WASHINGTON – A short and sparsely attended white nationalist rally broke up late Sunday as police ushered the attendees into white vans and drove them away from a crowd of thousands of angry protesters in downtown Washington.
The rally's end followed a day in which large numbers of police officers sought – successfully, for the most part – to keep the two sides from clashing in a repeat of last year's deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
The small band of demonstrators at the "Unite the Right 2" rally, who numbered about two dozen, were being transported to the Rosslyn Metro station, a Fairfax County official said. From there, they would take a train to Vienna, where they would be greeted by county police who could escort them to their cars if necessary.
The demonstration's message of "white civil rights," delivered in an overwhelmingly liberal city where African Americans outnumbered whites at the last Census count, was angrily denounced by those who flocked to Lafayette Square.
A brief speech by rally organizer Jason Kessler – also one of the lead organizers of last year's rally – was drowned out by the cries and chants of those massed around him. Many in the crowd of counterprotesters wore the signature black masks, helmets and body armor of the Antifa movement, which clashed violently with white supremacists in Charlottesville.
A heavy police presence kept them separated from the white nationalist demonstrators, although the black-clad protesters did throw empty plastic bottles at Kessler's group at one point before they were stopped by police.
As evening came on and rain began to fall, tensions rose between counterprotesters and police, even as supporters of the white supremacist rally were long gone from downtown D.C.
The Antifa group launched flares and fireworks toward the White House compound. Shortly before 6 p.m., roughly 200 masked demonstrators thronged at 17th Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue, refusing requests to disperse and joining in anti-police chants.
The white supremacist gathering falls on the anniversary of the Charlottesville violence, which killed an anti-racist protester, Heather Heyer, and took the lives of two Virginia State troopers whose helicopter crashed as they returned from monitoring the day's events.
Along the route and at the park, the rally goers were met by thousands of anti-racist protesters and activists who turned out to counter the message of Kessler and his group.
Both Kessler and opposition groups have permits from the National Park Service to demonstrate at the park, a leafy seven-acre enclave just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the president's residence. The groups were put on opposite sides of the park and separated by a barrier.
Escorted by police in riot gear, Kessler and his 20 to 30 supporters arrived in the city after boarding a train at the Vienna Metro station in Northern Virginia.
Before boarding the train, Kessler spoke to several reporters. He said he and his group were there to promote free speech and to protest "white civil rights abuses."
When asked if he had anything to say to the mother of Heather Heyer, Kessler offered his "condolences" but said that police in Charlottesville should have blocked off the street where she was killed.
The train carrying Kessler (and with several police officers standing on each car) made stops along the way from Vienna toward Foggy Bottom. At Clarendon station, officers on the platform warned waiting passengers that the coming train was carrying Unite the Right participants, and directed people to board at the front of the train, away from Kessler's car at the back.
Protesters awaited the train when it arrived at Foggy Bottom station, but they were separated from Kessler by about 60 feet, with police officers instructing the protesters that they weren't allowed to get any closer. None of the protesters physically tried to get past the police.
When Kessler emerged from the car, surrounded by a swarm of photographers and TV cameras, the protesters started booing, yelling "F – you," and chanting "Black Lives Matter." Once the white supremacist group went up the escalator and past the fare gates, the people standing on the platform could hear a slow rumble of screams and yells erupt from the people waiting at the surface.
Members of Kessler's group said they weren't sure how many people would show up to demonstrate with them but that it "doesn't matter."
As the group was escorted into the station, a crowd of counterprotesters shouted "go home Nazis" and told the group whose faces were covered to "take off your masks."
Meanwhile, in Washington, the number of protesters continued to grow.
At about 2:30 p.m., several dozen masked counterprotesters, many of them wearing helmets and body armor, moved north on 13th Street. Many carried black umbrellas that they extended to form a shield when journalists approached them to ask questions and take photographs.
"We're not talking to press today," said one man with a black scarf tied across the bottom half of his face. "We prefer to let our actions speak for themselves."
As the group approached intersections, those at the front and rear would call out commands for others to halt. Eventually they stopped in Franklin Square Park, sitting down to rest and drink water.
One demonstrator, who wore dark sunglasses and had tied a bandanna across his face, declined to give his name but said he works full-time in the health care industry and has children.
"People like to think that we're a bunch of jobless hippies," he said.
He said he drew his own inspiration for involvement in black bloc in part from his study of German history, saying that the passivity of Germans had enabled Hitler's rise.
"The nice, chatty liberals in Germany didn't stop anything from happening," he said.
He said the group of black bloc demonstrators would only use violence if forced to by white nationalist protesters. (He said the standards for what would trigger a violent reaction were "organic," rather than strictly defined.)
Asked why he and his co-demonstrators were prepared to use violence rather than taking a non-violent approach, he said others were free to adopt more peaceful measures.
"There's enough of us for everybody to do, in their heart of hearts, what they feel is the absolute best thing," he said. "For people who want to do something that's hand-holdy and singing songs, we think there's room for people to do that."
However, he added, "I think if you ask the average person on the street, more people are willing to use a fist if a fist comes at them than you think."
Close to a thousand protesters were at Freedom Plaza by mid-afternoon, a few blocks away from Lafayette Park for an afternoon rally of speeches and music.
The Rev. Graylan Hagler was the rally's first speaker. "This place, this city, this country is a country of inclusivity and not white supremacy," he told the crowd in a booming voice. "We are people that stand up for racial justice and racial inclusivity," he added. "We will not be silenced."
Elsewhere, about 200 people from various groups marched down Vermont Avenue to just outside Lafayette Park shouting "we are not afraid" and "our streets."
Police reported no arrests or skirmishes in the District.
Around the same time Kessler and his supporters boarded a train Vienna, a large contingent of Black Lives Matter D.C. arrived at Lafayette Square to await him there.
Several hundred people marched down H Street toward the plaza shouting chants, many of them dressed in black and holding signs. The front phalanx walked in a row behind a hand-painted banner reading, "Rise Up" and "Power to the People."
– – –
The Washington Post's Natanson, Teo Armus, Martine Powers, Michael Brice-Sadler, Peter Hermann, Perry Stein, Fenit Nirappil, and Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.