“This is ‘Chocolate City,’” said 36-year-old D.C. resident Ahmed Ali, as he stood among hundreds of demonstrators gathered to protest the white supremacists who arrived on Sunday afternoon. “You can’t come to D.C. with that.”
One year after his rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, white nationalist leader Jason Kessler planned a second Unite the Right rally in Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square, with the White House as backdrop, having been unable to get a permit to march in Charlottesville. Local protesters were determined that what happened the year before in Virginia—when a white supremacist drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer—was not going to happen in Washington, D.C.
“I was born and raised here. There’s no place for this here or anywhere else in the world,” said 39-year-old Pliney Britford, who came to protest for his two daughters. “I don’t want my kids living in fear.”
President Donald Trump was notably absent, choosing to vacation at his golf course in New Jersey, but the police were out in full force—police cars were parked at every corner between the Foggy Bottom Metro station, where the white supremacists were due to arrive, and Lafayette Square. Cops rode bikes and motorcycles, roaming the streets and closed roads. On Thursday morning, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser had activated the city’s Emergency Operations Center to “level two,” allowing local, state, and federal agencies to coordinate resources for a safety plan.
The white supremacists were not due until 5:30 p.m., but by noon, hundreds of protesters had gathered in Lafayette Square and hundreds more gathered in Freedom Plaza, just a few blocks east of the White House.
The protesters in Lafayette were jubilant, but an air of caution hung overhead. A metal barricade with police stationed along it blocked the protesters off from where the white supremacists would stand. On a stage before the crowd, activists criticized the heavy police presence and white supremacists’ attempts to “rebrand” as “alt-right.”
“Ever since the transition of this new administration, we see the alt-right, the Klan coming out more and more,” said Chris Nichol, 19, from Greenville, South Carolina.
“That change and mentality has a lot to do with the gentleman in the White House,” Britford added.
Chris Nichol, 19, of Greenville, South Carolina, and Pliney Britford, 39, of Centreville, Virginia, met at the protest. Britford grew up in D.C.
The violence in Charlottesville last year was a vivid representation of the racism bolstered by the election of Trump. Trump’s statements that “both sides” were responsible for the violence won him praise from David Duke, the former head of the Ku Klux Klan, and in the year since, Trump has continued his race-based antagonism, whether it be his immigration policies or his attacks on athletes who have been critical of him, like Colin Kaepernick, Steph Curry, and LeBron James.
Kessler’s permit for Lafayette Square was for 100 to 400 people. When the neo-Nazis came up the Metro station escalators around 3 p.m., there were just about 30 of them. They were met with a jeering crowd of protesters, reporters with cameras, and curious local college students.
“I heard about it and I really didn’t believe it,” said Tiffany Curtis, 27, who was on her way to work in Rosslyn and waiting for the police to allow her into the Metro station. “Just hurry up and get this day over with, and they can go back to wherever they came from.”
Last week, Metro had announced that it would not be providing special treatment to the white supremacists, in response to its union, ATU Local 689, having rejected the possibility of transporting them in separate cars. “I would have never got on Metro again,” said protester Ricardo Irby, 28. “And I don’t have a car. I would boycott them.”
(Metro has since come under fire for how it transported the white supremacists on Sunday—several witnesses said the rally participants had their own special train car. “Today, the public was lied to by WMATA General Manager Paul Weidefeld,” said Local 689’s president, Jackie Jeter. “The special accommodation for a hate rally in Washington, D.C., was dishonest, unprecedented, and not a reflection of the principles of ATU Local 689 or ‘D.C. values.’” Metro claims that the train stopped at every station, and allowed other riders to board.)
Here's how white supremacists were greeted when they arrived at Foggy Bottom metro center on Sunday. pic.twitter.com/E0HpNlzJHo
— Kristen Doerer (@k2doe) August 13, 2018
The white supremacists were quickly ushered to the street, where they were encircled by police on motorcycles and bikes, two abreast, with police cars in the front and behind. A line of police led the march on foot through George Washington University’s campus, down 23rd Street and onto F Street. A chorus of sirens, shouts of “F*** Nazis” and “You will be replaced,” and police ordering protesters to keep moving punctured the scene.
This year’s Unite the Right participants covered their faces with hats, helmets, bandanas, or sunglasses. Last year, after VICE News aired a documentary with photos of white supremacists with their faces uncovered, activists tracked down the participants and outed them to their employers. Since then, many have lost jobs or have been banned from social media and crowdfunding sites.
When the mass of demonstrators and police reached the entrance to Lafayette Square, only the white supremacists were allowed through the barricade of police.
Antifa, holding banners and dressed in all black with bandanas covering their faces, began to congregate on 17th Street, keeping their distance from the police barricade. A helicopter flew overhead, drawing cheers from the crowd. For all of the tension, little boiled over. Police arrested one man in Vienna, Virginia, for spitting on two state troopers, and later in the evening, Antifa pushed into police and a police officer deployed mace.
In Lafayette Square, the crowd outside the police barricade grew in size, and the tone became more boisterous. Chants of “No Trump, no KKK,” “Who loves this city? We love this city!” and “Black lives matter” echoed as the sky darkened and thunder rang out. At 4:15, an hour ahead of schedule, Jason Kessler spoke to the small group of his followers, though he was largely inaudible to the protesters in the park, who began shouting “Shame.”
Among the protesters, there was some frustration not just with the white nationalists, but with the heavy police presence. There is not yet a final tally on how much the march cost the city, but it was “a lot,” said D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham.
Heavy police presence in Foggy Bottom
Other protesters, like Milton Laurence, 29, a teacher at Democracy Prep Congress Heights, wished that the protesters’ energy would be channeled into other civic actions, like voting in all elections and fighting economic inequalities within the city.
“I’m disenchanted by the pageantry of this,” said Laurence. “What’s most disheartening is that when I walk in to school tomorrow, in a room without desks, I don’t have a sign with a jocular saying on it. I will have to teach my students that their lives matter despite the fact that many people believe that they don’t.”
By 5:15, rain was coming down and the white nationalists had all left. But protesters didn’t leave or relinquish their signs, putting up umbrellas and donning ponchos. At 6 p.m., the police removed the barricade, and hundreds of protesters filled in to get closer to the White House. A woman dropped a Confederate flag on the wet brick before stepping on it.
In the end, thousands—many of them black and residents of D.C.—turned out to protest roughly 30 white nationalists and neo-Nazis. It wasn’t the first time either.
“I want them to see how outnumbered they are,” 68-year-old Anish Jenkins said, noting that back the Klan marched a number of times in D.C. in the 1980s. In 1990, 46 Klansmen marched in D.C., and more than 3,000 people cameout to protest. “They never came [back] after they saw how many showed up. They were scared.”
“Everything that is going on in the country,” said Demetrius Embrack, 29, of D.C., “I can’t be there for that, but I can be here for my city.”