“Unite the Right 2” Showed the Growth of Anti-Fascism and the Police Response

August has seen a rash of confrontations as far-right ensembles — from open white nationalists to radical right anti-immigrant and anti-LGBT groups — hit the streets and are met by massive community contingents. The story has evolved from one of opposing street contingents to a mass anti-fascist upswell in cities around the US — a point that has been eclipsed by allegations of massive police overreach on protests meant to halt the rise of the far right.

Last weekend saw far-right activists convene in Washington, DC, on the one-year anniversary of the first “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. An estimated 40 “alt-right” supporters turned out for “Unite the Right 2,” and counter-protesters showed up in larger numbers. “Their rally happened, but it was clearly [outnumbered] 300 to 1,” said Scott Brown, an organizer with Shut It Down DC, the coalition which coordinated the actions across Washington, DC, on August 11 and 12.

Last year’s “Unite the Right” rally was intended to be the high-water mark for a racist movement moving toward ascendancy. Donald Trump’s presidency offered a huge opportunity for the “alt-right” and the larger white nationalist movement to access recruits, but as conservative moderates started to turn on them, they needed to see exactly where they stood among the right. That event on August 12, 2017, brought out a thousand people from a range of organizations, from the National Socialist Movement to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to various “alt-right” fraternal projects.

Charlottesville was the turning point in the public war against the rise of the far right, resulting in mass platform denial and the growth of an organized anti-fascist movement that began to halt far-right public organizing. They were silenced at every turn after that, and have desperately tried to grab onto any public opportunity they could get. This led to the growth of particular organizations that used plausible deniability to hide their racism, such as the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, yet the open white nationalists lost big.

Kessler’s Fading Star

With “Unite the Right 2,” the far right needed to reconvene, but this time, their main draws had turned on the organizers. Jason Kessler, who was an unknown before last year’s rally, was able to bring big names in the world of white nationalism. The founder of the “alt-right,” Richard Spencer, along with “Daily Shoah” podcast host Mike Enoch, libertarian-turned-pagan Augustus Sol Invictus and former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke were all invited, yet all of them, minus Duke, had declined to attend. Many of the big names in the movement, including Enoch and Spencer, faced a series of lawsuits from people affected by the violence that ensued in Charlottesville last summer. While Enoch has been ostensibly cleared of charges, Spencer and many of the others still have not, and they have publicly urged their white nationalist followers to stay home.

Kessler, for his part, rode the attention into a place of controversial stardom. NPR broadcast a much-maligned interview with Kessler days before last weekend’s DC event, and profiles in places like The Washington Post gave him such a large platform that some called into question the journalistic practices that are lending him celebrity. While he was roundly denounced by both the public and his “alt-right” cadre for his mishandling of last year’s white nationalist convergence, he has repeatedly denied any culpability and generally passes it off to his co-organizers.

Around the mainstay of the “alt-right,” Kessler has become persona non grata; a nobody who tried something, failed everyone around him, yet wants to dig the hole even deeper. Despite that association, “Unite the Right” is all he has, and without that, he fades into obscurity outside of his small hometown, which has made him a pariah. His permit for this year’s rally listed an intended participation of 400, less than half of last year’s, and the crowd of anti-fascists responding promised to be several multiples of that before the rally even began.

Mobilizing

In advance of the event in DC, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) 689 said that it would refuse to accommodate the separate trains that were going to be allocated to the white nationalists coming in. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority had to abandon this idea, forcing the white nationalists onto broad transit and making them more susceptible to intervention from protesters.

This move was applauded by organizers from the DC area who pulled in thousands to protest the action, not just with the direct counter-demonstration, but also actions across the city. Black Lives Matter DC organized the “Rise Up, Fight Back” demonstration that ran for several hours in advance of the white supremacist’s arrival, building up steam from just a block away. The Shut It Down DC Coalition brought together 40 organizations to form a push toward a mass action, similar to the “Pop Mob” formation that happened recently in Portland, Oregon, which brought out over 1,000 people to confront Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys. Meanwhile, a “dance protest” that focused on public fun and music, organized by the Future is Feminist, was intended to highlight queer and trans participants, and occurred at the same time as the rest of the August 12 protests. On August 10, an “Action Camp” was held to conduct public trainings on both the protest tactics and the issues that led up to “Unite the Right 2,” which was successful at building a sense of unity in the protest crowd. With the impetus to stop another Charlottesville, this coordinated convergence created a “mass movement anti-fascist” approach that had the ability to hinder Kessler’s capacity to function.

The DC rally is just one of many far-right events around the country in August, which anti-fascist activists have labeled #AllOutAugust. As organizers come to confront far-right organizations and routinely overwhelm their numbers, such resistance highlights what activists say is disproportionate aggression focused on counterprotesters rather than the white nationalists. In Charlottesville — despite the lack of focus by the “alt-right” on anywhere other than DC on August 12, 2018, — the governor called for a state of emergency and would permit the National Guard to enter the city if deemed necessary. Meanwhile, on August 11, in preparation for protests, an estimated 100 police surrounded the Robert E. Lee statue that became the central icon last year — a move which felt like it was aimed at protecting images of the Confederacy and had its eyes set on anti-fascist protesters rather than the white nationalists who have a track record of violence.

In DC, the police took equal measure, creating an Emergency Operations Center and banning all weapons from the area. This is similar to the measures taken in Portland, Oregon, on August 4, yet activists contend that the police disproportionately focused restrictions and reprisal on anti-fascists rather than the far-right contingent.

