About two dozen people gathered in a park in front of the White House on Sunday to support Unite the Right 2, a self-described “white civil rights” rally on the one-year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Though the event was scheduled to go until 7:30 p.m., the rally-goers, greatly outnumbered by counterprotesters, police and members of the media, left Lafayette Square under a light drizzle by 5.
The rally had been a source of intense debate in the weeks leading up to it. There was a furor when it appeared that attendees, led by organizer Jason Kessler (who had also organized last summer’s rally in Charlottesville), would be given private Metro cars for their journey from Vienna, Virginia, into Washington, D.C. Though that never materialized, the Vienna Metro station was at least temporarily closed to everyone except for those headed to the rally.
Kessler and perhaps 25 of his supporters, many of them clad in American flags, dark sunglasses, skull masks and “Make America Great Again” hats, marched under heavy police escort from the Foggy Bottom-GWU Metro Station to their protected rally area at around 2:45, beset on all sides by members of the media and thousands of angry, emotional counterprotesters, who heckled and intermittently threatened the rally-goers. Call-and-response chants of “Whose streets? Our streets!” were frequent, though not as frequent as “F–k you, Nazis” or some variation thereof. The police escort for Kessler and his supporters included vans, cars, motorcycle and armed police officers, who kept both counterprotesters and media at a distance. The level of police presence was criticized by everyone from left-wing protesters to some of the speakers at the rally itself, but Kessler believed it to be necessary. “Maybe it’s overkill,” he said, “but you know, I would rather it be overkill and nobody lose their life than what happened in Charlottesville last year.”
Across from Lafayette Square, thousands of counterprotesters, many of whom had been gathered for hours, were there to greet the rally, many of them holding signs that read, “No Nazis, No KKK, No Fascist USA.” Janet Ozur-Bass, a rabbi in the Rockville area, attended the counterprotest with her husband Enrique and their daughter Bayla, a rising senior in high school.
“We’re here because we want to spread more love in the world and say that there’s no place for hate in the world,” Ozur-Bass said. “I feel like it’s my mandate as a Jew, my mitzvah, to be … an active part of our community and represent love.”
A few hundred feet away, behind a fence, a line of police officers, officers on horseback and another fence, the rally itself consisted of a few minor celebrities of the “alt-right” taking the microphone to address a crowd of mostly mainstream media, with a few of their supporters mixed in. Some speakers thanked the police, while others griped that such a presence was needed. All spoke to the importance of free speech, as well as to the violent character of Antifa. Elsewhere in the square, attendees were surrounded by reporters.
Several factors contributed to the lack of attendance as compared to Charlottesville, organizers said. One, Kessler noted to a scrum of reporters, was fear. “There were a lot of people who were at last year’s rally who are very scared this year,” he said. He also attributed the small turnout to a rift between him and what he described as more radical elements of the “alt-right”; activists like Richard Spencer and Daily Stormer editor Andrew Anglin were not invited, he said. For their part, both Anglin and Spencer have distanced themselves from Kessler, and had encouraged their supporters not to attend.
I feel like it’s my mandate as a Jew to be an active part of our community and represent love. — Janet Ozur-Bass, counterprotester at Unite the Right 2 rally
Their words didn’t stop Frank Gilroy, a white nationalist from Newark, New Jersey, who’d also attended the rally in Charlottesville. “I’m here today to fight for white rights that have been stripped away from us, especially in New Jersey,” he said.
Kessler sought to position himself as a moderate in the white supremacist world, describing himself alternately as a “moderate white identitarian” and “a civil rights advocate focusing on the underrepresented Caucasian demographic.” He repeatedly condemnded neo-Nazis, and said that he was not sure why so many had attended his rally last year. However, several of the attendees at Unite the Right 2 bore tattoos and literature adorned with the number 1488, a white supremacist symbol that refers to their 14-word slogan (“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”) and the letter H, meant to evoke the phrase “Heil Hitler.”
By 5, the rally had fizzled out. Equipment was packed up and rally-goers were hustled into vans, escorting them to a nearby Metro station. A cheer went up among the counterprotesters, though their day would extend for several more hours, as tensions with police flared at times.
Ariel Cohen, of Efrat, Israel, was sightseeing around D.C. with some of his friends when he spotted the counterprotest. “We go there, and we was with the people that say ‘no Nazis,’” he said.