WASHINGTON, DC—There was just one moment when I thought I might see a white supremacist get killed. There were two of them, a man and a woman, the only two real live enemies I saw the entire day. Both were sagging in late middle age, both plump, both with long, gray hair, the man with a beard. Both, for reasons I do not know, had chosen the very peak of the anti-white supremacist rally as the time to traverse the one long block from Lafayette Square to Farragut Square. By the time they had traveled half a block, I was not sure they would make it.
They were escorted on their journey not by police but by a group of several volunteers from the “DC Peace Team,” whose neon green vests read, “Lighting up human dignity.” The volunteers looked more like the members of a band that might make children’s albums than security guards. They had linked arms in a rough circle and were walking the two as fast as possible up the streets, as the crowd seethed around them, a crowd that had been hungry for hours for actual Nazis in the flesh. People screamed denunciations inches from their faces; some threw trash and water bottles. The man being escorted out wore a panicked grin the whole time, the kind of grin you have when something horrific is happening and you don’t know how else to look. They somehow reached the line of police lazing around their vans by Farragut Square, and requested help. The cops obliged by pushing back the angry hordes, sealing off an entire city block, and hustling the two into a van to be removed. “Who are you protecting??” the protesters chanted at the cops. “Who do you serve??” I must say that in the moment, the cops seemed reasonable enough to me. Had those two been directly exposed to the crowd they very likely would have ended up as grease spots on DC sidewalk. They—two goofy, ignorant people—had in an instant become avatars for all of the evil that tens of thousands of people had come out to protest. Their presence on those streets required them to become an avatar of all of the despicable things that white supremacists have been doing for centuries. All of that righteous fury was concentrated upon those two pathetic souls. It couldn’t be helped, really. It seemed like all the other Nazis decided not to show up.
You have to understand that everyone took this event very seriously. Charlottesville was such a stain on America that when this one-year anniversary march was announced, we all had to assume that it had the potential to be just as grotesque. But this time, everyone would be much more prepared. The DC police shut down a huge swath of downtown, erected crowd barriers all over Lafayette Square, and showed up in force. The counter-protesters—Black Lives Matter, antifa, Black bloc, and a kaleidoscope of other more or less stringent groups, joined by countless thousands of regular people angry about the nightmarish Trump era—planned their own public and nonpublic tactics for months. The reporters came out with our lawyers’ numbers written on our arms. Some of the TV cameramen were trailed by private security guards, in one case consisting of two hulking military veterans, both amply tattooed with flames and skulls, who were the most intimidating people of any type that I saw all day. If this was going to be Charlottesville part two, we were all going to be ready for this shit.
On the Friday night before the protest I went to an antifa self-defense training. It was part of a half-day-long “Free School” with a series of classes on political education and protest tactics, which filled up the ample space of a church in Columbia Heights. At 7 p.m., about 20 of us made our way to church’s side lawn, where a very nice but unintimidating volunteer demonstrated how to stand and throw a punch. We also practiced spinning out of the way when someone tried to shove us and yelling, “I DO NOT CONSENT,” and then, as we launched our counterattack, “I AM DEFENDING MYSELF!” The deeply humiliating potential of being punched by someone who was simultaneously declaiming about consent would certainly dissuade me from attacking anyone, if I were a fascist.
(At one point, a couple of news photographers wandered by and started taking pictures of our group, which prompted howls of outrage and demands to cease immediately. “You guys are in public. You’re standing by the street,” noted the Getty photographer, before rolling his eyes and agreeing to stop. The antifa obsession with secrecy extended to the actual protest day—I walked miles beside a Black bloc group who were constantly shouting “No photos!” even as they marched past cameramen from every news organization on the face of the Earth. This is one battle that will not be won.)
Like “socialist” or “Christian,” “antifa” is not a single clearly delineated organization but a term so broad that it is mostly used as a way to evoke either honor or ridicule by political partisans and the press. So I feel obliged to note that the Free School, an event for the benefit of the public that was completely organized and funded and staffed by volunteers with no motivation other than ideological conviction about social improvement, is a good example of what “antifa” is really about, even if the self defense portion of it probably resulted in less of an increase in skilled violence than the average cardio kickboxing class. To the extent that we are talking here about a label that means “anti-fascist,” you should be concerned if you don’t identify as antifa.
The next day was Saturday. It was sunny and warm and all was calm. There was a cosplay convention at the DC Convention Center, and at 3 p.m., a man dressed as the Grim Reaper could be seen, scythe in hand, waiting patiently to cross L Street.
Sunday morning brought gray skies interspersed with periods of furious sunlight. Three blocks east of the White House, the thousands of people gathered atop the white stones of the Freedom Plaza slathered on free sunscreen and guzzled free bottles of water that were trundled around by volunteer “Care Bears.” This was the rallying point for the battle that was expected to come. On one side of the plaza stood several stern young black people in T-shirts that read, “Don’t Let Your President Get Your Ass Whooped- We Are Not Our Ancestors.” Walking past them was a man in a “FREE HUGS” shirt. This gives you a sense of the range of the crowd. The guys in “Fuck Off Nazi Cunts” shirts could be considered the median representative. The guy in the Hawaiian shirt carrying the bamboo “Make Tiki Torches Nonpolitical Again” represented the comedy wing. The antifa kids with bike helmets clipped to their backpacks fidgeted with their bandannas impatiently. You get the idea.
