The Unite the Right 2 rally brought a great deal of vocal counter protestors to Washington D.C., while its organizers were short on manpower and short on message.
Jason Kessler was an hour late to his own rally. Anxiously waiting for him in uneasy silence, hundreds of counter-protestors stood in tight ranks at the Foggy Bottom Metro station in Washington, D.C.
The sharp bark of a police officer yelling at the crowds to make space signaled Kessler’s arrival. About two dozen white supremacists emerged from the station. Some wore military fatigues and concealed their faces. Others wore business casual attire and red ‘Make America Great Again’ hats. A white supremacist wearing a black baseball helmet, a blue-collared shirt and khaki pants yelled anti-Semitic slogans as he walked by. His face was concealed with dark sunglasses and an American flag bandana.
The organizer of the event, Kessler, was not so modest. Carrying an American flag, he held his head high and was stern and calm in his demeanor. As the crowds surrounding him roared their disapproval he stared straight ahead, seemingly unfazed by the wild scene, a look of defiance on his face that beamed a bright white in the harsh afternoon sun.
Kessler seemed to relish the attention. Gaining publicity for his cause is the reason why he organized the Unite the Right rallies. Last year’s gathering in Charlottesville resulted in violent clashes between white-nationalist protesters and counter-protesters leaving three people dead. Attendees of the rally included members of the self-described “Alt-Right” (an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism and populism), neo-Confederates, Ku Klux Klansmen, neo-Nazis, and militias from various areas. Their stated goals were to unite the white nationalist movement and to oppose the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville. This year, Kessler hoped to have another opportunity to spread his message of white nationalism to a mainstream audience.
But if Kessler was expecting a repeat of the right-wing coalition that formed to support him in Charlottesville, he was mistaken. As his small band began to walk toward the White House, thousands more counter-protestors were waiting to show their disapproval. Not only were they on time, they had been gathering for days.
Lafayette Square, on the north side of the White House, is where Kessler’s boisterous and diverse opposition was gathered. Throughout the morning, various opposition groups marched in from all directions, with chants and banners extolling their distinct causes.
One of the first to arrive was the ANSWER Coalition. Kei Pritsker, a volunteer with the group, helped organize the counter-protest. Pritsker wanted to show that a majority of Americans overwhelmingly reject white supremacism.
“Our objectives are to demonstrate that the masses of people are on our side,” Pritsker stated. “We want to overwhelm the opposition with our numbers, and to demonstrate that DC and the United States as a whole reject this kind of message, this kind of violence and hatred.”
When asked about white supremacists’ right to free speech, Pritsker recognized that they were protected by the First Amendment. “We’re not advocating the government take away their permit to protest, or anything like that. But I will say that we also have a right to speak out against it and demonstrate against it…. We’re just trying to demonstrate that it is a fringe message by staging a demonstration ten times larger a hundred yards from them.”
Supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement were also out in force. Kirk Murphy and Brandon Iracks-Edelin, two members of the group, both expressed disappointment at the events that unfolded in Charlottesville.
“It really just highlighted that this country still has a lot of hatred in it and it’s been that way since its founding,” said Iracks-Edelin. “That event, you had people that passed away, but it brought more awareness, but it shouldn’t be like that. It shows that we need to be more proactive as far as fighting racism and fascism, all forms of discrimination and oppression in this country and the world.”
Murphy is a 9th grade English teacher, and he uses Charlottesville as a learning tool for his students. “How do you progressively move as a young colored individual in this world when you have people who continuously hate every single day? It’s disheartening.” Murphy added, “However, it’s all about being able to educate not only ourselves day by day, but being able to just hold those feelings back and being able to educate someone who probably feels the exact total opposite as you.”
Both men recognized the importance of free speech. Iracks-Edelin observed that “[white supremacists] do have the freedom of speech to express their point of view,” but noted that “at the same time, they have to be able to educate themselves and really rationalize what they believe and what they’ve been taught…. Believing that someone is less than a human being or lesser than you, that’s not right at all. When you’re expressing that hatred, that’s when I think freedom of speech shouldn’t be tolerated. If someone feels physically threatened, that’s even worse.”
Murphy believes the First Amendment is often applied differently to white people and black people. According to him, such laws have yet to benefit people of color “because…[they were] designed by old white men.”
— David Max Korzen (@davidmaxkorzen) August 12, 2018
Michael Marceau, an Army combat veteran who was critically injured in Vietnam, also stood by to participate. Michael is the president of Veterans for Peace, an organization whose goal is to let Americans know the true cost of war, for both combatants and non-combatants.
