ATLANTA — Protesters from the left and right ends of America’s political divide squared off for hours Saturday in the city of Stone Mountain arguing, and at times fighting, over race, politics and the massive granite carving of Confederate leaders in the adjacent state park.
The protest drew dozens of heavily armed private militia from around the state, neighboring states, and as far away as Arkansas. They were motivated by the taunting of the leader of an all-black militia who marched on Stone Mountain Park July 4, but they also expressed their rage over the removal of Confederate monuments, shared conspiracy theories and voiced their support of President Donald Trump.
The militia-backed protesters were met by hundreds of counter demonstrators eager to shout them down. That group included mainline civil rights organizations like the NAACP but also far-left anarchists and socialists, some of whom arrived with assault weapons and were as heavily armed as the militia.
Though largely free of serious violence, the protest is the latest in a series of clashes since 2016 where armed groups have used Stone Mountain as a backdrop.
Saturday’s demonstration drew a large police presence from around the metro area and the Georgia State Patrol, but they stayed on the periphery of the protests. Unlike some prior demonstrations between extreme right and left groups where police used overwhelming numbers to separate them, such as last year’s protest over Super Bowl weekend, authorities allowed the two groups to approach each other. The strategy lead to several small-scale fights and regular shouting matches.
There were no arrests, police said.
One militia organizer, Arkansas-based Confederate States III%, had intended to protest inside the park, but the Stone Mountain Memorial Association denied their permit, as did the city. When the group continued with plans to demonstrate there anyway, the park announced Friday it would close its gates for the day. Groups of militia scrambled in the hours after the announcement to come up with a new plan, while counter demonstrators urged their people to stick with their plan to convene in the city.
About 200 people in the coalition of counter demonstrators began Saturday morning at the gazebo outside the Stone Mountain Welcome Center on Main Street, listening as speakers urged the crowd to do what they could to address voting issues, lending practices and forced evictions. Others urged obliterating the Confederate monument at Stone Mountain.
Richard Rose, president of the NAACP’s Atlanta branch, surveyed the sea of faces of different colors, many standing several feet apart and wearing face masks because of the current pandemic.
“This is what America looks like,” he said. “It does not look like what’s on that mountain.”
A man identified as “Brandyn,” a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, also told the crowd assembled that the same energy used to organize a march could be used for much bigger tasks.
“The same way you work together to organize a march, you can get together to address racism,” he said. “That’s the power we need to see.”
As the counter demonstrators talked, Chris Hill, a militia leader from McDonough, and nine of his Georgia Security Force III%, took up a position behind a barricade about 100 yards away.
From his position behind the barricade, Hill began talked into his cell phone where he was recording video.
“They will try their best to characterize us as white supremacists,” he said. Hill said his group was there to defend the Constitution from radical leftists, while also hitting on a variety of grievances — from gun control to repeating the concerns of the president that mail-in voting will result in fraud.
“It’s straight-up terrorism. People are killing each other over ideology,” Hill said, resting his arm against an assault rifle. “They are going against Trump supporters and — dare I say it? — whites.”
Hill’s militia of 10, vastly outnumbered, was joined by other militias later in the morning, along with sympathizers who showed up in pickup trucks festooned with Confederate flags.
Police left the groups of demonstrators largely alone for more than four hours, and over the course of the morning discipline within the two opposing groups broke down and led to chaotic scenes of small groups shouting or shoving one another.
Tracy Baisden, a Black woman from Atlanta, engaged in a long discussion with a white man, who only identified himself as Zach, as the man declared his desire that races remain separate. Like many such face-to-face encounters, little was settled.
“I think this young man is lost,” Baisden said about Zach.
Militia members sprayed several counterprotesters with insect repellent or pepper spray, and several individuals on both sides were knocked to the ground. A counterprotester ripped the face mask from an Associated Press photographer as the he was attempting document the scene.
The sides recorded video of one another, and the entire scene was heavily documented by news photographers, journalists and several documentary filmmakers. Many participants on either side also live streamed the protest on their phones.
By midday, the crowd had swelled to a combined total of more than 500, many of whom mingled in a chaotic scrum outside the Stone Mountain Methodist Church.
While counter demonstrators accused the militia members and their supporters as promoting racism, a Florida militia member who gave his call sign as “Rick Rat” said his participation wasn’t “a race thing.”
“Everybody should come together and march on DC and get all the damn Democrats out of office,” he said. “What I think they are trying to do is start a race war.”
Rick then launched into a version of a popular internet conspiracy theory known as QAnon and accused an unnamed group of Washington “elites” of being pedophiles.
“They are killing the kids and selling their organs,” he said.
Around 1 p.m., following an uptick in fighting between the groups, police marched through downtown with riot shields and dispersed the crowd. Behind the police, a unit of the National Guard waited in case they were needed, but the vast majority of protesters left peacefully. By 2 p.m., downtown Stone Mountain was quiet.
Stone Mountain police Chief Chancey Troutman said he told the groups they had three minutes to disperse.
“If they didn’t disperse in those three minutes, arrests would have been made,” he said.
(The Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Shaddi Abusaid contributed to this report.)
©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)