Hundreds Converge In D.C. To Counter Small 'Unite The Right' Rally
Updated at 10:05 p.m. ET
A small group of about 25 white supremacist demonstrators rallied next to the White House on Sunday, one year after the "Unite the Right" demonstration by the same organizer turned deadly in Charlottesville, Va.
The demonstrators have since left D.C. via Metro, and WAMU's Elly Yu reports that counterprotesters have headed home, too.
WAMU's Carmel Delshad reported that hundreds of counterdemonstrators converged in Lafayette Square, the grassy, White House-adjacent park, to meet the white supremacists. As NPR's Tim Mak reported, the counterdemonstrators began gathering in the early afternoon as music played and speakers talked about the importance of their protest. NPR's Jeff Brady told NPR's All Things Considered that though he was in Lafayette Park for the demonstrators' speeches, it was impossible to hear them because of the overwhelming dominance of the counterdemonstrators.
According to Delshad, the police presence in the square was heavy: There were about a dozen U.S. Park Police on horses and police officers could be seen about every five feet throughout the park. In the hours before the event, police blocked traffic and installed black metal fencing in Lafayette Square in order to keep the groups separate, Brady reported.
At a Virginia metro station, NPR's Larry Kaplow reported that a small group of white supremacist demonstrators, some of them carrying U.S. flags and hiding their faces with bandannas, boarded a train to D.C. under heavy police presence.
"Go home, you're not welcome," one counterdemonstrator yelled.
Dozens of police were waiting for the group at the Foggy Bottom metro station in Washington, D.C. Mak reported that dozens of police — some on motorbikes, some in vans, some with K9 units — were at the scene, apparently waiting to escort them to the demonstration.
In a statement streamed on Facebook Live, Fairfax County Police Chief Colonel Edwin C. Roessler Jr. confirmed that one arrest was made at the Vienna metro station, where a group of about 25 demonstrators led by the event's organizer, Jason Kessler, met earlier Sunday afternoon. According to the Fairfax County Police, the suspect is an adult male who spit on two Virginia state troopers and was arrested for assault around 2:30 p.m. ET. The Fairfax County Police could not confirm whether the suspect was associated with Kessler's group or any group of counterdemonstrators.
In an interview that contained multiple racist claims, Kessler told NPR earlier this week that his top goal was to make sure the event was peaceful, and characterized it as defending the First Amendment.
Kessler spoke with a group of reporters in Lafayette Square before his address to the larger group. He commented on the low turnout: "There are a lot of people who would have loved to have been here today but were afraid for their safety, were afraid for their freedom. It wasn't perfect in the way that it was executed ... we had people who were waiting back at the train station who had to be left behind."
In his speech, Kessler told the crowd that some of those who had planned to speak couldn't make it, claiming at one point that some had their tires slashed on their way to the demonstration.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said at a press conference Thursday that the city was prepared to secure the white supremacist event.
At the same time, she said: "We, the people of Washington, D.C., say unequivocally that we denounce hate, we denounce anti-semitism, and we denounce the rhetoric that we expect to hear this Sunday. ... Let us be in one voice and tell them that they are wrong. The only right message, and the message I hope we will carry jointly as Washingtonians, is love, inclusion and diversity."
Ahead of the event, D.C. police insisted they were prepared to keep everyone safe. "There is no city better equipped to handle large-scale events, including First Amendment events, than Washington D.C.," Police Chief Peter Newsham told reporters.
Newsham stressed the events would have tight restrictions on firearms, with no guns allowed on Sunday in and around the demonstrations.
As First Amendment activities take place in DC on 8/12, remember that DC Law prohibits carrying a firearm within 1,000 ft of any First Amendment activity, including members of the public who have been issued a Concealed Carry Permit in DC #HereToHelp https://t.co/BbFGJ6YfpV— DC Police Department #StayHomeDC (@DCPoliceDept) August 12, 2018
He said authorities had been planning for the event for months, and during that time have closely studied how law enforcement handled last year's rally in Charlottesville. There, a woman named Heather Heyer was killed when a man drove a car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators. Dozens of others were injured during the event.
Charlottesville police, he said, were criticized for "failing to keep the two groups separate." Newsham added that today, "law enforcement's goal during the entire operational period is to keep the two groups separated," in order to avoid violent confrontations.
At a press conference held Sunday evening after the day's events, Newsham declared that plan a success. "No one was injured today in the District of Columbia, and nobody was killed," he said. He noted that there was one arrest in D.C. associated with the event: A 44-year-old man from Pennsylvania was arrested for assault after spraying another man in the face with pepper spray. When apprehended, the man was found to be in possession of a slingshot, large shards of glass, metal bolts and stones. Newsham said he didn't know why the man was at the demonstration and could not say which group he was affiliated with.
When asked, Newsham also spoke about another pepper spray deployment, this time by police. One of his officers deployed pepper spray after a group of counterdemonstrators began pushing up against a group of officers in the area of 13th and G St. in northwest D.C. Newsham said his office would investigate whether that use of force was appropriate.
When asked about how the white supremacist protesters led by Jason Kessler left the city, Newsham said that "there was a sense that tensions were rising," so his team used an alternate plan to get them out of the city "as quickly as possible" instead of having the group leave the way they entered Lafayette Square on foot from the Foggy Bottom metro station. Newsham left the podium and did not explain what that alternative plan was.
NPR's Mak saw a brief skirmish between what appeared to be demonstrators with the Antifa movement and Secret Service in front of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th St around 5 p.m. EST. Mak reports that demonstrators had created a series of blockades across Pennsylvania avenue, and that they threw objects including water bottles, rotten eggs and some trash.
Other groups that executed counterdemonstrations include Shut It Down D.C. and Black Lives Matter of Greater New York.
Hawk Newsome, the president of that Black Lives Matter chapter, told NPR last week that if people are "tired of the racism in America, if they're tired of these groups who have killed people for hundreds of years, then they should show up and stand with us in this safe space on Sunday."
Last night, crowds of students and their supporters rallied in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia to mark the anniversary and stand against white supremacy.
As NPR's Debbie Elliott reported, they are reclaiming that space because last year white supremacists "came with their torches and took over that part of campus."
The protesters' attention turned to the heavy police presence around the event, including unfurling a banner that said, "Last year they came w/torches, this year they come w/badges."
"They are here to control us!" protesters chanted, as Sandy Hausman of member station WVTF reported. "Security fences at the site and the large number of police on hand made organizers uneasy, and they quickly changed plans." The demonstrators started moving, marching for some two hours in the area.
The city's residents also marked the anniversary this weekend with memorial events and a non-violence workshop. NPR's Elliott reported that several hundred people gathered at Booker T. Washington Park in Charlottesville today for an anti-racist rally of remembrance.
Courtney Commander was with Heather Heyer a year ago in Charlottesville when Heyer was killed. "I just want the rest of the country to know that white supremacy is real, and it's violent and it's dangerous," she told NPR's Elliott.
According to a press release from the City of Charlottesville, four people had been arrested in connection with memorial events as of 4 p.m. ET. Otherwise, as Elliott reported, Charlottesville has been mostly peaceful this weekend.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.