CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – A year after a deadly gathering of far-right extremists in Charlottesville, less than two dozen white nationalists marched Sunday across from the White House, their numbers dwarfed by thousands of counterprotesters, while the mother of a woman killed at last summer’s protest said the country continues to face unhealed racial wounds.
The events, largely peaceful though tense at times in Charlottesville and Washington, were part of a day of speeches, vigils and marches marking the anniversary of one of the largest gatherings of white nationalists and other far-right extremists in a decade.
In Washington, dozens of police in bright yellow vests formed a tight cordon around the small group of white nationalists, separating them from shouting counterprotesters within view of the White House.
President Donald Trump wasn’t at home – he has been at his golf club in New Jersey for more than a week on a working vacation.
Jason Kessler, the principal organizer of last year’s “Unite the Right” event, led the Sunday gathering he called a white civil rights rally in Lafayette Square. Kessler said in a permit application that he expected 100 to 400 people to participate, but the actual number was far lower: only around 20.
Counterprotesters, who assembled before the rally’s scheduled start, vastly outnumbered Kessler’s crowd. Thousands showed up to jeer and shout insults at the white nationalists.
Makia Green, who represents the Washington branch of Black Lives Matter, told Sunday’s crowd: “We know from experience that ignoring white nationalism doesn’t work.”
By about 5 p.m., those in Kessler’s group packed into a pair of white vans and left, escorted by police.
Washington Police Chief Peter Newsham said only one person was arrested all day despite several tense moments, with police essentially shielding the white nationalist demonstrators from several thousand enraged counterprotesters.
Newsham called it “a well-executed plan to safeguard people and property while allowing citizens to express their First Amendment rights.”
Earlier this month, Facebook stunned and angered counterprotest organizers when it disabled their Washington event’s page, saying it and others had been created by “bad actors” misusing the social media platform. The company said at the time that the page may be linked to an account created by Russia’s Internet Research Agency – a troll farm that has sown discord in the U.S. – but counterprotesters said it was an authentic event they worked hard to organize.
Earlier in the day in Charlottesville, the mother of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal who was killed when a car plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters during last year’s rally, said there’s still much healing to be done.
Susan Bro laid flowers at a makeshift memorial at the site of the attack in downtown Charlottesville. With a crowd gathered around her, she thanked them for coming to remember her daughter but also acknowledged the dozens of others injured and the two state troopers killed when a helicopter crashed that day.
“There’s so much healing to do,” Bro said. “We have a huge racial problem in our city and in our country. We have got to fix this, or we’ll be right back here in no time.”
Hundreds of neo-Nazis, skinheads and Ku Klux Klan members and other white nationalists descended on Charlottesville last Aug. 12, in part to protest over the city’s decision to remove a monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a park.
Violent fighting broke out between attendees and counterprotesters. Authorities eventually forced the crowd to disperse, but chaos erupted again when the car barreled into the crowd.
James Fields Jr., 21, of Maumee, Ohio, is charged in state court with murder in Heyer’s killing and faces separate hate crime charges in federal court. He pleaded not guilty last month to the federal charges.
The day’s death toll rose to three when a state police helicopter crashed, killing Lt. Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke Bates.
Among the other anniversary events was a Sunday morning community gathering at a park that drew more than 200 people. The group sang and listened to speakers, among them Courtney Commander, a friend of Heyer’s who was with her when she was killed.
“She is with me today, too,” Commander said.
Law enforcement officials faced blistering criticism after last year’s rally for what was perceived as a passive response to the violence that unfolded. A review by a former U.S. attorney found a lack of coordination between state and city police and an operational plan that elevated officer safety over public safety.
The anniversary weekend was marked by a much heavier police presence, which also drew criticism from some activists.
Demonstrators on Sunday marched through Charlottesville chanting, “Cops and Klan go hand in hand,” and “Will you protect us?”
The city of Charlottesville said four people were arrested in the downtown area. Two arrests stemmed from a confrontation near the Lee statue where a Spotsylvania, Virginia, man stopped to salute, a Charlottesville woman confronted him and a physical altercation took place, officials said.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.