D.C. Braces for Far-right Demonstration on Anniversary of Deadly Charlottesville Protests

Protesters to march in Washington after failing to receive permit in Charlottesville – but the local Jewish community fears demonstrators will arrive nevertheless

File photo: White nationalists participate in a torch-lit march on the grounds of the University of Virginia ahead of the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11, 2017.
\ STEPHANIE KEITH/ REUTERS

WASHINGTON – The Jewish communities of Washington and Charlottesville, Virginia, are preparing for a tense weekend ahead of the one-year anniversary of the deadly far-right protests that racked the university town last summer. On Sunday, a far-right demonstration is set for the capital, while counterprotests and anti-racism events are planned for  Charlottesville as well. 

The D.C. Jewish community plans a number of counterdemonstrations and will hold events in synagogues to discuss the dangers of racism and anti-Semitism. Local Jewish leaders told Haaretz that security concerns would be addressed, while they were in touch with the police and other security agencies.

In Charlottesville, the Jewish community will commemorate the events of 2017 as the town of 47,000 braces for the possibility that far-rightists will return and cause trouble. 

The events of last summer were arguably the most dramatic political demonstration in the United States since the 2016 election. Hundreds of far-rightists – many of them self-identified Nazis and white supremacists – gathered in Charlottesville to protest the town's decision to remove the statue of a Confederate officer from a local park. 

Hundreds of local people took part in a counterprotest, and one of them, Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old resident of a nearby town, died after a car rammed into her and other demonstrators, wounding dozens. Prosecutors say the driver, white supremacist James Alex Fields, deliberately drove his car into the crowd. Also, two state troopers were killed when their helicopter crashed outside the town while monitoring the protests. 

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These events took place only a few blocks from Charlottesville's main synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, a very short walk from both the park where the far-rightists gathered and the intersection where Heyer was killed. The far-right demonstrators tried to get near the synagogue and shouted "Jew will not replace me." That weekend, local residents volunteered to help protect the synagogue. 

This year, Charlottesville refused to give far-right activists a permit to hold a demonstration. So instead, they have organized a march in Washington under the Unite the Right slogan that was used last year. They plan to march from the Foggy Bottom metro station in the city's northwest to Lafayette Square right in front of the White House. 

Their request to hold the march in Washington was approved by the local police. In their request for a permit, the far-right activists estimated that up to 400 people would take part, though it is not clear if this will be the turnout. The activists plan to gather in the afternoon in the D.C. suburb of Vienna, Virginia, and take the metro into the capital.

No shouting match

Counterprotests are scheduled for both Saturday and Sunday, including one near the White House during the far-right demonstration. The police, who will be on high alert, will close off major streets nearby and focus on keeping the two sides apart. 

Jewish communities in the greater Washington area face a dilemma. On the one hand, there is a clear desire to take part in counterdemonstrations and show that the far-right groups are a fringe minority not frightening the much larger Jewish community. On the other, there is the realization that the Unite the Right people hope to stoke a crisis, make the top headlines again and spread their message. 

Some Jewish activists are planning to protest directly next to the far-right demonstration, wearing Jewish garb and holding “Jewish resistance art,” as part of an event under the headline “no unite the right.” This group will more directly confront the far-right activists. In general, the local police are preparing for a scenario in which far-right and far-left groups will try to engage in direct confrontations, that could easily turn violent.

"Our answer to this hateful march is to encourage members of the community to participate in some of the events that will take place over this weekend and that will counter their demonstration," says Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

"We're not encouraging people to directly engage with the neo-Nazis and the white supremacists, because that doesn't seem helpful, and I doubt if a yelling match with them is going to convince even one of them to choose a different path. We should be careful not to assist them in creating a crisis." 

File photo: Members of white nationalists clash against a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017.
\ Joshua Roberts/ REUTERS

On Friday afternoon, Washington Hebrew Congregation, a Reform synagogue that was founded in 1852, is organizing a teach-in and interfaith vigil. Speakers will include Jamie Raskin, a Democrat congressman from Maryland, Reverend William Barber, a leading figure in religious social activism, and Eleanor Norton Holmes, Washington's delegate to the House of Representatives. After the event, the synagogue will hold a prayer service under the theme Shabbat of Peace. 

On Sunday morning, hours before the far-right event, Jewish community leaders will speak at a counterdemonstration near the Martin Luther King Jr. monument. One speaker will be Sofi Hersher, the assistant communications director at the Reform Movement's Religious Action Center, who will talk about her experiences with far-right violence. 

Hersher told Haaretz that her synagogue in Sacramento, California, was firebombed by far-right terrorists when she was a child, and she was harassed after giving television interviews. She will discuss the importance of fighting back against white supremacy. Another speaker will be Rabbi Jack Moline, a Conservative rabbi and director of the Interfaith Alliance, an organization representing hundreds of religious leaders from various faiths. 

Talking to the police chiefs

For the local police, the main challenge will be the counterprotests by far-left groups such as Antifa, which could lead to violent confrontations with the far-rightists. 

Halber, the head of the local Jewish Community Relations Council, told Haaretz he trusts the police to handle the events. "Washington is a city where you have demonstrations every other day," he said. "This is obviously a more complicated one, but I trust the police here to deal with it wisely and responsibly."

He added that while some members of the local Jewish community were concerned about security, "we are in touch with the police chiefs in Washington, Maryland and Virginia," though he declined to give details. 

"From my point of view, if these Nazis and white supremacists are coming to Washington thinking they will change anyone's mind or make people more open to their twisted ideas, they should prepare for failure," Halber said. "They are going to be disappointed. People here, like in most of the United States, totally reject their message of hate. They have already lost this battle." 

In Charlottesville, events commemorating last year's violence will take place in the downtown area as well as on the campus of the University of Virginia. The local Jewish community, which consists of around 300 families, will also address the anniversary during this weekend's Shabbat services.

Rabbi Tom Gutherz, who leads the local Beth Israel congregation, wrote a letter to the community this week in which he expressed the hope that "the desire for righteousness can carry our Charlottesville community and our nation into a better land."

He added: "I want to believe that the end result of last year’s violence and hatred will be a powerful awakening in the Jewish community  – that it will galvanize us to carry our share of the burden in dismantling the racial injustices we see in our education, police and criminal justice systems, culture, and neighborhoods."

Last year, Gutherz told Haaretz that his synagogue had to hire security guards, something it had never done before. This year, police in Charlottesville, despite not providing a permit for the far-rightists, are placing the downtown area, including the synagogue area, under extra supervision in case lone extremists try to carry out  violence. 

USA Today reported that the police will monitor all pedestrian traffic around a defined area in downtown Charlottesville and will not allow the presence of knives, air rifles, skateboards and similar items. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has declared a state of emergency to let the police ensure security in the area.