If standing in the blistering heat for President Donald Trump’s 4th of July celebration wasn’t enough excitement for you, you’re in luck.
The Proud Boys and several far-right personalities have planned a so-called “Rally for Free Speech” in Washington, D.C., Saturday, July 6, just a few blocks from the White House. Counter-protesters have already pledged to hold their own rival demonstrations in what is likely to be a tense affair, following conservative outrage over the assault on right-wing writer Andy Ngo by alleged Antifa activists at a rally in Portland last week.
The “Rally for Free Speech” lineup is a veritable who’s who of fringe, far-right internet personalities. Laura Loomer, a far-right troll most famous for handcuffing herself to Twitter’s headquarters in New York City, will be present, as will former Trump acolyte Roger Stone, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Gavin McInnes — the founder of the Proud Boys — and their current chairman, Enrique Tarrio.
The Proud Boys, who have been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, have seen their stock fall considerably since last November when a group of them were filmed brutally beating counter-protesters after an event at the Metropolitan Republican Club in New York City, which resulted in nine Proud Boys being arrested.
Since then, the group has slowly re-emerged into prominence. In June, a large number of Proud Boys were seen at Trump’s re-election campaign kickoff in Orlando. The group also held a rally last weekend in Portland, a city which has been the site of repeated scuffles between far-right groups and antifa or other counter-protest groups.
The actual Proud Boy turnout at the Portland rally was relatively small, but the unjustified attack on Ngo allowed the far-right to spin the narrative, and in turn ratchet up the tensions for the impending D.C. rally. The fringe website Big League Politics ran an unsubstantiated claim earlier this week that Washington counter-protesters were planning to throw acid at Proud Boys attending, which in turn has led some Proud Boys to advocate carrying firearms for the D.C. rally.
The “Rally for Free Speech” is scheduled to take place in Freedom Plaza, where U.S. Park Police has jurisdiction. A spokesman for the Park Police told ThinkProgress that they were aware of previous incidents involving the Proud Boys and antifa, and had planned accordingly. They added that while they had activated their Special Forces units (which includes the Aviation Unit and the crowd control Special Events unit), they would not be deployed unless necessary.
The spokesman stressed that their priority was to ensure that both those at the free speech rally and counter-protesters were all able to express their views safely. D.C.’s Metropolitan Police issued a similar statement, noting that D.C. law’s “expressly [prohibit] anyone from carrying a firearm within 1,000 feet of any First Amendment activity.”
Several D.C. groups have prepared to counter-protest the “free speech rally” including an immediate counter-protest during the event in the morning, as well as an all-day dance party to go-go music in Pershing Park, which is opposite Freedom Plaza. Counter-protesters stressed that, while they will defend themselves from far-right aggression, they are not in the business of provoking.
“[The Proud Boys] have been going from city to city and there’s usually an incident of altercation and people get hurt. This happens on a constant basis,” Cassandra Comar, a counter-protest organizer, told ThinkProgress. “When we discovered they were filling the speaker list for the rally we decided we needed a robust response to keep our community safe.”
Comar said that, although counter-protesters had been able to marshal a strong response this week. the possibility of small groups of Proud Boys splintering off from the main rally could lead to further flashpoints throughout the day. From that perspective, Comar said that the counter-protest mobilization made sense.
“We’re not upping the ante,” Comar said. “Everywhere the Proud Boys go there’s violence or other incidents, this is more of the same.”