Filmed by Ford Fischer, Article and Photos by Alejandro Alvarez
For an event billed as the “Woodstock of American rallies,” Saturday’s pro-Trump rally on the National Mall played out a little differently than the 1969 landmark concert it sought to rival in stature. Instead of Jimi Hendrix hammering out a guitar solo with his teeth, it was 200-or-so Trump supporters who rolled onto the National Mall with a boisterous, hyper-patriotic rendition of “God Bless America” atop a big Trump “unity bridge” parade float.
For the militia groups and fans of the president who gathered on Saturday, the “Mother of All Rallies” was about proving that the pro-Trump movement can still stand for peaceful dialogue and equality in the aftermath of violence in Charlottesville and Berkeley. Like George Curbelo, a commander in the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia, put it: “There’s a wound in the American psyche.”
Saturday was host to a peculiar mix of ideologies in the nation’s capital, with over 30 simultaneous events effectively crowding out downtown for anything but tourist traffic and curious onlookers. Apart from the Mother of All Rallies, the other highly-anticipated event was the Juggalo March, organized long ago by hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse to protest the FBI’s classification of their face-painted fans as a street gang.
With the bloodshed in Charlottesville still fresh on the national mindset, there were some concerns that two groups meeting would spiral into a street war. Talk of clashes was prevalent enough that organizers of both rallies publicly dispelled any intentions of the two rallies interacting with each other. Though both events remained wholly peaceful with no arrests, hype for violence beforehand seemed to prove the existence of the national “wound” which the Mother of All Rallies set out to heal.
“None of us ever want to see that kind of violence, and the horror of what happened on that day, I’m willing to wager that what we experienced here today stemmed from people’s hatred of violence and wanting to find something different,” said Curbello.
Aside the Charlottesville, Curbello believes the multiple natural disasters that have befallen America in the weeks since underscore an urgent need to set aside partisan bickering. It’s a sentiment with which Christian Yingling, Curbello’s colleague in the Light Foot Militia, agreed: “Down in Texas, down in Florida, there was no right, there was no left. Whereas Charlottesville was a snapshot of the hatred that had built up in this country, what happened here today was a snapshot of where this country could go.”
It might have been overshadowed by the far larger Juggalo March just a few miles down the Mall, but the few hundred people at the Mother of All Rallies persisted for hours past sundown. It had all the vestiges of a campaign trail rally from the red “Make America Great Again” hats, to the blue Trump-Pence banners and impassioned pleas to “drain the swamp.” It featured back-to-back speakers for hours who, though from different walks of life, all echoed the same message of American exceptionalism that formed the foundation for Trump’s rise. “America is not a nation of immigrants,” said one speaker, “we won’t surrender our American creed.” The only thing missing was a cameo by the president himself.
The rally’s aim for open communication was put to the test when a small group of Black Lives Matter activists marched in mid-event. Instead of being booed and escorted out, they were invited to speak onstage by rally organizer Tommy Gunn. “It’s about free speech, it’s about celebration,” Gunn said to Hawk Newsome, president of Black Lives Matter New York. “So what we’re going to do is something you’re not used to, and we’re going to give you two minutes of our platform to put your message out. Now whether they disagree or agree with your message is irrelevant. It’s the fact that you have the message.”
“I am an American,” Newsome said to the crowd, after being handed the microphone. “And the beauty of America is that when you see something broke in your country, you can mobilize to fix it.”
The audience wasn’t as receptive as Newsome might have hoped for, even given Gunn’s gesture. “You are anti-cop – what about black-on-black crime,” said one woman, after Newsome explained Black Lives Matter’s roots as a reaction to police brutality in black communities. “That was a criminal,” said another, after Newsome referenced the choking of Eric Garner by New York police in 2014. Still, he persisted even though he was booed, and his makeshift address to Trump supporters ended with cheers from both sides with “if we really want to make America great, we do it together.”
Among Saturday’s speakers was Kyle Chapman, better known as “Based Stickman.” Chapman gained internet fame after clashing with antifa in Berkeley earlier this yell. With his baseball helmet, hoodie, and wooden stick, he had become the poster boy for the emerging alt-right movement. But at the “Mother of All Rallies, Chapman signaled he’d moved on from his brand of militancy.
“Right now, I’m advocating peaceful, non-violent resistance,” Chapman said, before heading to the stage with a contingent of the white nationalist Proud Boys. “I think we’re at a post-Charlottesville political theater, and the battlefield has changed. Showing up, geared-up and ready to do battle and defend ourselves is not the right course forward at this point. We need to let antifa show their ass – let them attack, defend yourselves, do not aggressively attack back, let them show themselves for the rabid communists that they are.”
Like many members of the militia groups who made up the majority of the audience, Chapman embraced the rally’s intent as a friendlier platform. “As opposed to it being hundreds of men suited-up ready to do battle, it’s family-oriented, the message is positive,” he said. “We’re here to relax, we’re here to have a good time and embrace each other, show love and comradery.”
There were no major incidents security-wise. While there was a counterprotest organized by Impeachment Square, the successor group to the 118-mile Charlottesville to Washington march against white supremacy, it was held across the city in Farragut Square. Early on, Lacy MacAuley, a Washington antifa organizer, made a cameo in the audience where she challenged a speaker on calling himself an anarchist while simultaneously supporting Trump. She was escorted out of the area by Park Police, pursued by a group of rally-goers shouting “go home, commie.”
The rally, meanwhile, took full advantage of its permit time, lasting well into the evening. Anybody going on a midnight stroll around the Washington Monument would have found it hard to miss the Trump parade float lit with spotlights, with a cardboard cutout of the man himself waving into the night while country music blared across the National Mall.