Thousands of protesters are planning to descend on downtown Washington on Sunday to voice opposition to the white- supremacist rally planned for late afternoon at Lafayette Square across from the White House.
Protest organizers from a wide range of groups say they have been working for weeks to prepare for the event and have secured permits to gather at Lafayette Square as well as nearby locations, including Freedom Plaza, McPherson Square and Farragut Square. Others plan to meet at the Lincoln Memorial and march to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, where scheduled speakers include New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and actor Nick Cannon.
The number of protesters across Washington will likely dwarf the number of participants in the rally of white supremacists and white nationalists. Jason Kessler, the organizer for that event, stated in his permit application that he expected up to 400 people. But it is unclear if anywhere near that number will show up.
For protesters, the emphasis will be on telling Kessler and his followers that their message is not welcome in Washington. Kessler is one of the lead organizers of the violent Unite the Right rally held in Charlottesville last August that led to the death of protester Heather Heyer, who was killed when a man police say identified himself as a Nazi drove a car into a crowd. Two Virginia State troopers died when their helicopter crashed following a day of monitoring the civil disturbance.
Kessler is holding his Washington event, which he is billing as a “white civil rights rally” on the anniversary of the Charlottesville rally.
“We are united in supporting diverse communities and we vehemently oppose white supremacy and everything Unite the Right 2 stands for,” said Michelle Styczynski, a member of Democratic Socialists of America and an organizer of the D.C. United Against Hate rally that begins at noon at Freedom Plaza.
That rally has a permit for 1,000 protesters and is expected to be the largest counter-rally taking place. Styczynski said she expects participants with a range of political backgrounds from far-left to moderates to conservatives “who agree that white supremacy is abhorrent.”
The Freedom Plaza event will include speeches and music and will culminate at approximately 3:30 p.m. with a march to Lafayette Square to confront rallygoers there.
Maurice Cook, an organizer for March for Racial Justice, another group taking part in protests Sunday, said it was important for him as a black man to be present, in part to pay respect to the generations before him who endured persecution and fought for civil rights.
“I’m standing on the shoulders of those who made sacrifices to ensure opportunities for me,” said Cook, a Washington resident who was in Charlottesville last year to protest Unite the Right rallygoers. “We need to build something to fight against this white supremacy in a sustained way. I don’t want children to experience this again.”
Makia Green, of Black Lives Matter D.C., said 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.”
Her group will meet at 2 p.m. on 16th Street NW — a block from Lafayette Square — to march without a permit on streets police have closed. Their act of civil disobedience will end by the White House, where protesters have permits to occupy half the plaza.
“One of our tactics with Black Lives Matter is taking to the streets and letting people allow themselves to physically confront systems of oppression,” Green said. “If we want to abolish white supremacy, we also have to understand that there may be some civil disobedience necessary. … Ignoring white supremacy doesn’t make it go away.”
Green said the group does not expect to be protected by D.C. police officers, so their action will also include de-escalators, legal observers and marshals, “who can literally put their bodies in between folks if things are to escalate,” she said, in addition to looking out for any white-nationalist infiltrators. Should any of the counterprotesters be arrested, Black Lives Matter also has raised money for a jail fund to bail people out.
Ahead of the counterprotest, organizers will be distributing “know your rights” pamphlets and informing attendees on how keep themselves safe during the march. On Friday afternoon, they held workshops about legal rights and self-defense, and on Saturday, they plan to disseminate similar information on walks east of the Anacostia River, where residents are predominantly African American.
Green said Black Lives Matter — which started planning for Sunday’s events about two months ago — is part of the broader Shut It Down D.C. Coalition. She said she will be speaking at the Freedom Plaza rally to explain Black Lives Matter’s philosophy behind counterprotests and civil disobedience.
Antifascists, or antifa, are also expected to be present among the protesters, but it is not known what, if any, actions they have planned for Sunday. Law enforcement and National Park Service officials anticipate they will most likely be present at Lafayette Square. Antifa members fought with white supremacists in bloody street battles last year in Charlottesville.
Political leaders across the region condemned white supremacists and their message and pledged support to law enforcement in its efforts to manage the situation.
“We the people of Washington, D.C. say unequivocally that we denounce hate, we denounce anti-Semitism and we denounce the rhetoric that we expect to hear this Sunday,” D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said at a Thursday news conference.
“Those torches carried by white supremacists in Charlottesville a year ago shone a light on an ugly truth,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said in a statement. “But they also reawakened our commitment to fight back against that ugliness of racism and bigotry. Hatred has no home in this Commonwealth.”
Northam declared a state of emergency Wednesday to allow officials to marshal resources to prepare for the potential impact of events in and around Charlottesville and Northern Virginia.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R) also issued a statement, saying, “As we face this invasion of vile and perverted ideology infesting our region, we stand united in our conviction that a diverse and inclusive Maryland is a stronger Maryland.”
President Trump, who is not scheduled to be at the White House on Sunday, tweeted about the anniversary Saturday saying,”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!”
Marissa J. Lang contributed to this report.