rise.
“The nice, chatty liberals in Germany didn’t stop anything from happening,” he said.
He said the group of black bloc demonstrators would only use violence if forced to by white nationalist protesters. (He said the standards for what would trigger a violent reaction were “organic,” rather than strictly defined.)
Asked why he and his co-demonstrators were prepared to use violence rather than taking a non-violent approach, he said others were free to adopt more peaceful measures.
“There’s enough of us for everybody to do, in their heart of hearts, what they feel is the absolute best thing,” he said. “For people who want to do something that’s hand-holdy and singing songs, we think there’s room for people to do that.”
However, he added, “I think if you ask the average person on the street, more people are willing to use a fist if a fist comes at them than you think.”
Close to a thousand protesters were at Freedom Plaza by mid-afternoon, a few blocks away from Lafayette Park for an afternoon rally of speeches and music.
The Rev. Graylan Hagler was the rally’s first speaker. “This place, this city, this country is a country of inclusivity and not white supremacy,” he told the crowd in a booming voice. “We are people that stand up for racial justice and racial inclusivity,” he added. “We will not be silenced.”
Elsewhere, about 200 people from various groups marched down Vermont Avenue to just outside Lafayette Park shouting “we are not afraid” and “our streets.”
Police reported no arrests or skirmishes in the District.
Around the same time Kessler and his supporters boarded a train, a large contingent of Black Lives Matter D.C. arrived at Lafayette Square to await him there.
Several hundred people marched down H Street toward the plaza shouting chants, many of them dressed in black and holding signs. The front phalanx walked in a row behind a hand-painted banner reading, “Rise Up” and “Power to the People.”
Protesters and tourists left the grassy plaza to watch and applaud the group chanting and clapping in the street.
Earlier at Lafayette Park the atmosphere was quieter.
Protesters milled about, talking and photographing each other’s signs. Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” pumped through speakers set up on the stage on the northeast side of the park. Some enterprising vendors hawked cold water and Gatorade.
For some of the protesters, the focus was less on the white supremacist rally than on President Donald Trump.
Holding a “Dump Trump” sign, Mike Holey, 67, of Baltimore, said he’s been particularly frustrated by what he called the president’s hesitation to denounce white supremacy and neo-Nazism. He pointed to Trump’s statement that there was “blame on both sides” after violence broke out at the Unite the Right rally last year.
Benjamin Garrett, a Vietnam War veteran who lives in Maryland, raised a sign saying “Trump is a traitor” in block capital letters.
“He gives these people permission,” Garrett said. “Trump is a blatant racist.”
Trump, who was heavily criticized last year for not unequivocally condemning the white nationalists who had organized the rally and a torch light march through the University of Virginia campus the night before, addressed the Charlottesville anniversary on Saturday, tweeting, “The riots in Charlottesville a year ago resulted in senseless death and division. We must come together as a nation. I condemn all types of racism and acts of violence. Peace to ALL Americans!”
At the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, about 20 protesters marched to the Lincoln Memorial while singing “We Shall Overcome.”
The group’s leader, Hawk Newsome, said that Kessler had invited him and his group, Black Lives Matter of Greater N.Y., to attend Unite the Right 2.
“He thought that i was a friend, but I am not his Negro,” Newsome said. “I am not some token Black you can use to validate yourself.”
BLM-GNY — which has been disavowed by the broader Black Lives Matter network — went viral when Newsome and a few others went onstage at a Trump rally last September while staging a counterprotest.
Instead of joining Kessler, he and a handful of other activists marched over the past 10 days from the Bronx to D.C. to protest a range of issues, from food insecurity to police brutality.
“I represent a contingent of marginalized people and they [white nationalists] stand in direct opposition to everything we fight for,” Newsome said.
District leaders and federal and local law enforcement officials say their focus Sunday is to keep the two groups apart and prevent any violence or property damage. Police in Charlottesville last year stood back as white supremacists and neo-Nazis engaged in brutal clashes and street brawls with protesters, including members of anti-fascist groups.
D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said Thursday that the goal “will be to keep the two groups separate . . . When they are in the same area at the same time, it leads to violent confrontations. Our goal is to prevent that from happening.”
District officials said late Sunday that they were still tallying the cost to the rally to the city. At least some of it would be reimbursed by the federal government, they said, since Kessler's event took place on Park Service land.
Police closed streets to vehicle traffic in a large swath of blocks near the White House beginning at 8 a.m. Sunday. Earlier in the week, there were discussions about having Kessler’s group take Metro from the Vienna station in Northern Virginia to Foggy Bottom. And one plan would have Metro arrange for separate subway cars for those attending the rally. But that plan was abandoned when the union representing Metro’s workers, predominantly people of color, made clear that they did not want to provide special arrangements for racists.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said Sunday his transit agency doesn’t want a repeat of last year’s violence in Charlottesville.
Standing in front of Vienna Metro station Wiedefeld said the agency stepped up security for the weekend.
