As DC mayor heads abroad, officials stress de-escalation ahead of weekend rallies

WASHINGTON — D.C. police are taking a proactive approach to security around Sunday’s white nationalist Unite the Right rally, encouraging vigilance and de-escalation to prevent violence.

After Virginia police fielded criticism for failing to contain violence during Jason Kessler’s deadly Unite the Right rally, D.C. police agencies say they are prioritizing communication and coordination in an effort to keep the peace.

“Our officers, as well as the officers of the D.C. police and the Secret Service, are well-adept in de-escalation,” Chief Robert MacLean of the U.S. Park Police told WTOP on Friday. “Crowd management is one of those things that we deal with quite frequently here in Washington, D.C., and we’re adept in being flexible and using our discretion.”

MacLean said law enforcement are communicating with organizers of the multiple counterprotests planned Sunday, reminding them of their First Amendment rights — while repeating a stern warning that any violence or damage to property would lead to a police response.

“We have coordinated with the organizers of all the groups that are coming and established what the rules and regulations are in Lafayette Park, and what the expectations are,” MacLean said, adding: “Come and be peaceful and exercise your first amendment rights, we will not tolerate destruction of property.”

D.C. police chief Peter Newsham fired back against criticism of D.C. officials for mulling special Metro cars or trains for white nationalist rally-goers — an idea which has since been pulled.

“You hear all this information suggesting that these guys are getting special accommodation or escorts — nothing could be further from the truth,” Newsham said. “The goal of law enforcement or this event [is] to ensure that the two groups are kept separate.”

“To prevent a bad actor from entering into this situation is really going to be helpful if people have their eyes and wide open during the course of this weekend,” Newsham said.

He encouraged anybody witnessing suspicious activity to call 911.

Bowser in El Salvador

At a news conference Friday announcing a partnership with George Washington University Hospital to build a new hospital on the St. Elizabeths campus in Southeast, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser explained that she will honor a prior commitment to travel and will not be in the District over the weekend.

Bowser is headed to San Salvador, El Salvador, in a trip she announced during March’s State of the District Address in order to begin a sister city relationship.

Asked about who would make any security decisions in her absence, Bowser said, “I’m always in charge. I’m always the mayor,” unless she is unable to be reached. Any decisions she is “unable to make,” she said, she would designate City Administrator Rashad Young to make in her place.

“We will establish a sister-city relationship, and we will explore educational, health and business opportunities,” Bowser said.

She also said the D.C. area has “one of the largest El Salvadoran populations in the United States,” and that they live in “extraordinary anxiety” over the Trump administration’s moves against Temporary Protected Status.

“Many Salvadorans live legally, pay taxes, own homes, send kids to college, because of that status. And now they live in limbo,” the mayor said.

Bowser added that “we are very confident” in the emergency plans outlined on Thursday. She’s scheduled to leave Saturday and return Tuesday, but said, “If I think that I need to be here, I’ll be here.”

WTOP’s Rick Massimo contributed to this report.

Alejandro Alvarez

Alejandro Alvarez joined WTOP as a digital journalist and editor in June 2018. He is a reporter and photographer focusing on politics, political activism and international affairs.

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