Atop the tall stone obelisk rising up amidst downtown Jacksonville’s Hemming Park, the statue of a Confederate soldier stands at ease, his folded hands resting atop his musket. His expression blank, the rusting green metal face gazes out emptily over the park, a sprawling brick square of fountains and Spanish oaks set snugly beneath the city’s gleaming financial buildings. The park is steeped in dark history, and even today, the atmosphere still resounds with echoes of its old racial tensions. Fifty-eight years ago, this was the site where a mob of Klansmen brutally and notoriously attacked civil rights activists performing a sit-in in protest of Jim Crow segregation. Last Sunday, January 30, those echoes resounded once again, as several hundred activists- followed closely by dozens of pro-Confederate counterprotesters- gathered to protest the statue of the soldier himself, a leftover remnant of the racial discrimination that they believe continues to haunt their city.
Under a pale overcast sky, the sun lost in a diffuse of white, protesters gathered in the parks central pavilion a little past 2 pm.
Fearful of violence similar to that witnessed in Charlottesville last August, Jacksonville police virtually locked down the area surrounding the park in preparation for the event: they shut down all surrounding city blocks, cordoning off all incoming streets. They patrolled the area with dozens of officers. And they separated opposing camps between two rows of bright, neon orange barricades. As people began to coalesce in the plaza, the police droned out every few minutes through the booming echo of an unseen megaphone: “The police respect ALL points of view! Please do not instigate violence!”
The pro-confederate counterprotesters largely hailed from same group, along with a few lone-wolf demonstrators who’d come independently to show solidarity. On the other side of the barricades, a diverse panoply of action groups had coalesced- Gainesville Antifa, National Women’s Liberation, the Northside Coalition, Take’EmDown Jax. But almost more prominent than the opinions regarding the monument itself- which hedged on the normal beliefs expressed at events such as this- were the specific ramifications those beliefs held for the local area of Jacksonville.
Many counterprotesters- walking beneath flotilla of massive Confederate flags- believed that removing the monuments, by erasing history, was part of a larger movement, often described as Marxist, to overthrow the government of the United States.
“They’re really attacking the South. All these progressive associations that are funded by George Soros and other Marxist corporations- you can call them that at this point- they’re seeking to divide up and conquer slowly,” Kyle McKnight, an independent pro-Confederate demonstrator, told me. “They’re pitting blacks against whites. They’re focusing on things like the south because the south has been demonized as a ‘race’ issue. It’s easier for them to push their own agenda down here because the local black population just doesn’t understand what’s happening to them.”
McKnight, armed with a rebel flag twice his height, further explained to me that the movement to remove the monument was part of the “hidden agenda” of United Nations Resolution 21. Resolution 21, a 23-year old, nonbinding action plan designed to push for global sustainable development, has been taken up as a cause célèbre by many conservative activists, who believe it is a Trojan horse designed create a worldwide “eco-totalitarian” regime.
“While currently they may be focused on the Confederate monument, it’s more than that: they actually want to erase the Civil War from our textbooks,” said a bearded leader of the counterprotesters, who preferred to go by his Internet call-name “Giggles.”
Speaking over the roar of chanting counterprotesters (“USA! USA!” they exhorted loudly to the other side; “FREEDOM!” they shouted furiously, a lá Braveheart), Giggles explained to me that the movement against the monuments was a plot by the Democratic party to persecute Christians and Confederates via a one-world government.
“The Democrats will make it illegal to push a certain historical topic that they deem illegal…You will see persecution amongst Christians more and more. You’ll see persecution amongst Confederates more and more.” His voice opened and became sincerer as he explained the theory to me. “If you really think about it… They’ll create a one-world government, a one-world financial system, a one world religion, and anybody not in that circle will be killed. They’ll be rounded up, they’ll be imprisoned, they’ll be enforced to wear a mark.”
On the opposite side of the barricades, over the piercing shouts of the Confederates amassed fifty yards distant, protesters gathered before a stage to listen to a series of speakers.
Many anti-monument protesters believed that what they perceived as the racially charged symbolism vested in the Confederate statue was indirectly connected to the naming of Jacksonville’s public schools after Confederate generals. Accordingly, many railed at the fact that poor black students in Jacksonville are often funneled through public schools named after pro-slavery generals, the same men who once oppressed their ancestors.
“Even though the school board voted for the name of their school,” Etta Ettlinger, of the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition, told me before the speeches, “the school board- with the United Daughters of the Confederacy- said ‘No, you can’t name your school: we’re gonna name it after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan.’” She was referring to Westside High School, a majority African American school that, until 2014, was Nathan Bedford Forrest High School: named after the infamous founder of the white terrorist organization.
She said that intimidating blacks by naming their schools after Confederate generals was the backhanded strategy of white southerners to continue repudiating government sanctioned equality, even after the Civil Rights movement made such equality legal.
Valerie Starks, formerly a black student of Jacksonville’s public school system and now an activist at the University of North Florida, gave a speech deploring the naming of her schools after Confederate leaders, tying in the naming of the schools with the with the racial glorification embodied in the statue high above the plaza across from her.
“(These monuments) tell people of color that their voices don’t matter, that their experiences don’t matter, that we don’t matter,” she said.
The crowd roared in applause. Riding their electricity, she led a series of resounding chants:
“When I say ‘Take ‘em!’ you say ‘Down!’ ‘Take ‘em!’”
Many prominent black and white organizers on the side of the anti-monument protesters rose to the podium to address the crowd that afternoon.
Ben Frasier, the baritone-voiced leader of the progressive Northside Coalition, invoked Shakespeare in his speech, declaring to the crowd that the question of whether Jacksonville would shed its racial chains is a question of “To be or not to be.”
“After four hundred years of blood sweat and tears, we say: Confederate monuments must be removed and relocated. We say: one Jacksonville, one city: to be, or not to be. That’s the question.”
Ron Rawls, the black pastor whose became prominent in St. Augustine for his activism fighting to remove and recontextualize the Confederate monuments in that town, spoke before the crowd. His was a thundering oration, replete with Biblical allusions that left the crowd in a furtive astonishment:
“God addresses cowardly public officials choosing popularity over justice. Cowardly public officials that cater and pander to historical oppressors while telling the historically oppressed to ‘get over it.’”
Very faintly, against the gravelly crescendo of his powerful voice, one could hear the shrill, high-pitched rebel yells of the Confederates on the other side of the barricades, the noise faint in the distance.
“They might not have voted to take them down,” he said, the crowd rearing up in anticipatory applause. “But if they don’t take it down, I declare that we will shut it down!”