PHILADELPHIA—They certainly picked a place that made the symbolism easy.
The big grassy field next to the Independence Visitors Center on Sixth and Market streets in Philadelphia is surrounded on all sides by a buffet of metaphors. To the north is the National Constitution Center, with the entire “We the people...” preamble carved in script on its front facade. To the east is the National Jewish Museum, where an enormous banner hangs with a George Washington quote: “For happily the government of the United States, gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance...” To the south is the Liberty Bell, and in the park across the street is a large stone block inscribed with the entire First Amendment. You can turn in any direction and immediately grab profundity. Cracks in our nation? An assault on our very Constitution? The stage was set.
The specter of Charlottesville hangs over every far-right rally in America now. Each time one is announced, there is the possibility that it will tip into disaster. Saturday’s rally in Philly was planned by a minor alt-right figure “who runs the Sports Beer and Politics blog and Facebook page,” but in the haze of today’s performative fringe politics, there is no telling who will show up. Some said the Proud Boys were coming, or the Nazis, or other white identity groups. The truth is that these labels are all just ingredients in the main dish. What Philly knew was that on Saturday, the fucking fascists were coming out at Sixth and Market. And in America in 2018, who the fuck knows what happens then.
It was the day of the Philly Half Marathon. Many downtown streets had been closed. Even as the police barricades got erected and opposing groups gathered, some spandex-clad Certificate of Completion winners were still wandering through the middle of everything, wrapped in their post-race reflective space blankets. Husky police in body armor streamed out the doors of the Visitors Center, as baffled European tourists walked in past them. A double layer of metal barricades had been set up around a grassy area on the north side of the street that was about the size of a healthy suburban backyard. This is where the actual right-wing rally for...something would be held.
At 10:15 a.m., the police decided to formally separate the protesters from the counterprotesters. A line of dozens of yellow-jacketed bike cops stretched all the way down the block, and then began walking forward, one step at a time, forcing everyone who would not consider purchasing a MAGA hat across the street. With each step, the cops lifted and then pounded their bikes into the ground in a menacing fashion, which seemed rather unnecessary so early in the morning. When they first began this procedure I happened to be behind them and so found myself standing alone just outside the area where the less than ten fascists were gathered. “Who the fuck are you?” yelled a short and portly man in an American flag hat, who seemed to be serving as imaginary security for the group, in case the entire Philadelphia police force was not sufficient. I told him I was a reporter. “Where’s your ID?” he yelled. I restrained myself from pointing him to the stone engraved with the First Amendment. “Get this guy!” he hollered at the cops. “This motherfucker’s an-TEE-fa!”
Across the street, hundreds had already gathered. There were banners and a PA system and the open and democratic angry public comment period, which would continue for hours, had begun. The police themselves, who were much closer than the paltry group of quasi-fascists, were a favorite topic. “It’s 2018! How are they still protecting these guys?” griped one guy with short locs. “They hate me ‘cause I’m black? I’m cool. I like football. They hate me? It’s sad.” He was followed by a man with bright red curly hair bursting out from under a purple beret who was wearing a dress underneath a leather jacket. “Ain’t this something? Wake up bright and early and first thing, the police force comes down on your head like a waterfall. Great job, you fucking cowards!” An older Latino man was straight to the point: “All the black cops, the Jewish cops, and the Puerto Rican cops—you shoulda took the day off. What the fuck is wrong with you?”
The charm of the outrage that poured forth from the mouths of Philly residents was its matter-of-fact irateness. They were not so much ideological as drenched in common sense. These people were angry that white supremacists or fascists or Proud Boys or whatever the fuck they were—fucking racists, was the consensus—would consider setting foot so boldly in downtown Philadelphia. It was now what Philly was about. For hours, Philly residents with powerful voices harangued the crowd across the street, which never grew to more than 40 or so even at its peak, and hovered under 20 for most of the morning.
“Nice helmet jackass!” they yelled at one hulking right-winger who had, for mystifying reasons, come out in full riot gear, complete with shoulder pads. “Go to your lacrosse game, your mom’s waiting for you!”
“Your sign is ridiculously small!” they yelled at one MAGA man who had not counted on the fact that he would be separated from his audience by 50 yards. “Get a bigger marker!”
“What the fuck are you proud of!” they yelled at any Proud Boys that might have been over there.
“We have better things to do than come out on a Saturday in fucking November to fight fascism!” they yelled, speaking for all of us. “Go home! I want to enjoy my one day off.”
In fact, the Proud Boys did show up. I know that because two of them got caught walking through the counterprotest crowd. This was an extremely stupid move, since a photo of one of them had been shared widely after he participated in the street violence that broke out after an appearance by Gavin McInnes in New York City last month. He thought that he could stroll through incognito. But he was recognized, and then one person got in his face, and then another, and then someone grabbed his hat and threw it, and then someone else pushed him, and it all teetered right on the edge before he walked briskly over to the line of police and got escorted back to his side of the street. Similar things happened several times—one of the fascists would decide to step outside of their pen, and someone would notice, and then you would see a line of people running in that direction, and a lone fascist in danger of being permanently swallowed up, and then police would come surround them, saving their ass. At one point a “Big B” tour bus drove directly through one of these scrums as it happened, tourists gaping from the Plexiglas-enclosed double decker.
The crowd was constantly infuriated that the cops did this, but I could not get too upset; I dislike cops as much as anyone, but “saving someone from probably getting stomped to death” falls within the purview of things that I am okay with police doing. I have no doubt that behind all of their impassive faces, the cops were all plotting their revenge on the young antifa types who kept calling them pigs; that bill, it seems safe to assume, will be paid one way or another. (And indeed, at least one counterprotester had his head split open with a billy club before the day was over.)
The fury was directed at the police because they were a proxy for the pitiful crowd of right-wingers, who huddled across the street speaking through a hilariously small sound system, the kind you might set up for a small bingo tent. I could not hear a word they said all day. In fact, cocooning them so heavily was the best thing the cops did. It made it impossible for the fascists to communicate with anyone except themselves. The best they could do was to wave several American flags, and a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, and—on a pole higher than any other—a large blue flag that read “TRUMP.”
Why do we do this? By that I mean: Why do we all come out to play our assigned roles in these sorts of public spectacles? The right-wingers in hostile territory come, presumably, for attention, even if it all comes in the form of invective. The cops come because that is what cops do. But why, on a cold Saturday, do well over a thousand Philadelphians come stand behind harsh barricades and armed policemen in order to yell righteous insults into the air, at people who may well never hear them? It is, I think, that people want to go on the record. They want to be recorded, if only by karma itself, as having said that wrong things are wrong. They want the universe to know that they drew a line. They want it to be said, so that it may be written in whatever heavenly history book there is, that they were not going to take this shit.
Finally, in the early afternoon, the remaining ten or so pro-Constitution, pro-Trump, pro-racist whatevers filed out. Flanked by a line of bike cops, they made their way down Arch Street, as a line of counterprotesters kept pace next to them, telling them to get the fuck out of their city. One of the white Proud Boy types was going back and forth with a left-winger who was hollering at him: “What did I do? Tell me what I did that’s so bad.”
Once again, I found myself sealed in with the crowd of right-wingers as we all spilled down the sidewalks. When we paused at the the next cross street, I dropped back and stepped on the other side of the police line. It was not the most journalistic thing to do. But I did it anyhow because I knew the answer to the fascist’s rhetorical question. What you did, my man, was to be on the wrong side of that line. And these days, nobody is in a mood to be forgiving.