WASHINGTON — Fewer than two dozen white supremacists received a private train car and a police escort as they traveled into the nation’s capital on Sunday, a year after one of their own killed a counter-protester in Charlottesville, Virginia, by driving a car into a crowd.
When the small band of neo-Nazis approached a park in front of the White House, there were several hundred counterprotesters awaiting them. In some ways, the scene was a victory for anti-racist organizers. Unlike last year, when racists overwhelmed the city of Charlottesville, white supremacist organizer Jason Kessler could scarcely pull together enough racists this year to fill a train car.
It started raining as soon as Kessler’s group entered the park. They were almost completely obscured by the several hundred police officers who surrounded it.
“White flower!” yelled one protester as Kessler’s crew approached the park.
But that tiny gathering of white nationalists managed to completely hijack Washington, D.C.’s public infrastructure and the attention of the national media. And the district’s handling of the event created some discomfiting resonances: American racists getting bundled into the capital on a segregated train car and escorted through a racists-only entrance into a park across from the White House.
Metropolitan Police Department officers said their goal on Sunday was to keep the white supremacists away from the counterprotesters to prevent violence. To that end, hundreds of taxpayer-funded law enforcement officials separated white nationalists from the public on a private train car and provided them with a private entrance into Lafayette Park.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority briefly floated the idea of dedicating separate train cars for white nationalists, but it retreated from the idea after the transit union said its members would not provide “unprecedented special accommodations for a hate group.” WMATA told HuffPost that it left all trains open to the public. The decision to separate the white nationalists “is a law enforcement matter,” the transit authority said.
Giving Kessler’s group a private Metro car is “so unbelievably wrong & disgraceful,” D.C. Council member Charles Allen tweeted on Sunday. “Beyond the horrible precedent it sets, what does it tell the riding public & operators? Plus, it’s the exact opposite of what @wmata said they’d do.”
One Black Lives Matter protester who identified himself as Black Soul expressed anger that the police were protecting the racists, but that they seemed to do nothing to protect people in the city’s predominantly black areas.
“It’s crazy how the police can come up here and protect these motherfucker racist bastards, but we got little girls and little boys getting killed in Southeast and Northeast in the inner city right there in the fucking hood, everyday snatched up,” he said. “They’re here to protect these sheet-wearing racist-ass bastards.”
“If they’re willing to come out here and espouse their hatred and oppression and call for a mass genocide to tons of our community members, they don’t deserve police protection,” Emily Patton, a 31-year-old from Arlington, Virginia, said.
Dan Ridge, a local government commissioner, said the city shouldn’t provide neo-Nazis with private train cars.
“If we made them commute in integrated cars like we’ve been doing in D.C. for a long time, I think that’d scare them away,” he said.
The dismal turnout of the so-called “Unite the Right II” rally put on full display the fractured state of the white nationalist movement. Kessler, who organized last year’s rally in Virginia, moved this year’s “white civil rights” rally to D.C. after failing to obtain another permit from the city of Charlottesville. And several of the movement’s top figures — who are facing crippling legal fees in a lawsuit related to their role in planning last year’s violent event — chose to sit out this year’s event.
Richard Spencer, who once celebrated the election of Donald Trump with a Nazi salute, appears to have fled the region. Christopher Cantwell, best known for sobbing on camera when he found out he was wanted for arrest after pepper-spraying protesters in Charlottesville, said this year’s rally would be “too fucking dangerous” for him to attend, and blamed Kessler for his lack of management skills.
Days before the rally, Kessler appeared to be losing the support of even the lesser-known Nazis he had said would speak. Patrick Little, the failed neo-Nazi Senate candidate who was slated to speak at Kessler’s event, said on Thursday that he would not attend, even though he was in D.C. spreading his message of “expel the Jews.”
The result was a rally so minuscule, it was difficult to even see the racists through the hordes of MPD, Secret Service, and U.S. Park Police officers.
“Where are they?” asked one protester who was standing just feet away from the racists’ private entrance to the park but hadn’t noticed the group slip through.
Leaked Facebook Messenger chats obtained by the media collective Unicorn Riot show that Kessler barely managed to pull off this year’s very small rally. He pleaded for help figuring out transportation to D.C. and said that he had given up finding housing arrangements because it’s “too complicated for me to deal with.”
The chats also show Kessler’s efforts to rebrand a movement now best known for murdering a peaceful protester. Kessler and his fellow racists discussed including nonwhite speakers, a move Kessler said would “give us political cover to bring on [David] Duke,” a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. HuffPost could not independently confirm the authenticity of the messages.
As the fragile alliance between a collection of unstable white supremacists splintered, their presence in D.C. became a rallying point for anti-racism protesters. Members of Black Lives Matter, anarchists, anti-fascists, and union workers spent weeks organizing protests. By Sunday, the anti-racist coalition raised over $20,000 to pay speakers and organizers, the group said on Facebook.
Hundreds of their members showed up at protests through the city that encircled and overshadowed the neo-Nazis.
“We’re making a statement that these hate groups are not welcome in Washington, D.C.,” said the Rev. Graylan Hagler, the senior pastor at Plymouth United Church of Christ in Washington, who spoke at one of the counterprotests.
The racists, Hagler said, were attempting to “hide behind the First Amendment” to justify the rally.
“It’s incendiary language, it leans toward violence and has a history of violence,” he said. “It’s not just somebody’s freedom to make speech. It’s actually an attempt to be free enough to perpetrate your violence.”
In the end, the massive use of city resources was all so that Kessler and his crew could stand in the rain in front of the White House for about two hours. A little after 5 p.m., the racists quietly left the park, before the speaker lineup was scheduled to begin. Even if they had delivered their speeches, no one would have been able to hear or see them anyway.