A mass mobilization swamps the alt-reich

August 13, 2018

Scott McLemee reports from Washington, D.C., on the pathetic flop of a “White Civil Rights Rally” last weekend — and the determined counterdemonstration in response, with additional reporting from Nicole Colson.

THE ORGANIZERS called it “Unite the Right 2.” But as often happens with horror sequels, Sunday’s follow-up to the deadly confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia, one year ago wasn’t nearly as horrifying as the original — except to the white nationalists themselves.

Only a very few dozen of them actually showed up for their rally in Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House. Emboldened by Trump reactionary agenda and efforts at ethnic cleansing via ICE, they gave speeches heard by no one but themselves.

By contrast, the anti-racist and anti-fascist demonstrators who marched through downtown Washington, D.C., numbered in the thousands. Their chants — such as “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA” and “Whose streets? Our streets!” — were a low roar that could be heard from blocks away.

The alt-right remained under heavy police protection throughout the event. It must have been a comfort given the lopsided turnout.

Anti-fascists take to the streets of Washington, D.C.
Anti-fascists take to the streets of Washington, D.C. (Brian Tierney)

But the numerous and highly diverse ranks of the protesters were well-disciplined as well as militant. They understood the lesson of the mobilization against the right-wing rally in Boston almost a year ago, where the ratio of anti-racist protesters to far-right rally-goers was estimated at 800 to 1.

Coming just one week after the murderous violence in Charlottesville, that Boston counterdemonstration and subsequent mobilizations knocked the wind out of the alt-right for months.

Considering the organizers of “Unite the Right 2” told local officials that they expected up to 400 people, Sunday’s events will demoralize them further. Their rally lasted just a little over an hour before the warriors of white supremacy got into two vans with blacked-out windows and were driven off at high speed. One amused observer called it “leaving during the third quarter to beat the traffic.”

THE FIRST warnings of a D.C. mobilization by the fascists to “celebrate” the anniversary of Charlottesville were rightly greeted with alarm.

The far right has been rebuilding its strength after being put on the defensive in the weeks after Charlottesville. Last weekend’s mobilization of Patriot Prayer in Portland, Oregon, was the latest show of renewed strength by a hard core of white supremacists spoiling for a fight.

But there were also signs in the run-up to Sunday that the far right wouldn’t win the day. When the shocking news leaked that the Washington, D.C., transit agency was actually planning to organize a special train or special cars for the Nazis, the mostly Black transit union spoke out in protest, forcing management to backtrack.

The one-year anniversary of the murder of Heather Heyer brought powerful articles in the media about the nightmare one year ago, making it clearer than ever what the stakes are if the Nazis march unopposed.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump managed just one tweet in opposition to “all forms of racism and acts of violence,” which made it seem like he still blamed “both sides” for the horror of Charlottesvillle one year ago. The far right showed its love of Trump by planning its anniversary rally across from the White House, and Trump did nothing to discourage them.

The total marginalization of the white supremacists in a still mostly Black city was underlined when several Washington, D.C., restaurants announced that they wouldn’t serve racists.

“There are times when a guest can be rude to an employee and you swap out the server,” said Dan Simons, co-owner of the popular Founding Fathers restaurant. “We’ve told our team: This isn’t what that is. You don’t have to be in a room with someone who’s advocating for your death and enslavement.”

ORIGINALLY, THE white supremacists wanted to rally in Charlottesville again this year, as if to rub salt in the wounds of the horrible unprovoked violence that took the life of anti-racist Heather Heyer and injured many more.

The far right was denied a permit, but that didn’t stop Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam from declaring a state of emergency for the city and surrounding areas.

A massive police presence — reportedly over 1,000 officers — was on display during an anti-racist march at the University of Virginia on August 11. On that day in 2017, torch-wielding Nazis marched across the campus in a terrifying display.

This time, many people felt that the threat came from a different and much better-organized group. As the banner hung by anti-racists in front of a Thomas Jefferson statue read: “Last year they came with torches. This year they come with badges.”

Describing the scene of police clad in riot gear assembled facing protesters, the Washington Post reported that the crowd “started chanting at the officers, who were holding shields and wearing helmets.”

One protester, Tom Freeman, told the Post: “It’s really hard to defend our civil society when [police] do this. They just marched down on us without any provocation. Nothing. It just fits everything they say about them, and I’m not even an anti-police person.”

Lisa Woolfork, a professor at the University of Virginia and Charlottesville Black Lives Matter activist, told the newspaper:

I see a disproportionality. Unless there is something they’re not telling us and have some intelligence that the white nationalists will still march in force, it seems like who they’re gearing up to monitor and observe and contain and discipline are those of us who want to resist fascism and racism.

The following day, as the thousands of anti-racist protesters in D.C. assembled to confront the right, more than 200 people — including Heather Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro — gathered at Washington Park in Charlottesville for a protest and remembrance of the activist.

Later, when anti-racist protesters assembled at Booker T. Washington Park to march, they were confronted by dozens of police, despite the absence of right-wing protesters.

According to the New York Times, the police “formed a barricade that blocked protesters from moving outside a checkpoint. With no sign of white supremacists there, tensions were confined to interactions between the left-leaning protesters and law enforcement.”

THIS WEEKEND’S developments underscore the importance of an ongoing debate over tactics in the struggle against Trump’s would-be storm troopers.

One approach was expressed in a humorous way by a sign visible in Washington on Sunday: “A punch a day keeps the Nazis away!” You don’t have to agree with the method to see the appeal.

But whatever the cathartic benefits of that kind of direct action, it is almost always carried out by individuals or small groups. Given that the tactics count on an element of surprise, their approach to organizing tends to be secretive and self-isolating.

By contrast, the approach that prevailed in Washington on Sunday emphasized the long-term need to build a democratic, open and accountable movement to defend everyone threatened by the alt-right and other reactionary forces.

That was the message at a community meeting in Washington last week, which was recorded on video. The speakers were from a number of organizations. But most shared the experience of going to Charlottesville to demonstrate against the first Unite the Right rally last year.

Surrounded by white supremacists who were ready and eager for a confrontation, they found themselves overwhelmed and underprepared. Without strong connections and discussions among their organizations beforehand, the progressive forces on the ground in Charlottesville were, in effect, weaker than the sum of their parts.

This Sunday in Washington, the opponents of white supremacy came out in much larger numbers. Even if the fascists had managed to break into triple digits, they would have been swamped by the anti-racist turnout.

This is a continuation of one of the hard lessons learned after Charlottesville, expressed on several banners at the march: “Solidarity is our strength.”

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