WASHINGTON — A white supremacist rally outside the White House fizzled out Sunday after only a handful of neo-Nazis showed up and were massively outnumbered by hundreds of counter-protesters.
In an effort to avoid a repeat of the chaos of a deadly protest in Charlottesville, Virginia exactly a year ago, Washington police closed streets and threw a ring of steel across a public park to make sure the white supremacists and rowdy counter-protesters did not come into contact.
Only about 20 white nationalists trickled in from nearby Vienna, Virginia — under heavy police escort — at Washington’s Foggy Bottom Metro station, as a larger group of hundreds of counter-protesters awaited them, shouting “Shame!” and “Get out of my city!” and jeering them loudly.
After marching to Lafayette Square in front of the White House, the white supremacists were driven in police vans back to a different train station.
Heavy rain ensured the numbers of counter-protesters thinned quickly, hours before the scheduled end of the so-called Unite The Right rally.
Washington Police Chief Peter Newsham said only one person was arrested all day despite several tense moments, with police essentially shielding the white nationalist demonstrators from several thousand enraged counterprotesters.
Newsham called it “a well-executed plan to safeguard people and property while allowing citizens to express their First Amendment rights.”
At Freedom Plaza, located on one end of Pennsylvania Avenue that leads to the US Capitol, a few hundred counter-protesters of all ages, including children and retirees, gathered in a seemingly light-hearted atmosphere.
One group danced in the street.
“The US is for all of us, NOT just some of us,” one sign read, while another said, “Fighting Nazis: An American Tradition.”
Jason Kessler, the principal organizer of last year’s “Unite the Right” event, led the Sunday gathering he called a white civil rights rally in Lafayette Square. Kessler said in a permit application that he expected 100 to 400 people to participate, but the actual number was far lower: only around 20.
Last year, torch-bearing white supremacists, ostensibly protesting the removal of Confederate statues of figures linked to the pro-slavery South, marched through Charlottesville 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.
Washington police, who had begun massing near Lafayette Square as early as 8:00 am, appeared intent on avoiding the same pitfalls.
Kei Pritsker, 22, a Washington-area volunteer for the Answer Coalition that organized this year’s counter-protest, was optimistic there would be no repeat of the violence, but said it was necessary to send a strong message to neo-Nazi sympathizers.
“It would be a major mistake if we allowed fascists to just walk into the nation’s capital and go in unopposed,” he said.
The white supremacist movement is enjoying a greater sense of empowerment under 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.
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.
On Saturday, the president issued a generic condemnation of “all types of racism and acts of violence” via Twitter.
A black man at the counter-protest who would only give his name as Jim 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 of the way,” he 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 to avoid reacting angrily to counter-protesters.
The few demonstrators who showed up for the most part wore masks or concealed their faces. Counter-protesters ridiculed the group for not having the courage to show their faces.
Such was the strength of their police escort, it was all but impossible to get close enough to interview any of them.
All firearms were banned from the Washington protest site, including those legally carried by licensed gun owners, and police put signs up urging people against carrying weapons.
Trump has retweeted white nationalist material, said Mexicans crossing the US border are rapists and drug dealers, and tweeted demeaning descriptions of black athletes and politicians.
In a recent flareup, a black former White House employee, Omarosa Manigault Newman, wrote in an upcoming memoir that Trump uttered 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. Trump called her a “lowlife.”