DC heightens emergency level ahead of weekend white nationalist rally; police chief expects ‘manageable’ crowds

More than 40 organizations are expected to be represented at Sunday's rally against hate at Freedom Plaza. (WTOP/Kristi King)

WASHINGTON — D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Thursday she is elevating the city’s emergency level ahead of a planned white-nationalist rally this weekend in front of the White House that is expected to draw large crowds of counterprotesters.

The “pro-white” rally at Lafayette Park on Sunday comes on the anniversary of a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one woman dead and dozens injured.

Bowser’s order, announced at a Thursday afternoon news conference, activates the District’s emergency operations center and will make it easier for D.C. to work with federal and state agencies to respond incidents, according to the mayor’s office.

Bowser, who spoke at the Adas Israel Congregation in Northwest D.C., said participants of the so-called “Unite the Right 2” rally were “coming to our city for the sole purpose of spewing hate.” But she said the city had a duty to protect participants’ First Amendment rights and ensure public safety.

D.C. police, who are working with U.S. Park Police and other agencies to keep the peace, said authorities have been planning for months.

More than two thousand people are expected to counterprotest a group of 400 permitted white nationalists. Despite the fact the Unite the Right 2 rally’s permit was approved on Thursday, D.C. Police and area law enforcement have been preparing a response plan for months; one that is largely based off of what did not work in Charlottesville.

“We’re using a number of techniques to keep them separated … We usually don’t like to speak about those because we don’t want to give anyone who might want to come here and create a problem an opporunity to think ahead about tactics wer’e going to be utilizing,” said D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham.

Officers will aim to keep rallygoers and counterprotesters separated for the entirety of the event, even as both groups have been given permission to gather in Lafayette Park.

“Every police action that you will see on Sunday will be done with the ultimate goal of ensuring the safety of everyone that attends,” Newsham said. “Some may try to misinterpret what law enforcement is doing but the ultimate goal will be to make sure that nobody is injured and nothing gets broken.”

According to the ‘Unite the Right’ website, organizers are telling rallygoers to meet Sunday afternoon at the Vienna Metro station in Northern Virginia and travel together to the Foggy Bottom stop before heading to Lafayette Park under police escort. The actual route rally participants take is still in flux and likely to change up until Sunday, Newsham said.

Fairfax County Police Chief Ed Roessler said there will be a large police presence at the Vienna station to keep people safe.

Newsham said he is expecting “manageable” numbers in terms of crowd size.

Newsham said he does not anticipate needing National Guard troops to keep calm between rally participants and opponents and National Guard assistance has not been requested.

At the news conference, a spokeswoman with the National Park Service said the agency had officially approved the permit from organizer Jason Kessler to hold the “Unite the Right 2” rally at Lafayette Park Sunday afternoon and evening. The permit allows for a group of up to 400 people to gather there from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m.

The park service said it has also issued permits for a number of groups protesting the rally on Sunday. The Democratic Socialists of Metro D.C. received permission to hold a protest at Freedom Plaza. The ANSWER Coalition received permission to gather at Lafayette Park and McPherson Square.

Police plan to close the sidewalks near the White House and to establish a “law enforcement buffer zone” within the park that will keep the groups separated and help “de-escalate tensions between the two groups as they occur,” the National Park Service said in one of the permits handed out to counterprotesters.

The efforts announced in D.C. come the day after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency in the state, a move that allows the National Guard to aid in security efforts in the city of Charlottesville.