Since before President Donald Trump entered office, the concept of free speech and what constitutes as such has dominated political discussions, particularly because white supremacists spewing xenophobic rhetoric that incited violence against marginalized groups said the law protects their right to express their views.
Last weekend, nearly a year after the Ku Klux Klan descended upon the White House, right-wing extremists from across the country returned to the District, converging on Freedom Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue as an expression of their First Amendment rights.
This time however, an equal, if not more powerful, opposing force, bringing with it a multi-ethnic audience and the go-go sound, coalesced several feet away.
“We are not policing people in this space, and that means everyone,” April Goggans, core organizer of Black Lives Matter DC, standing in front of a white banner with “All Out DC” emblazoned across it, told a crowd at nearby Pershing Park on Saturday afternoon. “None of us are free until all of us are free.”
After a group prayer and call-and-response over the strum of a guitar, go-go band TOB performed several of its classic hits as part of what had been touted as the All Out DC #MutetheAltRight rally. The peaceful gathering took place during the Demand Free Speech rally, hosted by white supremacist group Proud Boys.
“I don’t mask up but understand that state repression is real,” Goggans said, asking that members of the crowd look after one another in a space with a heavy local and federal law enforcement presence. “I hope that everyone on this side is anti-fascist. State repression is people taking your picture. Facial recognition is real. Take care of yourselves today. Keep each other safe. All violence [comes from] fear. Marginalized folks walk in violence every day.”
By 10 a.m. Saturday, D.C. police officers, on foot and in marked vehicles, were stationed around barricades set up along Pennsylvania Avenue and 12th and 13th streets.
Pro-Trump protesters of various races, sporting “Make America Great Again” hats and American flag regalia, gathered at Freedom Plaza in tiny groups in front of a stage where speakers would later reminisce about the American Revolution and the Red Scare before singing “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee).”
At times, rally-goers conversed with counter-protesters eager to change minds through dialogue.
For Black college student and Trump supporter Diamond West Gibson, any effort to sway her from the president would prove futile. On Saturday, she marched along with her MAGA comrades in support of rights she said her ancestors secured since arriving in ships as enslaved Africans.
“Last time I checked, my people fought for freedom so we can do and say whatever we want,” Gibson, a New York City resident originally from Decatur, Georgia, said in a profanity-laced diatribe. “When Trump was running, I was a Democrat but I saw what Hilary Clinton did to Black America and Haiti. That’s what pushed me over here. President Trump is anti-establishment. I [also] like his urban revitalization program. There is money for us.”
Since Trump took office, acts of domestic terrorism against non-white and non-gender-conforming groups have become more pronounced, all while his administration eliminated funding for intelligence analysts tasked with tracking and combating those incidences.
FBI officials recently announced 850 open cases of domestic terrorism, particularly those involving anti-government and anti-authority groups. Last year, the federal agency reported six lethal attacks that killed 17 people total, a more than 200 percent increase from the previous year.
Throughout much of Saturday morning, counter-protester Daryle Lamont Jenkins attempted to make the connection between the white supremacist rhetoric and domestic terrorism, many times to no avail. However, he predicted change on the horizon.
“People have died and folks want to do something about it,” said Jenkins, a New Brunswick, New Jersey, native and founder of the One People’s Project. “The [right-wingers] will realize this is not the right direction. I don’t think they will be here in a couple years. There’s too much of a stigma around ‘Make America Great Again.’ Some of them even talk about rebranding.”