On his application to hold a demonstration in Washington, DC, to mark the anniversary of last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, white-supremacist Jason Kessler ticked “yes” to the question of whether any groups might seek to disrupt the demonstration. “Members of Antifa affiliated groups might try to disrupt,” Kessler wrote.
The National Parks Service approved the application. This Sunday, assorted white nationalists will gather at Lafayette Park to rally for “white civil rights” and, metaphorically, to spit on the grave of Heather Heyer, the counterprotester mowed down by a neo-Nazi in a Dodge Charger in Charlottesville last year. Planned speakers include neo-Nazi Patrick Little and former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. Kessler is correct that “antifa-affiliated groups” will be present, too, in numbers likely far larger than the less-than-400 expected on the white-supremacist side.
In the case of this weekend’s mobilization in DC, “antifa-affiliated groups” entails a broad and diverse coalition, coming together from different areas of the anti-racist and social-justice struggle—an alliance that belies the reductive and demonizing image of anti-fascist activism painted by the far right and the civility-fetishizing liberal commentariat. Activists from Black Lives Matter, Jewish Voice for Peace, March for Racial Justice, the Democratic Socialists of America, and many more have been organizing for weeks alongside anarchist groups and seasoned antifa participants from DC, Virginia, Philadelphia, and beyond.
Committed to a diversity of tactics, organizers are explicitly rejecting the tired and dangerous “good protester”/”bad protester” binary, which pits “peaceful” forms of protest against more militant antifa street action.
“We have the same enemy, we have the same goal,” Makia Green, an organizer with Black Lives Matter DC told me of the broad counterprotest coalition. This enemy, as Green and her fellow organizers stress, is not limited to Kessler and his cohort. As the counterprotest call-out states: “Their rallies are all public displays of violence and calls for genocide. They are Brian Trainer and every killer cop. They are the ICE agents. They are the prison system that breaks up families.”
“Anti-fascism is not just dressing in all black,” said Dylan Petrohilos, a DC-based anarchist organizer. “While there are some that choose militant forms of struggle, working to end state violence, building networks of community defense, ICE rapid response, building workplace power, occupations of ICE offices, resisting pipeline expansion, as well as many other forms of resisting white supremacy and state violence are all forms of anti-fascism.”
Under the banners “Shut It Down DC,” “Alt-Right Not Welcome,” “Rise Up, Fight Back,” and “Stop the Hate,” a weekend’s worth of counterprotest trainings and actions are planned. There will be a rally, in a separate square from Unite the Right, described by organizers as “a defiantly celebratory space, where we will center the identities of Black, Brown, indigenous, queer, Jewish, Muslim, disabled, workers, sex workers, and all other identities that white supremacy seeks to destroy.” Following this, a march will head to Lafayette Square to directly confront the neo-Nazis and their sympathizers.
There will be an explicit division between the rally and the march, such that participants who might not want or be able to join a potential confrontational action can opt out. But the separation is a tactical one, not an ideological cleaving over the ethics of different protest strategies. “Our mission,” Scott Brown, an organizer with Jewish Voice for Peace, DC Metro, told me, “is centering communities that are most marginalized. There is space for every tactic.” Brown told me that while moderate liberals are “of course welcome,” the counterprotesters are not organizing with the aim of appeasing their sensibilities. “We’re not here to please moderate liberals. Our overall vision is the eradication of white supremacy.”
Following last year’s Unite the Right, the president blamed “both sides” for the event’s violent denouement, which left Heyer dead, many injured and traumatized, and a young black man beaten bloody with metal poles. The week that followed, I wrote in this publication, “one hopes that seeing Donald Trump deploy the same putrid two-sidesism after Charlottesville will give liberals pause for thought on the dangers of such false equivalence.” I had misplaced my hope. According to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, in the month that followed the events in Charlottesville, America’s top-six broadsheet newspapers ran 28 opinion pieces condemning anti-fascist action but only 27 condemning neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and Trump’s failure to disavow them.
In the year since, while white-supremacist violence has continued to soar, questions about confronting this hate have continued to collapse into the far-right-friendly fulcrum of “free speech.” Choosing to ruminate over the ethics of “free speech” rather than on its violent, genocidal content is a trap into which the DC counterprotest organizers are refusing to fall. “We are no longer going to debate the validity of our lives,” Green told me. “This isn’t just a media moment, time is overdue to act against fascism. People have been killed in recent years, and that didn’t need to happen. Our lives depend on standing against white supremacy 365 days a year,” she said.
With only a few hundred expected Unite the Right attendees, it might seem more pragmatic to simply ignore Kessler and his cadre, deny them further attention and, in so doing, avoid the predictable media coverage decrying antifa militancy. While the alt-right may be a fumbling mess, support for racist ideology is not dwindling by virtue of this—quite the opposite. Figures like Kessler are the tip of a white-supremacist iceberg that has been the norm since long before Trump’s ascendance. White nationalists like those of Unite the Right need stamping out as a particularly grotesque outgrowth of our current system. Even a small neo-Nazi gathering should be grounds for a major counterprotest, all the more so when it’s in view of the white-supremacist-occupied White House. For communities of color in DC, the presence of normalized white supremacy is not confined to this weekend; it’s a consistent existential threat that will not shrink into irrelevance if ignored.
Just this week, a 34-year-old black man, Ketchazo Paho, was driving through Georgetown in DC when a cyclist beat him round the head with a bike lock while shouting racial slurs. “What happened to me Monday is not foreign,” Paho told The New York Times, while expressing concerns for the safety of communities of color in DC during Unite the Right.
Meanwhile, DC Metropolitan Police Chief Peter Newsham told a press briefing on Thursday that police will be focused on keeping the white supremacists and their counterprotesters separate, which has historically meant protecting neo-Nazis. “We would ask everyone who attends not let their personal passions overcome their civility,” said Newsham. These “personal passions” are nothing less than marginalized communities fighting together for their lives against those who would see them annihilated. The DC organizers know all too well: The call for civility is a call for undisturbed white supremacy.