A year after a neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va., turned deadly, police in the nation’s capital braced Sunday for potential clashes as white nationalists prepared to rally across from the White House and counter-protesters began assembling a short distance away.
Police, who closed several downtown streets and erected a network of barricades, said they would seek to keep the two sides apart to avoid the clashes that turned last summer’s protests into a national symbol of racial division and mayhem in the Trump era.
In a square near the White House known as Freedom Plaza, several hundred counter-protesters gathered on a steamy afternoon to wave signs condemning racism and fascism as they listened to speeches and music. A few wore helmets, as if expecting violence, but the atmosphere was peaceful.
Elizabeth Oka, 28, a musician who moved here from Monrovia, Calif., said she felt morally obliged to protest against hatred and the planned “Unite the Right 2” white supremacist rally.
“If enough people do this, it sends a message,” she said. “As a citizen, it is my right and responsibility to do this.“
Nearby, Garold Jacob, a 36-year-old African American man from Brooklyn, N.Y., said he was afraid the country was moving backward in race relations. “This regression to the past cannot be allowed,” he said.
Recent polls show a majority of Americans believe race relations have worsened under President Trump.
A large law enforcement presence awaited the white supremacist marchers at the Foggy Bottom metro stop in Washington, with dozens of motorcycle-mounted police forming long ranks. Paramedics were on standby as counter-protesters in Freedom Plaza began marching toward Lafayette Square.
The president, who was on the last day of a weeklong working vacation at his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., tweeted Saturday that he condemned “all types of racism and acts of violence” and called for the nation to “come together.”
“Riots in Charlottesville a year ago resulted in senseless death and division,” he tweeted Saturday. “We must come together as a nation. I condemn all types of racism and acts of violence. Peace to ALL Americans!”
The tweet appeared a contrast to Trump’s inflammatory comments last August, when he said “both sides” were to blame after a self-declared neo-Nazi rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one woman. Trump also said many of the white nationalists were “good people.”
Last week, however, Trump appeared to stoke racial tensions when he insulted the intelligence of NBA star LeBron James and CNN anchor Don Lemon, both of whom are black, and again condemned black pro football players who kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality.
One of the few African Americans who has worked in the Trump White House, Omarosa Manigault Newman, accused him of being a “racist, misogynist and bigot” who used racial epithets, according to a memoir being released Tuesday. The former White House aide was fired last year.
Trump on Saturday slammed his former special assistant as “a lowlife,” and senior White House counselor Kellyanne Conway dismissed her charges Sunday as untrue. On ABC’s “This Week,” Conway said she had “never a single time heard” Trump utter a racial slur, and never heard Manigault Newman complain he had done so.
“So the only thing that’s changed is that she’s now selling books,” Conway said.
Some of those taking part in the white nationalist rally gathered at a suburban stop on the Washington area’s transit system and rode the Metro to a stop near the State Department to begin their march to the rally site across from the White House.
In Charlottesville, 115 miles south of Washington, more than 100 anti-racism demonstrators gathered near the site where Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, was run down and killed last Aug. 12.
Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, marked the anniversary by laying flowers at a makeshift memorial. She also paid tribute to two Virginia State Police troopers who were killed in the crash of a helicopter deployed during last year’s clashes.
On the Sunday TV talk shows, critics faulted Trump for helping foment racial divisiveness, while supporters said he had not been sufficiently credited for decrying hate groups.
A former senior White House aide, ex-legislative director Marc Short, said the outcry over Trump’s initial blaming of both sides for the Charlottesville violence obscured his condemnation, two days later, of white supremacists and other hate groups.
“We say the president didn’t call it out by name but he did,” Short said on ABC’s “This Week.” He added, “We mixed the messages, which was unfortunate and wrong. But he president did call it out, and too often we don’t actually remember that.”
Critics painted a picture of a polarizing president who uses racially charged language and cultural grievances in the partisan debate over immigration and other issues.
“There is a concerted effort that [Trump] has been engaged in to divide people, including dividing them based on race,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), said on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” citing Trump’s tepid response to the violence in Charlottesville as a watershed moment.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), who is African American, said Trump’s call for unity on Saturday did not go far enough in condemning white supremacists and neo-Nazis and seeking to quell racism among his followers.
“I think it’s a low bar for the president of the United States to simply say he’s against racism,” Cummings said on ABC. “He’s got to be better than that.”
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, reflecting on last summer’s violence in Charlottesville, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Trump’s reaction then was “shocking” to him.
“There’s a time in your presidency when you need to show moral leadership and you need to stand and send a message to the world,” said McAuliffe, a Democrat. “He failed that day. ”