WASHINGTON — A handful of members of right wing, white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups holding a rally near the White House on Sunday were vastly outnumbered by crowds of counterprotesters.
Dubbed Unite the Right 2, the white supremacist rally was organized by Jason Kessler, a self-described “white civil rights” activist who held a similar event in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12 last year. While that rally sparked massive clashes that brought attention to emboldened right-wing groups, Kessler’s second event failed to draw a sizable crowd of supporters.
A young woman named Heather Heyer died during the Charlottesville rally when a neo-Nazi sympathizer drove his car into a crowd of protesters. Many others were injured and two police officers also died in a helicopter crash while they were patroling the event. Because of the past violence, Washington braced for a similar situation on Sunday, with numerous local businesses closing and officials developing a plan for rally participants to be escorted to the event’s location in Lafayette Park with police protection.
But Sunday’s rally did not generate the turnout Kessler might have envisioned, with only about 20 allies joining him. Traveling to the event on the Metro train from suburban Vienna, Va., Kessler’s group arrived in downtown D.C. at about 2:30 p.m. They were flanked by police as they walked a few blocks to the park, which is across the street from the White House.
Large crowds of counterprotesters encircled the group and tossed objects at them as they marched from the train. At Lafayette Park, police kept Kessler and his followers far from the protesters, who had them surrounded.
The counterprotesters included members of a wide variety of groups, including socialists and Black Lives Matter organizations. Maurice Cook, co-founder of March for Racial Justice, which helped plan the counterprotests, told Yahoo News that turnout was “more than we expected.
“This is beautiful,” Cook said. “There’s many more than a thousand people here that have participated in this event today. … Everyone has been just beautiful and a wonderful celebration of our love for each other, just a wonderful expression of what this country is supposed to be.”
Many of the counterprotesters didn’t even get a glimpse of Kessler and his contingent because the police kept them so far away. A man named Ksreem said he saw them only with the help of a pair of binoculars. A woman named Gavi sat on a friend’s shoulders to peer at members of the group and wave a cardboard sign that said “F*** NAZIS.”
“I got up here to see how many people are there, and there really are not that many people,” Gavi said of Kessler’s group.
Her friend, who said his name was Charlie, described the counterprotests as “overwhelming.”
“It’s such an easy cause to be behind, such senseless hate,” Charlie said. “I don’t see how you can’t be a part of this. … I was nervous coming in, honestly, but I just felt really supported by the whole crowd.”
Signs and chants criticizing President Trump featured prominently in the counterprotests. Following the clashes in Charlottesville, Trump provoked outrage by saying there were “fine people” on both sides of the protests. It was one of multiple occasions when Trump has avoided denouncing white nationalists, some of whom ardently support him.
Cook accused the president of being “one of the motivators” for such groups.
“Folks have felt emboldened by the policies and the rhetoric of that faux president sitting there in our house,” said Cook pointing toward the White House.
Cook said he was present for last year’s violence in Charlottesville but that he was “not concerned” about similar chaos unfolding Sunday.
“I knew that our love was strong for each other and that we would protect one another,” Cook said. “To have experienced that last year … and to have experienced now what I’m experiencing now today, it’s just a blessing to me.”
Others were clearly prepared for violence, however. Many were masks, helmets, or goggles. One man, with a black helmet and black bandana over his face, said he wore protective gear because of what had happened last year.
“I just wanted to make sure that I didn’t walk out of here with any broken bones,” said the man, who declined to give his name.
Some appeared eager to confront Kessler’s group. A large group of counterprotesters gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House gates hoping to intercept the rallygoers when they left the park. Secret Service and local police officers blocked them from getting near Kessler and his allies, but some threw objects and flares over the barricades.
Police loaded Kessler and his entourage into vans and managed to get them out through the throng. Some who had been waiting for them to leave began to disperse as word circulated that Kessler’s group had been secreted out of the park.
According to the Metropolitan Police Department, as of 6:00 p.m. there had been no arrests in the protests and Kessler’s group had departed D.C. In Virginia, one man had been arrested for allegedly spitting on a pair of state troopers as Kessler and his cohorts boarded the train to Washington. Police in the capitol did not respond to questions about whether the department was aware of any injuries during the protests.
Before the event, Kessler said he wanted to hold the rally to advocate for the rights of white people. While he insists he is not a white supremacist and that he did not want neo-Nazis to participate in the rally, Kessler has repeatedly spoken of his belief that all races and religions are not equally intelligent. Kessler’s events have drawn attendees from a slew of groups that have gained increasing prominence through social media in recent years correlating with a nationwide spike in hate crimes.
Kessler did not respond to an email asking if he was disappointed by the low turnout.
The counterprotesters were clearly pleased to have vastly outnumbered Kessler’s group. Elena, a local college student, said he attended because she felt a “moral call to action.” She was joined by another student, Aaron, who said the counterprotests sent Kessler and his ilk “an overwhelming message.”
“One of the really big ways to deal with groups like this in America is social shame,” Aaron said. “You have to show these people that America has changed our social values and we’re willing to stand up to these racists and these xenophobes and say this is not the America we want. We have a different future.”
Stephen, a young man from Southeast D.C. who said he came to the counterprotest to “support the black brothers and sisters,” had a different view of the lesson white supremacists should take from the event. It should tell them, he said, “not to come the f*** back.” His friend, Dirk, agreed.
“They need to stop before we whoop their ass,” Dirk said.
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