A group of white nationalists and right-wing activists descended on one of America’s greatest venues for political speech Sunday — the area in front of the Reflecting Pool at the Lincoln Memorial, near where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of his dream — and it was essentially just another day in Washington.
Some on both the right and left had voiced fears of violence. But the National Park Service reported no arrests or significant incidents. Instead the day saw some speechifying, some counterprogramming, some counterprotesting and a searing argument about free speech and political correctness.
The Lincoln Memorial rally was headlined by white nationalist Richard Spencer.
“There has been an awakening,” Spencer, dressed in a light-colored suit with a pocket square, said.
Some in the crowd waved Confederate or green “Kek” flags identified with what is sometimes called the alt-right. More than one member of Vanguard America, a group that left white nationalist fliers at the University of Maryland last year, donned masks.
“We are people,” said Nathan Damigo of the group Identity Europa. “We have a connection to our race, our culture and our identity.”
The gathering, dubbed the “Rally for Free Speech,” was held as another group of conservatives Spencer criticized as “losers and freaks” held a competing event in front of the White House, seeking to distance themselves from Spencer’s racial rhetoric. Spencer had referred to them as “alt-lite.”
The second rally was emceed by conservative provocateur Jack Posobiec, who recently disrupted a New York production of “Julius Caesar” that featured the bloody slaying of a President Trump-like Caesar. Many participants argued that the recent shooting at a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Va., was a product of left-wing rhetorical excess.
“We’re standing for an end to both political violence and violent rhetoric in the media,” said Posobiec, who also was a player in the false “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory.
Kenneth Lane, who wore a “CNN Terrorist” shirt depicting comedian Kathy Griffin posing with a severed “Trump” head, told a crowd before the speakers began: “It’s time to put George Soros in the gas chamber.”
A photo shoot with the beheading imagery got Griffin fired from her role as one of the network’s New Year’s Eve hosts and became a rallying cry on the right.
Soros is a prominent philanthropist with ties to liberal causes.
Posobiec said he rejected and disavowed the comment.
Posobiec was joined at the rally by Corey Stewart, the chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors who narrowly lost Virginia’s Republican gubernatorial primary this month on a platform defending the state’s Confederate symbols and assailing undocumented immigration.
Stewart decried “the politically correct madness that is destroying our history here in this country.”
Informal Trump adviser Roger Stone, who was supposed to speak at the rally outside the White House, told the crowd by speaker phone he decided not to attend out of safety concerns.
The Lincoln Memorial rally where Spencer appeared was held as a smaller group of counterprotesters gathered about 100 yards away.
“They are using rallies for free speech to spread hate speech,” said Michael Shallal of the International Socialist Organization, an organizer of the counterdemonstration.
Speakers talked up the First Amendment but also addressed the economy, immigration and white identity.
One speaker, a podcaster who goes by the name Mike Enoch, spoke about “Jewish privilege.” “What’s facing our country today is the systematic elimination of white people,” Enoch said.
The two groups of protesters shouted slogans at each other. There also were some conversations. Amone Banks, an African American federal employee, said he didn’t mind the talk of white identity.
“Racism is a part of my life,” he said. Banks said he was there to support Trump and conservative economic policies in a time when the welfare state has expanded.
“Free speech is free speech, whether you like it or not,” he said.
Banks debated with Anita Bryant, a counterprotester who came to the Reflecting Pool to “see if this was really going to happen.”
“Instead of moving progressively forward, we moved backward and it’s about to get worse,” Bryant said.
Back at the protest outside the White House, Mark Lochte was with daughter Emma, 13.
Lochte, who lives in Columbia, Md., made a distinction between the Spencer gathering and the one he attended. “The Spencer, Sieg Heil! nutballs are over there, which is why we’re kind of separate from them,” Lochte said. But the shooting that gravely injured Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) left him worried about rhetoric he blames on the left.
“My daughter plays softball. We’re conservatives. It’s just scary. . . . Nobody should have to be afraid to speak their minds in America,” Lochte said.