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VOL. 133 | NO. 6 | Monday, January 8, 2018

Weekend Monuments Protests, Response Suggest Shift

By Bill Dries

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A group of a dozen white nationalists showed up Saturday, Jan. 6, to protest the Dec. 20 removal of the city's two most visible Confederate monuments in what seems to be a shift in the tenor of the controversy. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

Memphis Branch NAACP president Deidre Malone may have had the most concise description of what has changed since the city’s two most visible Confederate monuments came down Dec. 20.

“What we want happened. The monuments are down,” Malone said Friday, Jan. 5, as the NAACP and other groups called on Memphians to ignore plans for protests in the city the next day by groups opposed to the removal of the monuments.

“We are focused on the future,” Malone added. “That’s old news for us.”

It was a group of white nationalists whose leader invoked the imagery of last August’s violent alt-right protests in Charlottesville, Virginia who followed through on the only non-moving protest of Saturday that got anywhere near the two parks where the monuments once stood.

Billy Roper, of the white nationalist group Shield Wall, had envisioned a protest in Memphis similar to the “Unite The Right” rally in Virginia to protest the removal of a Confederate monument there.

But when Roper and others in his group showed up with shields and helmets and Kevlar vests like those worn in Charlottesville, they quickly encountered very different protest ground rules than those present in Charlottesville.

As the group entered a barrier-surrounded protest area on the western edge of Health Sciences Park but not in the park itself, Roper and the others had already shed their shields and helmets after a talk with police brass. And at the checkpoint to get into the protest area they were told they couldn’t wear the vests either.

Roper balked at taking off his vest at the entrance.

“I’m allowed to wear a vest,” he told police who quickly radioed for clarification from police brass and were told he could not.

“We’ve got a lot of police out here to protect you,” a police officer told Roper, who remained unconvinced.

“I’ve got people on three rooftops,” another officer said.

After a huddle with others in the group Roper took off his vest. Two other members of the group stood in front and back of him going through the checkpoint and on both sides of him in the protest area.

Since the 1968 sanitation workers strike, Memphis protests have had an ironclad rule forbidding even a wooden stake attached to a sign.

Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings acknowledged other ways that Charlottesville and other incidents influenced the weekend’s massive police presence.

“If you pay attention to anything that’s gone on in the world in the last three years, there is definitely a threat – you saw it in New York a month ago – where people have used vehicles as weapons,” he said of closing city streets and the presence of city dump trucks. “We want to make sure we plan for any contingency.”

Rallings also said no group had applied for a protest permit with the city in advance of Saturday.

A command post by police took up most of the Juvenile Court parking lot on Poplar, a few blocks from Health Sciences Park. The police presence was also augmented by the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, Tennessee Highway patrol and officers from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation including the Fusion Center, a statewide intelligence database that aggregates information from local law enforcement agencies across the state.

“We have never deployed this many agents to the city of Memphis,” TBI director Mark Gwyn said in a written statement supplied by the city administration.

For about two hours a 50-car caravan organized by Confederate 901 rode the interstate loop around the city in vehicles flying Confederate flags before a rally in Southaven. The group originally planned a caravan that would go past Health Sciences and Memphis Parks

At one point, two of those involved in the Confederate caravan came to the protest area by the park to talk with Roper and members of his group. One of the two said he had tired of driving around the interstate.

Before Saturday, Roper had said in online posts that his group’s effort would be more focused on white nationalism than a “big tent” of related causes.

“This is not just about marble and granite. They want to make us extinct,” Roper said in a bullhorn address in the protest area. “It’s not just about the Confederacy or about history or heritage or culture. It’s not about the Civil War … It’s about the civil war that is coming to America again.”

Roper’s group unfurled a banner a half block west of the western border of Health Sciences Park reading “Diversity = White Genocide.”

“We’re not going to go quietly,” Roper said. “We’re not going to be erased.”

In another interview he referred to “our founding fathers, who were white nationalists.”

Roper led his group in singing a verse of Dixie.

Between interviews that Roper said were the main purpose of his group’s trip to Memphis, he snapped a photo of a billboard at the Manassas and Union intersection promoting the city’s observance of the 50th anniversary of the sanitation workers strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Earlier in the week, a pivotal figure in the strike died. Lewis Donelson was one of the 13 city council members who took office just six weeks before the strike began. In his 2012 autobiography “Lewie,” Donelson wrote about the Memphis of just five years ago.

“I describe Memphis as a place with blacks in the majority and whites in the minority, but blacks act as if they are the minority and whites act as if they are the majority,” he wrote. “We desperately need more black leaders willing to govern, to get in there and do things for the city, not think about complaints or past disadvantages but about what to do now to make this city a better one.”

And he said white citizens should demand and support that same goal.

“It might not be the city that white leaders would develop, but it would be a city that represents the community and looks at the future, planning for it and daring to face those challenges unafraid,” he wrote.

There are indications Donelson’s assessment might be changing. But few are willing to declare that just the act of taking down the monuments of Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis have had that kind of larger impact.

But when any social media discussion about the monuments reaches the point where a commenter says sarcastically that with the monuments down the city must have solved its problems of crime and poverty, there is a push back that at times involves observations about a city being able to “walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Still others, including Van Turner, the county commissioner heading Memphis Greenspace, the nonprofit entity the city council sold the two parks to for $1,000 each, say the monuments removal is a symbolic but important milestone.

“When we wake up tomorrow morning, we still will have issues with education, we still will have issues with poverty, we still will have issues with public safety,” Turner said the day after the monuments were removed. “This doesn’t resolve any of that. What this does is move this out the way. This is a nonissue now.”

There were no counter protests or demonstrations Saturday after a year in which critics of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s legal strategy to remove the monuments dominated a local protest culture that has changed profoundly as there have been more protests in the last year and a half in the city.

And differences remain between Strickland and those involved in the Take Them Down 901 effort over tactics and who influenced a time line with events that escalated rapidly just before Christmas.

Take Them Down founder Tami Sawyer has said the ongoing protests -- including one in August in which six people were arrested by police -- as Strickland and his administration pursued a waiver from the state and laid the foundation for court challenges to remove the statues were a factor.

Strickland, who set a goal of having the statues down or state permission to take them down by the end of 2017, has said that Sawyer and others joined the city’s effort. And city chief legal officer Bruce McMullen has said the city set an end of 2017 goal primarily because it feared the Tennessee Legislature would likely enact new restrictions on removing the monuments once the 2018 legislative got underway this month.

Just the anger and resentment on both sides over the arrests in August in the shadow of the Forrest monument are enough to suggest the differences on the way to a common and general goal remain.

But Sawyer who also heads the Memphis NAACP’s political action working group, also joined the call last week to ignore the pro-Confederate protests.

“Instead we have called for a day of service. We will be in the community,” Sawyer said at the NAACP press conference Friday. “We’re calling on all Memphians instead of giving attention … to outsiders with intentions to bring hate and racism to our city to show up and show we love and support and care for one another.”

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