WASHINGTON – The apolitical fireworks fest that typically marks Independence Day in the District of Columbia will be upended this week by protests that include a faceoff between activist groups two days after President Donald Trump addresses the nation from the Lincoln Memorial.
Demonstrations will begin Thursday with a flag burning, a senior citizens’ singalong and the unveiling of “Baby Trump,” a scowling, orange-faced balloon best known for its flights over London protests.
They will continue into Saturday as several right-wing demonstrators, including members of the Western-chauvinist Proud Boys group, host a rally in Freedom Plaza – met by a coalition of progressive groups to show the District is “no place for white supremacists,” organizers of the All Out D.C. counterprotest said.
It will drastically change the look and feel of a weekend typically memorable more for its hot, sticky weather than for political flare-ups.
Sgt. Eduardo Delgado, a spokesman for the U.S. Park Police, which has jurisdiction over the Nationals Mall and Freedom Plaza, the site of Saturday’s right-wing “Demand Free Speech” rally, said the department’s civil disobedience unit has been activated for Thursday and Saturday but won’t be deployed unless needed.
“We’ll have people in different locations and watching,” he said. “We prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
District residents planning to protest the Saturday event said they planned to do the same.
“No one in Antifa or Black Lives Matter or any of the different affinity groups are looking to instigate something. We are looking to uplift and protect our community as one,” said Carlos Chavarría, an All Out D.C. organizer. “But we are prepared for them to try to start a fight with us, to come to our action and try to instigate something.”
Organizers of the rally didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Trump’s speech and add-ons such as a fighter jet flyover and a possible display of military tanks already mean extra security Thursday on the National Mall.
Hundreds are expected to oppose the president’s presence, with others likely to turn up Saturday to counter an event that features speakers such as Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes and embattled former Trump adviser Roger Stone.
Of the two days of protests, law enforcement officials appear more concerned about Saturday.
Several right-wing Internet personalities are listed as speakers on the event’s website, including GOP political operative Jacob Wohl, anti-Muslim activist Laura Loomer, far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and Pizzagate conspiracist Jack Posobiec.
It’s the last of three such rallies across the country – following New York and San Francisco – meant to address a wave of social media companies banning right-wing figures from their platforms.
But Proud Boys leader and event organizer Luke Rohlfing told the Daily Beast that the event is also aimed at left-wing anti-fascist activists after a violent clash in Portland last week left conservative writer Andy Ngo bloodied, shaken and doused in a vegan milkshake.
At a news conference Friday, local and federal officials tried to limit discussion about Saturday, wary of contributing to rhetoric that could inflame passions.
“We will be staffed accordingly,” District Police Chief Peter Newsham told reporters, noting that authorities expect protesters and counterprotesters at Saturday’s rally. “This is not out of the ordinary here in Washington, D.C., so we’ll be ready for it.”
The chief didn’t say how police are planning to keep order.
Asked to describe the event, Newsham said, “I think I could be potentially politically incorrect if I would answer that question, so I would say these are folks with differing views that are coming down to voice their concerns, whatever they may be.”
District activists said they expect some visitors in town for July 4 festivities to stick around for the Saturday demonstration, bolstering what may have otherwise been a small group of supporters.
A coalition of more than 20 groups – including Black Lives Matter D.C., immigrants rights group Sanctuary DMV and anti-gentrification organization Keep D.C. 4 Me – will host an all-day counterdemonstration at Pershing Park. Members of the District’s communities of color will lead a dance party to go-go music for “black, brown, and indigenous joy in the face of white nationalism and supremacy.”
Christopher Rodriguez, director of the District’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, said the city is prepared for both the Saturday rally and Independence Day celebrations.
Code Pink, which received a National Park Service permit Tuesday to bring “Baby Trump” to its Mall protest, will display the 20-foot balloon alongside another caricature dubbed “Dumping Trump,” a robot that tweets and shouts phrases like “No collusion,” while sitting atop a golden toilet.
Code Pink’s permit allows the group to station the imported balloon near the Washington Monument for 15 hours during the day’s festivities, which will include an elaborate 35-minute fireworks display, concert, parade and military displays.
But the agency wouldn’t allow “Baby Trump” to fly. Park Service rules forbid helium-filled blimps, effectively grounding it.
“It is ironic that it is right here, in the ‘land of the free,’ the balloon is being grounded,” Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin said in a statement.
Instead, the air-filled balloon will bob along the ground, where it will be tethered west of the Washington Monument.
Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst cited the no-fly zone that includes downtown Washington for keeping the balloon grounded.
More than a dozen other groups and individuals have requested space on the National Mall for activities that include making cards for troops, leading group meditations, selling books of poetry and preaching.
Gregory “Joey” Johnson, who was at the center of a 1989 Supreme Court decision protecting the right to burn the American flag, will torch a flag Thursday to encourage others to “imagine a world without America.” He called on others in Washington and around the country to join him.
“When I see that flag burn, I’m not only thinking of the children who are starved and bombed by the U.S. in Yemen, or the children who are torn from their parents along the U.S.-Mexico border,” Johnson said. “This is the workings of a system that the U.S. dominates . . . built on the plunder of literally billions of people around the world.”
Dozens have vowed on Facebook to turn their backs on the president as he speaks. About two miles away, a different tenor of protest will unfold at the same time as the president’s address: a singalong called “Make Americans Friends Again.”
Organized by senior citizens from the Residences at Thomas Circle apartments in Washington, families looking for an alternative to Trump’s speech can join in as a group of seniors and neighbors sing songs such as “America The Beautiful,” “This Land Is Your Land” and “We Shall Overcome.”
“I think that those of us who talked about it and started generating the idea to do this about 2½ weeks ago felt that this was kind of treasured earth that [Trump] was speaking on,” said organizer Tina Hobson, 89. “We did not like the president speaking at the Lincoln Memorial, and so we wanted to provide an alternative. We put it this way today: Let’s take the Fourth of July back.”