(Bloomberg) -- It was basically all over before it even began as a few dozen white nationalists rallied in Washington Sunday evening under rainy skies.
Police separated the protesters from a much larger group of anti-racism demonstrators to prevent a melee like the one a year ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, that cast a shadow over Donald Trump’s presidency.
Permits for Sunday’s “Unite the Right 2” rally indicated that about 400 demonstrators were expected in Lafayette Square, a park adjacent to the White House. But far fewer showed up; heavy thunderstorms rolling through downtown Washington may have dampened spirits.
As they arrived, the protesters, including some who’d covered their faces, carried U.S. flags and held signs with slogans such as “White Lives Matter.” A few wore Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” baseball caps.
Counter-protesters gathered at various downtown locations in a predominantly Democratic city that until recent years was majority black. Many went to the same park as the white nationalists while others rallied outside the Trump International Hotel.
When a few dozen people from the Unite the Right rally arrived, counter-protesters yelled “Shame! Shame!” and “Nazis Go Home!”
Many anti-racism activists began the afternoon at Freedom Plaza, blocks from the White House. They rallied before the white nationalists arrived, with a series of speeches, poems, music and criticism of Trump. There were signs with messages like “Unite Against Hate” and “Racist-in-Chief.”
Kerbie Joseph led the crowd in chants against racism and fascism, urging people to “fight back” and stand together to demand a more just society. “We know what that White House represents,” Joseph said through the microphone. “We know this system is against us.”
Kim Sienkiewicz, 51, a reading specialist from Bethesda, Maryland, said she bought her family Black Lives Matter t-shirts last year after Trump’s election, which they wore at the rally.
“I’m here because I deplore racism,” said Sienkiewicz. “The racism and fascism we see on the rise now has always been here, but this president has made them think it’s okay. We need to drive this back into the shadows.”
Jason Kessler, the organizer of the white rights protest and the ill-fated 2017 event in Charlottesville described the counter-protesters as intolerant.
“This is a pretty moderate demonstration,” Kessler said of the nationalists who joined him. “Is this racism epidemic a real thing or is it made up to control people.”
Others took up Kessler’s theme. “You guys think that diversity, multiculturalism is a strength, it’s not. It’s a tool used by the elites, used by the rich, to control you,” said Carl, a 21-year-old student from Dallas who declined to provide his real name.
In August 2017, white supremacist demonstrators and counterprotesters squared off in violent clashes in Charlottesville, site of the University of Virginia. The conflict culminated in the death of Heather Heyer, 32, when James Alex Fields Jr., whose social media accounts included posts espousing white supremacy, purposely drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters.
Marking the anniversary on Saturday, Trump condemned “all types of racism and acts of violence,” a shift from his widely-criticized equivocation of 2017.
Trump drew condemnation in the days that followed when he appeared to equivocate the actions of white supremacists and those that opposed them.
“I think there is blame on both sides,” Trump said during a press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York. He added that the white nationalist protesters in Charlottesville included “some very fine people.”
Criticism came from within Trump’s administration, including from Gary Cohn, at the time the president’s economic adviser. Some Republican lawmakers also pushed back, although initial statements by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t mention Trump by name.
Trump’s remarks also led to a series of business leaders announcing they would exit a council providing assistance to the administration. The advisory group was then abolished.
The president is at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf course, and is scheduled to return to Washington on Monday. “The riots in Charlottesville a year ago resulted in senseless death and division,” Trump said Saturday on Twitter. “We must come together as a nation.”
Preparations have been in the works for Sunday’s event for months between law local enforcement agencies, U.S. Park Police and the U.S. Secret Service.
Coinciding with Sunday’s rally was a television appearance by Omarosa Manigault-Newman, the former Trump aide who left the White House in December, who’s accused the president of being a racist and using racial epithets on the set of his former reality TV show.
White House officials have pushed back against Omarosa’s comments. But senior Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway struggled on Sunday to name a single black person working in the West Wing after the departure of the former “Apprentice” contestant.
Keep Them Separated
In advance of the rally, police closed many streets in downtown Washington and cordoned off broad sections of Lafayette Square to separate the opposing demonstrators.
Police said they were enforcing a complete ban on firearms in and around the demonstration areas on Sunday, including for those with local permits to carry concealed weapons. Organizers of the alt-right rally likewise warned attendees to not bring firearms or other weapons, including pepper spray, clubs, knives and shields.
Sunday’s gatherings were always expected to be tiny by standards set for decades in Washington. The 2017 Women’s March, held the day after Trump’s inauguration, drew an estimated 500,000 to 1.5 million people. Events in the nation’s capital over the years focused on civil rights, LGBT rights, abortion, ending the Vietnam War and other issues have drawn crowds well into the hundreds of thousands.
The white nationalists rallied at time when Americans say racial tensions are getting worse. In a CBS News poll by YouGov, 61 percent said tensions had increased during the past year. The survey also found that 58 percent disapproved of Trump’s handling of racial issues. The survey, conducted Aug. 8 to 10, included 2,238 adults and had a margin of error of 2.5 percent.
Sunday’s rally comes less than three months before midterm elections to determine whether Republicans maintain their majority in Congress. Democrats and independents are defending 25 seats in the Senate, compared to eight for Republicans, and need to win an additional net 23 seats to take over the House of Representatives.
The president’s approval rating remains high among Republican voters, leaving most members of his party in Congress loathe to publicly criticize him.
Any response from Trump to this year’s demonstrations could have consequences as Democrats look to harness outrage for electoral gains. Polls and recent primary races show Democrats outperforming expectations heading into the final months of the campaign.
--With assistance from Ari Natter and Jordan Yadoo.
To contact the reporters on this story: Anna Edgerton in Washington at email@example.com;Ryan Beene in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Michael Shepard at email@example.com, Justin Blum, Ros Krasny
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