PHILADELPHIA — The spirit of Gritty — the wild-eyed orange hockey mascot that’s been appropriated by antifascists — was alive and well in Philadelphia’s historic district on Saturday, as hundreds of people gathered in response to a planned far-right rally.
Protesters vastly outnumbered the poorly attended rally, organized by a coalition of fascists, far-right agitators, and MAGA faithful under the banner “We the People.” Zachary Rehl, a key member of the Proud Boys – a far-right group linked to recent violence in New York City – was one of the lead organizers of the event, and yet they comprised just a handful of the roughly 40 attendees.
Event organizers positioned the rally as a promotion of mainstream conservative values, while protesters — some with Gritty emblazoned on posters or hats — chanted “Go home, assholes.”
“This event is for all Patriots, Militia, 3 percent, Constitution-loving Americans,” the Facebook page for the event stated. “Pro good cop, pro ICE, pro law and order, pro life, pro American value, pro gun and anti illegal immigration.”
The two sides were kept separate by metal barricades and rows of police. The Independence Visitor Center, an educational center at the site where the Declaration of Independence was signed, functioned as a conduit between the two groups.
There were scattered incidents of violent scuffles. On one occasion, a member of the far-right infiltrated the protest side, leading to a fist fight, and culminating in his arrest, and in the arrest of a antifascist. Law enforcement kept a close eye on clusters of black-clad antifa, who moved in groups of about ten, many who came equipped with helmets, gas masks and goggles.
The far-right rally was an exclusive affair, penned off by police for their protection. A stocky man in a security jacket determined who was allowed to enter the pen, where attendees, some in red MAGA hats, waved American flags.
“People on our side have jobs, and on Saturdays a lot of them are resting”
“People on our side have jobs, and on Saturdays a lot of them are resting,” said Bill Helder, 54, explaining the poor turnout. Helder said he wanted to attend the rally to counter antifa, and doesn’t rule out violence in the future. “I don’t think it’s time for violence yet,” said Helder, who works as a truck driver near Philadelphia. “But if they get organized, they start doing raids, or bombs? If you want a war, we’ll give it to you worse than you can imagine.”
Alan Swinney, a member of the Proud Boys, traveled all the way from Texas to attend Saturday’s event. He thinks he might have attended 10 such events so far, from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle, and now all the way to Philadelphia. Swinney, who towered above the crowd at around 6-foot-5, was dressed in a helmet, armor, and knee pads, which he said was to protect himself from antifa.
“They attack at every rally,” Swinney said.
Swinney said that over time, he’s seen momentum growing on both sides. He’s motivated by the left’s “refusal to accept legitimately elected leaders.”
And, he added, the low attendance of this event shouldn’t fool you. “You say we’re outnumbered, but you forget that the cops are on our side,” Swinney said. “Cops don’t vote Democrat.”
Over on the protest side, which was bolstered by about a hundred members of the Democratic Socialists of America, the atmosphere was more carnivalesque. Aside from those wearing the colors of Gritty, the Philadelphia Flyers mascot, someone played a tuba, and one group of protesters weaved around the crowd inside a Chinese dragon that was made to look like the popular meme Grumpy Cat.
Graham Clarke and Elizabeth Lieb had planned to celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary this weekend, but instead they dropped their plans and went to Philadelphia from nearby New Jersey to protest. Lieb and Clarke were wearing matching, knitted Gritty hats. “Gritty hates fascists,” Lieb said, explaining their affinity for the local NHL hockey mascot.
But residents of Philadelphia also turned out in full force, including Jim O’Connor and Melanie Fortino, who were waving a rainbow LGBTQ flag and a “Resist” flag. “There’s Nazis in our town,” said Fortino. “And not doing anything is complicity.”
“This isn’t something we thought we’d ever have to do — to protest Nazis,” said O’Connor. “People in other countries need to know that that’s not who we are. People need to know that there’s more of us.”
Philadelphia resident Richard Scott also turned out to protest the fascists, but nothing he saw Saturday surprised him.
“I’m black. I see this injustice every day. This isn’t new. My people have been living like this forever,” Scott said. “I’m scared of law enforcement. I’m afraid of the cops. They’re killing my people every day on camera. But you know what: At least now we’re all out here.”
The most heated moments came as the day started to wind down, and fascists clashed with antifascists beyond their designated rally areas. Police also clashed with antifascists, including one incident where a cop beat a protester with a baton, leaving him bloodied.
Leaving, as it turned out, was harder than expected for some of the fascist attendees. The day came to an end outside the Roundhouse, the former headquarters of the Philadelphia police department. There, three fascists, including key organizer Rehl and another in a “We are all Dreamers” T-shirt stood behind a row of police, surrounded by seemingly weary protesters, some of whom were sitting on the ground.
Police were trying to arrange for the three attendees to leave via Ubers, but the protesters had something to say about it: An Uber would pull up, protesters would swarm and tell the driver they were about to pick up fascists, and the Uber would speed off.
Three unsuccessful Uber attempts and one unsuccessful metered cab attempt later, and law enforcement switched plans, bringing the remaining three further into the old precinct headquarters, signaling to everyone that the show was over.
Cover: A group of far-right protesters, Trump supporters, and Proud Boys were separated from antifa by police. (Photo: Tess Owen/VICE News)
Disclosure: Gavin McInnes was a co-founder of Vice Media. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then. He founded the Proud Boys organization in 2016.