Located five blocks from the White House, the Hotel Harrington is the city’s oldest continuously operating hotel and has a long-standing reputation as one of the most affordable hotels in the heart of the District of Columbia. But over the past few months, the Harrington has been gaining a new reputation: the Proud Boys hangout.
The militant right-wing organisation that supports President Donald Trump, which has clashed in violent street battles with members of anti-fascist groups and others who oppose Mr Trump, has made the Harrington its unofficial headquarters when members come to the city. Several hundred Proud Boys recently stayed at the hotel while in town for the 12 December protest of Joe Biden’s election.
More protests by pro-Trump groups are planned in downtown DC on 6 January 2021.
Wearing their signature black and gold colours, large numbers of the group spent much of the afternoon of 12 December drinking openly and chanting on the street in front of the hotel. They ranged in age from late teenagers to 50 and 60-year-olds, though most appeared to be in their 30s and 40s. Others filled the outdoor patio at Harry’s, the hotel bar, where they had gathered on previous protest weekends and on the Fourth of July. Harry’s closed midafternoon, but the patio and street in front of it remained crowded throughout the night.
The repeated and growing presence of Proud Boys at the bar and hotel has unnerved some guests and workers, many of whom are Black and Hispanic and were intimidated by their presence, according to two employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly.
In the past three months, Harry’s has been cited three times for violating social distancing and mask regulations. The violations occurred on weekends when large numbers of Proud Boys and other pro-Trump supporters, in town for demonstrations, were in the bar.
For the hotel and the bar, there seems to be uncertainty about what steps they can or should take. Ann Terry, the general manager of the hotel, declined to comment. During a brief phone call, John Boyle, the owner of Harry’s, declined to comment other than to say that the bar closed early on 11 and 12 December because of concerns over not being able to maintain coronavirus social distancing guidelines. The bar’s website announced that it will be closed on 5 and 6 January.
Enrique Tarrio, the leader of the Proud Boys, said in an interview, that in the past, the group’s members have stayed at the Harrington and frequented Harry’s because it was accessible to downtown DC and close to the Trump hotel and the White House.
He said the corner in front of the hotel and bar has remained a gathering point for the Proud Boys, but that the group had outgrown Harry’s because it was not big enough to accommodate all of its members who attended the most recent protest, which he said numbered around 1,000.
Mr Tarrio said the group’s members would not stay at the hotel or go to the bar if the businesses asked them to stay away.
“Of course not. I wouldn’t want to go somewhere, a private business where I’m unwelcome,” he said. “There’s many other options.”
Mr Tarrio said he was not aware of reported incidents of Proud Boys refusing to wear masks at the bar or the hotel, but he said: “For the most part we’re not big on masks.”
Since opening in 1914, the 250-room Harrington has billed itself as an affordable tourist hotel, hosting tens of thousands of visitors to the city over the past 106 years. It was also a family business. Charles McCutcheon, the owner of the hotel until he died this year, was the grandson of the hotel’s co-founder. Many employees of the hotel have been there for generations.
For some of them, a longtime employee said, there is a fear that the hotel’s reputation is being tarnished by the Proud Boys repeated presence at the hotel and its bar.
“It’s sad that they feel so comfortable here, because obviously nobody who works here supports this stuff,” the employee said.
As dark approached on the night of 12 December, members of the Proud Boys donned Kevlar helmets, bulletproof vests, protective forearm coverings and large rucksacks. Many carried long poles, long-handled black flashlights and collapsible batons. Some carried cases of beer. They departed the hotel in packs and began marching through downtown D.C., chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “f*** antifa!”
The group tried to approach Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House, where they hoped to encounter a smaller number of antifascists and others who had gathered to voice their opposition to Mr Trump and keep his supporters from removing signs or artwork critical of the president and memorialising Black people killed by law enforcement.
DC police spent much of the night trying to keep the groups apart and at one point established a police line. Unable to break through the barrier, a group of Proud Boys doubled back to the hotel, carrying a Black Lives Matter banner from a nearby church. They carried it in front of the Harrington and lit it on fire as members circled the flames, yelling and hooting.
