An estimated 15,000 protesters. Thousands of signs and flags. Hundreds of cops. All of which made their presence known from Freedom Plaza to Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., all day long on Sunday, August 12—to face down barely more than two dozen white nationalists.
Just before noon, leaders of nearly 40 anti-racist groups set their stages at Lafayette Square and Freedom Plaza, unfolding tables with water bottles and nourishment for protesters, laying out thousands of posters and other signs for usage. With the sun high overhead, some demonstrators conserved their energy and took it easy in the park and plaza, sitting in the shade and listening to speakers from Black Lives Matter, Answer Coalition, SURJ, and socialist organizations. They cheered on the voices heard through the megaphones, and hugged each other, sharing smiles and kindness.
A hundred miles away from Charlottesville, Heather Heyer’s face was seen again and again, including on Andy Billotti’s fisherman hat. He was not in Charlottesville last year, “but we were following the news closely…we had a vigil for [Heyer] the very next day,” said Billoti, who cried when he heard the news out of Charlottesville last year. “We are here to protest racism and white supremacy. I handed out several small tokens to remember [Heyer] by,” he said.
“The Nazis thought they could scare us into not coming back. But here we are,” said a Black Lives Matter leader to the crowd of a few hundred early in the day. Moments later, protesters from Freedom Plaza arrived from marching through the streets, joining forces with the Lafayette Square protesters. Suddenly, thousands filled the barricade-lined square, and quickly spilled into the streets. D.C. police blocked the ends of the road with snowplows and other vehicles. Mounted officers approached the park. A few dozen cops lined up along the barricade. The show of force, however, was lacking compared to the police turnout in Charlottesville over the weekend.
Rosalie Ray, who grew up in Charlottesville, came down from New York to participate in the protests on Sunday. “I was watching all of my friends on Twitter last year get beat up—and I couldn’t not be here this year,” said Ray. “This turnout today is incredible…it was so hard seeing the streets where you grew up descend into violence. But you realize Charlottesville has been a place for violence for so many over the years. So there are good things happening now, that Charlottesville can’t hide from anymore.”
The group of two dozen marching for white civil rights, according to Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler, convened at the Vienna Metro station across the river in Virginia before making its way downtown. Their train was secured by policemen, and stations in between Foggy Bottom and Federal Triangle were shut down throughout the afternoon.
Before disembarking, Kessler and his group were told their flag poles violated National Park Service permit rules. A video showed an angry Kessler removing the flags and group members donning them like capes. They arrived more than an hour before their allotted 5pm start time.
Dark clouds swirled overhead, boos drowned out other sounds. “Show the Nazis how we feel about them! Then come back for more presentations,” said one speaker.
Chants, shouts, and cries of “shame!” were heard throughout the afternoon. Protesters carrying Black Lives Matter flags jumped over barricades, into a garden courtyard, and police did not make any moves to stop the trespassing. Moments later, the barricades were thrown down and the area flooded with more protesters.
With thousands of protesters present, there was a tense moment in which they could have interacted with Kessler’s crew and overcome the few dozen policemen, but no drastic moves were made. No chances were taken.
Lightning flashed above the White House, and rain started to fall. Protesters didn’t budge, but continued sharing their message of “love Trumps hate,” and “united against white supremacy.” A few activists from Charlottesville were seen in D.C. after spending all weekend in their own streets.
The hate group left before their rally was even due to start.
As police escorted them away from the square, some members of antifa and other organizations attempted to block them from leaving. Officers quickly moved protesters’ chained shopping carts out of the way, pushed through the crowd, and hustled the Unite the Right2 supporters out of the streets. A small firework, mistaken at first for a flare, was shot off and a smoke bomb was thrown into the mix. There was one reported arrest.
Afterward, an overwhelming sense of victory hung in the air as a mass exodus of protesters made their way to Metro, bus stops, and back home. “15,000 to 30…I like those odds! But we need to keep showing up until it is 15,000 to zero,” said Ray.
Chalk art of hope, love, and humanity colored the sidewalks around the park. People clapped and cheered as they made their way through the city, away from the square. One sign in particular echoed the spirit of Charlottesville last year: “We Replaced You.”
“We thought we already beat [white supremacy],” said Billoti. “But we will beat it again.”