'Unite the Right 2' Was an Incredible Self-Own for Racists

This wasn't hard to see coming.
August 13, 2018, 4:00am
Jason Kessler leading the Unite the Right 2 "rally." All Photographs by Byron Smith

Practically no one showed up to the Unite the Right 2 rally, held on the one-year-anniversary of the notorious Charlottesville demonstration that dissolved into chaos and ultimately left a woman dead. Although the event's website had some slick production value that hinted at the possibility of organizational aptitude, fewer than 20 people actually participated IRL, by my own count. And while threat-assessment reports issued in the lead-up to the event suggested protestors might be outnumbered by their opponents four-to-one, that ratio ended up being extremely conservative. Between hundreds of antifa-style counter-protestors, as well as Black Lives Matter movement members and other various non-racists, the "white civil rights" side's relative lack of turn out was frankly pretty embarrassing for them.

In hindsight, this wasn't hard to see coming.

"Lots of white supremacists are telling people to stay away," Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, told me before things kicked off—to the extent they did at all. "Some of it has to do with avoiding a repeat of the post-Charlottesville backlash, but a lot of it also has to do with the fact that they can no longer stand organizer Jason Kessler."

It's true: Some people in the right-wing media have taken to floating the idea that Kessler is some kind of deep-state plant who wants to divide America and make Trump look bad. It's also true marquee names like Richard Spencer stayed home and the Daily Stormer's Andrew Anglin told followers that taking part wasn't worth being publicly ostracized.

But another factor that contributed to UTR2 being a complete non-event was the sheer volume of police keeping people separated from each other starting well before it began in the afternoon and continuing into the early evening. The UTR2 website said the plan was for the racists to arrive via convoy at a metro station in Vienna, Virginia, and head to DC from there. But counter-protesters (and the press) were barred from entering the Vienna station, and not permitted to mill around at the Foggy Bottom stop where the far-right contingent arrived in DC, either. Meanwhile, a small army of police officers flanked the racist crowd from the moment Kessler emerged from the subway, grinning in a blue suit and holding out an American flag.

Not that the event was for the faint of heart. Some anti-racist activists approached the street demonstrations in pink pussy hats and ultimately turned away, apparently because it was more than they bargained for. And at one point it did seem like violence was near. Although UTR2 was officially permitted to rally at Lafayette Square, near the White House, those who opposed them were barred from going there. In response, black-bloc protestors set up a makeshift barrier constructed from shopping carts to keep Kessler and his cohorts from leaving the vicinity. Fireworks and eggs flew at the cops, but no tear gas was deployed in response. Eventually, authorities told the people attempting to intercept Kessler that he had somehow been escorted out of the area unscathed and unnoticed, and the most formidable anti-racists on the scene moved on before 6 PM.

Pointing out that things went better than they did last year in Charlottesville seems like a pretty low bar. But having attended the first, tragic nightmare, it's safe to say the general unrest in DC was about ten orders of magnitude less extreme than it was that day in Virginia. Still, the fact that regular people thought it was completely chill to hang out in a Peet's Coffee on Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street—in full view of the massive standoff between cops and antifa activists that threatened to turn into a riot, just the latest front in a larger battle between the white supremacist far-right and everyone else in America—made for its own disturbing takeaway.

In other words, even if "white civil rights rallies" aren't necessarily something many people are keen to attend in 2018, plenty seem to have accepted them as a fact of life.

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Follow Allie Conti on Twitter. All photographs by Byron Smith