While this weekend’s Washington, D.C. sequel to last year’s white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville—Unite the Right 2—was a bust for organizer Jason Kessler, and a success for officials who were committed to allowing his group to hold their event while preventing a repeat of last year’s deadly violence, it also showcased the wide variety of philosophies and strategies embraced by the thousands of people who participated in counter-protesting throughout the weekend, from prayerful worship services to high-spirited heckling of the neo-Nazis and their friends.
On Friday evening several hundred people gathered at Washington Hebrew Congregation for a three-hour teach-in organized by D.C.’s congressional representative Eleanor Holmes Norton and Rep. Jamie Raskin. It included remarks by Leonard Zeskind, author of “Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream” and a panel discussion and Q&A featuring representatives of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, the DC American Civil Liberties Union, the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crimes, the vice mayor of Charlottesville and the director of a program called Life After Hate, which is dedicated to assisting people who are seeking to leave hate groups. Rev. William Barber was the keynote speaker for the event, whose participants were invited to remain for an interfaith sabbath service.
Norton and Raskin emphasized their commitment to upholding the First Amendment rights of the white nationalists, but Raskin said that, while they gather under the protection of the Constitution, they are enemies of that Constitution and its guarantees of equality. “With the people of every nation including our own struggling to uphold human rights against the brutal undertow of racism and authoritarianism, America must stand strong as a beacon of freedom and democracy.”
Barber’s remarks, which spanned U.S. history, were built around what he called “the ‘let us’ vision of scripture,” which included praying for those bound by hatred, anti-Semitism, and racism, which he called “a disease of the spirit.” Barber urged participants to take on “the false narrative of religious nationalism” and “unite for what is right.”
Barber told attendees that dealing with racism is not just about Charlottesville or the KKK but about the damage caused by public officials’ inflammatory rhetoric and by “policy racism.” Noting that Sen. Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan have for five years blocked action to repair damage done to the Voting Rights Act the Supreme Court’s conservatives, Barber said that Strom Thurmond filibustered the Civil Rights Act for one day and “we call him a racist.” If you use voter suppression to hang onto power, Barber said, you are “at best an enabler of racism.”
On Sunday, people gathered on the National Mall near the U.S. Capitol for United to Love: Standing Together Against All Forms of Hate, an interfaith worship service and rally that was an initiative of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. Among the speakers was Faith in Public Life’s Jennifer Butler, who said, “I will not stand by while my black and brown neighbors, Muslims, Jews, or Sikhs are harassed, targeted, demeaned or made the victims of violent acts.”
“Prayers being read in Korean and Spanish, sung in Hebrew and English on the Mall after Bishop [LaTrelle] Easterling’s stirring speech,” tweeted one attendee. “Proud to be American at moments like this.”
“I saw more Methodists than white supremacists today,” quipped Religion News Service reporter Jack Jenkins, who noted that by Sunday evening, “D.C. had hosted far more anti-racist Methodists, Baptists and other religious demonstrators than white supremacists, and the thousands of other counter-protesters spread across the city suggested white nationalists had inadvertently done more to unite people across religious and racial differences than bolster the ranks of racists.”
At the other end of the mall, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a small group of speakers who had walked to DC from New York City in what they called the Agape March, and been joined by others in Baltimore, held their own “Unity Against Hate” rally.
Not far away, at the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial along the Tidal Basin, worshipers from two Baptist Churches in D.C.—one predominantly white and one black—made a prayerful walk through the memorial, sang and prayed together, and shared communion. Nineteenth Street Baptist’s Rev. Darryl Roberts and First-Russell Baptist’s Rev. Julie Pennington held hands as they led parishioners through the memorial. The event was organized by New Baptist Covenant, which describes itself as “an organization convened by President Jimmy Carter to advance racial justice in and through the Baptist church.”
Pennington said the group had been brought together to “bear witness together to the power of love.” White Christians, she said “have an obligation to act, to act as unambiguous allies in the struggle for racial justice.” Said Russell, “We have come too far to turn back now.”
About the time that gathering was ending, thousands of counter-protesters who had gathered at downtown D.C.’s Freedom Plaza left the rally and marched several blocks to Lafayette Park. There was a mostly good-natured vibe in the crowd. “Love, not hate, that’s what makes America great,” chanted one group of marchers as they left the Plaza. Some danced while passing by a musician on the sidewalk who played his guitar and sang “Stand by Me,” ad-libbing in lines like “I won’t be afraid of the KKK as long as you stand by me.” Barricades and police lines kept the counter-protesters in the northern end of the park well apart from the small Unite the Right 2 group that was escorted into the park for its brief “rally.” Most of the counter-protesters could not even see the Kessler group, but many cheerfully chanted profanities at them, and a cheer went up when they left the park.