“I am here to tell the Nazis and the KKK people that they are not welcome here and their ideas are not welcome in America,” Marceau declared. “I understand the idea of free speech, even though to a lot of us, the white supremacists’ message is hateful and disgusting. But here in America, we value their ability to share that message in a non-violent way.”
Some people who gathered seemed less concerned with Kessler and were more focused on U.S. politics. Samantha Goldmanis, an organizer for RefuseFascism.org, along with her husband, who participated in counter-protests in Charlottesville last year, felt compelled to voice her opposition to the protestors attending Unite the Right 2.
“I wanted to be here this time to make sure they do not get away with this,” Goldmanis said. “They cannot have another victory. Seven billion people on the planet are counting on us to stop this. They are counting on us to act with courage and conviction and to say no to a fascist America.”
For Samantha, that means getting Trump out of the White House. “It’s 1933 Germany, not 1943. There’s still a chance to stop this, and that’s what we need to pull together on…. We want to make sure that their future is not our future.”
Many others had gathered not to engage in the protests, but to witness the events and help anyone in need. Standing by wearing military-style backpacks stuffed with tourniquets, duct tape, and other military medical equipment were Ando Muneno and Alexander Tuohy. Both were former Navy corpsmen, enlisted medical specialists who often deploy with Marines on combat deployments. While both Muneno and Tuohy strongly rejected Kessler’s message, they made it clear that they would provide medical aid to anyone in need, regardless of their ideology.
“Part of the corpsman creed is to hold the care of the sick and injured to be a privilege and a sacred trust…it doesn’t really matter to either of us who they are,” stated Alexander.
— LIMA CHARLIE NEWS (@LimaCharlieNews) August 12, 2018
Violence was front and center on everyone’s mind, especially given the events of last year in Charlottesville.
It was there that DeAndre Harris, an African American man, was brutally beaten by six men in a parking garage during the rally. Harris suffered spinal injury, a broken arm and head lacerations that required eight staples. Two state troopers died after their helicopter crashed while assisting the police response to the rally.
But the most horrific event in Charlottesville was when James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters killing Heather Heyer. A 32-year old paralegal from Virginia, Heyer wanted to attend the rally to stand up for the rights of the disenfranchised in the face of fascism, white supremacy, and racial hatred. Her death loomed large in Lafaeyette Square.
“They killed Heather Heyer,” said Pritsker from the ANSWER Coalition. “I would definitely call it an act of terror. Just based on the political definition of terrorism: using fear to spread a political message. They killed someone last year to spread that message of hate. I’m glad people are taking the far-right seriously as a result, because we can’t afford to lose more Heather Heyers.”
In the wake of the violence, many white nationalist militia groups and their leaders were sued by the City of Charlottesville, local businesses, and neighborhood associations. 11 out of 25 defendants have entered into consent decrees which permanently bar them from returning to Charlottesville to engage in any coordinated armed activity during rallies and protests. Two women injured by the car attack filed a $3 million lawsuit against Fields, the man who allegedly rammed his car into the crowd, and the organizers of the event. Fields has also plead not guilty to multiple federal charges of hate crimes. A civil lawsuit, brought by the non-profit Integrity First for America on behalf of 11 Charlottesville residents accuses over two dozen white nationalists of organizing the rally with the intention of committing violence.
These suits have been credited with suppressing the “Alt-Right” movement to a degree. A research associate at Right Wing Watch, Jared Holt, has pointed out that the lawsuits have inspired “a lot of alt-right supporters to abandon [the previous central figures of the movement] in favor of ones who are not jeopardized.” Infighting, slow recruitment, lack of funding, and a loss of real estate on social media have also weakened the biggest groups in the movement. Litigation like this, which one prominent white supremacist has termed “lawfare,” is a big reason why the Unite the Right 2 rally was held in Washington D.C.
To the relief of many, this rally was a mostly peaceful event, with words being the only weapons wielded in the fight. Excellent organization by the Washington Metropolitan police allowed each side the opportunity to express their First Amendment rights while maintaining a distance between them to prevent violent flare ups.
The poor turnout for the Unite the Right 2 rally left many people unable to see, let alone talk to, any members of the alt-right movement. Lima Charlie News was fortunate to be able to talk to one of them, David, though he refused to provide a last name.
David, a white nationalist who attended the demonstrations in Charlottesville last year, remained defiant despite the enormous crowd arrayed against them.
“I’m supporting Jason Kessler, I’m supporting the southern confederate heritage in the monuments, and black history,” he said.
