Hundreds turned out in the US capital to swamp the ‘Unite the Right 2’ rally, which drew just 20 participants
Counter-protest outnumbers neo-Nazi rally in Washington
A white nationalist rally in the heart of Washington drew around 20 demonstrators and hundreds of chanting counter-protesters on Sunday, the one-year anniversary of racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
A large police presence kept the two sides separated in Lafayette Square, in front of the White House. After roughly around two hours and a few speeches, the "Unite the Right 2" rally ended early when it began to rain and two police vans escorted the demonstrators back to Virginia.
Sunday’s events, while tense at times, were a far cry from the street brawls that broke out in downtown Charlottesville a year ago, when a local woman was killed by a man who drove his car into a crowd of protesters.
Unite the Right 2 had been denied a permit in Charlottesville this year, but did secure one for Washington. Organisers planned for up to 400 protesters.
At the head of the white nationalist group was Virginia activist Jason Kessler, who helped organise last year’s event in Charlottesville. He emerged with a handful of fellow demonstrators from a subway station holding an American flag and walked toward the White House ringed by police, while protesters taunted them and called them Nazis.
Dan Haught, a 54-year-old computer programmer from Washington, was attending his first protest at the White House holding a sign that said "Back under your rocks you Nazi clowns".
“We wanted to send a message to the world that we vastly outnumber them,” Mr Haught said.
The violence last year in Charlottesville convulsed the nation and sparked condemnation across the political spectrum. It also was one of the lowest moments of president Donald Trump’s first year in the presidency.
Mr Kessler said the rally was aimed at advocating for "free speech for everybody", and he blamed last year’s violence in Charlottesville on other groups and the media.
He thought Sunday’s rally went well in comparison.
“Everybody got the ability to speak and I think that was a major improvement over Charlottesville,” Mr Kessler told Reuters. “It was a precedent that had to be set. It was more important than anything.”
In Washington on Sunday, counter-protesters organised an afternoon programme of music, speeches and poetry readings at Freedom Plaza, east of the White House.
Sean Kratouil, a 17-year-old who lives in Maryland, was wearing a vest with "Antifa" on the back and said he was there to help start a movement of peaceful anti-fascists. He said he was concerned that when rallies turn violent, it makes his side look bad. “Public perception is key,” he said.
In the picturesque college town of Charlottesville, hundreds of police officers had maintained a security perimeter around the normally bustling downtown district throughout the day on Saturday. Vehicular traffic was barred from an area of more than 15 city blocks, while pedestrians were allowed access at two checkpoints where officers examined bags for weapons.
Hundreds of students and activists took to the streets on Saturday evening. Many of the protesters directed their anger at the heavy police presence, with chants like “Cops and Klan go hand in hand,” a year after police were harshly criticised for their failure to prevent the violence.
On Sunday morning, activist Grace Aheron, 27, donned a "Black Lives Matter" T-shirt and joined hundreds of fellow Charlottesville residents who gathered at Booker T Washington Park 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,” Ms Aheron said at the park.