Despite promises of 20,000 rallying white nationalists and a Confederate-flag bedecked caravan of big rigs, downtown Memphis was eerily quiet on Saturday at high noon.
The day had been billed as a “Rally for Forrest” “Brought to you by: The Southern Individualist, Confederate 901, The Hiwaymen, Freedom Crew, Carolina Defenders and Many More,” according to promotional propaganda. However, after Neo-Nazi Billy Roper of Shieldwall Network announced plans for a white nationalist rally that he said could bring 20,000 to the park, the Confederate groups changed plans and announced a caravan that would drive by the park instead.
All that was visible as about 20 anti-racist activists marched into the area – just before high noon, the time that Roper and the Confederates said they would make their appearances – was miles of barricades that included iron rails and dump trucks, crime scene tape closing both Fourth Bluff Park and Health Sciences Park, and dozens of police cars, signs stating that the parks were closed, and uniformed law enforcement from three states.
The Confederates and Neo-Nazis were gathering in Memphis to protest the removal of statues of slave traders Jefferson Davis, the first and only President of the Confederate States of America (CSA), and Nathan Bedford Forrest,an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan. The statue of Bedford rested atop the grave where both he and his wife are buried. Tennessee state law requires that the Tennessee Historical Commission grant a waiver before Confederate monuments can be removed. When the Historical Commission refused to give a timely hearing to the City of Memphis request to remove the statues, the city sold both parks and their statues to a private non-profit. The non-profit immediately removed both statues.
The anti-racist activists, who included members of SURJ (Standing Up for Racial Justice) Memphis, the Tennessee Women of Faith Collective and Mercy Junction Justice & Peace Center, were quickly escorted by police to a designated area for counter-protesters. They were told they would be searched for weapons with a metal-detecting wand before entering an iron rail-enclosed protest area, where they would have to remain. Anyone leaving the area after entering could only do so with a police escort. The group refused to enter the enclosure and were told they would either have to enter the enclosure or they would have to leave the area. After nearly an hour, the police told them they could stay on the sidewalk and would not have to enter the enclosure.
After nearly two hours on the sidewalk, the anti-racist group was yet to see the first Confederate drive-by or Neo-Nazi protester.
Reports online show that the Confederate 901 caravan never made it into the city, but spent the afternoon driving in circles on Interstate 240 with a police escort. Numbers of vehicles in the caravan ranged from low reports of only 20, to media reports of about 50, to Confederate 901’s own report, which says there were 137 vehicles and the caravan was two miles long.
Like the anti-racists, Roper’s dozen white supremacists were escorted to an iron-rail enclosure. They carried a banner with the words: “Diversity=White Genocide.” Roper gave a speech and the group sang “Dixie.”
The enclosures for the white supremacists and the anti-racist activists were positioned so that neither group could see or hear the other.
However, later that afternoon, an antifa group and the anti-racist group caught up with two Confederates in a parking lot in downtown. The two groups exchanged words before police arrived and the Confederates quickly left the area.