When I set out to cover the “Unite the Right 2” rally, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at Lafayette Square, I didn’t know what to expect. Held on the anniversary of Unite the Right and organized by Jason Kessler, the same white supremacist blogger who pulled together last summer’s deadly event, the demonstration seemed to have city officials preparing for chaos. According to permit records, up to 400 far-right extremists were supposed to rally and 1,500 people were expected to counter-protest. Both the building I was living in as of last week and the one I just moved to sent emails, alerting residents to be aware of their surroundings and stay safe. My parents downloaded a tracking app to find my iPhone the night before, and I played with the thought of buying pepper spray at CVS on my way to the rally.
As an intern at Moment last summer, I worked on an interview with the mayor of Charlottesville, Mike Signer. At the time, the city was becoming the face of white supremacist activism in the days preceding the explosive Unite the Right rally and following Charlottesville’s city council’s February vote to remove and sell a statue of Robert E. Lee from a public park. (Interestingly, Signer, himself a Jewish man, voted for the statue to stay on the condition it be countered with “new monuments as a powerful counter-narrative.”)
I then delved into the intricacies of the far right and anti-Semitism. I talked to academics and experts about the militia movement, about Richard Spencer and David Duke, conspiracy theories and the complicated spectrum of hate blogs and organizations (ranging from “alt-lite” to neo-Nazism) currently active today. My research culminated in a report on the inner workings (or lack thereof) of the elusive “alt-right,” and its relationship to anti-Semitism. When, a month later, news broke that violence had erupted as hundreds of white supremacists and counter-protesters fought on the streets of Charlottesville last August, I was of course shocked—but not to the extent people around me were.
Something about the faces behind these extremist organizations consumed me. And it followed me back to college for my senior year at the University of Michigan, where I reported for Michigan Radio, on the delay of white supremacist leader Richard Spencer’s controversial pending visit to campus.
The day of Unite the Right 2, I obsessively checked Twitter to see hoards of counter-protesters gathered at the Foggy Bottom metro stop to scare off Jason Kessler and his crew once they arrived to begin their march to Lafayette Square. Up until I left for the rally, it appeared the white supremacists were gravely outnumbered, with a little over 20 extremists blocked off by walls of police officers who were swarmed by counter-protesters—many of whom part of a coalition of 40 organizations that made up DC Shut it Down. The organization called on “anti-fascists and people of good conscience” to counter the rally.
But the scene I witnessed as I emerged from the metro at Farragut North was far from chaotic violence. It was calm. People were walking with friends and family members in the opposite direction of Lafayette Square. They had damp hair and signs with letters blurred and dripping from the rain, denouncing Nazis and calling for peace. I was confused. Did I get the time wrong? The rally was supposed to start at 5:30, but it appeared to be over already.
When I got to Lafayette Square, the mood was strange. Journalists and camera crews were walking around, reporting in French, Spanish and English. Nobody in the square appeared to be affiliated with the white supremacists scheduled to rally. Some were dressed in Antifa-style black boots, pants, shirts and bandanas wrapped around their faces. Others were in Black Lives Matter shirts. Many were in raincoats.
I walked past two men protesting white supremacy by hanging an American flag from a tree with a noose. Another was aiming a shotgun made out of a poster at a bullseye with a swastika at the center. Nearby, a woman seemed to be similarly wandering around, so I asked her a few questions. Mimi Pak traveled from New Jersey and stayed with friends in DC to protest white supremacy, but when she stepped into Lafayette Square a little after 5, “the Nazis were nowhere to be seen,” she says. “As I worked my way up to the front, we were all kind of standing around like, ‘It can’t be over before it started.’” But, in fact, it was. Police officers told her the roughly 20 or so far-right demonstrators who showed up had already gone.
“We still stuck around to see at least until start time but, no, sure enough they left,” she says, letting out a small laugh. “But it’s beautiful to see all of this,” Mimi adds, inspired by the fact over 1,000 people showed up to protest a couple dozen extremists.
I say goodbye to Mimi and find a young man wearing an American Jewish Congress shirt and walk up to him. Daniel Silverman moved around a lot during his childhood because his father is in the foreign service, but he mostly grew up in the middle east and Israel, and his family currently lives in Potomac, Maryland. He’d just gotten to the square, too late to directly protest any neo-Nazis. “At the end of the day it’s a good outcome,” he says. “I’m a little disappointed I didn’t get to do more, but hey, at the end of the day no one wants another Charlottesville situation.” Daniel identifies with the center right—a classic liberal, he says—and he feels passionate about demonstrating that politics and political activism is diverse and complicated, as opposed to a strict binary. “You don’t have to be on one end of the political extreme to counter the other,” he says, mentioning the Antifa counter-protesters who came out in droves earlier that day. “There is a middle.”
As the crowd thins out even more, I notice a young woman who doesn’t seem to budge. She’s holding an umbrella, a yellow flower and a cardboard sign that reads: Spread love not hate. Elene Wogedersgne, originally from Ethiopia, currently lives in Alexandria, Virginia and came to the counter-protest after watching about an hour of videos on the far-right extremists and their views. She stands in her place and motions toward the corner of the square where Jason Kessler and his demonstrators were supposed to be rallying. “We were more than they were, so they basically lost,” Elene says. “We’re still here, and you can’t even see anybody over there.” To her, the day’s events were a symbolic message, a moment in time when love seemed to in fact drive out the threat of hate.
Before I left, police officers removed the portable barriers separating the counter-protesters still assembled and the space closer to the White House where white supremacists were supposed to be rallying. There were cheers and smiles as the remaining crowd filled the space, claiming for themselves the place that was supposed to be reserved for modern hate groups for at least another hour or so.
I left the park with an uncertainty I imagine other journalists feel when they’re unsure of whether or not they’re leaving with the material they came for. Like that time I waited for a file to upload onto my computer to confirm my suspicion that my recorder didn’t pick up the other side of an important, hour-long interview (I was right, it didn’t). Except this time, I never got the interview in the first place.
The couple dozen extremists who showed up had already left before I got there, and I realized this must mean something changed between last summer’s rally and this one. Hundreds showed up in Charlottesville last year, unmasked, armed and willing to fight. I can’t say what changed, but I can say what’s happened since last year’s rally. Many white supremacists have since lost their jobs. Some are facing lawsuits from families affected by their violence, and Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler lost a massive fundraising platform after PayPal barred them and other hate groups from using their services to raise money. Whatever the cause, something changed within the far-right community—something big enough to cause a group of extremists to leave a public park before their protest was scheduled to begin.