Gavin McInnes couldn’t get out of his handcuffs. The Proud Boys and Vice cofounder approached the lectern at Saturday’s “Demand Free Speech” wearing toy handcuffs to symbolize how, in his view, tech companies stifle conservative speech. But when it came time for McInnes to show the power of the gathering by breaking the handcuffs, the center held. Someone in a MAGA hat to his left had to come and free him.
It had been that kind of day for the rally in Freedom Plaza, which drew about 200 people at its peak. Advertised speakers like Mike Cernovich, Jack Posobiec, and Jacob Wohl dropped out. A very-difficult-to-explain feud between one scheduled speaker and the Proud Boys, an SPLC-designated hate group, cast a late-breaking cloud over the event. The organizers’ attempts to find a suitable spot for an after-party were repeatedly thwarted. (They ended up taking shuttle buses from the Trump Hotel, “a safe space” in the words of speaker Laura Loomer, to Saint Yves, a “sleek and glam getaway” above a Citibank in Dupont Circle. More on that below.)
Across the street in Pershing Park, a much larger group of counterprotesters stared across a cordon erected by DC police that effectively kept the groups from hearing one another. Two men dressed as Batman and Robin identified themselves as Daily Caller journalists and suggested the Penguin was behind the counter protest. A Trump supporter in a star-spangled T-shirt argued with several people, including Antifa protesters, over the Nazi adjacency of some of the groups present.
Greg Aselbekian was an early speaker on the program. Washingtonian had run into Aselbekian a few days earlier, when his friend Jerome Duprey grabbed a burning flag from some protesters in front of the White House. We might have seen him on the news, Aselbekian shouted hoarsely to those assembled. He was wearing a blue suit, a bright-red tie, and a Make America Great Again hat. Onstage, he talked, like most other speakers, about the privations visited upon him by tech companies (which apparently did not stop him from comparing feminists to tanks on Twitter a few days earlier) and claimed he’d been kicked off Tinder for being a conservative. After he spoke a Washingtonian reporter asked him if he wasn’t hot in that suit in the miserable heat and humidity. It’s his look, he said. He goes out from his residence in Alexandria only when dressed like this.
Peter Boykin, the founder of Gays for Trump, said he was going to share his own #MeToo moment: being “raped” by social media. He asked the crowd whether they’d be willing to “lay down your digital lives” to fight for freedom. Milo Yiannopoulos spent most of his speech making cracks about the looks of a Daily Beast reporter’s wife. He also urged people to fight Antifa, and playfully argued with Loomer—whom he had dressed like, sporting fake breasts and a dark wig—over which of them had been banned from more platforms. She said she’d in fact been more banned; he said she’d been banned from the hotel buffet. Loomer spoke mostly about the importance of letting Laura Loomer speak.
Loomer noted with apparent pride that she’d been banned by Uber Eats and said that conservatives losing their social media platforms was the first step to an eventual holocaust that would be presided over by a Democratic administration and abetted by tech officials. More people should be here at the rally, she said, blaming Antifa for keeping conservatives away.
Rumors were indeed abundant on far-right media before the rally that Antifa planned “acid attacks” on attendees. One man constructed a plywood barricade with drawer pulls to fend off any such aggression.
There were a few actual scuffles and reportedly two arrests. There was also one weird moment in Freedom Plaza when Jovi Val, who was wearing Elvis glasses and a red, white, and blue cap with a golden eagle on the front, got hustled out of the audience area and confronted by several Proud Boys. He shouted that the event’s organizers had donated to Antifa. The Proud Boys eventually lost interest, and DC police later helped Val, who even this crowd considers a gadfly, find another place to be.
Many people in attendance were live-streaming–they were easy to spot because they kept addressing a group of “guys” who were nowhere to be seen. A number of speakers said they planned to run against prominent Democrats like Maxine Waters, Nancy Pelosi, and Ilhan Omar.
One group called “Justice4Prince” held signs claiming that certain dead celebrities had been murdered, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, and Prince among them. Cassandra Dreiling was holding a sign with Prince’s photo on it; she told a Washingtonian reporter Prince had never done drugs and that his former label Warner Bros. had a billion-dollar insurance policy on him. Abigail Noel told the reporter she was a psychic and had gathered lots of psychic evidence about Prince’s death in particular. They were hoping President Trump might open an investigation into the musician’s demise.
A lot of people who spoke had hopes for what Trump might do, immediately or in the second term they hope he’ll win. More than anything, this rally was about the hope that he’d bring tech companies to heel. (Loomer expressed some skepticism about the upcoming White House “social media summit,” to which she was apparently not invited.) Others, like host and InfoWars reporter Joe Biggs, invoked Quillette reporter Andy Ngo, who got roughed up in Portland, Oregon, recently while covering a clash between Proud Boys and Antifa members in late June. Ngo was among Antifa in Pershing Park, Biggs said, and he and others unsuccessfully pleaded for Ngo to join them onstage. (Ngo’s lawyer, Harmeet K. Dhillon, tells Washingtonian Ngo hasn’t left Portland since the assault and is currently seeking medical treatment.)
The crowd dwindled after Yiannopoulos and Loomer spoke, and the rally broke up around 1:45 PM. Things were still going at Pershing Park about 15 minutes later; a band played go-go as people danced. Throughout the day, organizers encouraged people to buy tickets to a VIP after-party with an open bar at a location to be disclosed later. They were to meet at the Trump Hotel (“a safe space,” Loomer told the audience) for a shuttle bus to the party. Tickets were still available via the Demand Free Speech website a few hours later, and the price was supposedly marked down to $150 per person from $395.
That evening, attendees waited outside the Trump Hotel for a shuttle bus to Saint Yves, which took approximately 25 minutes round trip. A Washingtonian reporter who talked their way inside managed to take a quick spin of the venue and didn’t spot any far-right celebrities before being asked to leave. Proud Boys stood outside as security. Reached by phone, a manager at Saint Yves said he would pass on questions about why the bar booked the event.
Additional reporting by Benjamin Wofford and Will Peischel