By Joe Heim, Reis Thebault and Marissa Lang
WASHINGTON — Hundreds of anti-racist protesters and activists continued to stream into downtown Washington early Sunday afternoon to counter a white supremacist rally scheduled to begin this evening.
As many as 400 people are expected to make their way to Lafayette Park across the street from the White House to take part in the Unite the Right 2 event planned by the organizer of last year’s deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The gathering, billed as a “white civil rights” rally, is taking place on the anniversary of the Charlottesville violence, which killed an anti-racist protester, Heather Heyer, and took the lives of two Virginia State troopers whose helicopter crashed as they returned from monitoring the day’s events.
In Washington, thousands protesting the white supremacist rally also are expected at numerous locations, and many plan to converge on Lafayette Park, before the organizer of the rally, Jason Kessler, and his followers arrive. Both Kessler and opposition groups have permits from the National Park Service to demonstrate at the park, a leafy seven-acre enclave just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the president’s residence.
Just before 2 p.m Kessler and 20 to 30 supporters arrived at the Vienna Metro station in Northern Virginia. Kessler and the group were escorted by police in riot gear from the garage onto a train.
Before the group’s arrival, the police shut the gates to the station and were not allowing members of the public or the media to enter.
In the garage before being escorted, Kessler spoke to several reporters while carrying American flags on wooden poles.
He said he and his group were there to promote free speech and to protest “white civil rights abuses.”
When asked if he had anything to say to the mother of Heather Heyer, Kessler offered his “condolences” but said that police in Charlottesville should have blocked off the street where she was killed.
Members of Kessler’s group said they weren’t sure how many people would show up to demonstrate with them but that it “doesn’t matter.”
As the group was escorted into the station, a crowd of counterprotesters shouted “go home Nazis” and told the members of the group whose faces were covered to “take off your masks.”
The train departed soon after and headed into the city.
In Washington, the number of protesters continued to grow.
By 2:30 p.m., close to a thousand protesters were at Freedom Plaza, a few blocks away from Lafayette Park, for an afternoon rally of speeches and music.
The Rev. Graylan Hagler was the rally’s first speaker. “This place, this city, this country is a country of inclusivity and not white supremacy,” he told the crowd in a booming voice. “We are people that stand up for racial justice and racial inclusivity,” he added. “We will not be silenced.”
Elsewhere, about 200 people from various groups marched down Vermont Avenue and are just outside Lafayette Park shouting “we are not afraid” and “our streets.”
Police reported no arrests or skirmishes in the District.
Around the same time Kessler and his supporters boarded a train in Vienna, a large contingent of Black Lives Matter D.C. arrived at Lafayette Square to await him there.
Several hundred people marched down H Street toward the plaza shouting chants, many of them dressed in black and holding signs. The front phalanx walked in a row behind a hand-painted banner reading, “Rise Up” and “Power to the People.”
Protesters and tourists left the grassy plaza to watch and applaud the group chanting and clapping in the street.
Earlier at Lafayette Park the atmosphere was quieter.
Protesters milled about, talking and photographing each other’s signs. Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” pumped through speakers set up on the stage on the northeast side of the park. Some enterprising vendors hawked cold water and Gatorade.
For some of the protesters, the focus was less on the white supremacist rally than on President Donald Trump.
Holding a “Dump Trump” sign, Mike Holey, 67, of Baltimore, said he’s been particularly frustrated by what he called the president’s hesitation to denounce white supremacy and neo-Nazism. He pointed to Trump’s statement that there was “blame on both sides” after violence broke out at the Unite the Right rally last year.
Benjamin Garrett, a Vietnam War veteran who lives in Maryland, raised a sign saying “Trump is a traitor” in block capital letters.
“He gives these people permission,” Garrett said. “Trump is a blatant racist.”
Trump, who was heavily criticized last year for not unequivocally condemning the white nationalists who had organized the rally and a torch light march through the University of Virginia campus the night before, addressed the Charlottesville anniversary on Saturday, 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!”
At the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, about 20 protesters marched to the Lincoln Memorial while singing “We Shall Overcome.”
The group’s leader, Hawk Newsome, said that Kessler had invited him and his group, Black Lives Matter of Greater NY, to attend Unite the Right 2.
“He thought that I was a friend, but I am not his Negro,” Newsome said. “I am not some token Black you can use to validate yourself.”
BLM-GNY — which has been disavowed by the broader Black Lives Matter network — went viral when Newsome and a few others went onstage at a Trump rally last September while staging a counterprotest.
Instead of joining Kessler, he and a handful of other activists marched over the past 10 days from the Bronx to D.C. to protest a range of issues, from food insecurity to police brutality.
“I represent a contingent of marginalized people and they (white nationalists) stand in direct opposition to everything we fight for,” Newsome said.
D.C. leaders and federal and local law enforcement officials say their focus Sunday is to keep the two groups apart and prevent any violence or property damage. Police in Charlottesville last year stood back as white supremacists and neo-Nazis engaged in brutal clashes and street brawls with protesters, including members of anti-fascist groups.
