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Metro no longer considering separate trains for white nationalists attending ‘Unite the Right’ rally

Passengers board trains at the Navy Yard-Ballpark Metro Station in Southeast Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Metro is no longer considering running separate trains for protesters participating in the Aug. 12 “Unite the Right” white nationalists rally in the District, the transit agency’s board chairman said Saturday.

Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans had previously said that running a separate train was among options being weighed by officials.

“Metro will not be providing a special train or special car for anyone next Sunday,” Evans said.

Word about the possibility of the service for rallygoers spread quickly Friday and Saturday, drawing condemnation from those who decried “special treatment” for white nationalist groups, which are focused on the goal of achieving a whites-only state or the separation of whites from other groups. Others thought the possible move to constitute a form of segregation.

Evans had said that Metro was simply exploring every option to prevent violence between rally participants and counterprotesters.

“We’re just trying to come up with potential solutions on how to keep everybody safe,” he said of discussions with D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham and Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, who would have the final say on extra security measures.

The event is being organized by the group behind the rally in Charlottesville last summer that led to protests, violent clashes and the death of a counterprotester. Two Virginia state troopers conducting surveillance of the event were also killed when their helicopter crashed.

Jason Kessler, a white nationalist who organized the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville with Richard Spencer and other white-supremacist leaders, submitted a Mall Special Event permit request on May 8 to hold a “white civil rights” rally in Northwest Washington’s Lafayette Square to protest “civil rights abuse in Charlottesville.”

Evans, who is also a Democratic D.C. Council member representing Ward 2, said officials are concerned that the event could lead to physical clashes between rally attendees and those who may come out in droves to protest their presence.

“We’re not trying to give anyone special treatment,” Evans said. “We’re just trying to avoid scuffles and things of that nature.”

Evans said that officials also are considering increasing police presence on trains.

“Frankly, we don’t know who’s coming, how many people we’re expecting for this thing, and whether it’s actually going to happen at all,” Evans said.

But the board chairman said the transit agency must take steps to ensure safety for all riders.

“If we did nothing and there were clashes and people were hurt or killed, you’d be all over us,” he said.

He said the plans for police response to the rally are unlikely to be set until the day before the event.

Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said the agency “is working collaboratively with law enforcement to ensure safe travel for our customers and employees.”

“Transit Police are engaged in ongoing discussions with MPD, the lead agency for the Aug. 12 event, as well as Virginia State Police and others as to how to keep everyone safe on that day,” Stessel said in an email. “While details of the plan are security sensitive at this stage, I can tell you that it has not been finalized.”

A D.C. police spokeswoman said the agency does not discuss “operational tactics” but one of its divisions is prepared to handle rallies.

Plans for the special trains were publicized by Metro’s largest union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which released a statement expressing outrage at the idea that Metro would provide “private” rail cars to “Unite the Right” participants.

ATU Local 689 President Jackie Jeter said members of the union, the majority of whom are people of color, “draw the line” at providing special service for supporters of a group that espouses white nationalism.

“Local 689 is proud to provide transit to everyone for the many events we have in D.C. including the March [for] Life, the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter,” Jeter said. “We draw the line at giving special accommodation to hate groups and hate speech.”

Jeter also cited a recent legal case in which a court affirmed Metro’s decision to ban “controversial” advertisements from the bus and subway system.

“Considering that the courts granted Metro the ability to deny ads on buses and trains that are ‘issue-oriented,’ we find it hypocritical for [Wiedefeld] to make these unprecedented special accommodations for a hate group,” Jeter said.

From the union’s statement: “More than 80% of Local 689’s membership is people of color, the very people that the Ku Klux Klan and other white nationalist groups have killed, harassed and violated. The union has declared that it will not play a role in their special accommodation.”

Tim Heaphy, a former U.S. attorney who conducted an independent review of the Charlottesville protest, said Metro was doing “the right thing” by trying to keep the white nationalist groups separate from any counterprotesters.

“It’s absolutely paramount when you’re trying to balance both public safety and free speech to enforce separation,” he said. “If they’ve decided that there’s a basis for a permit, then they have an obligation to do everything they can to keep everyone safe.”

Asked to recommend a security plan, Heaphy suggested having the white nationalist protesters meet military or police escorts at an undisclosed location outside the District and then be taken to Lafayette Square by bus.

Heaphy said members of the transit workers union were within their rights to refuse to operate a train intended for white nationalists.

“Law enforcement has this professional obligation to protect speech, regardless of how hateful it is,” he said, “but transit workers don’t sign up for that.”

Monica Hopkins, executive director of the District branch of the ACLU, said she was glad to see transit and police agencies planning for the rally.

“But it is imperative that the safety and rights of communities of color and those protesting white supremacists’ message are equally protected,” she said.