Early Saturday morning, the center of Princeton was empty, except for the presence of police, metal gates and barricades.
“It looks like Princeton is prepared for a riot,” said one resident. “Or maybe a terrorist attack,” said another.
A group calling itself the New Jersey European Heritage Association had plastered the downtown area with posters over the last two weeks announcing an “It’s OK to be white” march to take place at noon on Palmer Square Saturday. The group, which marched in Charlottsville, Va., is classified as a hate group by the state and the Anti-Defamation League. About a half a dozen members of the group marched in Princeton in November carrying “It’s OK to be white” signs and wearing bandanas and sunglasses. The group has also posted anti-Semitic and racist flyers and stickers around town and on the Princeton University campus in the past.
The possibility of the group marching stirred debate in the community, with people questioning whether the best strategy was to protest, or simply ignore the marchers. Then late Friday afternoon, the organizer of the group announced on Twitter that Princeton had been “punked” and that the march was announced just to stir up trouble and prove that liberals are intolerant of others’ rights to free speech.
It is unclear whether the march announcement really was a hoax or if the massive counterprotests planned for today had anything to do with the decision not to march. Another possible factor — activists began outing members of the group on social media on Thursday, revealing the identities of some of the group’s members. The plans for the march generated national media attention, but even before that, people were making plans to face off with the group, including members of the left wing, militant, anti-fascist movement Antifa.
Law enforcement at the local, state and federal levels coordinated plans in preparation for Saturday. Even though the march was allegedly cancelled, police stuck to the plan just in case the announcement was untrue or other groups came to Princeton. The big question people at the counterprotest were asking Saturday was whether there was a way to bill the group that had announced the march for all of the police overtime for the day.
Numerous businesses downtown were closed as a safety precaution Saturday morning. The bent spoon owners decided to make something good out of the situation, giving out hot chocolate while the store was closed in exchange for a donation to the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. A percentage of hot chocolate sales today will also go to the soup kitchen. Several stores, including the bent spoon, Labyrinth Books and JaZams, created window displays featuring messages about tolerance, love and diversity.
Just before 11:30 a.m., the small plaza on Palmer Square next to the newsstand kiosk was abuzz with activity — but the majority of people there were police officers, reporters desperate for quotes, and politicians up for re-election this year who were hoping to get some sound bites in. A slow, steady trickle of counterprotesters came to Palmer Square, and by noon about 400 people were gathered there. A few dozen Princeton High School students were gathered on Hinds Plaza, but many of them decided to join the larger group instead.
Some people who joined the group hadn’t heard that the march was called off and seemed confused. Others decided to treat the counterprotest against the march that wasn’t as a victory celebration.
Counterprotesters still marched, walking around Palmer square in a long line chanting the slogans “We are unstoppable, a better world is possible” and “No hate, no fear, Nazis are not welcome here.” Many who gathered carried posters or pink carnations. Princeton University Professor Emeritus Cornel West, the author of “Race Matters”, showed up and addressed the crowd, saying taking a stand for love and justice can make a difference. “Recognize that this morning and this afternoon we are on a love train. Justic is what love looks like in public,” he said. “We can and we do make a difference and bring everyone together.”
By 1:30 p.m. the counterprotesters dispersed, business were open, so were the roadways, and Princeton was back to normal.