Tensions grew as the main march moved from Freedom Plaza to outside the U.S. Supreme Court, and as the final speeches ended, clashes turned into roving street fights that left police struggling to keep up.
Shortly before 8 p.m., members of the extremist group the Proud Boys and other Trump supporters moved through downtown in the area of 12th and F streets NW. At the same time, a group of counterprotesters moved north on 10th Street.
It was not clear whether the groups, which were blocks apart, were initially aware of each other’s location. Police said they were monitoring both as they neared a collision course.
The groups met head-on at H Street near 11th Street, north of Metro Center. Police in riot gear rushed toward the fray, but not quickly enough to stave off a brawl involving dozens, including the Proud Boys, that left participants bloodied and one man stabbed three times in the back and seriously wounded.
“I came here to fight,” a Trump supporter yelled moments before the clash began.
The day’s outcome appeared inevitable despite attempts by hundreds of police dealing with unrest throughout downtown.
D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said people from both sides — and from outside and inside the region — came “intent on clashing,” and “the police department was put directly in the middle of it.”
Newsham said as opposing groups faced off, “police officers ran and placed themselves between them,” which he said he believed “prevented a much worse outcome.”
“We did our damnedest” to prevent violence, Newsham said. “We were doing the best we could to keep them separated.”
In all, police arrested 21 people, including one juvenile, on charges that include assault, disorderly conduct and inciting violence. Eight firearms were seized and five people were arrested on gun charges, including two Newsham said were linked to a Georgia-based militia group.
Newsham said police found three additional firearms and ammunition in a room linked to the two: Joshua Skillman, 28, and Samantha Falk, 33, both of Georgia. The name of the group was not available.
The others arrested on gun charges were identified as Jason Fisher, 41, of Virginia; Braxton McDonald, 28, of New Jersey; and Kenneth Deberry, 39, of the District.
Of the adults arrested, nine are from the District, three are from Maryland, two are from New York, two are from Georgia and one each are from Virginia, New Jersey, and South Carolina. The residence of one of those arrested was unknown.
Four officers were injured, one seriously when a chemical was sprayed into an eye.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) declined to comment Sunday, though a spokeswoman said Bowser planned to address the news media and discuss the events on Monday.
On Sunday morning, Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House had returned to relative quiet, though some volatility remained when a group of women started tearing down signs condemning racism, honoring Black people killed by police and denouncing Trump.
The women, who declined to give their names, clawed at the posters and tore them to the ground. A few people who arrived earlier to protect the wall, including 57-year-old software engineer Mike Manos, tried to guard the posters with their bodies.
“You have the right to put it up, we have the right to tear it down!” one woman shouted.
Everett Turner, 62, a mason from Southwest Washington, said he was on a bike ride before he stopped near the White House. “It’s sad,” Turner said. “Just get ready for the new president and move on.”
A few moments later, Turner got into a screaming match with a woman wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat.
“Go back to Europe or somewhere!” Turner, who is Black, shouted.
“Your ancestors sold you!” the White woman screamed back.
Police officers moved between the groups and admonished the women tearing down the posters to stop, though they did not physically intervene. Newsham said officers try to avoid getting involved in the destruction of signs, worried that their intervention could escalate tensions, and that it might not be illegal to remove signs placed on public property.
However, by Sunday evening, police had cordoned off a section of the plaza that had been vandalized, in what appeared to be an effort to prevent more destruction.
Trump — who in September refused to denounce the Proud Boys and instead urged them to “stand back and stand by” — appeared to relish in the mayhem. In one tweet, Trump wrote, “Antifa SCUM ran for the hills today when they tried attacking the people at the Trump rally, because these people aggressively fought back.”
The outgoing president also tweeted for D.C. police to “Get going — do your job and don’t hold back!!!” in arresting counterprotesters. He accused Bowser of “not doing her job!” as he linked to a video of a man being hit in the face from behind and falling to the pavement, bleeding and unconscious.
But the video showed only part of the incident. A longer video posted online shows the man pushing a counterdemonstrator to the ground, stomping on his head and balling one hand into a fist, shaking it people. Police said they arrested four people at that scene, including one charged in the assault. Newsham said the incident remains under investigation and could lead to charges filed against the man who was hit.
Black Lives Matter DC, in turn, blamed Trump supporters for instigating the violence, and alleged in a tweet that “MPD has been protecting the Proud Boys and white nationalists all night,” and that police only put on riot gear and fire chemical irritants at city residents.
“They allowed white supremacists to spend the day in our City doing whatever they want while not wearing Masks,” the group said.
Another anti-Trump group, All Out DC, took to Twitter to complain that not enough of their supporters turned out, and said, “The people who stayed home today enabled fascist violence.”
No arrest was made in the stabbing, which injured a man who police said provided them with home addresses in the District and in Maryland. The incident occurred near 10th Street and New York Avenue NW during a brawl that had erupted nearby. A police report says the victim did not cooperate with investigators.
Police said that among the arrests were people — one from New York, the other from the District — who are charged with beating a person with a flagpole after that person tried to steal a sign. Another person was charged with throwing a firework at several people.
The individuals with firearms-related charges could make initial appearances in D.C. Superior Court on Monday.
Newsham said that “the majority of people left after the sun went down,” which was around the time the events at the Supreme Court had ended. There were still sporadic clashes that appeared isolated, some outside hotels where Trump supporters were staying.
Anticipating crowds and potential violence, police had blocked traffic from a wide swath of downtown, and as the formal event ended and people departed from the Supreme Court, police sealed off Black Lives Matter Plaza for a time to prevent rival groups from heading there.
One group of Trump supporters marched while tearing down Black Lives Matter signs from buildings, which police said they intervened to stop, as another group paraded a large blue and white banner with the slogan, “Trump law and order.”
By 12:30 a.m., there were few if any counterprotesters left, and the group with the Trump banner split. Many ducked into the Trump International Hotel, as a few people with the banner continued on into the now-quiet night.
Clarence Williams, Michael E. Miller, Emily Davies, Peter Jamison, Justin Wm. Moyer, Marissa J. Lang and Frederick Kunkle contributed to this report.