When asked about freedom of speech, David said he believed it was essential to finding the truth. “Free speech is required to find the truth and to make informed decisions. You’ve got to give people a chance to say their piece, or else you’re just getting one side of the story and the resulting policy decision is going to be skewed away from the truth.”
Yet, when asked about Heather Heyer’s murder in Charlottesville last year, David told a story that conflicted with the established facts. “Antifa were allowed to have weapons and they pointed a gun at the kid driving the car, and he was trying to get away.” While David was present at the rally, he did not personally see the car crash. Additionally, protestors who carried guns in Charlottesville were generally participants in Unite the Right, as a KKK leader was found guilty of firing a gun at counter-protestors in Charlottesville.
— LIMA CHARLIE NEWS (@LimaCharlieNews) August 12, 2018
Light rain began to fall in the afternoon, accompanied by a low rumble of thunder. Kessler, David, and the other participants in Unite the Right 2 were loaded into police vans and carried away among blaring sirens as showers grew heavier. Unite the Right 2 was rained out by inclement weather, but their message had long since been drowned out by the counter-protestors.
Though the alt-right demonstrators were gone, their opponents remained. Among them was the only group that Lima Charlie observed behaving in any sort of antagonistic manner – Antifa. A militant anti-fascist political movement, Antifa shows up at protests throughout the country. Using confrontational and violent tactics, they attempt to shut down white nationalist events, but also hide their own identities.
Despite a number of requests, members of Antifa were unwilling to be interviewed. A group of black-clad people wearing facemasks marched in formation down a nearby street, and quickly broke ranks when they realized they were being filmed.
“You’re hurting us!”, shouted one masked protestor who charged aggressively towards our reporter, “you’re going to put us in fucking prison.”
Many of the counter-protestors seemed suspicious of Antifa, even if both groups opposed the alt-right message.
“I am not pleased at all in the violence that they engage in,” said Marceau of the Veterans for Peace. He was in DC during Trump’s inauguration and witnessed their violent activity. While he sympathized with their rejection of white supremacy, he disagreed with their tactics. “I’ve seen too much violence personally.”
As the rain picked up, the counter-protestors began to filter out of Lafayette Square, many of them not realizing that Kessler and his band were long gone. Their diverse coalition milled about and the atmosphere was light. A cloud of marijuana smoke wafted through the air. A group of attendees marched by with a large banner saying “University of Maryland International Socialist Organization.” Chanting “No Borders, No Nations, Stop Deportations!” they carried anti-fascists signs, pictures of Heather Heyer, a rainbow flag, an anti-Trump t-shirt. A cacophony of disparate passions, unified on this one day.
— Anthony LoPresti (@AnthonyLoPresti) August 12, 2018
As the counter-protestors carrying anti-fascist signs marched toward the White House, people dressed as science fiction characters meandered in the opposite direction. A few blocks east of the protest site, OTAKON was in full-swing at the Washington Convention Center. Described as the “biggest and best celebration of Japanese animation, manga, J-pop, and east Asian culture in the world” it attracted thousands of fans.
Down the road thousands more lined up outside of the Smithsonian museums, strolling through the National Mall, or gazing at the Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson Memorials.
Not far from Lafayette Square, at the Florida Avenue Grill, Carl and Pela, an African-American couple visiting from Michigan were sitting down for some old-fashioned southern food. They were in town to tour the National Museum of African American History and Culture, but it was hard to escape the protests just a few blocks from them.
“I think it’s horrible that they can protest so openly without any backlash from our leadership,” Carl stated. Added Pela, “The President took the office to serve all people. Regardless of race.”
Both expressed dismay at what they perceived as a lack of action from President Trump and Congress in response to an increase of white supremacist activity. Carl expressed support for the right of free speech, even for those with opposing viewpoints, but noted it had limitations.
“We have a right to disagree, but we have to respect each other when we disagree.”
[Edited by Anthony A. LoPresti]
Alex Kish is a U.S. Marine veteran and a law student at George Washington University. He enlisted as an MP, and deployed to the American Embassy in Sana’a, Yemen as a security augment in 2013. Currently, Alex is a volunteer at Veterans Education Success, an organization that advocates for veterans rights in higher education.
David Max Korzen is a writer and expert in national security, foreign policy and the Middle East. A former active-duty U.S. Air Force pilot, Korzen served as a special operations aviation advisor with the 6th Special Operations Squadron, developing the combat capabilities of partner air forces. A veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, he has worked, lived and studied extensively throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. Korzen holds a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University and a bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from George Washington University.
[Main photo image: Anthony A. LoPresti / Lima Charlie News]
Lima Charlie provides global news, featuring insight & analysis by military veterans and service members Worldwide.
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