WASHINGTON, United States (AFP) — Washington police threw a ring of steel around the White House on Sunday, ahead of a white supremacist rally that will see neo-Nazis marching in the nation’s capital a year after a deadly protest highlighted the growing boldness of America’s extreme right.
The so-called Unite The Right rally drew international attention last year when a group of torch-bearing white supremacists, ostensibly protesting the removal of Confederate statues, marched through Charlottesville, Virginia in two days of chaos that culminated with a man driving a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a woman and injuring 19 people.
Charlottesville police faced massive criticism for their response and their failure to keep demonstrators and counter-protesters apart.
By midday Sunday, scores of police in Washington had closed off roads and were standing by metal barricades across Lafayette Square outside the White House, ground zero for this year’s protests.
About 100 counter-protesters had assembled on the northern edge of the park. The Unite The Right marchers are expected to arrive on the opposite side — about 100 meters (yards) away — later in the afternoon.
Kei Pritsker, 22, a Washington-area volunteer for the Answer Coalition that organized this year’s counter-protest, was optimistic there would not be a repeat of the violence and said it was vital to show strong opposition to the neo-Nazi rally.
“It would be a major mistake if we allowed fascists to just walk into the nation’s capital and go in unopposed,” he told AFP.
The white supremacist movement is enjoying a greater sense of empowerment under US President Donald Trump, he added.
“When Trump was elected, a lot of those people that were harboring a lot of racist sentiments felt like, because they had a president’s backing, they could just go out and say this stuff,” Pritsker said.
Counter-protest organizers had printed dozens of placards, including slogans such as “No Nazis, No KKK, NO Fascist USA.”
‘Blame on both sides’
In the immediate aftermath of last year’s march, Trump drew broad criticism when he appeared initially reluctant to condemn the extreme right-wingers — many of whom have rallied behind him since his election, including David Duke, a former KKK leader and avowed racist and anti-Semite who praised Trump’s “courage” in defending white nationalist protesters.
Trump had said there was “blame on both sides” for the violence, condemning anti-fascist demonstrators who came “with clubs in their hands.”
Two days later, after a firestorm of criticism, the president said: “Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups.”
On Saturday the president issued a generic condemnation of racism via Twitter.
“The riots in Charlottesville a year ago resulted in senseless death and division,” he wrote. “We must come together as a nation. I condemn all types of racism and acts of violence. Peace to ALL Americans!”
Jim, a black man at the counter-protest who would only give his first name, said America feels more racist under Trump.
“It has emboldened white folks now. If they are walking down the sidewalk, their position is you better get out the way,” Jim told AFP.
“It was subtle, now it’s not subtle, it’s in your face. It’s like Nazi Germany.”
Rally organizers encouraged supporters to bring only US or Confederate flags — not neo-Nazi emblems — and cautioned them not to react angrily to counter protesters.
All firearms were banned from the Washington protest site, including those legally carried by licensed gun owners, and police had put signs up cautioning people not to carry weapons.
Trump has retweeted white nationalist material, said Mexicans crossing the US border are rapists and drug dealers, once referred to a Hispanic Miss Universe as “Miss Housekeeping” and employed Steve Bannon, a central figure of the new “alt-right” in America, as his campaign chief and top strategist for a time.
In one of the most recent race-related flareups, a black former White House employee, Omarosa Manigault Newman, has written in an upcoming memoir that Trump was caught on mic uttering a racial slur “multiple times” while making his hit reality TV show “The Apprentice” prior to his presidential run, and that there are tapes to prove it.
On Sunday, White House advisor Kellyanne Conway, accused Newman of trying to drum up scandal to sell her new book.
“I have never a single time heard (Trump) use a racial slur about anyone,” she told ABC.
“I also never heard Omarosa complain that he had done that. And so the only thing that’s changed is that she’s now selling books.”