White extremists rally at Stone Mountain as heritage gives way to hate

Pro-Confederate flag supporters at a protest at Stone Mountain last November offer a Klan “salute” at the base of the mountain trail. Organizers for the rally initially denied connections to white extremists, but photos posted later to social media showed them in clothing with Klan symbols. KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM
Pro-Confederate flag supporters at a protest at Stone Mountain last November offer a Klan “salute” at the base of the mountain trail. Organizers for the rally initially denied connections to white extremists, but photos posted later to social media showed them in clothing with Klan symbols. KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

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A year ago, the Confederate flag was not a front-of-mind issue for most Georgians. Some considered it a dead issue in the state, a battle fought and won in 2001 when the battle emblem was removed from the state flag in a racially charged political season.

Then came Charleston and the massacre of nine members of a black church. The man charged with the shootings, Dylann Roof, a professed white supremacist who posted photos of himself online posing with Confederate flags and symbols, reignited the long-simmering debate of what to do with vestiges of our Confederate past.

In Georgia, attention quickly focused on Stone Mountain and its massive Confederate carving. Civil rights groups called for its erasure and defenders began gathering under the motto “heritage not hate.”

But almost as quickly, heritage has given way to hate.

This Saturday, white supremacists will gather at Stone Mountain for “Rock Stone Mountain” and what they have described as an openly “white power” rally.

Pro-Confederate heritage rallies at the state park had been drifting further toward the far-right edge since August. But it was only after a small November rally was revealed to be organized by members of the Ku Klux Klan and other white extremist groups that organizers began promoting this weekend's rally online as intentionally racial in purpose, timed to coincide with Confederate Memorial Day (which the state quietly will mark Monday).

It’s clearly an exciting moment for organizers, many of whom have confined their racial warfare to social media and have had little opportunity to openly express it in the real world.

“This is the first large rally as far as coming from a quote-unquote white nationalist (perspective),” Michael Estes, one of the Rock Stone Mountain organizers, told me. Estes’ rally permit filed with the park estimates between 200 and 2,000 attendees, but prior rallies have been much smaller than predicted.

Ideology rooted in racism

The loose-knit group of activists claim they are in danger of what they term “cultural genocide,” where whites are overwhelmed by other races. Their rhetoric targets African Americans, but also growing immigrant populations.

“All of our homelands are being flooded with immigrants and in many cases criminal immigrants from the Third World,” Estes said. At the same time, Estes and other organizers claim theirs is not a message of hate.

“It is a pro-white rally,” he said. “It’s about love and preserving our own kind.”

That explanation is little more than old racism wearing new clothes, said Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.

“It’s a sugar-coated 14 words,” he said.

The “14 words” refers to an extremist motto, 14 words long, penned by white supremacist David Lane, who died in prison nearly a decade ago. Those words about securing the future of the white race live on among white supremacist circles as tattoos, T-shirts and email salutations.

“The dominant paradigm in white supremacist ideology is that the white race is doomed to extinction by a rising tide of color that is controlled and manipulated by the Jews,” Pitcavage said. “So anything is justifiable if it can save the white race.”

Counter protesters, too

The group may number in the dozens or climb to the hundreds, but it almost certainly will be overwhelmed by at least two separate coalitions of counter protesters anxious to put a stop to the display of “white power.”

Here’s where it could get confusing, and you might need a scorecard to keep track.

One group of counter protesters is comprised of Confederate flag supporters who claim the “heritage not hate” approach to the symbols and are anxious to distance themselves from the explicitly racial motivations of Rock Stone Mountain.

“Not everybody sees the flag as a hate symbol,” said Steve Panther, a Michigan-based supporter of Confederate heritage who is one of the organizers of the counter protest group. “We hope we can wake up the world that Confederate lives matter too. … We’re tired of the KKK stealing our symbol.”

The heritage supporters — disdained by the Rock Stone Mountain group — will be joined by elements of the anarchist group Anonymous and an integrated motorcycle gang called the Bastards M.C., known for their aggressive counter demonstrations against racist groups. Also joining that group will be members of private militia groups who have attended prior flag rallies as “security.”

Panther said he is expecting up to 300 supporters and is proud of the unusual coalition.

“I never thought I would see so many groups stand with the battle flag,” he said.

‘We don’t want them here’

Another group protesting against Rock Stone Mountain is being organized under an umbrella group called All Out ATL, which formed in January specifically to counter the white supremacist rally. All Out ATL is made up of progressive and other left-leaning groups, including student groups, anti-fascist organizations and labor groups, as well as elements of the Black Lives Matter and Occupy movements.

An organizer for that counter protest said he was expecting between 300 and 1,000. The group had a specific goal of stopping the white supremacists from climbing the mountain. Mission accomplished, I guess.

For security purposes, Stone Mountain authorities this week banned Rock Stone Mountain from hiking up the hill.

While officials with the park say the rallies are permitted under the First Amendment, it’s clear they are getting tired of hosting these groups, drawn by the massive carving of Confederate leaders.

“We don’t want them here. This is a family-oriented park,” said John Bankhead, park spokesman. “These rallies have just gotten out of hand and they need to stop it.”

A Nazi rally in Rome

While park officials are disgusted the mountain is once again a focal point for racial and political unrest, you could see this coming months and months ago.

Last August, hundreds of overwhelmingly white, conservative flag supporters rallied at the park, and these same white supremacists were within their ranks then. One touch-tone event of that rally was a speech given by the League of the South, a group that advocates secession of the Southern states and the establishment of white rule.

In talking about the removal of Confederate symbols, one League speaker put it in start terms. “This is about erasing us,” he told a growing crowd.

Sounds familiar, right? By November, rally participants wore shirts with Lane’s 14 words on them and posed for photos by offering Klan salutes. Once the television cameras left, they put on jackets and hats with KKK emblems, later posting those pictures on Facebook.

Adding to Saturday’s mix is the annual meeting of the National Socialist Movement, a Michigan-based neo-Nazi group, 80 miles to the northwest in Rome. The Nazi gathering was planned before Rock Stone Mountain, but the two groups got together and coordinated their events to minimize conflict.

Saturday night the two groups plan to converge at a bar in rural Paulding County for a racist rock concert — and a cross burning.

You can’t make this stuff up.

And you wouldn’t want to.

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