The crowd in Washington’s Lafayette Square on Sunday was buzzing and anxious, ready for the clash.
“No Nazis! No KKK! No Facist USA!” they chanted, to drum beats and that robotic, bullhorn crackle.
But the Nazis? What Nazis?
Hours into what was supposed to be the epic redux of last year’s white nationalist/neo-Nazi/fascist/whining white male hate fest, even the Popsicle and water vendors seemed to outnumber the Unite the Right marchers.
“There they are! Nazis!” someone shouted, as a knot of about two dozen helmeted, masked, jackbooted marchers clomped through the back of the crowd down H Street. A sneak attack!
“Go home Nazis!” some counterprotesters shouted, as the crowd began to turn and surge toward the militant-looking group.
“Wait! No!” someone yelled, one hand up.
“They’re on our siiiiiiiiiiiiide!” another love and unity demonstrator shouted.
It was the antifa, the flip side of the Heil Trump crowd.
Easily mistaken, yes.
And, all too often, their own worst enemy.
The antifa - antifascists - style themselves after the radical demonstrators of the 1930s who battled fascism in city streets. The hallelujah moment for this crowd is the Battle of Cable Street on Oct. 4, 1936.
On that day, about 5,000 followers of Oswald Mosley, the Hitler-wannabe parliamentarian who founded the British Union of Fascists, wore their black-shirt faux uniforms and tried to march through the heart of London’s Jewish and immigrant community in the East End.
But the residents fought back, toppling a truck at Cable Street and building a barricade, yelling “They shall not pass!” while pelting the fascists and police officers with bricks, sticks and rocks. They rolled marbles and scattered broken glass under the feet of police horses. Women popped out of the windows above and threw rotten eggs and decaying vegetables. Then they topped it all off by dumping their chamber pots on fascist heads.
The Hitler-wannabes did not pass.
This is how today’s antifa marchers see themselves.
And if 5,000 fascists were storming through the heart of Washington without a permit, damn straight the antifa should rise to stop them.
They’d have thousands cheering them on.
But on Sunday, after the sad little band of Unite the Right demonstrators retreated, the nouveau antifa was still looking for a fight.
They knocked a cellphone out of one of our reporter’s hands.
They told me to go, um, “love” myself?
Masked - in black instead of KKK white - they pinballed around the empty streets of downtown D.C., randomly chanting and looking for a fight.
“Bust some windows!” (Why?)
“Nazis go home!” (They did.)
“No border! No wall! No USA at all!” (Huh?)
Eventually, they faced off and clashed with police at G and 13th streets, in front of Au Bon Pain.
Why? Bring back the Triple Cinnamon Scone?
There were not 5,000 fascists in the streets at that moment. There were a few dozen police officers in a department that is majority African American. The officers were not in riot gear, most of them were away from their families and working overtime on a Sunday, residents of the region, protecting the First Amendment rights of folks they probably loathe, without the luxury of being able to take a side.
The official police posters throughout downtown warned of a “First Amendment Activity Area” and warned the Second Amendment crowd “All firearms prohibited within 1000 feet of this sign.”
Officers did not face gunfire from Nazis. But they were hit with water bottles and glitterbombs, they ducked flying eggs and fireworks.
The Au Bon Pain faceoff did not stop fascism. Just like breaking the windows of a Starbucks or setting an immigrant’s business - a limousine - on fire in front of The Washington Post during Trump’s inauguration did not end hatred.
But what these moments do is hand political manipulators a gift, a snapshot of cartoonish, scattershot radicalism that undermines the very valid point the rest of the demonstrators are making.
A fire or tear gas makes much more of a splash in middle America than the simple truth of one peaceful protester’s jarring poster - my grandfathers “fought the Nazis & won. Yet here we are.”
That limo blaze on Inauguration Day propelled a sneering series of National Rifle Association videos to fight gun regulation and those who oppose Donald Trump. They depicted a violent liberal army of activists who set fires, incite violence and want to take away everyone’s guns.
In today’s life-as-meme culture, street violence and masked faces will do much more to sway apathetic voters than evidence of a complex system of corruption and wealth redistribution
Eventually, after the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, laws about wearing faux uniforms and marching without permission were passed in London. And, ultimately, after Mussolini withdrew financial support and the nation turned against Hitler, the British fascists disbanded.
Nothing was won in D.C. on Sunday.
The fizzled Unite the Right protest does not mean the white nationalists have given up; they simply chickened out.
The hatred and division they work to sow will continue to exist unless elections are won and underlying inequities are addressed.
I’ll go back to one of my favorite radicals, a founder of the Occupy Wall Street movement (remember them?), on how real change happens.
“Activists who rush into the streets tomorrow and repeat yesterday’s tired tactics will not bring an end to Trump nor will they transfer sovereign power to the people,” wrote Micah White in “The End of Protest - A New Playbook for Revolution.” “There are only two ways to achieve sovereignty in this world. Activists can win elections or win wars. There is no third option.”
Also - no glitterbombs.