A year after Charlottesville, Washington braces for another white nationalist protest

People fly into the air as a vehicle drives into a group of people demonstrating against a white nationalist rally after police cleared Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, VA on Saturday, August 12, 2017

WASHINGTON  — Far-right groups and counterprotesters are expected to converge on the nation’s capital Sunday, one year after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, left one person dead and elevated racial tensions in America.

The “Unite the Right 2” rally is being billed as a “white civil rights rally” meant to protest “civil rights abuse in Charlottesville.”

But the demonstrators won’t be alone. A series of counterprotests are planned in Washington throughout the day, led by members of 40 anti-racism groups. The Shut it Down D.C. Coalition, for example, scheduled its own rally beginning at noon to counter “Unite the Right 2.”

Large crowds of counterprotesters had gathered by early afternoon in DC’s Freedom Plaza, where they held a “United Against Hate” demonstration featuring a series of guest speakers.

“Our message is to let everyone know we support each other,” said Maurice Cook, a co-organizer for the March for Racial Justice, which organized the counterprotest. Attendees, he said, may express themselves in “whichever way you feel comfortable in expressing your civil liberties.”

Black Lives Matter DC is hosting the “Rise Up Fight Back Counter-Protest” between 2 and 7 p.m., just a block away from where “Unite the Right 2” is set to take place.

Sunday’s demonstrations and the opposing rallies are taking place in an atmosphere of heightened racial tension.

In recent months, anxiety over racial bias and racism has been exemplified in instances in which police were called on people of color for innocuous acts like napping in a dormitory common room, having a barbecue and going to the pool.

This week, NFL players in the first preseason games resumed their protests over police brutality against blacks by raising their fists, kneeling or sitting out during the National Anthem.

“We’ve always acted as if black lives never mattered, as if people of color never mattered,” Susan Bro, the mother of the counterprotester killed in Charlottesville last year, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Friday. “We really have not treated people of color in the same way we ourselves want to be treated. And I’m calling b.s. on that.”

As many as 400 people are expected to attend Sunday’s white nationalist demonstration, according to the event’s permit application submitted by Jason Kessler, the same person who organized last year’s “Unite the Right” rally in opposition to the renaming of two parks honoring Confederate generals.

That event included white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Participants are expected to gather at Washington’s Foggy Bottom subway station at 5 p.m. ET before marching to Lafayette Square park, across the street from the White House, according to the permit application.

In the past, similar far-right demonstrations have been dwarfed by counterprotests.

For example, at a a separate Ku Klux Klan gathering in Charlottesville in July 2017, where Klansmen were outnumbered 20 to 1, according to Charlottesville officials.

Sunday’s rallies come at a time when the wounds from last year’s clash in Charlottesville remain raw, particularly in regards to the death of counterprotester Heather Heyer, who was killed when a suspected neo-Nazi sympathizer drove a car into a crowd.

Metropolitan Police Chief Peter Newsham said officers will endeavor to keep far-right demonstrators and counterprotesters separate from one another. Guns will be forbidden near the rally site, regardless of whether an individual has a permit to carry the firearm.

“Our role is to make sure we have a First Amendment event that goes on without any types of violence or destruction of property,” Newsham said at a Monday news conference, according to CNN affiliate WTOP. “We intend to have the entire police department engaged to make sure that we handle this type of thing.”

“As the nation’s capital, we host millions of visitors each year,” said DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, in a statement. “Fortunately, very, very few share the views that will be expressed in Lafayette Park on Sunday.”

“Washington, DC, is a city of love, inclusion and diversity,” she continued, “and — like millions of Americans across the nation — we know that the people who are coming here to profess hate and sow division are wrong.”

Trump condemns ‘all types of racism’

President Trump — who has drawn accusations of furthering the racial divide in America — condemned last year’s events in Charlottesville in a tweet Saturday morning, saying they “resulted in senseless death and division.”

“We must come together as a nation,” he wrote. “I condemn all types of racism and acts of violence. Peace to ALL Americans!”

It was a departure from his comments a year ago in which he said “very fine people” were among the white supremacists in Charlottesville, prompting a political firestorm that lasted for days and culminated in an infamous press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York.

Charlottesville hosts vigils, memorials

On Sunday morning, as Washington prepared for potential crowds of white nationalists, a crowd made up of leftist and anti-racist demonstrators gathered in Charlottesville and made their way to the spot where Heyer was killed.

There they sang spirituals and held a moment of silence. But like protesters on the campus of the University of Virginia Saturday night, many expressed antagonism towards police, some of whom were dressed in riot gear and who had a large presence throughout the city to prevent any outbreak of violence.

“There’s a profound difference in this year and last year and that is the heavy police presence,” said Lisa Woolfork, an associate professor of English at the University of Virginia and a local organizer with Black Lives Matter.

Some people might be comforted by the police, Woolfork continued. “But for folks like me, black and brown folks, folks in Black Lives Matter, we don’t equate a heavy police presence with safety, so we see this as a perceived risk and increasing the possible harm that might occur to us.”

For much of Saturday, the city appeared mainly focused on healing, with a number of vigils and memorial services scheduled throughout the weekend. Some crowds showed up in the city that day, which was under a state of emergency along with the Commonwealth of Virginia.

A group of leftist protesters known as antifa — shorthand for anti-fascists — marched in silence Saturday afternoon to the Heyer memorial, where some paid their respects by using chalk to scrawl messages of remembrance in the street and on the walls of nearby buildings.

Kessler had sought a permit from the city of Charlottesville to hold an event commemorating the “Unite the Right” rally this weekend, but withdrew his request in a federal court hearing late last month, according to city officials.

The hearing was part of his lawsuit against Charlottesville after it denied his permit application on the grounds it would “present a danger to public safety.”