A year ago, the chaos surrounding the “Unite the Right” white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned deadly. Now authorities about 120 miles away in Washington DC are bracing for potential clashes as opposing demonstrators mark the anniversary in the US capital.
Police in Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, were criticized for allowing the situation to get out of control in 2017. An independent investigation found that the violence was compounded by under-prepared law-enforcement authorities, and officers who were not proactive enough in keeping right-wing extremists and counter-protesters apart. Heather Heyer, 32, was mowed down by a car driven into a crowd of protestors demonstrating against the white nationlists. James Alex Fields Jr. has been charged in her death. In all, the weekend saw three associated deaths and at least 35 injuries.
The report documented a series of missteps, concluding that the city and state failed to ensure public safety, did not allow the free expression of the counter-protesters, and did not properly facilitate the permit-holders’ offensive speech. Washington officials say they are determined not to see a repeat in their city.
The “Unite the Right 2” rally—again organized by white nationalist Jason Kessler—is scheduled to take place in Lafayette Square today (Aug. 12), across the street from the White House. Hundreds of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and alt-right supporters are expected to be met by thousands of protestors who oppose their racist message.
Around 400 Unite the Right supporters are expected to gather in Lafayette Square for the event scheduled to run from 5:30 to 7.30pm US eastern time. A protest rally that is likely to draw thousands of counter-demonstrators opposed to the white nationalists will start at noon at Freedom Plaza and march to Lafayette Square. Police will start closing streets in the downtown area from 8am.
Authorities in Washington say they are prepared (paywall) to prevent a re-run of last year’s clashes. Metropolitan Police Department chief Peter Newsham said this week that the goal is to keep the two groups separate: “When they are in the same area at the same time, it leads to violent confrontations. Our goal is to prevent that from happening.”
Even legal guns will be banned at or near the demonstrations. In addition, US Park Police Chief Robert MacLean said, because ”anything can be used as a weapon…our officers are adept and trained and prepared to identify an umbrella, a metal pipe, anything that you could think of.” Houses of worship and community centers have been open this weekend for, as NPR put it, events “focusing on love, not hate.”
Counter demonstrators, including including Black Lives Matter, far-left activists, socialist groups, anarchist groups, and anti-fascists have been gathering for weekend events ahead of the rally.
“Very, very few of our visitors share the views that will be expressed in Lafayette Park on Sunday,” said Washington mayor Muriel E. Bowser. “We have people coming to our city for the sole purpose of spewing hate…While we are opposed adamantly to what we are going to hear, we know what our responsibility is—to protect First Amendment events, to protect Washingtonians, and to protect our city.”
Last year, Donald Trump inflamed the Charlottesville controversy by saying, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.” Criticism came from both Republicans and Democrats who said the president needed to clearly distinguish between white supremacists and those who oppose them. The president’s response included this equivocation: “You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
This year, he seemed to attempt to strike a more conciliatory tone on the eve of the rally that will bring the still-simmering matter to his doorstep: