With counter-protester violence emerging at a ‘pro-white' rally in the foothills of Atlanta, questions abound regarding the state of race relations – and in many ways, civility itself – in 21st century America.
By: James Swift
Stone Mountain, Ga. - The view from the top of Stone Mountain is nothing short of spectacular. From the apex of the 1,686-foot tall monadnock one can view an astonishing panorama of the metro Atlanta area – miles and miles of natural and man-made monoliths, jutting out of Georgia’s bright green hills as far as the eye can see.
The sight on top of the mountain, however, is almost as remarkable. Across the crater-pocked dome, one witnesses a tapestry of humanity. Whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians – of all ages, shapes and sizes and speaking a litany of languages – merrily prance about, soaking up the sun and taking photographs of the birds of prey and Delta jets zooming overhead.
Despite their different appearances, the looks on their faces seem to express the same sentiments. Their smiles convey a very particular kind of joy, the type of happiness that can only come about from overcoming tremendous adversity. To get all the way to the top of the mountain, they had to embark upon an arduous, exhausting trek around the gargantuan pluton, which has a circumference of about five miles.
The 3,851-or-so steps one must take to get from the base of Stone Mountain to its summit aren’t easy. The terrain is incredibly rocky – visitors have to leap from stone to stone to continue going uphill at certain impasses – and near the peak, the slope gets so steep the trail becomes nearly impossible to scale without clutching onto a guardrail for dear life. Not that it doesn’t stop a few show-boaters from gunning it up the rock face at top speed, naturally.
It takes a lot of sweat and muscle – not to mention a profound absence of acrophobia – to get to the mountain’s crest. But when you are finally at the top, soaked head-to-toe in perspiration and calves burning like wildfire, you can’t help but feel accomplished. You powered your way through and you kept marching on. You fought through all the pain and the unpleasantness and discomfort. You never gave up.
Nor did anybody else up there with you – pending they didn’t cheat and pay to have an air tram take them there, of course. Standing there, with your hair whipping in the chilling breeze, overlooking downtown Atlanta, Buckhead and Kennesaw Mountain in a single portrait, one cannot help but feel elated. This is the payoff to your struggle against, and victory over, the elements – you get to see the big picture the people at the base of the mountain couldn’t possibly envision.
In the late-morning hours of April 23, a good three dozen or so people had made their way to the top of Stone Mountain. While other hikers were there for exercise or relaxation, 56-year-old James Waller had an entirely different M.O.
“God sent me here,” the Huntsville, Ala. native said. “He told me he was tired of racism and violence, and that’s the sole reason I’m here today.”
Depending on your perspective, Waller is either a misunderstood prophet or downright delusional. Wearing a sandwich board citing several biblical passages, he explains how God – described as “a reddish-black in color” – came to him with premonitions of several catastrophic natural disasters. Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, the recent flooding in Houston – all foretold to him, Waller claimed. He even said the Almighty gave him a heads-up on the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre three days in advance.
A self-professed divine agent, Waller said he made the journey to DeKalb County to relay a dire message to the masses. His celestial mission? Warn the attendees at Stone Mountain Park that something really bad was coming up, lest they change their lamentable ways.
“As always, he’s trying to save people,” he said. “God has been doing a lot of things with the weather … that’s just part of what God’s doing, and he’s saying that you haven’t seen anything yet, compared to what’s coming.”
Considering what was about to befall the state park, in hindsight, Waller’s words cannot be considered anything but uncannily prescient.
The Day of Reckoning
|TAKE IT AS A SIGN: James Waller, 56, traveled from |
Huntsville, Ala. to Stone Mountain, Ga. to spread the
gospel to attendees and protesters of the "pro-white"
rally April 23. (James Swift)
Stone Mountain – geologists believe it is somewhere between 300 and 350 million years old – is home to the largest bas relief on the planet, a 76-by-158 foot carving of Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson and Jefferson Davis. Indeed, the entire park can be considered something of a memorial to the C.S.A. – an attribute that, in a post-Ferguson America, has generated intense criticism.
In the wake of the 2015 Charleston, S.C. Massacre that left nine African-Americans dead, scores of activists urged Georgia’s lawmakers to remove all Confederate iconography from the park, with some even suggesting the nearly two-football-fields-long engraving be pressure-washed off the side of the mountain. A call to erect a statute of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who cited Stone Mountain in one of his most iconic speeches, at the summit drew even fierier debate, with opponents of the idea staging a series of “Confederate flag rallies” in protest. One such event August 1, 2015, drew a reported 700 attendees.
In December 2015, plans were announced for yet another demonstration. However, unlike the earlier protests which were not marketed with any overt race-baiting overtones, this latest rally was proudly touted as an “openly pro white” affair. The demonstration, dubbed Rock Stone Mountain, was the brainchild of avowed white supremacist Billy Roper, and scheduled April 23 to coincide with Confederate Memorial Day (which was listed as a state holiday, along with the birthday of Robert E. Lee, in Georgia until just this year.)
Ultimately, describing the rally as a “pro-white” demonstration, however, would be quite the misnomer. Although the organizers of the event anticipated thousands would descend upon Stone Mountain – long-believed to be the birthplace of the “modern” incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan – barely two dozen rebel-flag wavers actually showed up to protest.
Meanwhile, hundreds of counter-protesters – many of whom were bussed into the park – made their presence felt. Adding to the irony of the spectacle, the “pro-white” activists spent almost the entirety of the event locked inside a parking lot, with police in full riot gear the only thing standing between them and a most likely lethal mauling at the hands of angry dissidents.
There is no official estimate for exactly how many counter-protesters showed up, but a thousand over the course of the evening might not be an unrealistic count. Several progressive advocacy groups, most notably All Out Atlanta and Rise Up Georgia, drummed up heavy support for counter-demonstrators in the weeks leading up to the rally, although it appears many who attended were unaffiliated with any particular organization. Of the groups that did show up, it was a hodgepodge of African American activist organizations – Black Lives Matter, The Nation of Islam, and various Black Panthers-type outfits – and miscellaneous leftist factions, including numerous Students for a Democratic Society chapters and members of Antifa International.
Although there was some jawing between pro-white ralliers and the self-professed “anti-fascist” masses, those expecting a Gangs of New York-style donnybrook were sorely disappointed. Counter-demonstrators spent more time looking for signs of alleged racism around the hinterlands than staring down actual neo-Nazis or Klan members. In fact, most of the clashing was between the counter-demonstrators and the police, the latter of whom were pelted with rocks, with at least one officer reportedly pepper sprayed. In all, nine individuals were arrested for disorderly conduct – the bulk of them handcuffed for violating an obscure state law against wearing masks during protests (irony of ironies, a measure intended to discourage Klan members from rearing their sheet-covered heads in public.)
While there were some serious violent crimes transpiring at the event (See subsection: A 'Peaceful' Protest?), in most instances the aggressors were not the ones waving banners reading "'diversity' = white genocide" or sporting swastika tattoos. Rather, it was the counter-protesters - many clad in paramilitary duds that wouldn't look out of place in an ISIS recruitment video - on the offensive, targeting anyone (or anything) displaying the Confederate battle flag. The platoon of pistol-packing protesters adorned with "Huey Newton Gun Club" tees and purple-haired, nose-ringed demonstrators repping 501(c)(3) shirts certainly had the numbers in their favor, and on more than one occasion, they certainly weren't reluctant to demonstrate their force, either.
Alas, the skirmishes soon became all-too-predictable. As the ranks of rebel-flag enthusiasts in KKK shirts began thinning out, the counter-demonstrators found themselves with precious little to do besides forage through the wilderness in pursuit of nonexistent ghosts. Before long, one could almost time how long it would be before another motorcade of Georgia State Patrol vehicles slowly inched their way down Robert E. Lee Boulevard, responding to yet another report of flying fists. And the local TV camera crews - and the aberrant hipster multimedia correspondent - were off again, tailing the blue lights towards what was hopefully that much desired, million-dollar shot of white-on-black, or police-on-civilian, bloodshed.
Fortunately - or unfortunately, if you are an adherent to the maxim "it bleeds, it leads" - they mostly had hot air, and not warm plasma, to work with.
The State of Hate
|TRUE BELIEVER: Snellville, Ga. resident "Steve B."|
said racism remains both the nation's "original sin" and
"fatal flaw." (James Swift)
“We’re just here in unity,” said Stone Mountain resident Sue-Anne Lyn. “We’re not trying to fight, we’re not trying to hate … we’re just trying to let our presence be felt in our city." The 33-year-old was in a large group of mostly African-American counter-demonstrators. Several of them were dressed in the classical Black Panther attire. Many were heavily armed; eschewing the military-style weaponry, the petite Lyn opted for a classic black baseball bat instead.
“I’m sure some people may see us out here with things to protect ourselves and they think we are here to fight or to go at them, but we’re just here to let them know that we’re here in formation and unity to just stop the ignorance,” she said. “We’re just trying to promote love and peace.”
A 31 year-old woman from Atlanta who wished to be referred to only as “Amanda M.” said that, as a Caucasian, the onus was on her to let Stone Mountain Park guests know that not all white people shared the same hostile viewpoints as some of the more belligerent “pro-white” protesters.
“I don’t understand why there’s so much hate that’s going on, especially in such a family friendly park with a high African-American population,” she said. “Because we’re white, we want to send a message out there that there are people who are white against this ‘pro-white’ type of approach, and we believe in equality and we believe that black lives matter.”
Appropriately enough, “Amanda M.” was sporting the almost-ubiquitous “Black Lives Matter” tee shirt, complemented by a Hunger Games medallion. The get-up, she said, attracted more than a few perplexed stares.
“When a lot of people see my shirt that says ‘Black Lives Matter,’ I think a lot of white people get their feelings hurt unnecessarily, because they feel like, somehow, they’re not included, when this has nothing to do with them” she said. “Black Lives Matter isn’t against police, it’s against police brutality, so this is really just raising awareness that black people are shot and killed by police more than any other race in this country, and that’s a severe problem.”
It is to be noted, however, that The Washington Post data from last year revealed African-Americans represented 26 percent of those shot by officers in 2015, while Caucasians were found to represent 49 percent of Americans wounded by law enforcement officials.
“Racism is the original sin of this country and it continues to be the fatal flaw of this country,” said a 57-year-old counter-demonstrator from Snellville, Ga. who requested he be identified only as “Steve B.”
“Fundamentally, until we confront our history, and not just the positive side, that terrible legacy of injustice, we’re never going to get past it.”
Although he said the “pro-white” protesters had the First Amendment right to spout whatever racially-charged rhetoric they wanted to, “Steve B.” nonetheless said he believes the sight of the “Stars and Bars” in a city where three-quarters of residents are African-American is in unquestionably callous.
“I’m sure there are Confederate flag supporters who sincerely believe that they’re not standing for hatred, but all you have to do is look at the history of the Confederate flag, what it stood for in the Civil War and what it’s stood for since,” he said. “The Confederate flag has been brought out every time that African-Americans threaten to make progress, so it’s got a very clear meaning … to bring it into a park in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, where many, many African-Americans come every Saturday morning and kind of stick it in their face, whatever you think it stands for, it’s a very offensive and insensitive thing to do.”
Jihad Muhammad, a 59-year-old from Lithonia, Ga., said he too was dismayed by the “pro-white” display.
“Racism is not healthy to America, it’s not healthy to any nation or country,” he said. “Martin Luther King spoke about ‘let freedom ring’ and look at Stone Mountain … now we’re back at the mountain, some 40 years later, going through the same racism.”
Still, he said the mustachioed, pick-up-truck–driving, airbrushed-Confederate-flag-tee-wearing protesters are just a minor nuisance in the grander scheme of things.
“We’re looking at them out here today, protesting the Klan, but we’ve got to realize they are in the courthouses,” Muhammad said. “They [are] judges, they are in the Senate. These are the ignorant ones out here, but the real ones are out there passing laws.”
A 'Peaceful' Protest?
