Thousands protest white supremacists

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Rob Janett stood among the thousands assembled in Freedom Plaza Sunday afternoon, holding a small sign with a simple message: “No H8. No Fear.” Janett had made the trip to Washington from Boston to see his grandchildren, but he chose last weekend because it coincided with the “Unite the Right” rally and Janett was determined not to allow neo-Nazis and white supremacists to create an America where Jews are unwelcome.

“If we’re going to make the world safe for my grandchildren, we have to stand up to hate,” he said.

Janett’s concerns reflect a broader anxiety among American Jews about the threat of hate groups. Those trepidations were motivation enough to bring them into proximity of white supremacist demonstrators, even while civic and Jewish organizational leaders urged counter protestors to stay far away.

Fewer than 40 white supremacists joined Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler in Lafayette Park near the White House on Sunday. Instead, the counter protesters marched from Freedom Plaza to Lafayette Park and drowned out the alt-right demonstrators. But the knowledge that Kessler, one of the organizers of last year’s deadly Charlottesville march, and other white supremacists would be in town brought up images of hate groups marching through the streets with tiki torches, shouting, “You will not replace us.”

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“I listened [on TV] to marchers in Charlottesville, and I was thinking, who will they replace? The fact is, we will replace them, because they have no place here,” Janett said.

New Yorker Shelli Weiler carried a poster with the words, “I am a Jew and I refuse to be replaced” in blue letters with a Star of David at the bottom.

Weiler said she felt obligated to make the trip to Washington, both as a Jew and in memory of Heather Heyer, a Charlottesville counter protester who was killed after being hit by a car.

Baltimore resident Stacey Cohen, carrying a “will trade racists for refugees” sign, said she too felt a moral obligation to come to Washington.

“If you know racists and white supremacists are coming, you have to show up,” she said. “You have to protest and show them that we don’t want them here.”

Cohen said she worries the country is headed “backwards,” due to anti-Semitic rhetoric from the alt-right — something she thinks is reminiscent of 1930s Germany. Cohen said she doesn’t expect the Holocaust to occur again, but that “it does not feel like things are getting better in our history.”

At the U.S. Capitol, another counter protest was less confrontational. Rabbi David Shneyer, of the Kehila Chadasha and Am Kolel, played guitar and sang “love and justice I will sing.”

Rob Janett said Jews have a moral obligation to stand up to hate. Photo by Dan Schere

“Let’s keep the energy going,” he shouted, as a few people square danced.

Later, Shneyer said it is important to respond to hate groups with a positive message. For him, that includes inviting them into his congregations, provided the white supremacists are peaceful.

“I’d like to see opportunities to welcome into our congregations people that are not of the same mindset, even if it means inviting in members of a white supremacist or a neo-Nazi group,” he said.

Washington had braced for a much larger demonstration from the alt-right, in light of last year’s Charlottesville riots. On Aug. 9, Mayor Muriel Bowser, Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham and others held a press conference and roundtable discussion at Adas Israel Congregation with interfaith clergy, where they assured the public that violence would not break out.

Rabbi Aaron Alexander, of Adas Israel, said the synagogue had beefed up its security for the weekend. He encouraged counter protesters to express themselves in positive ways, and not antagonize the white nationalists.

“Confrontation may feel good, but it rarely produces the results we [Jewish organizational leaders] are looking for,” he said.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Anti-Defamation League also issued warnings not to counter demonstrate near the White House. Those two organizations sponsored a teach-in at Washington Hebrew Congregation on Aug. 10, led by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).
Norton was adamant about keeping the two protests separate, and urged counter protesters to remain peaceful.

“This is the nation’s capital, and you’re not going to be able to start a fight in this city,” she said.

Raskin echoed Norton’s sentiments, noting that the First Amendment to the Constitution protects the right of the white nationalists to march.

“There’s no such thing as a First Amendment that favors our side over theirs,” he said.

Wes Bellamy, the vice mayor of Charlottesville, also spoke at the teach-in, and said the best response to white nationalist protests is to have conversations with alt-right members who voted for Trump.

He said that gesture is ultimately required in order to help the United States heal from longstanding racial and ethnic tensions.
“What happened in Charlottesville is that we ripped a scab off,” he said. “Until we’re committing to doing the surgery work, we’re not going to get better.”

Ex-Charlottesville mayor reflects on rally anniversary

On the weekend of Aug. 11-12, 2017, Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer had a crisis on his hands. Signer had known for several months that white extremists were likely to march through his city, and on the campus of the University of Virginia. White nationalist Richard Spencer had led a demonstration three months earlier against the proposed removal of a Confederate statue. A subsequent Ku Klux Klan rally took place in July.

Former Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer said he tried unsuccessfully to relocate last August’s Unite the Right rally.
Photo courtesy of Mike Signer

Then things took a personal turn for Signer, whose term as mayor ended in January 2018, but remains a city
councilor.

“I and my family were trolled and attacked on Twitter,” he said in an interview with WJW. “That was an extremely sobering experience.”

After the first night of violence on Aug. 11, when demonstrators marched on U-Va.’s campus with tiki torches and clashed with counter protesters near the campus rotunda, Signer said he tried to convince city employees, law enforcement and the attorney general’s office to relocate the next day’s rally from the area downtown near the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. That request was denied by a federal judge.

Signer, who is Jewish, said he had also been contacted by clergy and staff from his synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, about someone who had threatened to “burn these monsters to the ground,” in reference to Jews who worship there. Staff from the Reform congregation, which is located in downtown Charlottesville, had asked the police department to supply an officer during Shabbat services. The police refused, electing instead to station an officer inside a patrol car on the street nearby, Signer said.

Signer said it would have been a conflict of interest for him to order the police to meet the synagogue’s initial request.

“Our [city] staff has made a very firm decision, that elected officials are not to be involved in the police command center,” he said.

But Signer said he felt there was inadequate protection of his congregation during Shabbat in not having an on-site officer.

“It didn’t provide psychological security to the congregants,” he said.

Signer said he tried to remain calm throughout the weekend, and project confidence as mayor. But privately, he was scared. His wife even insisted that they bring their two children to a friend’s house for the weekend.

Signer said last year’s deadly riots “unleashed a traumatic, emotional period that continues,” but he wants the rest of the country to know that his city will not be defined by bigotry.

“The vast majority of this was done by people from 30 other states,” he said. “Charlottesville has been changed a lot. It’s still, at its core, the quirky, dynamic college town that it was. And anybody who comes here in person sees that. Would you define the United States of America by Jim Crow or McCarthyism?”

Asked if President Donald Trump could offer a positive message one year after saying there were “very fine people on both sides,” of the protests, Signer said no.

“I’ve given up,” he said.

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