Hundreds of D.C. police officers descended on the area around Washington’s Freedom Plaza on Saturday, preventing antifascists from clashing with right-wing demonstrators during dueling rallies near the White House.
Police on bicycles and on foot quickly broke up skirmishes and prevented black-clad, hooded leftist antifascists, known as antifa, from erecting barricades in streets with toppled newspaper boxes and chairs.
Antifa demonstrators and opposing Proud Boys, who fought in bloody street battles last month in Portland, Ore., interacted at times but never fully engaged.
The Proud Boys, a self-proclaimed Western-chauvinist fraternal organization that promotes ending welfare and closing the borders, held the Demand Free Speech rally to protest some right-wing activists being barred from social media sites.
As in demonstrations in New York and San Francisco, though, they were vastly outnumbered by counterprotesters at adjacent Pershing Park. The “All Out D.C.” rally, which blasted go-go music to drown out what they called messages of white nationalism, included antifa activists, whom police blame for violence during President Trump’s inauguration in 2017.
Though tense at times, the demonstrations ended quietly around 2 p.m., with the Demand Free Speech speakers spirited away in private buses.
By midafternoon, Freedom Plaza and Pershing Park had all but emptied.
Police reopened 14th Street, which divides the two parks. A few antifa demonstrators milled about, but most had taken off their bicycle helmets and gas masks, and some were sitting cross-legged on the grass.
Some of the Proud Boys headed to Harry’s Bar for a drink, while a dozen uniformed police officers stood guard on the sidewalk.
On the patio, men with sunburned faces and the Proud Boys’ signature black-and-gold shirts smoked cigarettes around pitchers of cold beer. Across the street, a Trump-themed float adorned with speakers and a “Build the Wall” sign in oversize letters blasted barroom standards such as “Sweet Caroline” and “December, 1963.”
Inside, Keith Rigler, 58, said he had traveled to Washington with other Floridians for the president’s “Salute to America” celebration on July 4.
“When conservatives run for president or Congress, they always talk about the whole community, the American community,” said Rigler, who was wearing a red baseball cap promoting the president’s reelection. “When the left runs, they talk about all these made-up victim communities.”
Renea Hicks, 44, also of Florida, said she was worried about clashes. She said she and others wearing bright-red “Make America Great Again” gear were traveling in groups out of concern for their safety.
“Trump supporters are completely targeted with violence,” she said. “We can’t say what we need to say without them attacking us.”
Shortly before 5 p.m., a half-dozen antifa demonstrators showed up outside the bar, though no confrontation occurred. Both sides appeared content to record one another on smartphones as police kept close watch. After about a half-hour, the antifa group left, trailed by officers.
Then they made their way to the Trump International Hotel, where they faced off again with Proud Boys and people in MAGA gear. The police used bicycles to create an impromptu barrier and keep the groups apart. They had to break up at least one fistfight.
Many of the Trump supporters were waiting to catch buses to a gala at an undisclosed location, according to Enrique Tarrio, chairman of the Proud Boys, adding that former Trump political adviser Roger Stone was scheduled as a speaker, along with fancy hors d’oeuvres and an open bar. Tickets cost from $150 to $400.
“It will be classy,” he said.
D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham declined to discuss specific tactics but said his goal was to keep the two groups separated as much as possible.
At times, it appeared police were at every flare-up, no matter how minor, plucking people out of verbal altercations that could have led to violence. Police quickly extracted Proud Boys speaker Joey Salads when he wandered into space used by antifa protesters and was surrounded.
And when a small group of antifa demonstrators splintered from Pershing Park, police followed closely on bicycles and motorcycles and quickly intervened when they tried to barricade a street and toppled newspapers boxes. The group eventually retreated.
No injuries were reported, and police said they would continue to monitor both factions into the night.
The Demand Free Speech rally advertised a gala but did not publicly reveal the location.
Police were determined to avoid a repeat of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, where a self-avowed neo-Nazi plowed through a crowd in a car and killed a counterprotester, injuring others. One of its organizers, Jason Kessler, held an anniversary gathering in Washington last year, though only 40 people attended and the group was dwarfed by police and counterdemonstrators.
Speakers on Saturday included Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, right-wing journalist Laura Loomer and Milo Yiannopoulos, an incendiary writer who helped make Breitbart News a leading platform for the alt- right.
Yiannopoulos was dressed in drag, with a black pixie wig and fake breasts under a blue T-shirt. The crowd applauded loudly as he extolled the virtues of Christianity and nuclear families and attacked mainstream journalists, left-wing activists and “Vichy conservatives” he said were not courageous enough to act on their principles.
“The left must be made to fear you,” Yiannopoulos said, occasionally pausing during his speech to adjust his wig and fake bust. “Massive brutal retaliation for the slightest of perceived insults must be the way from now on. . . . If they tear down your idols, burn down their cathedrals,” he said from the stage.
Olga Slobodyanyuk, 26, traveled from her home in Sterling, Va., to counter just such sentiments. She donned a black-and-white wig and a pair of cat ears, a get-up meant to emulate a cat-woman-esque YouTube character known for her anti-fascist stance.
Gripping a poster reading “Smash the Fasc,” Slobodyanyuk said she came out today to send a clear message to the Proud Boys.
“This is just 30 minutes from my home,” Slobodyanyuk said, “so I had to show up to let them know — Nazis are not welcome in our city.”
Tom Jackman, Avi Selk, and Marissa J. Lang contributed to this report.