Protests surrounding a rally at Stone Mountain erupted in violence Saturday as demonstrators trying to confront a white power group set a barricade on fire and hurled rocks and fireworks at police attempting to block them.
By midday, park officials worried about the safety of visitors, shut down attractions such as the cable car and amusement center and also cancelled the popular laser show. The park remained open.
Nine counter-protesters were arrested, most for refusing to take their masks off, authorities said.
In Rome, Ga., about 80 supporters of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement also held a rally Saturday. That event has largely avoided the violence seen at Stone Mountain, although police said two counter-protesters were arrested for disorderly conduct. There were several hundred counter-protesters on hand.
Only about two dozen white power demonstrators showed up at the “Rock Stone Mountain” rally and, by early afternoon, they were packing up to leave after one man arrived with a large red flag advertising the Ku Klux Klan. Organizers had said they didn’t want such symbols at the event.
But despite the low turnout - they had predicted up to 2,000 attendees - and the wave of counter-protests that left them isolated inside a barricade, organizers declared the event a success.
“They didn’t win. They didn’t shut us down. We had a successful, peaceful rally,” said Joseph Andrews, 37, of Kennesaw.
But counter-protesters said they had carried the day. As they peeled off to return home, Dawn O’Neal and Shweta Malhotra hugged, claiming victory over the Klan.
“We made a statement that we are not gonna get intimidated by and watch this terrorist group harass and incite fear and violence,” O’Neal said. “We stood up to them today.”
The white power group was vastly outnumbered by hundreds of counter-protesters, who clashed repeatedly with police as they tried to reach the site of their rally.
Counter-protesters first faced off with police on a park road, chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “Hey hey, ho ho, the KKK has got to go.” After being turned away by police, the protesters took to wooded trails attempting to reach the white power groups.
“We’re trying to get to where we can protest them,” Craig Clark said.
At least one man was seen spraying a Georgia State Patrol officer with pepper spray. Others engaged in physical skirmishes with law enforcement dressed in riot gear, said John Bankhead, a spokesman for the Stone Mountain Park Police. Some police officers sustained minor injuries, he said.
Eight of those arrested were charged with failure to remove theirm masks. Another person was charged with aggravated assault after throwing a smoke bomb at an officer.
Weaving through the trails, the counter protesters reached a perch where they were within site of the Confederate flags. When police prevented them from entering, the exchange turned violent. Counter-protesters emptied trash cans and threw rocks toward the barricades. Fireworks exploded.
Police in riot gear grew tense and encircled the white supremacists to keep the groups apart.
“Do not move! Do not break my line,” shouted one police leader.
Katherine Thilo, who said she was part of her church group’s peaceful protest, was left frantically looking for her daughter Lindsey as the situation escalated.
“Ninety-nine percent of the protesters are peaceful, but this is what they gonna show on the news,” she said.
After Lindsay was spotted, church member Scott Maddox pulled them both away.
“I came here for a peaceful rally. When you start throwing rocks… that is not what this is about,” Maddox said. “We are not gonna be a part of that.”
John Michael Estes and fellow “Rock Stone Mountain” organizer Greg Calhoun said supporters may have been scared away by threats from counter protesters.
“That’s America these days,” Calhoun said.
Observed Estses, “the liberal media and the police have kept our people away”.
Looking across the way at the counter protesters he said, “they are paid protesters. The same ones who burned down Ferguson.”
“We’re not the ones creating violence here. If these guys win there will be no mercy. It’ll be Ferguson all over the place.”
Racially-charged riots broke out in Ferguson, Mo. after a white police officer shot and killed a black teenager.
At Stone Mountain, park police were supported by the Georgia State Patrol, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, DeKalb County Police and two helicopters in an effort to keep the rally and counter protests tame.
Confederate flag supporters Kim Beasley and Dwayne Jones arrived early wearing T-shirts saying “Heritage not Hate.”
They carried the Stars and Bars flag and the Bonnie Blue flag.
“We don’t believe in carrying these flags for racist reasons,” said Beasley, From Birmingham.
She added, “We don’t believe the Civil War was over racism. It was over tyranny.”
She also spoke about the rift between the flag supporters and the white supremacists, saying, “They have blocked us from their websites. They call us turncoats.”
She objected to the white supremacists characterization of flag supporters as false in their claims, that the flag gets are just more concerned about looking politically correct.
“I’ve never been politically correct,” she said. “My mother used to tell me to have more tact. I just said I’m going to be honest.”
Jones saw a black couple admiring the great mountain and offered to take their picture.
He said he had a relative in the civil war.
Holding the Confederate battle emblem, he said, “I’m carrying this for him.”