But at night, the scene became violent. At least four people were stabbed near Harry’s Bar at 11th and F streets NW, a gathering point for the Proud Boys, a male-chauvinist organization with ties to white nationalism.
The victims were hospitalized and suffered possibly life-threatening injuries, D.C. fire spokesman Doug Buchanan said. It was not immediately clear with which groups the attackers or the injured might have been affiliated.
The violence escalated after an evening of faceoffs with counterprotesters that took place near Harry’s, Black Lives Matter Plaza, Franklin Square, and other spots around downtown.
At first, officers in riot gear successfully kept the two sides apart, even as the groups splintered and roamed. In helmets and bulletproof vests, Proud Boys marched through downtown in militarylike rows, shouting “move out” and “1776!” They became increasingly angry as they wove through streets and alleys, only to find police continuously blocking their course with lines of bikes.
“Both sides of the aisle hate you now. Congratulations,” a Proud Boy shouted at the officers.
But before long, the agitators determined to find trouble were successful — and posturing quickly turned into punching, kicking and wrestling.
Again and again, officers swarmed, pulling the instigators apart, firing chemical irritants and forming lines between the sides. At Harry’s Bar, an ambulance arrived, but the extent of injuries was unknown.
Each time a fight was de-escalated, another soon began in a different part of town.
D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham made a brief appearance in the chaos, telling protesters: “We’re doing the best we can.”
In an interview, Newsham said police units were deployed across downtown to keep the groups apart. He said smaller segments of people who splintered from larger gatherings seemed “intent on conflict.”
D.C. police said that as of 9 p.m., 23 people were arrested Saturday, including 10 who were charged with misdemeanor assaults, six with assaulting police officers and four with rioting. Police said one person had an illegal Taser.
Two officers were hospitalized with moderate injuries suffered during clashes at 16th and K streets NW, police said. In all, police said eight people — including the four stabbing victims and the two officers — were injured.
The scuffles seemed poised to continue late into the night, as the black-and-yellow-clad Proud Boys knocked back beers, whiskey and White Claws. Some stole a Black Lives Matter banner, paraded it down M Street NW, then stomped on it.
The group received recognition from Trump himself at a presidential debate in September, when he told them to “stand back and stand by.”
As the Proud Boys appeared at rallies earlier in the day Saturday, Trump cheered on all of the supporters who showed up to falsely claim that the election was stolen from him, tweeting “Wow! Thousands of people forming in Washington (D.C.) for Stop the Steal. Didn’t know about this, but I’ll be seeing them! #MAGA.”
The majority-White crowd ranged from gray-haired men and women in red hats to children in wagons, one of whom chanted “100 more years!”
As the nation watches Biden’s transition, rising coronavirus cases and vaccine development, Trump’s attempts to maintain power have also been playing out. To his most dedicated supporters, the president’s megaphone is as loud as ever. He has continued to falsely claim the election was stolen from him, prompting his faithful to return to the nation’s capital.
Flynn appeared on the steps of the Supreme Court to encourage them to maintain hope, despite the justices’ dismissal Friday night of Trump’s long-shot bid to overturn election results.
“Don’t get bent out of shape,” Flynn said. “There are still avenues … We’re fighting with faith, and we’re fighting with courage.”
After Flynn finished speaking, he was chased by shouting admirers who cheered: “We love you, general!” Bodyguards tried to keep the fans at bay as Flynn kept smiling.
The speakers painted a picture of a country in a battle between good and evil, in which God himself would ultimately ensure Trump remained in power. Sebastian Gorka, a former foreign policy adviser to Trump, said that when he heard the Supreme Court had dismissed an election case from Texas on Friday night, he told himself to “stop, take a deep breath, count to 10, read the Bible and pray.”
“We, thanks to our lord and savior, have already won,” Gorka claimed.
A priest featured on a Jumbotron prayed to “place thyself at the head of this army of thy children.”
Ruth Hillary, 58, a pastor from California, listened while holding up her “Stop the Steal” sign. She said she will continue to protest as long as the president and vice president believe she should.
“If President Trump accepts it and Vice President Pence accepts it, then we will accept it,” she said. “But right now, this is a Godly protest.”
Jones, the Infowars host known for his denial of the Sandy Hook massacre, alternated between speaking about God and the future president: “Joe Biden is a globalist, and Joe Biden will be removed one way or another,” he said from a stage on the Mall.
Trump backer and MyPillow founder Mike Lindell argued that “Fox [News] was in on it,” while podcaster David Harris Jr. riled the crowd by suggesting that if there were a civil war, “we’re the ones with all the guns,” he said.
All day, the masses nodded along to falsehoods, prayed for the country and cheered beside one another without masks.
D.C. police did not enforce mask rules or issue fines to those who ignored social distancing guidelines, even as the region faces an unprecedented spike in coronavirus cases. Dozens of D.C. police officers have tested positive in the weeks since the last pro-Trump rally in November. As of Friday, 94 remained in quarantine. Police have declined to draw a direct link between demonstrations and the spike in infections among officers.
On Saturday, local activists were frustrated with police tactics aimed at maintaining peace. For part of the evening, officers formed intermittent blockades at the perimeter of Black Lives Matter Plaza, essentially penning in counterprotesters while Trump supporters were free to roam.
“They can move around however they please,” said Constance Young, 37. “We’re not the ones not wearing masks and spreading covid.”
D.C. residents have expressed concern that the influx of maskless protesters puts the entire city at risk, especially workers in restaurants and hotels. Activists flooded the inboxes of city officials, asking them to shut down businesses that allow people to congregate without masks. They called hotels to ask that they refuse to host those planning to attend Saturday’s rallies, with little success.
Protesters still came in from around the country, with family, friends and flags in tow.
David Dumiter, 33, and his niece Monica Stanciu drove eight hours from Dearborn, Mich., to be at the Washington Monument on Saturday.
Dumiter, an airplane mechanic who said he has been unemployed since the pandemic decimated air travel, said he knew the Supreme Court had blocked any legal path to reverse the results of the election. That didn’t change his mind about showing up Saturday. The president was still pushing, so he would, too.
“We’re not going to cave in,” Dumiter said.
That sentiment seemed to fuel the pro-Trump groups that stretched their demonstrations late into the night, even after every fight was broken up by police and multiple arrests were made.
At Harry’s, a half-dozen Proud Boys marched through the streets, chanting, “all lives matter!” They were cheered on by other members of the group who joined them at 11th and E streets NW, flashing the three-fingered white-supremacist salute.
Moments later, the crowd turned and converged on a corner, shoving and jostling as the chant rose to a fever pitch. Men pushed each other as they tried to film what was happening in the center of the chaos.
More than 100 D.C. police officers swarmed the street. Police with canisters of chemical spray rushed into the fray, pushing people aside and separating the crowd. Two people lying on the sidewalk were transferred into ambulances.
But an hour later, more than 150 demonstrators were still there, chanting and drinking in the rain. The president was refusing to concede the election, and they were refusing to go home.
Joe Heim, Justin Wm. Moyer, Meagan Flynn, Paul Schwartzman, Kyle Swenson and Peter Hermann contributed to this report.