Approximately two dozen white nationalists rallied in the nation’s capital on Sunday, one year after clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia left one person dead and elevated racial tensions in America. But, they were vastly outnumbered by throngs of counterprotesters.
The showing from ‘Unite the Right 2’ participants fell far short of the hundreds organizer Jason Kessler was expecting, based on his event permit application.
Kessler, who organized last year’s ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, blamed the low turnout on logistical issues and confusion regarding the group’s transportation – a claim echoed by at least two men who spoke to reporters.
“People are scared to come out after what happened last year,” one of the men said.
A small stage and speaker system was set up in the park, where attendees stood silently and listened to a slate of impromptu speakers.
They addressed the small group over the jeers of the anti-racist demonstrators, who chanted “Nazis go home!” and “Shame! Shame! Shame!”
“We won’t tolerate bigotry”
Counterprotesters had been gathering throughout the day as part of a series of demonstrations led by members of 40 anti-racism groups.
“Our message is to let everyone know we support each other,” said Maurice Cook, a co-organizer for the March for Racial Justice, which organized the ‘United Against Hate’ counterprotest in DC’s Freedom Plaza.
Kaitlin Moore, 28, of Frederick, Maryland, told CNN she was participating in counterprotests in Lafayette Square to “show this is not okay.” She said she felt it was important to show up after she saw what happened in Charlottesville last year.
“This is not normal,” Moore said. “We won’t tolerate bigotry and hate in the United States.”
Kessler and his group were met by counterprotesters the moment they exited the Foggy Bottom metro station with their police escort. They proceeded to Lafayette Square park, where police kept the opposing sides separated.
In the past, similar far-right demonstrations have been dwarfed by counterprotests. For example, at a separate Ku Klux Klan gathering in Charlottesville in July 2017, Klansmen were outnumbered 20 to 1, according to Charlottesville officials.
Sunday’s demonstrations and the opposing rallies took place against a backdrop of heightened racial tensions in the US. Recent months have seen a series of high-profile incidents in which police were called on people of color for innocuous acts, like napping in a dormitory common room, having a barbecue and going to the pool.
This week, NFL players in the first preseason games resumed their protests over police brutality against blacks by raising their fists, kneeling or sitting out during the National Anthem.
The demonstrations also come at a time when the wounds from last year’s events in Charlottesville remain raw, particularly in regard to the death of counterprotester Heather Heyer, who was killed when a suspected neo-Nazi sympathizer drove a car into a crowd.
In an interview on Sunday, Kessler offered his condolences to “those who were hurt” but blamed last year’s violence on the police, who he said did not adequately protect the ‘Unite the Right’ rally.
Charlottesville authorities came under harsh criticism for their delayed response to the clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters. An independent review faulted police and said they failed to adequately prepare for the ‘Unite the Right’ rally.
Kessler organized the event to oppose the renaming of two parks honoring Confederate generals. That drew white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Trump condemns “all types of racism”
President Trump – who has been accused of deepening the racial divide in America – condemned last year’s events in Charlottesville on Saturday morning in a tweet, saying they “resulted in senseless death and division.”
“We must come together as a nation,” he wrote. “I condemn all types of racism and acts of violence. Peace to ALL Americans!”
It was a departure from his comments a year ago, when he said there were “very fine people” on both sides of the conflict in Charlottesville. The statement set off a political firestorm that lasted for days and culminated in an infamous press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York.
Heyer’s mother: “We have got to fix this”
On Sunday morning, as Washington prepared for potential crowds of white nationalists, a crowd made up of leftist and anti-racist demonstrators gathered in Charlottesville and made its way to the site of Heyer’s death, where some had paid their respects and used chalk to scrawl messages of remembrance in the street and on the walls of nearby buildings. There, they sang spirituals and observed a moment of silence.
But, like protesters Saturday night on the campus of the University of Virginia, many expressed antagonism toward police. Police officers, some of them dressed in riot gear, were out in force throughout the city to prevent any outbreak of violence.
“There’s a profound difference in this year and last year, and that is the heavy police presence,” said Lisa Woolfork, an associate professor of English at the University of Virginia and a local organizer with Black Lives Matter.
Some people might be comforted by the police, Woolfork said.
“But, for folks like me, black and brown folks, folks in Black Lives Matter, we don’t equate a heavy police presence with safety, so we see this as a perceived risk and increasing the possible harm that might occur to us,” she said.
Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, visited the site where her daughter was killed, surrounded by supporters and journalists. She turned to the crowd and, over the hum of a helicopter circling overhead, spoke out against the racial tension she sees in America.
“We have a huge racial problem in our city and our country,” Bro said. “We have got to fix this, or we’ll be right back here in no time.”
“The world went crazy when Heather lost her life, and that’s not fair because so many mothers lose their children every day, and we have to fix that. I don’t want other mothers to be in my spot,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion. “I don’t want other mothers to go through this.”
Kessler had sought a permit from the city of Charlottesville to hold an event commemorating the ‘Unite the Right’ rally this weekend but withdrew his request in a federal court hearing late last month, according to city officials.
The hearing was part of his lawsuit against Charlottesville after it denied his permit application on the grounds it would “present a danger to public safety.”