As They Arrived

In Washington, DC, hundreds of white nationalists — including many of the more traditional and violent organizations we associate with that movement — met at the Foggy Bottom subway station, then went to Lafayette Square, carrying American flags and “White Lives Matter” signs. Despite the work by ATU, the DC Metro still gave them special accommodations, and helped them to get out of public transportation with police escort. ATU was outraged that trains marked “Special” were there to bring in the all-white crowd and their entourage of reporters despite previous objections from their workers, 80 percent of whom are people of color.

“Hopefully we re-moralize people and we put people in a productive direction,” Jason Kessler said to a handful of supporters outside of the train they rode in on. “[Anti-fascist activists] need to stop censoring us, stop calling us ‘hate speech.’ White people deserve a seat at the table now, and hopefully this puts us on a good course.”

Last year in Charlottesville, Kessler had managed to wrangle a full thousand participants out for blood. This year, the crowd, which was sheltered into their permitted park location, was just a couple dozen. Several participants spoke to the media, saying that many “people were too afraid to come out today for the rally” because of the pressure from the left and that shrunk the proposed event. The track record of Charlottesville, the doxxing of supporters and the repercussions for participants, as well as a disavowal from the “alt-right’s” leadership didn’t help either.

While Kessler and his crowd attempted to hold speeches, the sheer volume of the mass just outside his policed barricades made it almost impossible.

Although Kessler’s crowd was minuscule, it represented an evolving far-right movement that was picking up on new trends in the world of “alt-right” conspiracy and racist demagoguery. “Q” buttons, signifying the “QAnon” conspiracy theory, could be seen, calling back to the world of internet rumor that acted as a petri dish for the “alt-right.”

The anti-fascist crowd, which was broken up into multiple coordinated blocs with different strategic and messaging approaches, numbered into the thousands. This strategy of completely overwhelming numbers and tactical alliances has marked the real growth of the anti-fascist movement since August 12, 2017. This is not just a specialized group of anti-fascists; instead, it is everyone, together, and it is that totality of a community in agreement that has the ability to not only stop Kessler and his followers in advance, but to move far beyond just acting as a reaction to fascism and instead to present the potential for something greater. Like any great organizing, the tools of resistance here hold the potential to replace the object of disdain entirely.

On the streets, multiple marches converged together, with the Black Lives Matter contingent merging with the larger anti-fascist march at 17th and Penn. Tensions with the police ran high as Secret Service officers were ordered to quell any militant protest action, signaling a clear shift in how anti-fascist mass protests are being handled across the US. Police tear gassed anti-fascist protesters in an aggressive use of crowd dispersal techniques, which forced street medics to intervene to support injured protesters.

Things escalated with police pushing protesters into a corner while using crowd dispersal weapons.

“They kettled and pepper-sprayed people at the end,” said Brown. “People were just marching at the end, so without warning, police decided en masse to shut down the demonstration.”

At the same time, in Charlottesville, hundreds rallied together in Booker T. Washington Park, near the University of Virginia main campus, and police lined up to blockade free movement. Anti-fascist demonstrators marched to the spot where Heather Heyer was killed by James Alex Field a year ago. The area has been turned into a shrine splashed with colorful street chalk, a growing artistic potpourri of memories and hopes for the future. Police also increased their presence, arresting four people and turning the town into a veritable military-style occupation.

Susan Bro, Heather Heyer’s mother, was there to continue the memory of her daughter as well as the two police who died in a helicopter crash on the same day. At the memorial that has formed at the point of impact, she played a favorite song of Heather’s and shared memories about her daughter’s life with a crowd of Black Lives Matter activists and media who crowded around.

There Is Something Changing

Kessler’s “Unite the Right 2” efforts illustrate a white nationalist movement desperately attempting to reclaim its once-vibrant above-ground wing. It appears that only groups who reject open white nationalism in favor of far-right politics and invite a multiethnic participation have maintained their numbers. This may be why the Proud Boys — whose violence and ideas are incredibly bigoted — have grown, while people like Kessler are unable to sustain a following.

What the story portrays, more than anything, is the scale that the anti-fascist movement has achieved, despite scare stories in right-wing media outlets. Thousands have come to outnumber their opposing crowds, and the coordinated coalitions organizing these events are seeing huge participation from institutions that have had difficulty connecting with anti-fascist movements in the past, such as labor unions or churches. The urgency has not been lost from Trump’s election as he ramps up deportation efforts, showing exactly what the consequences are if anti-fascist organizing is suspended. As the far right slips from insurrectionary threat to implemented policy, this has allowed organizers to force a tipping point in organized labor, religious communities and affected neighborhoods. ATU 689 has pushed for the dismissal of the general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority over the special treatment given to Kessler and his acolytes.

This mass upsurge in anti-fascist organizing has largely gained its tactical strength from numbers rather than direct confrontation. The reaction to this resistance has been for state and local governments to put the squeeze on protesters with incredibly brutal dispersal tactics. What was seen as police overreach in Portland on August 4 was continued in both Washington, DC, and Charlottesville on August 12 — a point that seems as though it could become the most major obstacle for the left as it wins tactical advantage over the far right in the streets. The shift of focus could illuminate something that anti-fascist organizers have been saying for decades: The police can be just as dangerous as the far-right.