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Police out in force for far-right rally on Charlottesville anniversary

Washington was bracing for a white nationalist rally on Sunday organised to coincide with the anniversary of 2017’s racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Counter-protesters gather at Freedom Plaza before the Unite the Right rally in Lafayette Park on 12 August 2018 in Washington, DC. Picture: Getty Images/AFP.

WASHINGTON - Washington was bracing for a white nationalist rally on Sunday organised to coincide with the anniversary of last year’s racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The “Unite the Right 2” event was set to take place at 5.30pm (21.30 GMT) in Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House. Several demonstrations by counterprotesters, who were expected to outnumber the white nationalists, were due to be held nearby.

Authorities have promised an enormous police presence to keep both sides apart and avoid the street brawls that broke out last year in downtown Charlottesville. A local woman, Heather Heyer, was killed when an Ohio man, James Fields, drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters.

At the time, President Donald Trump said there were “very fine people” on both sides, spurring criticism from across the political divide that he was equating the counter-protesters with the rally attendees, who included neo-Nazis and other white supremacists.

On Saturday, Trump condemned “all types of racism” in a Twitter post marking the anniversary.

In Washington on Sunday, counterprotesters planned an afternoon programme of music, speeches and poetry readings at Freedom Plaza, east of the White House.

Sean Kratouil, a 17-year-old who lives in Maryland, was wearing a vest with “Antifa” on the back and said he was there to help start a movement of peaceful anti-fascists. He said he was concerned that when rallies turn violent, it makes his side look bad. “Public perception is key,” he said.

Counterprotesters also gathered near the Washington suburban metro station of Vienna, Virginia, where about 20 white nationalists carrying American flags were escorted by police as they prepared to board trains to the city.

The organiser of “Unite the Right 2,” Virginia activist and blogger Jason Kessler, led the contingent.

Kessler, who wore a blue suit and carried a megaphone over his shoulder, declined to say how many people came with him.

The counter-protesters outside included Paul Mitchell, a 62-year-old retired US Parks Police sergeant who held a hand-painted sign that read “No Nazis, no KKK, no racists, no way.”

Some counter-protesters yelled “Nazi scum!” at the white nationalists as they were shepherded through the station.

In the picturesque college town of Charlottesville, hundreds of police officers had maintained a security perimeter around the normally bustling downtown district throughout the day on Saturday. Vehicular traffic was barred from an area of more than 15 city blocks, while pedestrians were allowed access at two checkpoints where officers examined bags for weapons.

Hundreds of students and activists took to the streets on Saturday evening. Many of the protesters directed their anger at the heavy police presence, with chants like “cops and Klan go hand in hand,” a year after police were harshly criticised for their failure to prevent the violence.

Earlier on Saturday, a group of anti-fascist protesters walked through the downtown area, holding signs with messages like “Good Night White Pride.” But the day was largely free of confrontation.

On Sunday morning, activist Grace Aheron, 27, donned a Black Lives Matter T-shirt and joined hundreds of fellow Charlottesville residents who gathered at Booker T. Washington Park to mark the anniversary of last year’s bloodshed.

“We want to claim our streets back, claim our public space back, claim our city back,” Aheron said at the park.

Several events were scheduled in the city including a gathering that will include veteran civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton and Susan Bro, the mother of the woman who was killed a year ago.

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