By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — A year after a deadly gathering of far-right extremists in Charlottesville, Virginia, a few dozen white nationalists marched Sunday across from the White House, their numbers dwarfed by thousands of counterprotesters, while the mother of a woman killed at last summer’s protest said the country continues to face unhealed racial wounds.
The events, largely peaceful though tense at times in Charlottesville and Washington, were part of a day of speeches, vigils and marches marking the anniversary of what was one of the largest gatherings of white nationalists and other far-right extremists in a decade. In Washington, dozens of police in bright yellow vests formed a tight cordon around the small group of white nationalists, separating them from shouting counterprotesters within view of the White House. President Donald Trump wasn’t at home — he has been at his golf club in New Jersey for more than a week on a working vacation.
Jason Kessler, the principal organizer of last year’s “Unite the Right” event, led what he called a white civil rights rally in Lafayette Square, directly across the street from the White House.
Kessler said in his permit application that he expected 100 to 400 people to participate, though the number appeared lower. Just before 4 p.m., a contingent of fewer than 30 white nationalists began marching through the streets. Counterprotesters who assembled ahead of the rally’s scheduled start vastly outnumbered Kessler’s crowd.
By midafternoon, more than 1,000 people had already gathered in Freedom Plaza, also near the White House, to oppose Kessler’s demonstration and also march to Lafayette Square.
Makia Green, who represents the Washington branch of Black Lives Matter, told Sunday’s crowd: “We know from experience that ignoring white nationalism doesn’t work.” By about 5 p.m., those in Kessler’s group packed into white vans and left, escorted by police. On Aug. 12, 2017, hundreds of neo-Nazis, skinheads and Ku Klux Klan members and other white nationalists descended on Charlottesville, in part to protest over the city’s decision to remove a monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a park.
In Charlottesville Sunday, the mother of a woman killed when a car plowed into a crowd of counter-protesters at a white nationalist rally last summer said there’s much healing to do a year after the violence. Heather Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, laid flowers at a makeshift memorial at the site of the attack in downtown Charlottesville. With a crowd gathered around her, she thanked them for coming to remember her daughter but also acknowledged the dozens of others injured and the two state troopers killed when a helicopter crashed that day.
“There’s so much healing to do,” Bro said.
“We have a huge racial problem in our city and in our country. We have got to fix this or we’ll be right back here in no time.” The city of Charlottesville said four people were arrested. Two arrests stemmed from a confrontation near a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee where a Spotsylvania, Virginia, man stopped to salute the statue and a Charlottesville woman confronted him and a physical altercation took place, officials said. Earlier this month, Facebook stunned and angered counterprotest organizers when it disabled their Washington event’s page, saying it and others had been created by “bad actors” misusing the social media platform.
The company said at the time that the page may be linked to an account created by Russia’s Internet Research Agency — a so-called troll farm that has sown discord in the U.S. — but counterprotesters said it was an authentic event they worked hard to organize. Government and police officials in Washington have expressed confidence the city can manage the events without violence; the mayor and police chief promised a massive security mobilization to keep protesters and counterprotesters apart. Earlier in the day in Charlottesville, more than 200 people gathered in a park to protest racism and mark the anniversary.
The group sang songs and listened to speakers, among them Courtney Commander, a friend of Heyer’s who was with her when she was killed. “She is with me today, too,” Commander said. Last year in Charlottesville, fighting broke out between attendees and counterprotesters. Authorities eventually forced the crowd to disperse, but a car later barreled into the crowd of peaceful counterprotesters. A state police helicopter later crashed, killing Lt. Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke Bates. Law enforcement officials faced blistering criticism in the aftermath of last year’s rally for what was perceived as a passive response to the violence that unfolded.
A review by a former U.S. attorney found a lack of coordination between state and city police and an operational plan that elevated officer safety over public safety. The anniversary weekend was marked by a much heavier police presence, which also drew criticism from some activists. At one point Sunday, demonstrators marched through Charlottesville, chanting, “Cops and Klan go hand in hand,” and “Will you protect us?”