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Proud Boys sparked clashes during pro-Trump rally, D.C. officials say

Thousands of people marched in support of President Trump two days before the electoral college confirmed the 2020 election. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

District officials on Monday denounced the violence that erupted in downtown Washington over the weekend, blaming many of the clashes on protesters who refuse to accept the presidential election results.

Police said the Proud Boys movement of white chauvinists amassed its largest gathering yet in the District and was met by anti-Trump counterprotesters who police said willingly engaged the group.

Police said 39 people were arrested for protest-related actions Friday and Saturday. Prosecutors on Monday dropped charges in the highest-profile case, according to two people familiar with the case.

That defendant, Philip Johnson, 29, of the District, had been charged in connection with a melee in which four people were stabbed. Police documents and video posted on social media indicate that Johnson was pushed and punched during the incident.

Police also said four churches were vandalized, two more than previously disclosed, and they released photos of White men marching with and burning a Black Lives Matter banner ripped down from one of the churches.

“What should have been a beautiful weekend,” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said, “was ruined by white supremacists who came to our city seeking violence.”

“These Proud Boys are avowed white nationalists and have been called to stand up against a fair and legal election,” D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said. “This is a symptom of the hateful rhetoric, anti-science noise and people who refuse to accept the result of a fair American election.”

In D.C. Superior Court on Saturday and Monday, 17 of the people arrested were arraigned, all of whom were released after entering not guilty pleas. The status of the other cases was not clear.

The stabbing, one of the most violent incidents during the weekend, occurred outside Harry’s Bar, a popular gathering spot for the Proud Boys on 11th Street NW. Police said Johnson was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon, and Corey Nielsen, 39, of Robbinsdale, Minn., was charged with simple assault.

D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said one of the victims nearly died. Nielsen is also listed as a victim on a police report.

Police said in a statement that Johnson got into an argument with someone that escalated. Based on a video, the police report says, Johnson pulled out a knife after he was pushed in the back. The report says another person repeatedly pulled on Johnson’s mask, at which point one of the victims and another person punched Johnson in the head several times.

Nielsen did not appear in court Monday, and the status of his case was not clear.

Shelia Miller, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office, declined to say whether prosecutors had dismissed, or “no papered,” the charges against Johnson or other defendants. In cases that are no papered, prosecutors can refile charges after further investigation.

In a news conference Monday, Bowser said Harry’s Bar had closed at 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday after consulting with city officials. Newsham said eight officers were injured during the protests, one with multiple facial fractures after being hit by a projectile. Ten people were charged with assault on a police officer; seven of those appeared in court either Saturday or Monday and three did not.

Pro-Trump rally descends into chaos as Proud Boys roam D.C. looking to fight

It was not clear how many of the arrestees were affiliated with either the Proud Boys or various anti-Trump groups, all of which roamed the downtown area Saturday night and skirmished periodically. Of those arrested, 16 are from outside the D.C. region, six are from the District, 10 are from Maryland, and four are from Virginia. The addresses of three of those arrested were not known.

Newsham said that he thought the Proud Boys outnumbered anti-Trump protesters by about 6 or 7 to 1 but that when fights broke out, “there seemed to be mutual combatants.”

On Monday afternoon, some of those arrested began appearing in D.C. Superior Court from both sides of the protests. They included a Pennsylvania man charged with attacking someone with a flagpole, an Ohio man who authorities said was part of a mob beating a man, and a D.C. woman who police said carried a backpack full of fireworks and lighter fluid, and pepper-sprayed a person on K Street NW.

Police initially identified two downtown churches, Asbury United Methodist Church and Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, as having Black Lives Matter signs torn down. On Monday, Newsham said Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church and Luther Place Memorial Church were also damaged, but he did not provide details.

The attacks on all four churches are being investigated as hate crimes, Newsham said. “Whenever anyone attacks our places of worship, it’s unsettling to all of us,” the chief said.

On Saturday, Luther Place Memorial Church replaced a Black Lives Matter sign that had been stolen Friday. By Saturday evening, the second sign had been torn down twice before being taken.

“A gang of Proud Boys descended on the church, harassed our leaders and took the sign away. This group came back a second time to intimidate us,” according to a statement from the Rev. Karen Brau that was posted on the church’s Facebook page.

Church leaders subsequently learned about the targeting of the two historically Black churches.

“We are humbled to be a small part of a bigger movement for dignity and justice. We are bold to figure out how we show up declaring out loud, Black Lives Matter! Silence is not an option,” Brau said.

Sunday afternoon, the church displayed a new homemade sign.

Policing protests: Demonstrators say officers are taking sides as D.C. hosts pro-Trump rallies Saturday

Newsham said the police were prepared to handle the chaotic protests and fighting, and rejected accusations that officers favored one side over another.

“We try to get between opposing groups, particularly when it results in physical confrontations,” Newsham said. “It’s very difficult when a confrontation like that occurs to determine who’s on what side. The police get involved, they break it up, if people can be appropriately charged then they’re placed under arrest. I think it’s unfortunate if somebody feels like somebody was treated differently, but there was no intention by the police department to treat anybody any differently from anybody else. Our intention was to prevent folks from getting hurt.”

Though Newsham said conflicts largely involved “mutual combatants,” he said that “we had large numbers of folks who self-identified as Proud Boys. I don’t think we’ve had those types of numbers in the District of Columbia before. We had smaller numbers, in my estimation, of folks who I would describe as anti-Trump groups. It was probably a ratio of about 6 or 7 to 1.”

Police affidavits filed in court Monday gave glimpses of the chaos on the District’s streets Saturday. Shortly before 5 p.m. on 15th Street NW, a police sergeant said, he saw a woman run into the street and attack a man riding a bicycle and then use a Taser on the cyclist, knocking him to the street.

The woman, Kerry A. Oeltman, 49, of Santa Ynez, Calif., told police that she had been drinking beer in the afternoon and that she was with a group called “Patriots” when she was surrounded by bicyclists and struck with a stick, according to court records. She was charged with assault and released Monday. She said in an interview that she was acting in self-defense.

About 6:30 p.m. Saturday, a police officer at the intersection of 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW said he witnessed about 50 people chasing a person down 12th Street, repeatedly knocking him down. The officer said he watched a man take a running start and kick the man in the head, while also carrying a four-foot baton, court records state.

Matthu Oligney, 43, of Akron, Ohio, was charged with rioting, assault and attempted possession of a prohibited weapon, and released Monday. He could not be reached for comment.

A District police officer said he was standing at the north end of Black Lives Matter Plaza shortly after 7 p.m. Saturday when he watched a woman walk up to an unknown person and deploy pepper spray “in an unprovoked attack,” according to the officer’s affidavit. When police arrested the woman, they said, she had seven packages of commercial-grade fireworks and two canisters of lighter fluid.

Nicole B. Armbruster, 37, of Northeast Washington was charged with assault. She was also charged in an outstanding warrant with a June attack on alt-right activist Jack Posobiec when he walked into a protest at the Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park.

Also at Black Lives Matter Plaza at nearly the same time as the pepper spray attack, police heard a commotion and witnessed a man striking someone’s shield with a flagpole. The police affidavit says the victim could not be located.

Jeremy J. Warke, 45, of Auburn, Pa., was charged with assault and attempting to possess a weapon “with intent to use against another, a flagpole,” a prohibited weapon. Warke, who declined to comment, was released pending trial.

Michael Brice-Saddler, Emily Davies, Julie Zauzmer, Peter Hermann and Keith L. Alexander contributed to this report.

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