Speeches began in the Freedom Plaza at noon, as the crowd swelled. At two o’clock, a group led by Black Lives Matter gathered a couple of blocks away for their own mini-march. At 2:30, a cry went out in Freedom Plaza that the Nazis, who weren’t scheduled to show up until 5:30, were already on their way into town. Immediately, a huge group formed up and began marching up 15th Street, towards Lafayette Square, the site of the main event. As they marched they chanted:
“In the name
A fascist America,
No No No!”
It was all very rousing. As they moved up 15th Street they met the BLM march coming towards them and melded into one grand, justice-laden glob of energy. As we all neared H Street, people in the front took off running towards something around the corner. The Nazis, we presumed. Everyone began to sprint towards the confrontation, and we rounded the corner to see… a large detachment of Black bloc people, balaclavas in place. “Whoa, they’re with us! They’re with us!” people shouted to the more enthusiastic young men who were intent on running down the enemy. At that, everyone began hugging and giving pounds to each other and jumping up and down, and the entire counter-protest—now complete with medical, communication, diplomatic, public health, and military wings—streamed down into Lafayette Square, filling it from east to west, pressing against the metal police barriers, pumped up and righteous and more than a little angry.
On the theory that the people most ready for action would find the most action, I peeled off and joined a group of Black bloc people who had installed themselves in Farragut Square, reportedly because they wanted to intercept the Nazis coming in. They never did intercept those Nazis. After standing there for a while we all marched down to H Street, scooped up a ton of other Black bloc factions, and then marched back over to 17th Street, one block west of the White House. A DC police chopper hovered steadily overhead, tracking us, like the scene in Goodfellas where Ray Liotta finds out his paranoia about the helicopter he sees was justified after all. They all gathered outside the Eisenhower Office Building and one kid popped a smoke grenade and tossed it over the fence, which prompted a stream of very serious-looking Secret Service agents to stream out and clear the sidewalk, blowing extremely loud whistles the whole time. At one point I looked around the wide street and felt amazed that there was no visible police presence out there with us. Then I noticed that all of the white vans lining the road were full of riot cops.
As the antifa moved south, police drove forward in cars and vans, cutting off access to the preceding block. This presented an opportunity for the protesters to join together and push against force, and they successfully moved the police back a full block. There was unity, and fire, and a palpable sense of being on the edge of something dramatic. There were all the necessary ingredients for the grand rebuke of white supremacy that everyone had come to see.
All we needed were the Nazis.
Besides those two idiots who chose the worst possible time to exit Lafayette Square, I didn’t lay eyes on a single Nazi. The paltry few dozen who did come to DC sequestered themselves in an undisclosed location all weekend, then slunk into the protest area on a private train, protected all along by phalanxes of well-armed police. In Lafayette Square itself, the counterprotest crowd was so thick that I could not physically get close enough to see the few nervous racists who showed. Neither could most of the other people who came out to scream at them. I have no doubt that without the riot police that smuggled them in and out of Lafayette in private vehicles, those Nazis would have ended up as small piles of dust somewhere on 17th Street, never to be seen again. Thousands of people came from around the country at their own expense to kick their asses. They were deprived of the opportunity to do so only because even most Nazis were not stupid enough to show their faces in public. By 5:30, when their rally was scheduled to begin, every single white supremacist had already left, drenched by the rain and probably very scared. The “Unite the Right” rally succeeded only in uniting the left.
It’s the best possible outcome, I think. As the crowds were dispersing under a hard drizzle, one young local walked up to me on the street. “They come to my city, bro,” he said. “They trying to come in my city.” But they didn’t. If Charlottesville was the utter failure of civilized society to draw a line for decency, DC was civilized society making a very real gesture at a do-over. And though many people there would have preferred to demonstrate their sincerity by chasing terrified racists into the Anacostia River, making them too scared to come in the first place was a decent consolation prize. “We have to once again make it unPOPular to be racist,” thundered one local preacher in the Freedom Plaza Sunday morning. Judging by the deserted streets of downtown DC last night, we did.
All protests are symbolic. They are important in the ways that symbols are important. To understand them honestly, it is best to pull back—away from the obsessive focus on the behavior of the craziest attendees and the arrest count and the neatly slotted narratives of success and failure—and see them as battles in a long, long war. The war never ends, nor can it. Its goals morph as society itself does. You can describe the leadership and all of the organization that goes into making a protest happen, but the only thing that actually captures it is the lived experiences of all of the people who were there. It’s just a bunch of people. It does not succeed or fail so much as it makes a small impact on thousands and thousands of psyches. These impacts aggregate over lifetimes. The issues change, but the impulses that bring people out into the streets are permanent.
Under yesterday’s hot noontime sun, an old man in a wheelchair, oxygen tank strapped to its side, was pushed into Freedom Plaza. He was holding a long stick with a big red peace sign on top of it. As he went by, I saw one lone, defiant braid in the back of his wispy grey hair, still hanging on. He was the ‘60s generation, the generation of my parents, and he will not be around much longer. His spirit will have to be picked up by the rest of us. At the end of the day I saw a woman walking out with a sign reading, “I March So My Children Won’t Have To.” But of course they will. The strong young soldiers who defeated Hitler die away. The fascists that fell in Berlin can rise again in Charlottesville. Today’s antifa shitkicker is tomorrow’s old man in the wheelchair. And someone will have to carry that peace sign. And someone will have to carry the brass knuckles.