Right-wing activists began rallying at Freedom Plaza in downtown Washington Saturday morning, where they were met with a heavy police presence as they protested being blocked on social media because of their political views.
About two dozens members of the Proud Boys, a self-proclaimed western-chauvinist fraternal group that believes in ending welfare and closing the borders, marched into the park shortly after 10 a.m.
Police had shut many roads around the plaza and adjacent Pershing Park, where counter demonstrators gathered under the banner “All Out D.C.” They are holding a dance and go-go party to drown out what they decry as “the face of white nationalism and supremacy.”
The area around Freedom Plaza was heavily barricaded but there was free access to Pershing Park. Among those expected to participate in the counter-rally: the Antifa, black-clad anti-fascists who police blame for violence and destruction in a swath of downtown during President Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017.
Police are trying to avoid a repeat of last month’s bloody street brawls in Portland, Ore. involving members of those two groups. Hours before Saturday’s event, D.C. and U.S. Park Police had locked down the two parks along Pennsylvania Avenue, on either side of 14th Street, just east of White House.
Massive dump trucks blocked Pennsylvania Avenue at 12th Street and at 15th Street, at the southeast and southwest corners of plaza, along with police cars with lights flashing.
Still, restaurants in the area, including Occidental and Cafe du Parc, opened during the rallies. Occidental waiters were setting out glasses and cutlery, and at Cafe du Parc, patrons were munching on biscuits and sipping large coffee as they eyed the preparations.
Representatives from both sides of Saturday’s event in the District said they were not looking to instigate violence but were ready to respond. Authorities said they were ready as well.
“This is not out of the ordinary here in Washington, D.C., so we’ll be ready for it,” D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said earlier this week.
By 11:30, both demonstrations were under way.
Across the police divide in Pershing Park, participants traded cries of “Why are you here?”
A counter-protester began a heated debate with a small group of Proud Boys and their supporters on Freedom Plaza.
Rick Ferran, one of the scheduled speakers at the Demand Free Speech rally, said his organization, United States Misguided Children, has repeatedly been kicked off Facebook. He interrupted the dispute with a jeremiad against socialism and communism. A Cuban immigrant with a shaven head, Ferran was sweating profusely as the July sun beat down.
“If we do not attack the cancer that is destroying our freedoms in this country, we will dissolve,” he said.
Amid the tense exchanges, police widened the gap between the two groups.
“We’re just trying to avoid anything happening,” D.C. Police Officer R. A. Gonzalez explained.
NeeNee Taylor, an organizer for Black Lives Matter D.C., strode to the Pershing Park stage around 11 a.m. and exhorted the crowd — at least 100, and swelling — to remain nonviolent.
“We’re not here for violence,” she told her audience, which included members of Sanctuary DMV and anti-gentrification organization Keep D.C. 4 Me. “We’re here to celebrate black and brown and marginalized people.”
The right-wing groups are gathering under the banner Demand Free Speech, the last of three rallies — the first two were in New York and San Francisco — meant to address a wave of social media companies banning right-wing figures from their platforms.
Proud Boys leader and event organizer Luke Rohlfing told the Daily Beast that the event is also aimed at left-wing anti-fascist activists after the violent clash in Portland last week left conservative writer Andy Ngo bloodied, shaken and doused in a vegan milkshake.
The District is well versed in dealing with protesters. In the summer of 2018, Jason Kessler, one of the organizers of the violent and deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, chose Washington for an anniversary demonstration. Fewer than 40 of the planned 400 supports showed, and were outnumbered by thousands of protesters who shouted “Go home, Nazis!” and “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!”
A massive police presence kept the two sides separated, and outside of a brief confrontation between some Antifa members and police long after the rally had ended, there were no reports of violence.
The scheduled list of speakers for Saturday’s rally include several notable figures, though police said as late as Friday it was unclear who among the listed guests would come. They include Milo Yiannopoulos, an incendiary writer who helped make Breitbart News a leading organ of the alt-right and whose appearances in cities and at college campuses has sparked violent reactions.
Also on the list is right-wing journalist Laura Loomer, Gavin McInnes, the founder of Proud Boys, and Jack Posobiec, known for advancing a number of conspiracy theories, such as those tied to “Pizzagate” and the killing of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich in a robbery in the District.
The rally is being two days after President Trump’s controversial July 4 “Salute to America,” which featured added fireworks, a presidential speech and a show of military vehicles, tanks and airplane flyovers.
Fears of violence between Trump supporters and critics did not materialize, though there were some minor clashes on the Mall and a fight outside the White House after a member of a communist group set two American flags on fire on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Hannah Natanson and Marissa J. Lang contributed to this report.