Just one year after white supremacists and neo-nazis took to the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia for a rally that resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer and the injury of other protesters, they returned for another show of force, this time in Washington, D.C. Except this more recent protest was anything but a show of force, as estimates put their numbers at around two dozen—a far cry from the 400 people expected according to the permit filed and even further from the initial rally one year ago in Virginia.
The ragtag handful of white supremacists, neo-nazis and other fringe groups marched from Foggy Bottom Metro station, down past the White House, and to Lafayette Square where they were scheduled to have speakers. Instead, they departed soon after arriving, as it began to rain, with chants of “Nazis go home” echoing towards them. Some, like Kessler, wore suits and carried the American flag, while others donned their signature red “Make America Great Again” hats. Most carried phones or cameras to record their march, and many hid their identities with goggles, face masks, and other devices that would make it harder to identify them. This may have been a way to prevent their participation in the march from being outed to employers or family— something that occurred after the previous march, where some lost their jobs, one was kicked out of the Marines and others were ostracized by friends and family.
This year’s rally was organized by Jason Kessler, who also planned the first Unite the Right rally, along with Richard Spencer, another prominent member of the self-proclaimed “Alt-Right.” Spencer was the one who coined the term Alt-Right in 2008. The term is shorthand for “alternative right,” and according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, it refers to “a loose set of far-right ideals centered on ‘white identity’ and the preservation of ‘Western civilization.” Spencer himself explains that the movement is attractive to those who are fed up with mainstream conservatism.
The Alt-Right itself is hugely divided as well, with some identifying with the Ku Klux Klan, others as Nazis and many others simply choosing the label as a more acceptable or politically correct way to explain their beliefs — many of which would be labeled as hate by mainstream groups. There is also discussion among some social justice activists, such as Bustle magazine writer, S.E. Smith, on whether this term should be used, or if by adapting our language to accommodate groups attempting to sugarcoat their hateful ideals, we are complicit in normalizing their beliefs. Anti-racist and anti-Nazi activists argue that if we popularize such a benign sounding label, we stray from calling out these ideals for what they are, making it harder to combat their spread. Their mission is to unite the various groups that constitute the “right,” channeling that power into legislative and societal change.
Unlike last year’s rally, there was no large scale violence, and the Unite the Right rally goers and counter-protestors were kept apart at all times, with counter protestors chanting things like “no Nazis, no KKK, no fascist U.S.A.” or shouting mocking comments like “where are all your friends?” Shouts of “shame, shame, shame” carried through the air, drifting down Pennsylvania Avenue, reflecting the majority view of the D.C. residents and filling the city with calls to stand against hate. One group nearby took to pointing and laughing, something many others began to do, effectively creating a crowd of hecklers taunting their sparse turnout.
ANTIFA, short for anti-fascist, also had a large presence, mobilizing in their typical black bloc attire. They advocate the use of direct action, including violence to counter violence should it be deemed necessary. They held a banner with the words “It takes a bullet to bash a fash,” referring to their belief that violence is acceptable to stop hate groups and fascists alike. There is much disagreement among counter-protestors in relation to support of ANTIFA, as their tactics are out of line and hurtful to the movement against hate for many. They are also inherently anti-police, whereas not all counter-protestors took issue with the large police presence.
Not only were their numbers miniscule in comparison to the crowds of anti-fascist and anti-racist counter-demonstrators, but they were dwarfed by a notably large police presence, especially outside of the White House. The New York Times reported that D.C. Chief of Police Peter Newsham had prepared the District’s police department for the worst, taking note of the tragedy that struck Charlottesville only a year before. This preparation included signs around the White House stating “All Firearms Prohibited Within 1,000 Feet of This Sign,” as well as use of metal barricades and formation of police forces on motorcycles to make a physical blockade between the Unite the Right rally goers and the counter-protestors.
On top of more conventional violence prevention tactics, there was also discussion of the Metro running separate trains just for the white supremacists and neo-nazis. After The Washington Post first reported on this, there was massive outrage on the liberal left who saw the plan as catering to groups that espouse hateful sentiments and sometimes condone violence. The Metro’s largest union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, quickly responded with outrage that special treatment might be given to the group, stating that they are “proud to provide transit to everyone for the many events we have in D.C. including the March for Life, the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter,” but that they “draw the line at giving special accomodation to hate groups and hate speech.” To drive their point home, they released another statement saying, “More than 80 percent of Local 689’s membership is people of color, the very people that the Ku Klux Klan and other white nationalist groups have killed, harassed, and violated.”
As The New York Times noted, the rally was over almost before it begun. The months of hype and publicity the white supremacists and neo-nazi groups had been drumming up, with assistance from the mainstream media, quickly diffused as it became apparent that barely anyone was going to show up. Kessler cited multiple reasons for the abysmal turnout, including an “atmosphere of intimidation” as well as possible attendees in a group chat on the app Discord having their personal information released online. Infighting among the self-proclaimed alt-right was also a major source of trouble, as Spencer himself commented about Kessler saying “He is not the person to follow.” Spencer also referenced the mainstream reaction to the movement stating “We are facing so much pushback that people are not in the mood to celebrate.”
President Trump addressed the upcoming rally by tweeting “The riots in Charlottesville a year ago resulted in senseless death and division. We must come together as a nation. I condemn all types of racism and acts of violence. Peace to ALL Americans!” This was a change from last year, when the president responded by saying “I think there is blame on both sides,” a comment that landed him in hot water politically for the equation of counter-protestors and neo-nazis.
Kelsey Joyce, a St. Mary’s College of Maryland senior attended the counter-protests, cited her wish to demonstrate that “hate is not welcome here.” When asked why she spent her Sunday protesting she explained the need to show up, stating “I went because it is my duty not only as an American but as a human being to stand up against injustice and always keep us moving forward.” Joyce echoed the courage of those in the Civil Rights movement, explaining that each generation has tests, and it is how we respond to those tests that demonstrate our ability to grow as a society. “The time is now,” she said. “This is the time to stand up. I am a body that helps the mass change and grow.” When asked if she felt scared attending the march, knowing last year a woman was murdered for taking a stand against hate, she responded that she “couldn’t help but shake this feeling that something terrible was going to happen.” Overall Joyce felt the counter-protests were empowering and a good way to “show the Nazi scum that we outnumber them.” She ended by saying “Heather Heyer never should have died. I march for her and all of those brave souls who have been stolen from us. Rest in power.”