WASHINGTON - A white supremacist rally outside the White House fizzled out Sunday after only a handful of neo-Nazis showed up and were massively outnumbered by hundreds of counterprotesters.
In an effort to avoid a repeat of the chaos of a deadly protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, exactly a year ago, Washington police closed streets and threw a ring of steel across a public park to make sure the white supremacists and rowdy counterprotesters did not come into contact.
Officers used pepper spray toward the end of the demonstrations, targeting a group of black-clad anti-fascists who scuffled with police a few blocks from the White House, but the day appeared to end without major incident.
Early in the afternoon, about 20 white nationalists trickled in from nearby Vienna, Virginia — under heavy police escort — at Washington’s Foggy Bottom Metro station, as a larger group of at least 300 counterprotesters awaited them, shouting “Shame!” and “Get out of my city!” and jeering them loudly.
After marching to Lafayette Square in front of the White House, the small group was driven in police vans back to a different train station.
“Behold the master race,” one counterprotester mockingly yelled.
By the end of the day, only a smaller group of six individuals remained, ashen-faced as a crowd of about 200 counterprotesters screamed at them, separated by scores of police officers.
Heavy rain helped bring the so-called United the Right demonstration to an early end, hours before the scheduled finish of what had been billed as a “white civil rights rally” protesting, among other things, the social media shutdown of some voices on the extreme right.
At Freedom Plaza, located on one end of Pennsylvania Avenue that leads to the U.S. Capitol, a few hundred counterprotesters of all ages, including children and retirees, gathered in a seemingly light-hearted atmosphere.
One group danced in the street.
“The U.S. is for all of us, NOT just some of us,” one sign read, while another said, “Fighting Nazis: An American Tradition.”
Last year, torch-bearing white supremacists marched through Charlottesville in two days of chaos that culminated with a man driving a car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a woman and injuring 19 people.
In that case, some of the white supremacists carried guns, including assault rifles, but all firearms were barred from Sunday’s rally.
Charlottesville police faced massive criticism for their response and their failure to keep demonstrators and counterprotesters apart.
Washington police, who had begun massing near Lafayette Square as early as 8 a.m., appeared intent on avoiding the same pitfalls.
Kei Pritsker, 22, a Washington-area volunteer for the Answer Coalition that organized this year’s counterprotest, said it was necessary to send a strong message to neo-Nazi sympathizers.
“It would be a major mistake if we allowed fascists to just walk into the nation’s capital and go in unopposed,” he said.
The white supremacist movement is enjoying a greater sense of empowerment under President Donald Trump, he added.
“When Trump was elected, a lot of those people that were harboring a lot of racist sentiments felt like, because they had a president’s backing, they could just go out and say this stuff,” Pritsker said.
In the immediate aftermath of last year’s march, Trump drew broad criticism when he appeared initially reluctant to condemn the extreme right-wingers — many of whom have rallied behind him since his election.
On Saturday, the president issued a generic condemnation of “all types of racism and acts of violence” via Twitter.
A black man at the counterprotest who would only give his name as Jim said America feels more racist under Trump.
“It has emboldened white folks now. If they are walking down the sidewalk, their position is you better get out of the way,” he said. “It was subtle, now it’s not subtle, it’s in your face. It’s like Nazi Germany.”
Washington’s population is about 50 percent black.
Rally organizers encouraged supporters to bring only U.S. or Confederate flags — not neo-Nazi emblems — and cautioned them to avoid reacting angrily to counterprotesters.
The few demonstrators who showed up for the most part wore masks or concealed their faces. Counterprotesters ridiculed the group for not having the courage to show their faces.
Their police escort was such that it was all but impossible to get close enough to interview any of them.
Trump has retweeted white nationalist material, said Mexicans crossing the U.S. border are rapists and drug dealers, and tweeted demeaning descriptions of black athletes and politicians.