The protesters were separated from the “We the People Rally” by a four-lane street, lines of Jersey barriers and hundreds of Philadelphia police officers, many with plastic handcuffs dangling from their uniforms.
The demonstration was advertised as a gathering for “patriots” and others who were “pro good cop, pro ICE, pro law and order, pro life, pro American value, pro gun and anti illegal immigration,” according to a Facebook page for the event. But the turnout was small, leading some of the counterprotesters to question if the rally had been a practical joke.
“I kind of wonder if they were just screwing with us, that they made some event to get other people to waste their day,” mused Michael Bartolone, 45, who drove from New York City to join the protesters. “Was this all a ruse on their part or were they scared off?”
The low turnout also disappointed rallygoers like Ted Chmielnicki, who came from North Carolina. He wondered if social media buzz hinting at violence turned some away.
“We heard a lot of rhetoric coming in here that we were going to come in here and take over the city and destroy the place and be all violent and all that,” he said. “The only message we’re trying to get out is unity. If we can’t unite underneath the Constitution and the flag, we’re already lost.”
The event was promoted online by conservative group Sports Beer and Politics. The rally called for “all Patriots, Militia, 3%, Constitution-loving Americans” to attend, though it also was expected to attract neo-Nazis and similar groups as such rallies have in the past.
As rally participants gave speeches — and protesters tried to drown them out with chants — tourists passed en route to the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall, where the U.S. Constitution was signed. Rally organizers said showing respect for that founding document was the reason behind the event.
“They’re calling us Nazis. But I ask you: Which side looks more like a Nuremberg rally?” asked Bill Helder, 55, of Washington’s Crossing, Pa., noting the abundance of flags, chants and drums among the counterprotesters. “All I heard over here was, ‘God bless the Constitution. Let’s get along.’ And the other side wants to tear our heads off.”
Organizer had expected about 200 people to gather in the park next to Independence Visitors Center, a popular rally location. A small fraction actually attended. The promoter’s Facebook page stressed they “do not condone the use of violence by any party at this event. This event is to allow the people to make their voices heard. Any violence, racism, or display of hate by any group or individual is extremely prohibited.”
Still, city officials took no chances. Before the event, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney told philly.com that the gathering would have “coverage” and that the city would meet violence or vandalism with arrest and detention.
“I’ve only seen one guy get punched so far today,” said Boston resident Gregg Housh, 41, a counterprotester who has attended at least 30 similar events in the last two years. “That’s because one of the alt-right guys got out of their pen and walked around to the other side, walked right into the middle and starting yelling Trump stuff at them.”