Counter-protesters outnumber white nationalists at Washington DC rally

A white nationalist rally in the heart of Washington drew around 20 demonstrators and hundreds of chanting counterprotesters on Sunday, the one-year anniversary of racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

A large police presence kept the two sides separated in Lafayette Square, in front of the White House. After roughly two hours and a few speeches, the “Unite the Right 2” rally ended early when it began to rain and two police vans escorted the demonstrators back to Virginia.

Sunday’s events, while tense at times, were a far cry from the street brawls that broke out in downtown Charlottesville a year ago, when a local woman was killed by a man who drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters.

“Unite the Right 2” had been denied a permit in Charlottesville this year, but did secure one for Washington. Organisers planned for up to 400 protesters.

White supremacists and members of the alt-right march to the White House on the anniversary of last year's 'Unite the Right' rally in Washington, DC
Source: AAP

At the head of the white nationalist group was Virginia activist Jason Kessler, who helped organise last year’s event in Charlottesville. He emerged with a handful of fellow demonstrators from a subway station holding an American flag and walked toward the White House ringed by police, while counterprotesters taunted them and called them Nazis.

Dan Haught, a 54-year-old computer programmer from Washington, was attending his first protest at the White House holding a sign that said “Back under your rocks you Nazi clowns.”

“We wanted to send a message to the world that we vastly outnumber them,” Haught said.

The violence last year in Charlottesville convulsed the nation and sparked condemnation across the political spectrum. It also was one of the lowest moments of President Donald Trump’s first year in the presidency.

At the time, Trump said there were “very fine people” on both sides, spurring criticism from across the political divide that he was equating the counterprotesters with the rally attendees, who included neo-Nazis and other white supremacists.

At Freedom Plaza, located on one end of Pennsylvania Avenue that leads to the US Capitol a few hundred counterprotesters of all ages, including children and retirees, gathered in a seemingly light-hearted atmosphere.

"The US is for all of us, NOT just some of us," one sign read, while another said, "Fighting Nazis: An American Tradition."

White supremacist Jason Kessler arrives at the Vienna metro station in Vienna, Va., Sunday, Aug. 12, 2018.
Source: AAP

Last year, 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.

Washington police, who had begun massing near Lafayette Square as early as 8am, appeared intent on avoiding the same pitfalls.

People gather on Freedom Plaza to join a counterprotest to the Unite the Right rally in Washington, DC, USA, 12 August 2018.
Source: AAP

'Like Nazi Germany'

Kei Pritsker, 22, a Washington-area volunteer for the Answer Coalition that organised 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 harbouring 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.

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.

'Racial slur'

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."

Published 13 August 2018 at 3:40am, updated 13 August 2018 at 8:56am
Source: Reuters - SBS