“We have history here,” he said. “It’s all hands on deck for us.”
He said that Metro is a public service and as long as no one is violent they will be allowed to ride the trains.
At 9:30 Sunday morning, the Vienna Metro station was quiet. The white supremacist groups expected to congregate there ahead of the rally had not yet arrived. But Metro Transit Police and Fairfax County Police were there, setting up a staging area and preparing for any clashes that could ensue when rally attendees and those opposing them begin to arrive.
Around 8 a.m. Fairfax County police tweeted a warning to Metro riders: “High ridership expected at Vienna Metro today. In an effort to promote safety, Chief Roessler is asking commuters to avoid the area all day today based on our knowledge the ridership will consist of opposing groups known to cause civil unrest.”
In the two hours after police sent that tweet, there were few demonstrators present, but fliers were plastered around the station in anticipation: “Hate Free Zone” and “Hate Has No Home Here,” they read.
D.C. police could be seen early Sunday walking the streets near the park as officials began shutting down several downtown streets where protesters are expected to gather.
Even as police continued to erect an intricate maze of barricades around Lafayette Park, it seemed like a typical Sunday morning outside the White House - with Segway tours and selfie sticks in abundance.
Tourists making their way through Lafayette Square paused to take in the growing group of protesters gathering on the northeast side of the park.
Brightly colored signs declaring, “From Charlottesville to the White House: Shut down white supremacy” and “No Nazis, no KKK, no fascist USA” lined patches of grass.
Rossana Castillo, 50, a tourist from Grenoble, France, paused as she passed to take photos.
“It’s astonishing to me,” she said of the planned Unite the Right rally that was expected to bring white supremacists and a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan within shouting distance of the White House. “And it is just so sad. I know I am a foreigner, but I love your country. I really do. And I am so grateful these people can be here and have the right to stand up to people like this.”
Just after 10 a.m., officers cleared the park for a security sweep. Police dogs patrolled the area, sniffing at the signs.
Brian Becker, the executive director of the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition urged activists to “be strong, be steadfast, be calm, be dignified” as the sweep continued.
He and his organization decided to host a counterprotest Sunday, he said, because “the president said there were some ‘very fine people’ on both sides after Charlottesville — we think the American people disagree.”
"We represent the majority sentiment in this country," he said. "Nazis and the KKK do not represent America."
At the Vienna Metro station, VJ Hyde, a 38-year-old music teacher from Fairfax County, pulled a new stack of posters and a roll of tape from his Whole Foods shopping bag and doled them out to his wife and two daughters.
The family of four and three of their friends came to the Metro station to post the “Hate Free Zone” and “Hate Has No Home Here” fliers.
“We’re here because this is a very messed up time in our country and our community is front and center,” Hyde said.
He and his family are Jewish and their friends are Asian American. Hyde said he overheard one of his daughters talking to a friend about the white supremacists. She told the friend the rally attendees "hate us."
“That’s pretty f----- up,” Hyde said.
Issues like racism and xenophobia have been “front and center” in his house since the election of Donald Trump and the first “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville last year.
“It’s almost impossible to hide it from them,” he said, referring to his young children. “They realize there’s a greater thing at stake right now.”
It was their duty to show up this morning, Hyde said.
“It’s a matter of being a true American and standing up for what’s right in this country,” he said.
Those planning to attend Kessler's rally, according to documents obtained by Washington City Paper from the National Park Service, include David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard who also attended the event in Charlottesville last year, as well as neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers.
Kessler has denied responsibility for the violence in Charlottesville last year and has said that he had not invited the KKK and other white supremacist groups to the rally there. But several days after the deadly violence in the city, he tweeted, “Heather Heyer was a fat, disgusting Communist. Looks like it was payback time.”
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Thursday that the city would ensure that the rallygoers can exercise their right to free speech.
“While we are opposed adamantly to what we are going to hear, we know what our responsibility is - to protect First Amendment events, to protect Washingtonians and to protect our city,” she said.
Bowser returned to the city from a trip to El Salvador to supervise the city's response. She planned to return to El Salvador on Monday morning to finish the sister city trip.
A spokeswoman said Bowser is canceling part of her trip to “monitor planned First Amendment events” and her decision wasn’t based on any intelligence, nor was there reason to believe violence would be worse than expected.
Makia Green of Black Lives Matter D.C. told The Washington Post that she wants white nationalists to know that the movement against them is only getting stronger.
“Our resistance is ever-growing,” she said. “This progress that they are so afraid of — the rise of black leaders and Black Lives Matter getting bigger and people feeling safe to speak their mind — that is still happening.”
Michael Shallal, a member of the D.C. chapter of the International Socialists Organization, one of the groups organizing the Freedom Plaza rally, said it was crucial for protesters to outnumber Kessler and his supporters.
“Our main message is that we want people to see Kessler and his allies for what they really are,” Shallal said. “They are not free-speech advocates for white rights but racist Nazis who want to have a nation for white people only.”