A 'Peaceful' Protest?
|BETWEEN BEATINGS: Brad Bradley, left, and|
Kenneth Bradley are interviewed by an Atlanta
television station just moments after being attacked
by a counter-demonstrator mob. (James Swift)
Of course, most of the protesters - the wheelchair-bound white nationalists, the Southern heritage groups who think the KKK-sympathizers are giving their flag a bad name and the armada of multicultural, anti-racist counter-demonstrators with LGBT slogans on their shirts and hardcore punk band logos sewn on to their denim jackets - were relatively peaceful. Oh, they exchanged insults and called each other every profane name under the sun, but direct, physical contact was limited to a few shoving contests, a few firecracker volleys and maybe a few errant chucked stones. Some pro-white demonstrators and hardcore black militants even appeared to have engaged in polite, civil discourse - a doubly ironic situation, seeing as how the disparate groups did so not only with hundreds of rounds of ammunition strapped to their bodies, but under the intrusive, igneous eye of the commander of the Confederate armies.
But there were several instances of serious violence during the protests - including several that transpired far away from the reflective glare of scurrying camera crews' lenses.
It’s not too difficult to find images online of counter-protesters lobbing barricades at police officers. Nor does it take much Googling to find photographs of charred barriers set on fire by disgruntled “anti-racist” demonstrators. And at least one counter-protester, 21-year-old Joshua Taft of Savannah, Ga. is starring down aggravated assault charges for tossing smoke bombs at state troopers.
What wasn’t reported – or, at the least, caught by local TV news stations – was a flurry of counter-protester initiated violence, including at least one unprovoked attack on two men because one of them was wearing a baseball cap depicting the Confederate battle flag.
“They hit me in the back of the head or did something,” said 69-year-old Brad Bradley of Jasper, Ga., whose clothing was still wet with blood leaking from side of this face. “I don’t know, they did it from behind.”
South Carolinian Kenneth Bradley, 46, was also physically attacked by counter-demonstrators, most of whom had their faces covered. “It was over my hat,” he said. “There were about 20, 25 of them.”
Although police officials interviewed the Bradleys, no arrests have been publicized in connection to their vicious beating. During an interview with Atlanta’s CBS affiliate, the two were accosted yet again, with a counter-protester threatening Kenneth Bradley into giving him his headgear.
“It looks like the racism is the other way around," Brad Bradley said.
There was a heavy gang presence at the event, with a consortium of Bloods, Gangster Disciples and Crips coming together to rally against the “pro-white” demonstrators.
A 47-year-old counter-protester from San Diego, who only identified himself as “Stone,” said the interracial violence was inevitable.
“They should have known that this was going to happen because they were the ones who started it,” he said. “If you come up here for a march and everything, then you know this type of thing is going to happen.”
Rather, he said it was the “anti-racist” demonstrators who were the ones truly being victimized.
“You had all these brothers that had glasses on, they wanted them to take them off,” he said. “We feel it is wrong the way the police was down there harassing [protesters], saying ‘they had people with their masks on,’ but you’re protecting those who are wearing hoods.”
Elsewhere, the driver of a sedan with miniature Confederate flag adornments found himself attacked by a wave of counter-demonstrators, who kicked the automobile and appear to have taken swings at the driver. The gaggle of counter-demonstrators then scooped up the remnants of the flag, as if the emblem was some sort of war trophy.
One bystander, who had no idea a protest was going on that afternoon, said he saw a demonstrator attack the vehicle with what appeared to be a hammer.
“It’s kind of frightening, honestly,” said an 18-year-old Lilburn, Ga. resident who asked to be identified only as “Joshua D.”
“It’s all very disturbing. There’s just a lack of civility out here.”
Heaven and Hell?
|JUST US: A 47-year-old man from San Diego who only |
wished to be referred to by the name "Stone" said "people
have got to quit looking at the color of skin and understand
we, all of us, are people in general." (James Swift)
“To be able to destroy with good conscience, to be able to behave badly and call your bad behavior ‘righteous indignation,’” Huxley continued, “this is the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of moral treats.”
