White power leaders boasted they were going to”Rock Stone Mountain” Saturday.
Instead, it was their opponents who nabbed the spotlight. While counter-protesters swarmed the popular DeKalb County park, clashing — sometimes violently — with police and prompting worried officials to close popular park attractions, about two-dozen white power demonstrators were left waving flags behind barricades in a remote parking lot, ringed by police in riot gear. They packed up and left by early afternoon.
Nine counter-protesters were arrested after a day of cat-and-mouse chases with police. They took to wooded trails trying to confront the white power group, which had dubbed its rally “Rock Stone Mountain.” The situation grew tense for several hours. The counter-protesters set a barricade ablaze and hurled rocks and fireworks at police officers. Park officials canceled the popular laser show and shut down the cable car and amusement area as the situation escalated in the early afternoon.
Meanwhile in Rome, 85 miles away in northwest Georgia, about 80 neo-Nazi supporters of the National Socialist Movement were also outnumbered by counter-protesters. The neo-Nazis marched briefly in full black military garb, some waving flags with swastikas. Several participants were in traditional Ku Klux Klan robes. Two counter-protesters there were arrested for disorderly conduct at the rally.
Saturday’s dizzying mix of rallies, protests, organizations and viewpoints had law enforcement worried. It was prompted by the timing of Confederate Memorial Day and Adolf Hitler’s birthday. Stone Mountain, the birthplace of the modern Ku Klux Klan and home to a massive granite carving of Confederate generals, has become a magnet for such events. Officials have said they do not welcome such displays but cannot turn the groups away.
One group at Stone Mountain on Saturday blended supporters of Confederate heritage, members of local militia groups, the online activist group Anonymous and the integrated biker group Bastards MC, among others. They argued they support Confederate heritage but oppose racism.
“Good job, guys. We won,” Steve Panther of Confederates of Michigan, one of the organizers, said as they wrapped up. “We beat the hate.”
But his more sedate counter-demonstration was overshadowed by the confrontational style adopted by other demonstrators — some clad all in black with masks — who were seeking to confront the white power rally.
Counter-protesters from All Out ATL 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, they wove through the park trails, making it to within sight of the Confederate flags at the park’s Yellow Daisy lot. When police prevented them from entering, the exchange turned violent. Counter-protesters emptied trash cans and threw rocks toward the barricades. Fireworks exploded.
“Klan out now. Klan out now,” they chanted.
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.
The counter-protesters later claimed victory, arguing they effectively shut down the “Rock Stone Mountain” rally.
“We made a statement that we are not gonna get intimidated by and watch this terrorist group harass and incite fear and violence,” Dawn O’Neal said as she hugged a friend. “We stood up to them today.”
“Rock Stone Mountain” organizers attracted only a tiny portion of the up to 2,000 participants they had predicted.
Organizers John Michael Estes and Greg Calhoun blamed threats from counter-protesters for keeping supporters away. They also argued that police were denying their members admission, a charge authorities denied.
“That’s America these days,” Calhoun said.
Observed Estes, “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.
Nonetheless, one supremacist participant insisted the rally had been a success.
“They didn’t win. They didn’t shut us down. We had a successful, peaceful rally,” said Joseph Andrews, 37, of Kennesaw.
The participants disbanded after Roy Pemberton, of Dallas, showed up waving a large red KKK flag. Organizers had said they did not want such symbols at the event and repeatedly asked him to leave.
“That’s not our message. He’s not one of us. We don’t want any hate symbols,” Andrews said.
But as Andrews and others departed, Pemberton told reporters he was ashamed of the white race because more people didn’t show up.
The day’s chaotic events took some visiting the park by surprise.
Troy Bryant was at the park with his wife and daughter when they saw some groups with Confederate flags by the mountain.
“Just a bunch of redneck white guys, embarrassing the rest of us,” he said.
But when his wife, Allyson, learned about the clashes between police and some people protesting a white supremacist rally, her mood changed.
“That’s scary,” she said. “I’m just glad we weren’t here for that.”
Even some of the counter-protesters said they were shocked as the confrontations escalated.
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 suffered minor injuries, he said.
Eight of those arrested were charged with failure to remove their masks. Another person was charged with aggravated assault after throwing a smoke bomb at an officer.
Katherine Thilo, who said she was part of her church group’s peaceful protest, was left frantically looking for her daughter Lindsay as the situation spiraled toward violence.
“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.”
But not all of the conflict turned physical.
Under the shadow of the giant carving of General Robert E. Lee, some Confederate supporters entertained representatives of Black Lives Matter with debate over the cultural meaning and the significance of the Confederate battle flag. Occasionally heated, the debates generally ended with handshakes or even hugs.
Ayala Vallegas, the daughter of a black man and Puerto Rican woman from Knoxville, Tenn., watched the discussions with a battle flag propped on her shoulder.
“We’re not racists,” she said, with a mountain twang. “We have a culture, like everyone else. This is pretty much our culture. This is our flag.”