Washington is bracing for a white nationalist rally that law enforcement agencies will try to prevent from descending into a melee like the one in Charlottesville, Virginia, that cast a shadow over Donald Trump’s presidency a year ago.
Permits for Sunday’s “Unite the Right 2” rally indicated that about 400 demonstrators are expected in Lafayette Square, a park adjacent to the White House. More than 1,500 counter-protesters plan to gather at various downtown locations, including in the same park.
In August 2017, white supremacist demonstrators and counterprotesters squared off in violent clashes in Charlottesville, site of the University of Virginia. The conflict culminated in the death of Heather Heyer, 32, when James Alex Fields Jr., whose social media accounts included posts espousing white supremacy, purposely drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters.
Trump drew condemnation in the days that followed when he appeared to equivocate the actions of white supremacists and those that opposed them.
“I think there is blame on both sides,” Trump said during a press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York. He added that the white nationalist protesters in Charlottesville included “some very fine people.”
Criticism came from within Trump’s administration, including from Gary Cohn, at the time the president’s economic adviser. Some Republican lawmakers also pushed back, although initial statements by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t mention Trump by name.
Trump’s remarks also led to a series of business leaders announcing they would exit a council providing assistance to the administration. The advisory group was then abolished.
Trump is at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf course, and isn’t scheduled to return to Washington until Monday.
Preparations have been in the works for Sunday’s event for months between law local enforcement agencies, U.S. Park Police and the US Secret Service. Police plan to close more than a dozen streets in downtown Washington and cordon off broad sections of Lafayette Square to separate the opposing demonstrators, said Peter Newsham, chief of the Washington Metropolitan Police Department.
“We have seen in the past where these two groups have been in the same area at the same time, it leads to violent confrontations,” Newsham said at a press briefing Thursday. “Our goal is to prevent that from occurring. Every police action that you will see on Sunday will be done with the ultimate goal of ensuring the safety of everyone that attends,” he said.
Police will enforce a complete ban on firearms in and around the demonstration areas on Sunday, including for those with local permits to carry concealed weapons, Newsham said. Organisers of the alt-right rally likewise warned attendees to not bring firearms or other weapons, including pepper spray, clubs, knives and shields.