Stone Mountain Park to close Saturday in face of protests

The risk of violent clashes between white nationalists, pictured here from a rally in 2016, and counter demonstraters prompted Stone Mountain Park to close the park to visitors Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. (BEN GRAY / AJC)

The risk of violent clashes between white nationalists, pictured here from a rally in 2016, and counter demonstraters prompted Stone Mountain Park to close the park to visitors Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. (BEN GRAY / AJC)

On the eve of Super Bowl weekend with an estimated 1 million visitors in town, one of the state’s largest and most recognizable tourist attractions announced it will close Saturday.

The Stone Mountain Memorial Association made the announcement closing the 3,600-acre park, best known for the mammoth carving of Confederate leaders on the face of the granite mountain, because it could not adequately police an influx of left-wing protesters who plan to gather there.

“No vehicles or pedestrian traffic will be allowed into the park. Only hotel and campground guests will be allowed entry and exit through the park gate,” the association board said in a brief statement released Friday evening. “Security concerns have been identified and are being addressed by state and local law enforcement authorities.”

Although it is the off-season, the park draws thousands of tourists every weekend and more than 4 million annually.

While not announced until late Friday, park officials have known since November that white supremacists and nationalists were planning a rally for Super Bowl weekend. Officials had been considering closing the park for at least a week after the group vowed to hold the rally despite being denied a permit.

On Thursday, that group announced they had cancelled their rally amid infighting and fears for personal safety. But a coalition of left-wing activists who spent weeks organizing a counter protest announced they would go to the park anyway "in a spirit of celebration."

The coalition of counter protesters released a statement Friday evening criticizing the closure as unfair to local residents and a "stop-gap" measure that sidesteps the problem of the carving. Sean Wolters, an activist with All Out ATL, said the park is "foolish" to treat his group as if it posed the same threat "as a white nationalist gathering."

The coalition said it will continue with its plan to march on the park Saturday morning.

In a message posted on Facebook Friday, Stone Mountain Police Chief Chancey Troutman promised to strictly enforce city ordinances on parking and trespassing.

“These groups do not represent the Stone Mountain community, and we will not tolerate such folks disturbing the peacefulness of our village,” he said.

The decision to close during one of the most internationally visible weekends in Atlanta history is stunning. But park officials may have considered it a better option than allowing a chaotic scene to play out before hundreds of journalists from around the world in Atlanta for the Super Bowl.

The massive carving continues to be a source of controversy. In 2017, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams called on the carving to be removed, although she moderated that view later in the campaign and said she wanted to have a "conversation" on the future of the monument.

Atlanta NAACP President Richard Rose told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he has spoken to international journalists who are “astounded that Georgia would have something like Stone Mountain.”

Park spokesman John Bankhead said the closure was “prudent” given the available resources.

“Our priority is the welfare and safety of the visiting public,” he said.

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, who formerly served on the Stone Mountain board, said he supports the decision to close the park “out of an abundance of caution.”

“Obviously, it was a decision made in concert and consultation with law enforcement with the goal to protect all the citizens," Thurmond said.

Along with its natural and commercial attractions, the park features a 336-room Marriott resort hotel and more than 400 RV, camper and tent camping sites. Anticipated attendance for this weekend was not available, but the park can attract gigantic crowds. The four-day Yellow Daisy arts and crafts festival draws an estimated 200,000.

The extra attention garnered by the Super Bowl is why the white supremacist and white nationalist organizers chose the weekend.

The state-owned park has long been a target for extremist groups, starting with the Ku Klux Klan who marked their "rebirth" as an organization with a cross burning at the mountain's summit in 1915. In recent years, the carving has been a flash point between small groups of white supremacists and other right-wing radicals and a more numerous coalition of left-wing groups determined to disrupt them.

The organizers of the self-styled "pro-white" rally called Rock Stone Mountain II held a similar protest in 2016 which resulted in hours of conflict between hundreds of counter protesters and police who held back the crowds. Despite assistance from the Georgia State Patrol and other police departments, park officials ultimately decided to close the gates during that rally citing disruption and violence.

This time, with Super Bowl events crowding downtown, there was little chance the small Stone Mountain Park police force could muster the same help from other jurisdictions.

The closure will affect local visitors who frequent the park for walking and hiking and many out-of-town tourists. Bankhead said the park has notified people who bought advance tickets online for park attractions, including the popular “Snow Mountain.”

Concerns about disruptions at the park during the Super Bowl began in October when the organizers of the original Rock Stone Mountain, long-time activists with ties to the Klan and neo-Nazi organizations, announced plans for a new rally on their Facebook page. Park officials denied their permit application in November based on the violence and disorder that resulted from the 2016 rally, but the activists behind the effort never called it off.

Michael Weaver, a self-described white nationalist, complained that the problems were caused by the massive number of counter demonstrators, rather than his smaller group. Weaver, who also is known as Michael Carothers, said the group wanted to challenge the denial on First Amendment grounds but they were unable to find a lawyer willing to represent them.

In a long statement released Thursday and published on his blog, Weaver blamed “a series of road blocks in regards to the logistics behind the planning of this event” for the group’s decision to cancel the rally. He said the group plans to take their fight for a permit to the courts and reschedule the event for later in the year. But John Michael Estes, another one of the organizers, blamed internal problems, including “rats” and “informants” in cooperating far-right organizations.

“I’m the only person I can ever trust,” he said in a Facebook Live recorded Wednesday. “That’s how it is when you start dealing with these movement organizations.”

In the recorded video, Estes sounded despondent.

“Our only hope is guerrilla warfare. Small cells of three to five people. Leaderless resistance. I don’t know three to five people I could trust in all my years of activism,” he said.

Thurmond said the collapse of Rock Stone Mountain shows the lack of strength in that extremist camp.

“Let’s celebrate the fact that this guy couldn’t get one other person to come march with him,” he said. “And we’ll just get together and enjoy the Super Bowl.”