Washington, DC – More than 1,000 anti-fascist and antiracist protesters have descended on the US capital to counter a far-right rally, one year after the first “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville, Virginia turned deadly.
Several counterprotests are taking place on Sunday near the “Unite the Right 2” event in Washington, DC’s Lafayette Park, located just outside the White House. Around 30 white supremacists and other members of the far right are expected to arrive in the Park around 21:30GMT. The far-right protest is being organised by Jason Kessler, who put together the last year’s protest in Charlottesville.
At that demonstration, white supremacists and other members of the alt-right clashed with anti-racists. It ended after a far-right protester rammed his car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring more than a dozen others. James Alex Fields Jr, the accused driver, has since been charged on several counts, including federal hate crimes.
Constance Young, an organiser with the Shut It Down DC activist group, was injured in the Charlottesville attack. She said she finds it “absolutely heinous” that white supremacists are able to gather under the Unite the Right banner for a second year, especially after what happened last August.
“It’s scary,” she told Al Jazeera prior to Sunday’s rally. “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.”
Young is part of a group organising the Still Here, Still Present rally, which began 12pm local time (16:00 GMT) in Washington, DC’s Freedom Plaza. It hosted a number of speakers from a variety of different backgrounds. Many of the rally’s participants then marched to Layfaette Park to join hundreds of other counterprotesters who had gathered behind police barricades and fences.
At around 20:00 GMT, a group of about 30 white supremacists and other members of the far right were seen walking, with police escort, towards the Lafeytte Park.
The Unite the Right’s official website had encouraged participants to bring American and Confederate flags to its event. It said “there is no expectation of privacy” and told participants not to talk to the media.
|Protesters also gathered at the University of Virginia ahead of the one year anniversary of the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right protests [Lucas Jackson/Reuters]
Amanda Duzak Trebach, who also survived the Charlottesville attack, told those at a pre-counterprotest organising meeting on Wednesday night that it’s “imperative to confront the far right in order to not only block their hateful political ideas from being disseminated, but also to offer a solidly developed anti-racist” strategy.
Maurice Cook, a DC-based organiser and cofounder of the March for Racial Justice group, agreed, telling Al Jazeera that Sunday’s counterprotest “is an opportunity for us to come together, recruit and do the structural work that we are charged to do to dismantle the impact of white supremacy in our country”.
Security services in the DC area were on high alert for Sunday’s event. On Twitter, the DC Metropolitan Police Department tweeted that it was “prepared to protect the rights of individuals to exercise their First Amendment freedoms and also ensure public safety”. It later warned participants that it is against the city’s laws to carry a firearm within 1,000 feet (305 metres) from any First Amendment activity.
Sunday’s protest comes as the alt-right – a loosely knit coalition of white nationalist, white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups – faces fractures and infighting. 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.
This year’s Unite the Right had been permitted to allow up to 400 people.
Richard Spencer, the leader of the alt-right, said he will not attend Sunday’s rally, tweeting that the protest “does not make sense at this time”.
“I don’t know exactly what will happen,” he added, “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, Shut It Down DC’s Young said it was important for people to show up in some way to demonstrate solidarity, adding that there are opportunities to get involved, including cooking for counter-demonstrators, providing emotional support or showing up in the streets.
But while she said she has put in hundreds of hours organising, “it’s still unbelievable that they (white supremacists and the far right) will be here after what happened in Charlottesville.
“I’m still processing that this is actually happening.”