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.”
Police closed streets to vehicle traffic in a large swath of blocks near the White House beginning at 8 a.m. Sunday, and they were expected to remain closed through 8 p.m. Questions remain, however, about how law enforcement will ensure that Kessler and his supporters will make their way to the park.
Earlier in the week, there were discussions about having Kessler’s group take Metro from the Vienna station in Northern Virginia to Foggy Bottom. And one plan would have Metro arrange for separate subway cars for those attending the rally. But that plan was abandoned when the union representing Metro’s workers, predominantly people of color, made clear that they did not want to provide special arrangements for racists.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said Sunday his transit agency doesn’t want a repeat of last year’s violence in Charlottesville.
Standing in front of Vienna Metro station, Wiedefeld said the agency stepped up security for the weekend.
“We have history here,” he said. “It’s all hands on deck for us.”
He said that Metro is a public service and as long as no one is violent they will be allowed to ride the trains.
At 9:30 Sunday morning, the Vienna Metro station was quiet. The white supremacist groups expected to congregate there ahead of the rally had not yet arrived. But Metro Transit Police and Fairfax County (Virginia) Police were there, setting up a staging area and preparing for any clashes that could ensue when rally attendees and those opposing them begin to arrive.
Around 8 a.m. Fairfax County police tweeted a warning to Metro riders: “High ridership expected at Vienna Metro today. In an effort to promote safety, Chief Roessler is asking commuters to avoid the area all day today based on our knowledge the ridership will consist of opposing groups known to cause civil unrest.”
In the two hours after police sent that tweet, there were few demonstrators present, but fliers were plastered around the station in anticipation: “Hate Free Zone” and “Hate Has No Home Here,” they read.
D.C. police could be seen early Sunday walking the streets near the park as officials began shutting down several downtown streets where protesters are expected to gather.
Even as police continued to erect an intricate maze of barricades around Lafayette Park, it seemed like a typical Sunday morning outside the White House — with Segway tours and selfie sticks in abundance.
Tourists making their way through Lafayette Square paused to take in the growing group of protesters gathering on the northeast side of the park.
Brightly colored signs declaring, “From Charlottesville to the White House: Shut down white supremacy” and “No Nazis, no KKK, no fascist USA” lined patches of grass.
Rossana Castillo, 50, a tourist from Grenoble, France, paused as she passed to take photos.
“It’s astonishing to me,” she said of the planned Unite the Right rally that was expected to bring white supremacists and a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan within shouting distance of the White House. “And it is just so sad. I know I am a foreigner, but I love your country. I really do. And I am so grateful these people can be here and have the right to stand up to people like this.”
Just after 10 a.m. officers cleared the park for a security sweep. Police dogs patrolled the area, sniffing at the signs.
Brian Becker, the executive director of the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition, urged activists to “be strong, be steadfast, be calm, be dignified” as the sweep continued.
He and his organization decided to host a counterprotest Sunday, he said, because “the president said there were some ‘very fine people’ on both sides after Charlottesville — we think the American people disagree.”
“We represent the majority sentiment in this country,” he said. “Nazis and the KKK do not represent America.”
At the Vienna Metro station, VJ Hyde, a 38-year-old music teacher from Fairfax County, pulled a new stack of posters and a roll of tape from his Whole Foods shopping bag and doled them out to his wife and two daughters.
The family of four and three of their friends came to the Metro station to post the fliers.
“We’re here because this is a very messed up time in our country and our community is front and center,” Hyde said.
Issues like racism and xenophobia have been “front and center” in his house since the election of Donald Trump and the first “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville last year.
“It’s almost impossible to hide it from them,” he said, referring to his young children. “They realize there’s a greater thing at stake right now.”
It was their duty to show up this morning, Hyde said.
“It’s a matter of being a true American and standing up for what’s right in this country,” he said.
Those planning to attend Kessler’s rally, according to documents obtained by Washington City Paper from the National Park Service, include David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard who also attended the event in Charlottesville last year, as well as neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers.
Kessler has denied responsibility for the violence in Charlottesville last year and has said that he had not invited the KKK and other white supremacist groups to the rally there. But several days after the deadly violence in the city, he tweeted, “Heather Heyer was a fat, disgusting Communist. Looks like it was payback time.”
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser said Thursday that the city would ensure that the rallygoers can exercise their right to free speech.
“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,” she said.
Makia Green of Black Lives Matter D.C. told The Washington Post that she wants white nationalists to know that the movement against them is only getting stronger.
“Our resistance is ever-growing,” she said. “This progress that they are so afraid of — the rise of black leaders and Black Lives Matter getting bigger and people feeling safe to speak their mind — that is still happening.”
Michael Shallal, a member of the D.C. chapter of the International Socialists Organization, one of the groups organizing the Freedom Plaza rally, said it was crucial for protesters to outnumber Kessler and his supporters.
“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.”
The Washington Post’s Hannah Natanson, Teo Armus, Martine Powers, Michael Brice-Sadler, Peter Jamison, Perry Stein, Fenit Nirappil, and Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.