Downtown Washington was calm Sunday morning, but the relative quiet was not likely to last.
As many as 400 people are expected to make their way to Lafayette Park across the street from the White House later to take part in an event planned by the organizer of last year’s deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
The gathering, billed as a “white civil rights” rally, is taking place 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.
In Charlottesville on Saturday, hundreds of anti-racist protesters and activists marched against racism through the city’s streets. The protests were peaceful though tense, with demonstrators complaining at times about the heavy police presence as dozens of officers in riot gear stood at the ready.
In Washington, thousands protesting the white supremacist rally also are expected at numerous locations, and many plan to converge on Lafayette Park, before the organizer of the rally, Jason Kessler, and his followers arrive. 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.
D.C. police could be seen early Sunday walking the streets near the park as officials began shutting down several downtown streets where protesters are expected to gather.
Even as police continued to erect an intricate maze of barricades around Lafayette Park, it seemed like a typical Sunday morning outside the White House — with Segway tours and selfie sticks in abundance.
Tourists making their way through through Lafayette Square paused to take in the growing group of protesters gathering on the northeast side of the park.
Brightly colored signs declaring, “From Charlottesville to the White House: Shut down white supremacy” and “No Nazis, no KKK, no fascist USA” lined patches of grass.
Rossana Castillo, 50, a tourist from Grenoble, France, paused as she passed to take photos.
“It’s astonishing to me,” she said of the planned Unite the Right rally that was expected to bring white supremacists and a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan within shouting distance of the White House. “And it is just so sad. I know I am a foreigner, but I love your country. I really do. And I am so grateful these people can be here and have the right to stand up to people like this.”
Just after 10 a.m. officers cleared the park for a security sweep. Police dogs patrolled the area, sniffing at the signs.
Brian Becker, the executive director of the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition urged activists to “be strong, be steadfast, be calm, be dignified” as the sweep continued.
He and his organization decided to host a counterprotest Sunday, he said, because “the president said there were some ‘very fine people’ on both sides after Charlottesville — we think the American people disagree.”
“We represent the majority sentiment in this country,” he said. “Nazis and the KKK do not represent America.”
District leaders and federal and local law enforcement officials say their focus Sunday is to keep the two groups apart and prevent any violence or property damage. Police in Charlottesville last year stood back as white supremacists and neo-Nazis engaged in brutal clashes and street brawls with protesters, including members of anti-fascist groups.
D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said Thursday that the goal “will be to keep the two groups separate . . . When they are in the same area at the same time, it leads to violent confrontations. Our goal is to prevent that from happening.”
Police closed streets to vehicle traffic in a large swath of blocks near the White House beginning at 8 a.m. Sunday, and they were expected to remain closed through 8 p.m. Questions remain, however, about how law enforcement will ensure that Kessler and his supporters will make their way to the park.
Earlier in the week, there were discussions about having Kessler’s group take Metro from the Vienna station in Northern Virginia to Foggy Bottom. And one plan would have Metro arrange for separate subway cars for those attending the rally. But that plan was abandoned when the union representing Metro’s workers, predominantly people of color, made clear that they did not want to provide special arrangements for racists.
At 9:30 Sunday morning, the Vienna Metro station was quiet. The white supremacist groups expected to congregate there ahead of the rally had not yet arrived. But Metro Transit Police and Fairfax County Police were there, setting up a staging area and preparing for any clashes that could ensue when rally attendees and those opposing them begin to arrive.
Around 8 a.m. Fairfax County police tweeted a warning to Metro riders: “High ridership expected at Vienna Metro today. In an effort to promote safety, Chief Roessler is asking commuters to avoid the area all day today based on our knowledge the ridership will consist of opposing groups known to cause civil unrest.”
In the two hours after police sent that tweet, there were few demonstrators present, but fliers were plastered around the station in anticipation: “Hate Free Zone” and “Hate Has No Home Here,” they read.
VJ Hyde, a 38-year-old music teacher from Fairfax County, pulled a new stack of posters and a roll of tape from his Whole Foods shopping bag and doled them out to his wife and two daughters.
The family of four and three of their friends came to the Metro station to post the fliers.
“We’re here because this is a very messed up time in our country and our community is front and center,” Hyde said.
He and his family are Jewish and their friends are Asian-American. Hyde said he overheard one of his daughters talking to a friend about the white supremacists. She told the friend the rally attendees “hate us.”
“That’s pretty f—– up,” Hyde said.
Issues like racism and xenophobia have been “front and center” in his house since the election of Donald Trump and the first “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville last year.
“It’s almost impossible to hide it from them,” he said, referring to his young children. “They realize there’s a greater thing at stake right now.”
It was their duty to show up this morning, Hyde said.
“It’s a matter of being a true American and standing up for what’s right in this country,” he said.
Those planning to attend Kessler’s rally, according to documents obtained by Washington City Paper from the National Park Service, include David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard who also attended the event in Charlottesville last year, as well as neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers.
Kessler has denied responsibility for the violence in Charlottesville last year and has said that he had not invited the KKK and other white supremacist groups to the rally there. But several days after the deadly violence in the city, he tweeted, ““Heather Heyer was a fat, disgusting Communist. Looks like it was payback time.”
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Thursday that the city would ensure that the rallygoers can exercise their right to free speech.
“While we are opposed adamantly to what we are going to hear, we know what our responsibility is — to protect First Amendment events, to protect Washingtonians and to protect our city,” she said.
Bowser planned to return to the city from a trip to El Salvador to supervise the city’s response. She is scheduled to reach Washington around 2:30 p.m. and return to El Salvador on Monday morning to finish the sister city trip.
A spokeswoman said Bowser is canceling part of her trip to “monitor planned First Amendment events” and her decision wasn’t based on any intelligence, nor was there reason to believe violence would be worse than expected.
President Trump, who was heavily criticized last year for not unequivocally condemning the white nationalists who had organized the rally and a torch light march through the University of Virginia campus the night before, addressed the Charlottesville anniversary on Saturday, tweeting, “The riots in Charlottesville a year ago resulted in senseless death and division. We must come together as a nation. I condemn all types of racism and acts of violence. Peace to ALL Americans!”
On Sunday, protesters are expected to begin gathering at noon at Freedom Plaza, a few blocks from Lafayette Park, for a rally that will include speeches and music. Other groups are meeting at locations such as the Lincoln Memorial, the Martin Luther King Memorial, McPherson Square and Farragut Square.
Makia Green of Black Lives Matter D.C. told The Washington Post that she wants white nationalists to know that the movement against them is only getting stronger.
“Our resistance is ever-growing,” she said. “This progress that they are so afraid of — the rise of black leaders and Black Lives Matter getting bigger and people feeling safe to speak their mind — that is still happening.”
Michael Shallal, a member of the D.C. chapter of the International Socialists Organization, one of the groups organizing the Freedom Plaza rally, said it was crucial for protesters to outnumber Kessler and his supporters.
“Our main message is that we want people to see Kessler and his allies for what they really are,” Shallal said. “They are not free-speech advocates for white rights but racist Nazis who want to have a nation for white people only.”
Terrence McCoy, Fenit Nirappil and Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.