On Sunday in Washington, DC, several thousand demonstrators rallied in the morning sun and marched in the afternoon rain to protest the presence of a few dozen fascists and white supremacists in their midst. Jason Kessler, the organizer of last year’s deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, sought to once again gather together a broad range of right-wing extremists in a show of force. He failed by almost every measure except one: His people still had the protection of the local police.
In the year since Heather Heyer was killed by a violent white supremacist, the coalition that descended upon Charlottesville has collapsed. Some of the most violent groups present on that day, like the Traditionalist Worker Party or American Vanguard (with whom Heyer’s alleged murderer, James Fields, marched), no longer exist (these two were torn apart by a tawdry affair and an internal power struggle, respectively). Charismatic leaders in the movement have lost significant sources of revenue, as web-hosting services and crowd-funding platforms have banned them from their businesses. Whenever organized white supremacists, fascists, and neo-Nazis gather together in public, they run the risk of being outed to their friends, families and employers—a risk that only the most hardcore are willing to take.
All of this is in no small part thanks to sustained pressure from antifascist militants in the streets and online, diligent investigative reporting, and the growing upsurge of leftist organizing that recognizes fascism and white supremacy as existential barriers to a different, better world. However, the conditions that allowed for a violent right-wing street movement to arise in the first place have not gone away, and while that particular movement may have receded somewhat in places like Charlottesville and DC, it appears to be growing elsewhere, especially in the Pacific Northwest.
What’s more, these movements still end up being protected by the local police. Remembering the weeks before last year’s rally, Ben Doherty, an organizer with the Charlottesville chapter of Standing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ), recalled how police had dealt with a Ku Klux Klan rally on July 8: “The police, all dressed up in their riot gear with these huge weapons, kept their backs to the Klan the entire time and were facing the anti-racist protesters, despite the fact that members of the Klan who came here said they were gonna be carrying guns,” he told me. “Then after they escorted the Klan back to their cars and let them leave the city, the police then turned on anti-racist protesters.… They went into formation, declared an unlawful assembly, and then tear-gassed the peaceful protesters who were just standing there.”
On Sunday, Kessler and his allies were outnumbered many times over and able to move safely through the city only thanks to a heavy police escort and special subway accommodations. Earlier this month, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority denied that it would be providing the white nationalists with private transportation after ATU Local 689 announced that it would not cooperate with such a plan. As it turned out, WMATA did exactly what it had said it wouldn’t do, shutting down part of a subway station on Sunday in order to get Unite the Right 2 attendees onto a private subway car, infuriating members of the union who had been told otherwise.
“We found out this morning that WMATA gave them a private train, secretly, under cover. So they got a train with escorts from Fairfax County Police, Virginia State Police, Metro Police, and MPD,” Jack, one union member, told me. “I came to this struggle through political education for the members of Local 689, through the older members who fought and gave us our benefits, and all the class struggle they went through.”
“We’re the biggest amalgamated transit union in the United States,” he continued. “It’s important that we come out, because if we don’t, the fascist movement will just get bigger and stronger.”
While DC police escorted Kessler and his neo-Nazi friends to Lafayette Park in front of the White House, a similar scene was playing out in Charlottesville, where police were blocking demonstrators who sought to memorialize Heather Heyer at the site of her death. A state of emergency had been declared days before; riot cops in reflective vests protected the statue of Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park. The photographs that emerged were eerily reminiscent of the infamous torch-lit march a year before. Throughout the weekend, hundreds of cops were swarming through the city, to the dismay of students and locals. “Last Year They Came With Torches; This Year They Come With Badges,” one sign read. “Anti Fascist Means Anti State,” read another. Donald Trump’s own actions fed this frustration. On Saturday, the president had met with Bikers For Trump, one of whose members bared a Waffen-SS tattoo at the Patriot Prayer rally in Portland.
“What we’re afraid of this week is that the white-supremacist presence will be much, much smaller, but that the police will turn their force on protestors,” Doherty, the SURJ organizer, told me. “We saw them work hand in hand with white supremacists last year. They may not be doing that much this year, but the fear is that they will turn the huge militarized presence on anti-racist protesters.”
The DC protests wound down in the rain. Outside Lafayette Park on Sunday, anger towards the organized white supremacists turned into rage at the police. Militants sought to trap Kessler and his cronies inside the park, blockading the entrance through which they’d been escorted. After police failed to break through the crowd, they sneaked Kessler and the others out of the park in a van through another exit.
The crowd, made up of black-bloc crews and a large contingent of Black Lives Matter activists, deliberated what to do next, first considering a march on the headquarters of Immigration and Customs Enforcement before deciding to march instead to the Department of Justice. The crowd stormed through the streets, adapting the classic slogan “1-2-3 / Fuck the police” into a more contemporary one: “Fuck I-C-E / Fuck the police.”
Eventually, as hundreds of militants neared the Department of Justice building, police trapped them in a narrow street, blocking the way forward and the way back. Panic set in as a line of cops on motorcycles revved their engines and crawled into the rear of the bloc. Amid the chaos, one police officer aimed his pepper spray in a protester’s face. Cops on motorcycles blocked the sidewalks. No one could leave as the two lines of police edged towards each other. It seemed as though a mass arrest like the one made on Inauguration Day was imminent.
Then, suddenly, the police kettle was gone—demonstrators could walk free. Some dispersed; others returned to Lafayette Park, where a small handful of latecomers to the Unite the Right rally had been seen and were being protected by police.
Having been beaten in the streets (at least for now), much of the American fascist movement is retreating behind police lines. Those who would oppose them are presented with a task even more daunting than brawling with Nazis: building a better world, where the conditions that feed fascism and white supremacy no longer exist, and where the proponents of these ideologies have nowhere to hide.