Washington, D.C., prepares for potential showdown at white-supremacist rally
WASHINGTON - District leaders are preparing for what could be a contentious and trying day Sunday when the organizer of last year's deadly white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, holds an anniversary gathering with up to 400 supporters in Lafayette Square across from the White House.
As many as 1,500 counterprotesters are expected at Lafayette Square and more at two nearby parks, setting up a possible volatile showdown that District and federal law enforcement officials say they are prepared to confront.
Unlike in Charlottesville, where police allowed the opposing factions to clash in what turned into a bloody melee, Washington, D.C., Police Chief Peter Newsham said Thursday that the goal "will be to keep the two groups separate. . . . When they are in the same area at the same time, it leads to violent confrontations. Our goal is to prevent that from happening."
The police chief said he wants a day in which "Nobody gets injured and nothing gets broke."
Newsham joined other city officials and religious leaders to both denounce the white supremacists' message and to assure nervous residents and visitors that a plan to keep everyone safe is in place. They spoke at the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, where leaders urged a message of peace and inclusiveness, and noted that houses of worship and community centers would be open across the city for people wishing to contemplate a more uplifting message.
"Very, very few of our visitors share the views that will be expressed in Lafayette Park on Sunday," Mayor Muriel Bowser, D, said. "We have people coming to our city for the sole purpose of spewing hate. It didn't make sense last year, and it doesn't make sense now. . . . While we are opposed adamantly to what we are going to hear, we know what our responsibility is - to protect First Amendment events, to protect Washingtonians and to protect our city."
Though speeches at the rally aren't scheduled to begin until 5:30 p.m., some counterprotesters plan to start hours earlier, and police will start closing downtown streets at 8 a.m., mainly around the White House and into Foggy Bottom. Parking will be prohibited along the routes. Police warn that carrying firearms - even if licensed in the District - is prohibited within 1,000 feet of a First Amendment activity. The law allows officials to make that restriction to protect large gatherings.
Authorities want to avoid a repeat of Aug. 12, 2017, when violent clashes broke out in Charlottesville, Virginia, on a day that ended with three people dead. Counterdemonstrator Heather Heyer was killed when a man who police say identified himself as a Nazi drove a car into a crowd, and two Virginia State Police troopers in a helicopter that had been monitoring the civil unrest died in a crash nearby.
On Wednesday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, D, declared a state of emergency, allowing officials to marshal resources to prepare for the potential impact of events in and around Charlottesville and northern Virginia. Police at last year's event were criticized for being caught off guard by the violence, failing to keep feuding groups apart and not reacting quickly enough as fights broke out.
Charlottesville this year denied organizer Jason Kessler a permit for a rally there, but he received final approval Thursday from the National Park Service for up to 400 participants at Lafayette Square for an event dubbed "Unite the Right 2." The Park Service also has approved a permit for the ANSWER Coalition and Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, which is combining forces with DC Unite Against Hate. Those groups also have permits for McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza.
The protest rally at Freedom Plaza is scheduled to begin at noon and will include speakers and music. Organizers said that at approximately 3:30 p.m., participants will begin marching to Lafayette Square to voice their opposition to the white nationalists and white supremacists who are meeting there.
Michael Shallal, a member of the D.C. chapter of the International Socialists Organization, one of the organizing groups of the Freedom Plaza rally, said that participants from the Washington region and up and down the East Coast will take part in Sunday's event.
"Our main message is that we want people to see Kessler and his allies for what they really are," Shallal said. "They are not free-speech advocates for white rights but racist Nazis who want to have a nation for white people only."
It is crucial, Shallal said, that counterprotesters far outnumber Kessler "to show that these ideas are not acceptable."
Aside from controlling the location of the Unite the Right event itself - scheduled from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. - authorities are particularly concerned with getting Kessler's group to and from Lafayette Square. Police are worried about clashes along the way into and through the city, and emails between Kessler, police and the National Park Service show that Kessler fears an ambush from counterprotesters.
Initial plans were for Kessler's group to assemble at the Vienna Metro station in northern Virginia and take Metro to Foggy Bottom, then march to McPherson Square. But police and others decided McPherson Square was not good from a security perspective, and the group decided to go to Foggy Bottom. In early discussions, Kessler emailed the Park Service and said the location "will definitely get out to hostile counterdemonstrators."
Officials quickly scuttled early talk of separate Metro cars to keep the groups separate after the union representing Metro's workforce, which is predominately people of color, balked at providing special service for racists. But Newsham, the District's police chief, remained elusive when discussing ingress and egress plans Thursday, insinuating that the means and route Kessler's group ultimately takes could and probably would change at the last minute. Police said they would have a heavy presence in and around Metro stations at Foggy Bottom and Vienna but would not say if they would give Kessler's group special protections on public transit.
In addition to Kessler, also planning to attend the white-supremacist rally, according to documents obtained by Washington City Paper from the National Park Service, are David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, and several neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers. Their permit says they are "protesting civil rights abuse in Charlottesville." Richard Spencer, a leading white-nationalist leader who helped Kessler organize last year's event, has said he will not participate in Sunday's rally.
Counterprotesters are expected to include members of antifa, an anti-fascist group, some of whose members rampaged through parts of the District on Inauguration Day employing "black bloc" tactics of breaking windows and setting fires. Also expected are members of Black Lives Matter, Shut It Down D.C. and other groups protesting a variety of topics, including immigration policies.
Newsham said authorities are "intimately aware that the views being expressed on Sunday can strike to the core of a person's values. We are aware these views can awaken a passion within. We ask that those who attend not let their personal passion overtake their personal civility."
Aaron Alexander, the senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation, said he wanted to "acknowledge and lift up the traumatized residents of Charlottesville for the pain they continue to experience. We see you, we are with you, and we hope our demonstrations of love across this city over the weekend gives you just a sliver of the comfort your deserve for standing on the front lines in a battle against hatred, bigotry, anti-Semitism and anti-supremacy."
Bowser said she recently spoke with an elderly Washington, D.C., resident who told her she was afraid. "They've never come to Washington," the woman told the mayor.
Bowser retold that story for reporters Thursday, calling it representative of anxiety felt throughout the city from people "who see Washington as a refuge from that type of hate, anti-Semitism, tiki-torch-burning and the like, and they don't want to see it here."
But the mayor said residents also recognize that people with all sorts of views flock to the nation's capital. Residents, Bowser said, "want to make sure that kind of speech and hate rhetoric doesn't change us."
This article was written by Peter Hermann and Joe Heim, reporters for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Marissa J. Lang contributed to this report.