Hundreds of counter-protesters have packed into Washington DC’s Freedom Plaza ahead of a white supremacist rally expected to be held in front of the White House on Sunday, on the one year anniversary of the violent demonstrations in Charlottesville that left one person dead.
“If we don’t say, ‘Not here, not now,’ this violence will keep happening on our watch,” said Constance Young, addressing the crowd of counter-protesters. Young was among those who survived the car attack that killed 32-year old Heather Heyer and left nearly two dozen protesters injured last year.
Jason Kessler, the organizer of last year’s violent “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, has secured a permit to hold the second instalment directly in front of the White House on Sunday.
It is not clear how many people will show up for “Unite the Right 2,” which bills itself as a “white civil rights” protest, but its official permit estimates the event will have 100 to 400 participants. The speakers listed on the permit include David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader; the former town manager of Jackman, Maine, who was fired for endorsing the idea that races should “voluntarily separate;” and a Holocaust denier who recently tried to run for Congress in California.
Kessler has said the list of speakers on his official permit was not accurate.
Counter-protesters also gathered near the Washington suburban metro station of Vienna, Virginia, where Kessler and about 20 white nationalists carrying American flags were escorted onto a train to the city for the demonstration. Some counter-protesters yelled “Nazi scum!” at them as they were shepherded through the station.
“What? On the anniversary of when you killed someone, you’re going to come to DC?” said David Thurston, the arts organizer for Shut It Down DC, a coalition of advocacy groups that has formed to “unite the left” against neo-Nazis.
A prominent neo-Nazi Internet troll labeled the “Unite the Right 2” rally in Washington DC a strategic blunder, and said it was no longer wise or safe for white supremacists to hold public rallies. These events were “further alienating” people from their cause, Andrew Anglin wrote on his neo-Nazi website. “Simply going to these events, we ARE responsible for violence, because we know there will be violence there.”
“If you show up at this event, and you are identified, your life will be ruined,” Anglin advised his followers. “You need to lay low.”
Authorities have promised an enormous police presence to keep both sides apart and avoid the street brawls that broke out last year in downtown Charlottesville.
The opposition protests on Sunday are slated to include demonstrations that range in their levels of intensity and combativeness. There will be a “Still Here, Still Strong” protest and march by a coalition of groups, including survivors of the Charlottesville car attack; a “Rise Up and Fight Back Counter-Protest,” hosted by Black Lives Matter DC; and a Trans and Queer #ResistDance Against White Supremacy. There will also be anti-fascists organizing an “Alt-Right Not Welcome” action.
The counter-protesters have not just come to confront the fringe white supremacists groups – they also gathered to say “hell no” to President Donald Trump.
“These folks in power have wrapped their arms around these white supremacist hate-filled organizations, have not only wrapped their arms around them, but included them in its administration, included them in its policy-making,” said Rev. Graylan Hagler of the Plymouth United Church of Christ in Washington. “We’ve got to chase these these fools out of the White House, out of Congress, out of this city!”
“We still here, we still strong, fighting white supremacy until it’s gone,” the crowd chanted.
The president sparked outrage last year by repeatedly condemning “both sides” for the violence last year in Charlottesville. This year, his official account tweeted a condemnation of “all types of racism and acts of violence”.
A majority of Americans say that racial tensions have been on the rise over the past year, according to a CBS News poll. But there is a fierce debate over the best way to respond to emboldened white supremacy, with some Americans arguing fringe extremist groups should be ignored, and others saying they must be publicly confronted.
Before last year, when white supremacists staged violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, a wealthy university town, many white Americans did not take the threat of neo-Nazi groups seriously. Then hundreds of young men were filmed marching across a university campus with flaming torches and shouting “Jews will not replace us!”
A 21-year-old white man from Ohio, who had been photographed demonstrating with the white supremacists, was charged with murder and multiple federal hate crimes after allegedly ramming a car into a crowd of counter-protesters a year ago.
The car attack, widely seen as an act of white supremacist terror, left many activists seriously injured and one 32-year-old woman dead. It followed other acts of violence, including the vicious beating of one black Charlottesville resident, and a Ku Klux Klan member firing a gun at another black Charlottesville resident.
On Sunday morning, hundreds of fellow Charlottesville residents gathered at Booker T. Washington Park to mark the anniversary of last year’s bloodshed.
“We want to claim our streets back, claim our public space back, claim our city back,” Grace Aheron told the Associated Press at the park.
Several events were scheduled in the city including a gathering that will include veteran civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton and Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro.
White supremacists who marched and attacked counter-protesters in Charlottesville last year continue to be publicly identified. Many of the neo-Nazi, and other white supremacist groups that marched in Charlottesville last year have been weakened or fractured by infighting and by pressure from lawsuits and counter-protests.