City officials later said four churches in downtown DC had Black Lives Matters signs removed and damaged. Mr Tarrio told The Washington Post that he was among those responsible for tearing down and burning the signs.
For the most part, police were successful in keeping the groups apart, but there were skirmishes. At least four people were stabbed during a melee near Harry’s. Police have declined to comment on the political affiliations of those involved.
In the days after the protest, city leaders expressed concerns about the Proud Boys’ presence.
Police and protesters clash at Proud Boys demonstration in Washington DC
“These Proud Boys are avowed white nationalists and have been called to stand up against a fair and legal election,” said DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat. And DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, said a beautiful weekend “was ruined by white supremacists who came to our city seeking violence”.
Bowser said that the city had encouraged Harry’s to close early for protest weekend and that the bar was not open after 4pm on either 11 or 12 December. The mayor declined to draw a connection between the violence late that Saturday and the bar around which Proud Boys and other Trump supporters continued to gather through the night.
But DC Council member Brooke Pinto, a Democrat who represents the ward in which Harry’s is located, said the bar’s complicity in allowing “hate groups” to gather should not be overlooked.
“I am angered and troubled by the violence committed by white supremacists in our city and in Ward 2 over the weekend and last month,” Ms Pinto wrote in a statement to The Washington Post. “Harry’s disregard for public health guidance as these hate groups have gathered in their establishment without masks and without being socially distant before taking to the streets and further jeopardising the health and safety of District residents is absolutely unacceptable.”
Ms Pinto said she would like to see greater enforcement of the city’s coronavirus protocols and would “encourage local businesses to protect our residents first,” though she did not elaborate on how businesses such as Harry’s might do so. Mr Boyle did not respond to Ms Pinto’s comments.
Harry’s has been cited for flouting the city’s mask ordinance three times since October.
On 10 October, an investigator from the DC Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) noticed that a server was not wearing a mask as he waited on tables filled with patrons who were also barefaced though they were not actively eating or drinking, according to the ABRA incident report.
The investigator issued Mr Boyle a warning and noted that Mr Boyle said it “would not happen again”.
A month later, on the night before the “Million MAGA March”, a city investigator reported that patrons were not wearing masks and were moving about the bar freely, gathering in large groups and flouting social distancing requirements. Outside the bar, he wrote, more than 50 people were gathered listening to loud music and drinking in the street. The investigator called the situation “unacceptable” and issued Harry’s a $1,000 fine.
Mr Boyle “admitted that he lost control of the establishment”, according to the ABRA report. The investigator found that “the establishment was basically operating as normal prior to Covid”.
The next day, after thousands of Mr Trump’s most ardent supporters packed DC streets and marched to the US Supreme Court, many gathered at Harry’s to celebrate.
Dozens of maskless individuals were gathered outside the bar, waiting to be seated, the ABRA investigator wrote, while inside patrons crowded around small tables and moved freely about the establishment without donning face coverings.
The ABRA investigator slapped Harry’s with another $1,000 (£737) fine, the second in two days.
Patrick Young, 37, spent most of 12 December at Black Lives Matter Plaza, poised to defend the space where racial justice activists have gathered for months.
Throughout the day, he said, he saw “marauding bands of Proud Boys” try to make their way past police lines and into the plaza.
He was worried that as the night wore on, and as far-right agitators imbibed more, the threat of violence would increase, he said.
The next day, he called Harry’s Bar, asking to speak with the owner. To Mr Young’s surprise, Mr Boyle answered the phone.
“I told him I was very concerned that the bar was becoming a base of operations for the Proud Boys,” said Mr Young, an organiser with activist coalition ShutDown DC.
ShutDown DC and other local social justice groups have for weeks encouraged their members to call Harry’s and encourage the bar to denounce the Proud Boys and close during large pro-Trump gatherings.
Downtown hotels also received calls and emails from DC residents and activists imploring them to deny service to visiting Trump supporters.
ShutDown DC organisers said they will continue to lobby business owners and city officials to do more in the future. Harry’s, they said, will remain priority No 1. The group launched an online petition this week calling on the ABRA to revoke Harry’s liquor license.
“As long as people are coming into our community with the expressed intent of terrorising our friends and neighbours, we are going to work to keep each other safe,” Mr Young said.