By the time I arrived at Stone Mountain Park, GA on Saturday April 23rd, most of the events of the White Supremacist Rally were over. When I pulled into the park, riding in the passenger seat of a beat-up mostly red Ford F150, you could almost believe the lie the sublimity of nature told: Everything is as it should be...
Close your eyes, lay in the sun and listen to the trees shivering in the slight breeze. Don't bother to look any closer, the park's permanence insists. My history will never change, so why should you grapple with it? My history will never change, so you need not strain to defend it. Be at peace. The tears of erosion that stain the sides of my smooth rock face have no hope of washing away the three Confederate leaders carved into time.
Saturday morning, two days before a Georgia state holiday known as Confederate Memorial Day, a number of organizations gathered to participate in a "Pro-White" rally. The League of the South and the KKK were numbered among those present. You can check out Audrey Washington's twitter for an excellent visual report of the morning. Apparently this occurs every year, but gathering details about what exactly happens and why is not easy. It seems no one really knew what to expect, as the police arrived in full riot gear, and protestors out-numbered participants 10 to 1. Barricades were scattered throughout the park, random groups of people perched on the curbs at intersections, the parking lots were mostly vacant and it was unclear whether people were there to exercise their bodies or their rights.
What I saw met some of my expectations and leveled others - plenty of confederate flags of course, but some were held by African-Americans. I would later come to understand this was most likely in protest. There were various banners ("Bury the Klan" covered a billowing sheet, the word 'bury' in red, looked like blood, dripping.) Plenty of police vehicles sailing up and down the roads with blue lights flashing, but ominously without sirens, like a funeral procession. At 2pm when I arrived, the rally and protest were just breaking up, and people were walking with intention back to their cars, out of the park. I was disturbed to see many men and women of both races in army fatigues, carrying assault weapons. They weren't part of the peace-keeping forces on duty. The flat black of the modern weaponry seemed menacing, unsafe, a warning. One of my most deadening moments was witnessing a group of militant white youth marching down the road, carrying a black flag bearing the letters ANTIFA.
Some of them wore bandanas covering their nose and mouth, like they had just emerged from the noxious fumes of a devastating fire. I rushed to google the acronym, only to be shocked when I discovered what those letters meant. ANTIFA is an organization that opposes fascism in all its forms. These people were protestors. My heart sank - everything about their presence felt violent, aggressive, dangerous. They were shouting "F**k the police," skulking down the sidewalk. Their masks, I would learn as I overheard a police officer announce into a megaphone, were in violation of Georgia's anti-mask statute, passed in 1951 as part of an effort to curtail the activities of the KKK. The misdemeanor that these protestors could incur, and that other protestors had already been charged with earlier that day, would (according to the stern voice of one officer) "land you in jail."
My initial wariness at entering a potentially dangerous rally and protest shifted to confusion, and a subtly growing nausea. My senses were all on high-alert. I was intensely aware of my disappointment at having showed up too late. And at my singular need to find the bad guys. And at not wanting to be mistaken for part of the problem. I manically flashed peace signs at anyone who was black. I smiled passively and bowed my head as I passed any gatherings, not wanting to make them aware that I was secretly accounting for their skin color, wardrobe, attitude - discerning which team they were on, while wanting to make my affiliation just as clear. When after an hour of wandering through the park, we turned a corner and found the remnants of the white supremacists gathered in a tucked-away parking lot, I barely had the spirit left to take a photo, much less confront them. My mind was drowning in the complexity of the day's events, my vision of a high moral ground now just a flimsy Hollywood backdrop. Let's get out of here, I told my friend.
I was too exhausted to protest. Racial tension coated everything, a thick film of viscous anger. But its weight and its undeniable presence have been a part of our fabric for so long that it seems even exposing it to the bright sun, the passions of 10-to-1 protestors, the undeniable division marked by a wall of riot shields - none of this can change its consistency. It remains, and we go home. That was the feeling that eclipsed all others. Like the massive stone that has squatted on Atlanta's horizon for 350 million years before the city rose from the trees, burned and rose again, fear and hate are here to stay. So you'd better keep those you love close, and those you don't understand a baseball bat's length away.
|Incredible image by Annalise Kaylor - please check out her photo stream for a candid and moving portrait of the day|
But I showed up too late. Hundreds of years too late.
How do you protest a person's point of view? That was what I asked my friend when she suggested we participate in the demonstration in some way. I want to be a peaceful activist; I believe that love and acceptance are the only tools that can bridge the divide. She suggested giving out flowers from her yard.
When we arrived back home, sunburnt, fear spent and hollow, the basket was still full.