As evident by the torched guardrails and battered sexagenarians – not to mention the slew of slurs spouted out by both “pro-white” proponents and opponents – it appears that many visitors to Stone Mountain Park that afternoon had no intentions of civilly expressing themselves. The majority of demonstrators may have been peaceful, but the number of belligerent protesters on the premises – the car-kickers and racial epitaph screamers and stone casters and remorseless muggers – is nonetheless concerning.
“If you don’t have anything worth fighting for, that you would die for, in many ways, you’re not fit to live,” Waller – the mountaintop prophet – remarked before the demonstrations began. “I think the people who did come who are anti-protesters, I think it’s a good thing that they thought enough and had enough endurance or character to come out and put their lives in jeopardy and stand up for what they believe in.”
One can’t help but wonder whether some protesters were there to stand up for what they regard as a moral truth, or simply because they wanted an opportunity to beat someone within an inch of their life.
Some wanted to preach a message of love and understanding, to be sure. However, others clearly wanted little more than to spill blood on the mountain. And most ironic of all, many of them sought to do so in a fashion remarkably similar to the much-reviled Klan – with faces obscured, their individual identity subsumed in a formless mass of ideologically-driven rage.
The more vindictive demonstrators on both sides of the racial tiff are clearly victims of the same malady – a sociological condition called “deindividuation.” When level-headed people find themselves lost in huge, stratified groups, they sometimes abandon their core personalities – and sometimes, their very own sense of moral judgment – in favor of the collective psyche. One believes he or she is no longer culpable for his or her own actions, because in this mass body, there is no “individual.” It’s just one, unthinking, uncritical blob of the basest of emotions, let loose sans any of the normal behavioral safeguards like empathy that prevent individual actors from smashing windows or taking a rock to somebody’s skull over a trivial annoyance.
Whether perpetrated by an unmerciful white supremacist or a pitiless gangbanger, it’s pure, discriminatory, tribal fury all the same, beastly behavior fraudulently justified by that synthetic “righteous indignation” Huxley wrote about before the name “Hitler” was etched in any history book.
Many of the nonviolent protesters, however, were well aware of this aspect of the human equation.
“The heart of me doesn’t hate them, they just don’t know any better,” Lyn said. “I’m not going to get into why they don’t know any better, that’s not my job to defend them or make up any reasons, they’re just ignorant. I pray that they will wake up, smell the coffee and if they call themselves ‘of God’ or anything related to God, God is of love and that’s that.”
Muhammad made similar statements.
“Anytime you say God has a son, and you give him a color, then you put racism in the religion. Whatever color you give him, you make everybody feel inferior and you make another race feel superior,” he remarked. “Right is right and wrong is wrong. I don’t believe I’m better than you because I’m black or you’re better than because I’m white, because we all came through the womb of a woman.”
“Stone,” who made the trek to the outskirts of Atlanta all the way from sunny Southern California, conveyed comparable sentiments.
“You have people in high power who don’t like this, because they want to keep the confusion, they want to keep us separated from each other,” he said. “People have got to quit looking at the color of skin and understand we, all of us, are people in general.”
|HIGHER POWERS: Jihad Muhammad, 59, said the |
"pro-white" demonstrators at Stone Mountain were
merely "the ignorant ones." The bigger problem, he said,
are the bigots in courthouses and the Senate. (James Swift)
Indeed, that woeful Saturday at Stone Mountain Park – operated, interestingly enough, by the same company that owns the Harlem Globetrotters – the metaphorical, self-created heaven and hell Waller spoke of could clearly be experienced.
While white nationalists and confederate flag proponents clashed with violent “antifascists” and black militants below, three quarters of a mile up, there was nothing but exuberant smiles and joyous laughter on top of Stone Mountain, where people - totally disconnected from the rampant incivility underneath them - were simply enjoying life and a warm, rainless afternoon.
If absolutely nothing else, the Stone Mountain mayhem demonstrated that we still have a choice when it comes to what our shared society resembles. We can either be group loyalists making each other bleed in the dirt or we can be more thoughtful individuals, hesitant to default to herd instincts, who push ourselves to the glory of the mountaintop.
And although heaven was looming right over them, there were far more protesters than one may like to admit making it loud and clear April 23 they much preferred to reign in hell.