One year after the clashes between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, the two groups were expected to meet again, this time in Washington, D.C. The counter-protesters showed up. The racists did not.
Much of the coverage of Sunday’s Unite the Right rally, organized by white nationalist Jason Kessler, will focus on the feeble turnout. And it really was pathetic: Instead of the several hundred the organizers and law enforcement expected, only a couple dozen showed. Even though Metro and local police pulled out all the stops to protect the white supremacists - including a private subway entrance for Kessler and Co. - WUSA reported that Unite the Right members “say people were too afraid to come out today for the rally.” Sure.
But we also shouldn’t forget the remarkably large turnout for the counter-protests. Sunday was as much a victory for the left as it was a disappointment for white supremacists.
Hours before the “Unite the Right” folks arrived, multiple nonviolent counter-protests were up and running around the White House. Black Lives Matter D.C., Occupy Wall Street and other veteran leftist groups brought people out by the thousands. Some clambered up trees and on top of Lafayette Park’s bathrooms to get better views. The home-field advantage was clear: When a counter-protest speaker asked how many attendees were from Washington, much of the crowd raised their hands. Republicans may hold the power in Washington, but on Sunday the city’s residents sent a very different message.
In the wake of the far right’s flop and the left’s success, it’s worth looking at how both media and law enforcement have treated white nationalists and those protesting them. Police sheltered the Unite the Right attendees from when they arrived at Vienna Metro station in Virginia, through the rally where they were protected by multiple rows of fencing to after the rally when the attendees were loaded into vans and driven away. That law enforcement wanted to avoid violent clashes is understandable. But contrast this with how other protests are often handled both in the District of Columbia and across the country. As the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer noted, “In Ferguson, black protesters had police snipers trained on them. In DC, the Nazis get a police escort.” If Black Lives Matter is going to be treated as potential troublemakers, white supremacists should at least face the same suspicion.
As for the media, on Friday National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” gave Kessler seven minutes of airtime (during which, among other things, he ranked races by intelligence). That’s 15 or 20 seconds for every rally attendee - certainly not the ratio that the groups protesting Kessler got or will get.
This is not to say Kessler and others like him should be ignored - especially while a white nationalists’ favorite occupies the Oval Office. But the next time white supremacists try to grab the media spotlight, news outlets would do well to remember this pitiful turnout before handing them a platform.
James Downie is a columnist with The Washington Post.