Police escort Jason Kessler, organizer of the "Unite the Right" rally, as he is rushed away after a news conference at City Hall in Charlottesville on Aug. 13, 2017. (Tasos Katopodis/European Pressphoto Agency)
An organizer of last year's deadly white-supremacist gathering in Charlottesville has received initial approval from the National Park Service to hold a rally across from the White House on Aug. 12, the anniversary of last year's event.
Jason Kessler, who organized the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville with Richard Spencer and other white-supremacist leaders, submitted a National Mall Special Event permit request on May 8 to hold a "white civil rights" rally in Lafayette Square "protesting civil rights abuse in Charlottesville."
The Park Service approved the request but has not yet issued a permit. The news was first reported by WUSA-TV. A Park Service spokesman said the agency is gathering information from the organizers on details of the event, and that information will be used to create the permit.
Hundreds of white-nationalist marchers engaged in violent clashes and street battles with counterprotesters at last year's rally in Charlottesville while police initially stood by and the fights accelerated. Later that day, after the rally had been shut down by law enforcement, authorities said that James Alex Fields Jr., a self-identified Nazi, drove his car into a throng of anti-fascist marchers, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others.
A Virginia State Police helicopter that had been monitoring events in Charlottesville crashed later that day, killing two state troopers inside.
Kessler applied to hold an anniversary rally in Charlottesville, but the city denied his request. He then sued the city, saying his First Amendment rights were being denied. The case has not been decided. Kessler said in an email that he expects to win the lawsuit and will have rallies in Charlottesville and Washington on Aug. 12 if he prevails in court.
Kessler estimated in his Park Service application that the D.C. event would draw 400 people.
A week after last year's rally, Kessler tweeted that Heyer "was a fat, disgusting Communist" and that her death was "payback time." He later repudiated the tweet, saying he had been drinking and taking Ambien and Xanax.
A University of Virginia graduate, Kessler was banned from the school's campus in April after multiple reports from students that he had threatened them, according to the university. In an online post, Kessler dismissed the allegations against him and said his attorneys would look into the matter.
"I am not surprised at him holding a rally away from Charlottesville, where he is not welcome," said Susan Bro, the mother of Heyer. "It will be interesting to see how the citizens of D.C. and others respond to his rally."
With its bloody brawls and scenes of far-right marchers chanting racist and homophobic slogans, the events of Charlottesville rocked the nation, which saw them play out on television and social media. The fallout was exacerbated that day and later in the week when President Trump blamed both sides for the violence rather than forcefully condemning the white supremacists and neo-Nazis for their views and actions. Trump insisted there were "some very fine people" among the white-supremacist marchers.
Kessler said in an email interview Wednesday that he chose Washington because he wants Trump and elected officials to know about "the civil rights abuse by the Charlottesville government that led to the violence at last year's rally."
The rally is for white civil rights, Kessler said, because "white people are being denied the ability to organize in political organizations the way other groups do, free of harassment, to face the issues important to us."
Seth Wispelwey, a United Church of Christ minister in Charlottesville who helped form Congregate Charlottesville, a faith-based group created in response to last summer's white-supremacist actions, called for opposition to Kessler's plans. "The language of white civil rights is cover for white-supremacist ideology," he said. "We also know that if we care about our country's future we can't let this fascist plan go forward. I would urge people of conscience to show solidarity with the people of D.C. against this racial terror."
Spencer, who took part in the 2017 rally and led a torchlight march of hundreds of white supremacists through the U-Va. campus the night before, said he is not planning to take part in the D.C. anniversary rally.
The Unite the Right rally has had long-lasting effects in Charlottesville, where it led to the resignation of the city's police chief and an apology to the city from the mayor at the time, Michael Signer. The city's response to the rally was sharply criticized in an independent report that said Charlottesville was ill-prepared and that the city had devised a flawed plan leading to "disastrous results."