‘Unite the Right 2018’: Anti-racists outnumber far right in DC

Washington, DC – Thousands of anti-fascist and antiracist protesters descended on the US capital to counter a far-right rally, one year after the first “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville, Virginia turned deadly. 

Counterdemonstrators far outnumbered the two dozen or so Unite the Right protesters who made their way on Sunday to Lafayette Park, located just outside the White House. The small gathering lasted briefly before its participants were driven away by white vans. 

The small protest capped off a day full of rallies and marches, organised by anti-racist and anti-fascist groups throughout Washington, DC. In Freedom Plaza, rally-goers held a moment of silence to remember 32-year-old Heather Heyer who was killed one year ago when a far-right protester rammed his car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators. James Alex Fields Jr, the accused driver, has since been charged on several counts, including federal hate crimes.

Last year’s attack also injured dozens, including Constance Young, an organiser with the Shut it Down DC activist group, which helped organised the Still Here, Still Present rally in Freedom Plaza. Prior to Sunday’s protest, Young told Al Jazeera that she found it “absolutely heinous” that white supremacists were able to gather under the Unite the Right banner for a second year, especially after what happened last August. 

“It’s scary,” she said. “It makes me feel deeply disturbed that they will be right outside of the White House, but where they are in physical proximity to our president or to this administration isn’t really the biggest issue; It’s that they feel emboldened to convene again.”

More than a 1,000 people rallied in Freedom Plaza under the banner ‘Still here, still strong’ [Jet Belgraver/Al Jazeera]

Damshia King, a 44-year-old mother from Washington, DC, brought her 20 and 16-year-old sons to the Freedom Plaza rally. 

“For me, growing up in a euphoric area and the DC area having so much diversity, inclusion, as well as engagement, and now it’s just a strife separation between races, religions, as well as how people feel about the administration,” King told Al Jazeera. 

She added that allowing the far right to rally outside the White House, “gives them the freedom to think it’s okay”.

Damshia King brought her two sons to Sunday’s rally in Freedom Plaza [Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath/Al Jazeera]

Meanwhile, members of Black Lives Matter DC (BLM) shouted “fight back” and other chants as they marched outside Lafayette Park. 

“There’s a lot of oppression and resistance going on in this country,” said Brandon Iracks-Edelin, a 22-year-old from Washington, DC who marched in solidarity with BLM. “This country has been built off of that,” he told Al Jazeera. 

“This country is not post-racial … [today’s far-right] rally, shows it’s systemic, institutional and intentional.” 

Other groups, including Future is Feminist, ANSWER Coalition and the United Methodist Church, also  held counterprotests, marches and rallies throughout the city. 

There were minor scuffles between police and counterprotesters as Unite the Right participants march into Lafayette Park, but the event passed without any major incidents. 

Alt-right fractured

According to local media, Jason Kessler, the Unite the Right’s organiser, admitted this year’s rally was a failure due, in part, to the infighting of the alt-right, a loosely knit coalition of white nationalist, white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.  

Around two dozen people showed up for the Unite the Right event [Tom Szypulski/Al Jazeera] 

Kessler’s two dozen supporters were a far cry from the 300 to 400 permitted to attend. 

“Now people are afraid to stand up for their rights,” Kessler told reporters. 

 After last year’s deadly event, several far-right groups sought to distance themselves from the alt-right. A number of universities also cancelled speaking events for leading alt-right members, many far-right individuals were kicked off of social media platforms and cities pulled or reject permits for similar right-wing protests. 

Richard Spencer, the leader of the alt-right, said had said he would not attend Sunday’s event, tweeting that the protest “does not make sense at this time”.

“I don’t know exactly what will happen,” he added in a tweet prior to the event, “but it will not be good”. 

US President Donald Trump, who was heavily criticised for his response to last year’s Unite the Right, came under fire again on Saturday after he condemned “all types of racism and acts of violence” without specifically mentioning neo-Nazis or white supremacists. 

On Twitter, the Southern Poverty Law Center watchdog group called the comments “too little … too late”. 

Others said his tweet in advance of Sunday’s rallies shows that he again is playing “both sides”. 

“He’s still doing that ‘both sides’ thing, which sounds fine on the face of it – to people who are willing & able to forget that one side is nazis & pro-slavery thugs,” tweeted Andrew Stroehlein, the European director  at Human Rights Watch

Back in Washington, DC, Michelle Styczynski, an organiser with Shut it Down DC, said high turnout at Sunday’s counterprotests and rallies, “symbolises people will not tolerate white supremacy and hate and violence”.

“When you organise and come together, that message can drown out the voices of hate,” she told Al Jazeera.

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