Scuffles, Shouting as Far-Right Group, Anti-Fascists Demonstrate in DC Saturday

As a far-right rally disbanded amid counterprotests, police officers tried to keep protesters separate

What to Know

  • A rally aligned with the far-right movement has disbanded from Freedom Plaza
  • A group associated with the anti-fascist movement counterdemonstrated across the street in Pershing Park
  • Some scuffles and shouting broke out on the periphery of the rallies, but no injuries were reported

At least one person was detained outside Trump International Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., Saturday night amid continuing clashes between far-right demonstrators and counter protesters.

Authorities were on high alert to prevent violence between attendees of the #DemandFreeSpeech Freedom Rally in Freedom Park and anti-fascist and anti-racist demonstrators just one block away. Pennsylvania Avenue remains closed near Freedom Plaza.

Fresh of out of jail, the man who burned the American flag during D.C.'s Fourth of July celebration revealed his motives to News4's Jackie Bensen.

As far-right provocateurs Milo Yiannopolous and Laura Loomer took the stage at Freedom Park, some counterdemonstrators dressed in the typical Antifa protest garb including all-black outfits, full face coverings and goggles, started approaching police barricades and apparently tried circumventing the police no-cross zones.

One such group tried to breach the police barricade at 12th and Pennsylvania Street NW, but was turned back by officers.

On some streets around the demonstrations, tempers flared as a masked, black-clad protester grabbed at someone's red "Make America Great Again" Hat, WTOP's Alejandro Alvarez said on Twitter.

The far-right rally ended around 1:45 p.m., and at that point no arrests or injuries had been reported.

A few hours later, clashes broke out again outside the Trump International Hotel and officers detained one man. It was not clear if he was associated with one of the groups.

The far-right rally delivered on a promise to bring far-right activists including Laura Loomer and Milo Yiannopolous to the stage. Former Donald Trump presidential campaign advisor Roger Stone was advertised but didn't make an apperance.

In response to the news of the far-right rally, Black Lives Matter led a coalition of D.C. groups in a permitted "Black, Brown and Indigenous Joy Park Party" counterdemonstration at Pershing Park, which featured go-go music, singalongs and speakers.

"We plan to disrupt the alt-right circus with the sound of Chocolate City," organizers said Saturday in a press release.

The first speakers highlighted violent incidents motivated or believed to be motivated by bigotry, including the fatal stabbing of 2nd Lt. Richard Collins III, a Bowie State University student, by a man who belonged to a racist Facebook group and the killings of two transgender women in the D.C. area.

Both demonstrations appear to have started peacefully, even after a concerning clash on the Fourth of July over a permitted flag burning demonstration near the White House. A little further from the demonstrations themselves, various tense encounters were documented on social media.

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A far-right rally is planned in Freedom Plaza, while counterdemonstrators including anti-facists and anti-racists plan to gather blocks away.

"We have every intention of keeping the groups separate to give opportunity to say what they have to say, whatever that may be, but at the end, you gotta keep 'em separate so we have a safe event," Metropolitan Police Chief Peter Newsham said.

By 1 p.m., it appeared that Antifa demonstrators were attempting to get around the police effort to separate the two groups, and multiple shouting matches were documented on social media.

David Sumrall, one of the organizers of Saturday's #DemandFreeSpeech Freedom Rally, says they want a peaceful event to shed light on what they see as an attempt by social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook to sensor far-right commentators such as anti-Muslim activist Laura Loomer.

He says it's not about hate.

"We're just trying to raise awareness that big tech is censoring not only conservatives, but it's starting to go across both lines," Sumrall said. "So we're just trying to just raise awareness that this needs to stop now. It's a dangerous precedent, slippery slope ... It's called free speech."

"So the debate is between, is it private companies or public platforms or whatnot. That's where we need to sit down and talk together and figure this out," he said.

But Sumrall acknowledges that members of the far-right group called the Proud Boys — who have been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and connected to violent protests — will be at Saturday's rally. Members say they have come to D.C. to provide security for rallygoers.

"I know the Proud Boys. I'm friends with the Proud Boys," he said. "Those are good guys; they're here to protect us ... to help the police."

The Proud Boys say they are a men-only group that believes in the supremacy of the west, typically defined as Europe and the U.S. One of the group's founders, Gavin McInnes, has publicly said that women should not be soldiers or police officers because they are weaker than men.

An early wave of protesters on Saturday showed up in black t-shirts sporting Proud Boys imagery, including ones offering "Free Helo Rides" referencing far-right Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's effort to squash dissent by throwing activists out of aircraft.

A similar rally in San Francisco in May drew less than 100 people and was peaceful. But last month in Portland, Oregon, violence broke out when the Proud Boys clashed with anti-fascist protesters.

Several groups are organizing counterprotests, raising the concern that violence could break out in D.C. just like it did in Portland last month, or even worse, Charlottesville in 2017, when a counterprotester was killed.

Among those planning to counterprotest is Gregory Joey Johnson, who was arrested Thursday for a permitted flag burning. He was permitted to burn the flag in Lafayette Square but stepped onto Pennsylvania Avenue to get an image of the flag burning with the White House in the background, the visual shock of which was his purpose.

An umbrella group called All Out DC also will be counterprotesting the rally.

“It’s to be against fascism, to be against racism, to be against bigotry, to be against hate,” counterprotester Jason Charter said.

Sumrall said it was hard to estimate how many people to expect.

"If we're lucky, we might get 500 or 1,000," he said.

The #DemandFreeSpeech Rally organizers say that some of their high-profile speakers will only attend a private VIP event later in the evening. The organizers said on stage that attendees will meet at the Trump Hotel and be bused to the event, after reportedly having trouble finding a venue.

A number of streets in the area have been closed, including Pennsylvania Avenue from 15th Street to 12th Street, 14th Street from Constitution Avenue to F Street NW and 13th Street from F Street to Pennsylvania Avenue. Here's a full list.

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