Under dark, rain-threatening clouds on Sunday, Aug. 12, thousands of demonstrators of all ages strode purposely to Lafayette Square in front of the White House. Many were dressed all in black, their faces obscured by scarves and gas masks.
Hundreds of D.C. police and law enforcement officers were in place; they had been preparing for months for a potentially violent confrontation between “Unite the Right” — the organizers of last year’s deadly demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia — and protesters against racism and white supremacy.
The rally, labeled “First Amendment Activity” by the National Park Service, was scheduled to take place between 5:30 and 7:30 p.m., but it started early and was over by 5:15.
As things turned out, the rally could be described as small, energetic and earnest. That’s not how it had been billed by public officials and in the national media for weeks. Violence was expected. Hundreds of white supremacists, outspoken racists, Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis were expected to show up in Lafayette Square as they had in Charlottesville.
Franklin Garcia, D.C.’s elected “Shadow Member of the U.S. House of Representatives,” warned in an email sent to constituents and The Georgetowner on Sunday morning: “You should not come on the march if you do not want to be put in a potentially risky/confrontational situation, as we will be in the same space as the white supremacist rally. At 4 p.m.–TBD, the rally in Lafayette Square is a higher risk space due to proximity with white supremacists, although we do still have a permit for the space.”
The actual atmosphere did not suggest a riot. Around 4 p.m., The Georgetowner observed hundreds of uniformed law enforcement officers wearing yellow vests — but not riot gear, nor even helmets — on foot, on bicycles and on horses, lining the White House entrances.
Dozens of DC Peace Team volunteers in lime green vests, trained to de-escalate public confrontations, and National Lawyers Guild Legal Observers, trained to note and report interactions between protestors and police, roamed the streets around the White House. Other individuals wore white helmets, helmet cameras, large emergency medical supply backpacks and, in some cases, possibly ersatz press badges.
All the black-clothed demonstrators with covered faces and umbrellas sticking out of their backpacks were ostensibly members of the Antifa — that is, anti-fascist — movement. In large groups, they looked ominous, but individually, at least to Georgetowner reporters, they were friendly, even polite, not seeking confrontation but ready for it.
“The mood here is excited but not in any way frenzied,” said Rose Berger, an experienced DC Peace Team volunteer. The variety of signs and banners on display reflected the theme: “United Against Hate,” “End Racism,” “No Hoods in my Woods” (as in KKK hoods), “Resist the Right,” “Not Mein Fuhrer” (“Nicht” would have made it all-German) and “What Divides Us Pales to What Unites Us.”
Many carried signs and chanted “Black Lives Matter” and “Impeach Trump and Pence.” Here and there were signs demanding “Abolish ICE.”
But, in fact, there was almost nothing immediate to protest. Unite the Right leader Jason Kessler and fewer than 30 supporters arrived around 3 p.m. at the Foggy Bottom Metro station. They reportedly rode in in a rear car of a train, accompanied by police.
The Unite the Right group of two-dozen-plus then walked to their gathering site by Lafayette Square, surrounded by a large number of law enforcement officers. Protesters shouted and chanted at them all along the way. When the group made it into Lafayette Square, protesters continued to shout loudly, though they were kept far away, physically, from rally participants. At 5:15, Kessler and his group left.
“The city would ensure that the rallygoers could exercise their right to free speech — even if what they were saying was distasteful,” said Mayor Muriel E. Bowser last week.
On Sunday, the mayor interrupted an official trip to El Salvador to return to the District to “supervise city response to the protests,” according to city officials. She planned to return to El Salvador on Monday morning to finish the sister-city trip.