Faced with the prospect of white supremacist protesters and antifascist counterprotesters swarming the park on Super Bowl weekend, park officials announced late Friday that they had made the unprecedented decision to simply close.
“Today, nobody gets in,” Officer Pete Dudich told one driver who had to turn around. “We didn’t want you to get caught in the middle.”
The move kept people out of the park, but it didn’t stop the protests completely. The planned white supremacist rally fell apart before the closure was announced, but more than 100 counterprotesters still came to Stone Mountain Village to proclaim that such groups were not welcome at the park or in the city.
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For about an hour Saturday morning, they marched around the town, shouting slogans like “Good night, alt right” and “Death to the Klan.” Protesters burned a Klansman in effigy, and held signs that proclaimed “Sandblast Stone Mountain,” “Death to the KKK” and “Dixie be damned.”
Many of the protesters had handkerchiefs over their faces, and several carried guns.
Several of the protesters wouldn’t give their full names but said they viewed the Stone Mountain Village march as a celebration of success. The far left groups had clashed with far right protesters at Stone Mountain in 2016, and white supremacist groups also marched in Newnan last year. This time, no one from the far right showed up after the planned rally succumbed to apparent infighting. The white supremacist group had already been denied a permit for the march, but counterprotesters said the absence of the white supremacist group validated their efforts.
Sean McSorley, an Atlanta resident who was turned away at the park before finding the protest in the city, said he had never been to Stone Mountain before but was pleased the white nationalists were not allowed in. Stone Mountain, which is known for its carving of Confederate leaders, has long been a gathering point for the groups.
“As long as these backwards, racist … people are not able to do what they intended, I’m happy with the results,” he said.
Stacey Gooden, who lives in Stone Mountain, stopped on the sidewalk with her niece to watch the group go by. She said she thought the protest was a “great thing” and wished she had known it was happening earlier in time to join.
Preston Washington, a Clarkston resident who stepped out of work on Saturday to watch the protest, said he also approved of the decision to march.
“We’ve got to show what we believe in, same as they show what they believe in,” he said. “As long as the Klan is around, something like this is always going to happen.”
But not everyone in the city was pleased to have the groups there.
Joan Sharpe, a Stone Mountain resident who said the group marched down the street where she lives, said the crowd prevented her from opening her downtown store.
She called the protesters “riffraff” and said they weren’t wanted in Stone Mountain.
“This is a big day for Atlanta and Stone Mountain,” she said. “What does this show people who came to see the Super Bowl? It shows them they cannot come to Stone Mountain Village.”
At the park, people had mixed feelings about the decision to close.
Gwen Fulsang, who lives in Gwinnett County, said she was “very disappointed” she couldn’t bring a friend who was in town from Florida, to hike around the granite monolith. Margaret Williamson, who lives in Atlanta and who planned to climb the mountain Saturday morning, said she was surprised the decision had been made to close the park.
“In the U.S., I find it really surprising that they would close the park to avoid demonstrations,” she said. “It’s such a mecca for white supremacy, I can understand how the administration would be particularly sensitive to that, but I still think it’s unfortunate that people don’t have an opportunity to demonstrate and speak their mind.”
And Rabia Kamdar, a Sandy Springs resident who grew up in South Africa, said she understood the concern that the protest could get out of hand but worried closing the park didn’t help anything.
“The conversation has to happen,” she said. “When water is boiling and you put a lid on it, it just keeps boiling. … When you suppress these things is when you have serious issues.”
John Bankhead, a spokesman for the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, said the park had closed during the 2016 rally as groups fought with each other. The popular attraction has closed during ice storms or when there was no more parking on occasions like the Fourth of July. He said this is the first time the park has closed to prevent an incident. On Saturday, the temperatures reached the 60s, and people came from all over to hike, kayak or climb.
When they left Stone Mountain, many of the protesters went to Piedmont Park, where a coalition of civil rights groups was holding a Super Bowl weekend rally to call national attention to continuing racial inequality. Atlanta police estimated the crowd at fewer than 150 people.
Richard Rose, the president of the Atlanta branch of the NAACP, said his group had different tactics than the far left, but “there can be no logical disagreement against the Confederacy.”
Lecia Brooks, the outreach director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the crowd the Confederacy and white supremacy are “a stain on our country’s history.” She urged protesters to continue.
“We turned them back at Stone Mountain, and we can turn them back at every turn,” she said. “We just have to show up.”