A tiny group of white supremacists made their way to the White House on Sunday, surrounded by a double cordon of police officers and throngs of protesters shouting “Shame!” “Shame!”
In the center was 34-year-old Jason Kessler. His white supremacist rally last year in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, had left dozens of people seriously injured, and one young woman dead. Kessler thrust himself down the street like a prize-fighter, biting his lower lip and glaring ahead.
He had accepted none of the blame for the violence, but instead explained, to any journalist who would listen, that he was the real victim. Kessler carried an American flag in his hands. Law enforcement officials had reportedly confiscated the flag poles, worried they would be used as weapons.
“Heather Heyer!” people shouted at Kessler, as he passed protesters holding signs bearing her name. The 32-year-old had been killed as the rally Kessler organized last year descended into chaos. Heyer and her friends had been marching in a packed crowd of protesters, chanting “Black Lives Matter” when a car rammed into them, in what was widely seen as a white supremacist terror attack.
To mark the anniversary of his bloody, chaotic rally last year in Charlottesville, Kessler had secured an official permit to hold a rally in front of the White House. Twenty or thirty of his fellow extremists had come with him. On his permit, he had estimated that he would have 100 to 400 supporters.
To protect their safety and that of others, officials had organised a special route for the “Free Speech Parade”. Kessler and his companions were escorted onto the metro. A special car was prepared for them, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported. In downtown Washington, police officers said they planned to clear part of the metro station platform to escort Kessler up to the street. As he came up the elevators, he was met with hundreds of news photographers and a roar of outrage from protesters amassed waiting.
In Lafayette Park, in front of the White House, Kessler and his tiny group of supporters were taken away to their own distant corner of the park talked to each other in front of journalists. Cordoned off and dozens of meters away, too far to even see him, a crowd of thousands of counter-protesters waved signs and shouted their disapproval.
Some of the protesters said they did not know how Kessler and his supporters felt about the thousands of angry opponents. But they said they knew how they felt, seeing the enormous crowd that had come out to protest made them feel encouraged and comforted.
“Very empowered,” said Constance Young, 35, one of the organizers of “Shut It Down DC.”
“If we don’t say, ‘Not here, not now,’ this violence will keep happening on our watch,” she said, addressing the crowd of counterprotesters. Young was among those who survived the car attack that killed Heyer and left nearly two dozen protesters injured last year.
Counterprotesters also gathered near the Washington suburban metro station of Vienna, Virginia, where Kessler and companions were escorted onto a train to the city for the demonstration. Some yelled “Nazi scum!” at them as they were shepherded through the station.
The counterprotests took different forms, with organizers agreeing to respect each other’s tactics. At one point, Black-clad antifascists were marching up one street, while the Trans and Queer #ResistDance Against White Supremacy were travelling in the the same direction. The two groups did not meet.
The counterprotesters have not just come to confront the fringe white supremacists groups – they also gathered to say “hell no” to President Donald Trump.
The president sparked outrage last year by repeatedly condemning “both sides” for the violence last year in Charlottesville. This year, his official account tweeted a condemnation of “all types of racism and acts of violence”.
A majority of Americans say that racial tensions have been on the rise over the past year, according to a CBS News poll. But there is a fierce debate over the best way to respond to emboldened white supremacy, with some Americans arguing fringe extremist groups should be ignored, and others saying they must be publicly confronted.
Before Charlottesville last year, many white Americans did not take the threat of neo-Nazi groups seriously. Then hundreds of young men were filmed marching across a university campus with flaming torches and shouting “Jews will not replace us!”
A 21-year-old white man from Ohio, who had been photographed demonstrating with the white supremacists, was charged with murder and multiple federal hate crimes after allegedly ramming a car into a crowd of counterprotesters a year ago.
The attack followed other acts of violence, including the vicious beating of one black Charlottesville resident, and a Ku Klux Klan member firing a gun at another black resident.
Yesterday morning, hundreds of fellow Charlottesville residents gathered at Booker T Washington Park in the city to mark the anniversary of last year’s bloodshed. “We want to claim our streets back, claim our public space back, claim our city back,” Grace Aheron told the Associated Press.
Several events were scheduled including a gathering that included civil rights activist Rev Al Sharpton and Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro.
White supremacists who marched and attacked counterprotesters in Charlottesville last year continue to be publicly identified. Many of the neo-Nazi, and other white supremacist groups that marched in Charlottesville last year have been weakened or fractured by infighting and by pressure from lawsuits and counterprotests.