WASHINGTON, D.C. — As hundreds of people poured in to Washington D.C. on Sunday to protest what some feared would be a large white nationalist rally, a red pickup truck pulled into a Target parking lot outside of Alexandria, Virginia.
A man in a blue suit stepped out of the truck. It was Jason Kessler, the organizer of Sunday’s “White Civil Rights rally,” and one of the key figures behind last year’s violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. He’d arrived with Jovi Val, a far-right activist and a member of the Proud Boys, a far-right organization that was labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for the first time this year. Kessler is a white nationalist who has espoused to racist ideas, including that races can be ranked by their intelligence.
In the next parking lot over, Alexandria police officers in at least six patrol cars and 15 on bicycles, put on bulletproof vests and lay in wait.
This was Kessler’s meeting spot. About 15 of his supporters were already in the lot and had been sitting in idling cars. After convening briefly, they got back into their respective vehicles, and drove convoy style to the Vienna Metro Station, 20 minutes away, where they planned to meet up with more supporters before traveling as a group to Washington D.C. The main rally was to be held in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, and kick off around 4.30 p.m.
D.C. transit police escorted Kessler’s group, which included supporters of the internet conspiracy Q-Anon and people with Nazi symbols tattooed on their arms, down into the subway. There, they were relegated to their own subway car.
When Kessler and his crew of just two dozen emerged at Foggy Bottom in Washington D.C., a large crowd of media and protesters were waiting.
Many of the most prominent participants in last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, which left one dead and dozens more injured, have since faced serious consequences for their actions, including costly lawsuits and potential jail time. Most groups swore off Kessler’s event entirely and even discouraged others to attend.
Anti-fascist protesters, meanwhile, turned out in droves, traveling from across the country, including Florida, Ohio, and Tennessee, to rally against Kessler’s movement.
Kessler and his cohorts proceeded up Pennsylvania Avenue, flanked by police on motorcycles and protesters chanting “Nazis go home” they made their way towards Lafayette Park. Kessler had reserved the park for 100 to 400 people.
But only some two dozen people showed up to participate in Kessler’s rally. They were vastly outnumbered by counter-protesters, many of whom had rallied in Freedom Plaza earlier in the day and then marched to Lafayette Square. Police carved out two distinct areas for Kessler’s group and for counter protesters, separated by about 1,000 feet.
As Kessler’s small crowd stood on makeshift platforms and gave speeches, storm clouds loomed overhead, and black bloc anti-fascist groups ran down Pennsylvania Avenue, throwing eggs and golf balls in the direction of police.
By the time Kessler’s rally wrapped up, a thunderstorm moved in. A group of approximately 300 antifa and Black Lives Matter protesters, many in gas masks and helmets, waited in the rain outside a police barricade, where Kessler was expected to exit to make his way back to Virginia.
“This is for the future, racism shouldn’t be alive and moving forward in 2018,” said Jay, a Black Lives Matter protester and a D.C. resident, who declined to give his last name. “We cannot accept this.”
“I wanted to show the other side that not all white people are about white power and i believe in racial equity,” said Janae Van Buren, a medical student in her second year at Georgetown University.
Law enforcements efforts to keep Kessler and his cohort separate from the protesters was part of a broader strategy. Last week, Police Chief Peter Newsham said that they were determined not to repeat the mistakes of police in Charlottesville, who were heavily criticized for letting anti-fascists and white nationalists brawl for hours on end.
An effort to clear protesters resulted in scuffles: protesters hurled multiple firecrackers in the direction of the police, and accused police of prioritizing the safety of white nationalists over D.C. residents. Police backed off, and ultimately escorted Kessler’s group via an alternative route.
Kessler and his cohorts rode the metro back to Fairfax Virginia.
Disclosure: The Proud Boys organization was founded by Gavin McInnes, a co-founder of VICE Media. McInnes left VICE in 2008 and has not been involved in the company since.
Cover: Jason Kessler, organizer of Sunday's "White Civil Rights" rally, walks from Foggy Bottom to Lafayette Square, flanked by police. Tess Owen / VICE News.