WASHINGTON (WMAL) – Safety concerns are on everyone’s minds as the Unite the Right rally nears, but D.C. officials said at a press conference Thursday they are ready to keep people safe. The rally’s happening on the anniversary of a rally by the same group of white supremacists in Charlottesville last year that left counterprotester Heather Heyer dead and dozens of people injured.
“There is no city better equipped to handle large-scale events, including first amendment events than Washington, D.C.,” said D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham.
Newsham said they have been planning for Sunday’s rally for months, which is far more time than they had to prepare for Stanley Cup watch parties and the victory parade. Newsham said at those events and others, like the March For Our Lives, the safety plans effectively kept people out of danger.
Newsham said his department has coordinated with U.S. Park Police and other agencies to ensure a unified and comprehensive safety strategy.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said they are using every resource available. She has activated the city’s emergency operations center to allow local, state and federal agencies to work together responding to any violence.
The overall goal, Newsham said, is to make sure nobody gets hurt like happened in Charlottesville and nothing gets broken. He noted that rioters threw bricks through windows on Inauguration Day. They also set a limo on fire.
To maintain people’s safety, Newsham said law enforcement’s number one priority will be to keep white supremacists and counterprotesters separated at Lafayette Square – where they have secured permits to demonstrate – and getting to and from the protests.
“We have seen historically if the groups are not separated there could be the potential for violence, and this is Washington D.C., we’re not about violence here, ” Newsham told reporters.
The chief would not give details about how they will keep opposing groups from clashing saying it could allow people to plan ahead.
Newsham stressed even people with permits to carry firearms in the District will not be allowed to take their guns to the rally, and anyone who does could be arrested. The law, according to Newsham, does allow police to restrict firearms in certain areas during events.
On the Unite the Right website, rally participants are advised not to bring guns or any other weapons. They are also told not to react with anger to anyone.
Despite the city’s confidence in its safety plans, Bowser acknowledged many Washingtonians are worried. She said a 96-year-old woman told her white supremacists have never come to Washington.
“And that to me represented the type of anxiety that many people feel that see Washington as a refuge from that type of hate,” Bowser said.
She said the city denounces hate and anti-Semitism. While the city adamantly opposes the message the white supremacists have, she said it is their responsibility to protect First Amendment events.
Sunday’s rally is expected to start around 5:30. The Unite the Right said online the group will assemble at the Vienna Metro Station at 2 p.m. and take Metro to Foggy Bottom and march to Lafayette Square from there.
Metro was not at Thursday’s press conference and has not said anything publicly about its safety plans. Fairfax County Police Chief Ed Roessler said his department and Metro Police will have a large presence at the Vienna station.
Meanwhile, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and the Charlottesville city manager have declared a state of emergency as they prepare for potential violence in Charlottesville. However, the Unite the Right website says is no rally planned in that city.
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