Hot Springs, AR — Dumpsters surround a monument of a Confederate soldier in a sprawling garden. Members of pro-Confederacy groups and other right-wing extremist groups mill around dressed in Confederacy period clothing or yellow shirts, waving Confederate and Christian flags.
The group explains that they barricaded the statue with dumpsters to protect it from being taken down by racial justice activists, something that recently occurred in Durham, North Carolina. This marks the 29th pro-Confederate rally that the Confederate Square Group has organized.
The main organizers of the rally, James del Brock and Billy Sessions, have claimed that they intend a peaceful demonstration. However, some of the pro-Confederate protesters publicly stated that they would be armed and urged people to “use their second amendment rights”, a statement that has caused locals and counter-protesters to fear that violence may erupt.
Known as a popular tourist spot within Arkansas, the city of Hot Springs recently saw the removal of the Confederate flag from its town hall. The flag, and now the Confederate statue, attracted criticism from both local residents and out-of-town Arkansans for its use as a racist symbol and its association to America’s history of slavery. Some feared that its presence might even hurt tourism in the area.
Police watch as counter-protesters face harassment
“The police were apathetic.”
Hundreds of counter-protesters from across the state, mostly from Little Rock and Hot Springs, maintained a presence at the rally. The counter-protest included a diverse array of nonprofit organizations and coalitions, including LGBTQ and racial justice organizations, leftist groups, democratic political groups, and community resistance groups.
“I just wanted there to be a presence of people that don’t tolerate racism. Which ultimately, no matter how anyone wants to spin it, is what they stand for,” said one of the counter-protesters.
Some counter-protesters interviewed for this article chose to remain anonymous, stating that they want to avoid being “doxxed” by supporters of the rally (a term that refers to exposing someone’s personal information online, usually by using their names or images).
Other counter-protesters confirmed this, stating that members of the Confederate rally attempted to photograph them without permission and entered the counter-protesters permit area to watch them and even verbally harass them.
“I have visual confirmation from some of our people that at any given time, some of their members would change clothes and come down to spy on us,” he said. “One white male teen in a MAGA (Make America Great Again) hat and a white woman with long blonde hair and a nice camera with a long distance lens were in the area the entire time staring at us. I’m pretty sure they were there to dox us.”
Opposition to the rally has been high on both a local and state level. Counter-protesters outnumbered rally-goers by almost three-to-one, with hundreds of protesters hailing from a multitude of organizations across Arkansas. The pro-Confederate rally benefited from a large police presence — in addition to local police, state park rangers were also stationed in the area. However, many counter-protesters state that they had a much different experience with law enforcement.
“We were clearly threatened with arrest if we engaged with the white supremacists, whereas their people infiltrated our permit area, verbally assaulted us, and were allowed to walk right through our permit area. Our people were extremely compliant with the police […] I saw a lot of teamwork and love in our group in order to be as effective as possible.” — Micah, a counter-protester at the rally
Other counter-protesters corroborated this account, stating that they witnessed members of the Confederate rally purposefully trying to incite violence to get counter-protesters arrested, despite previous claims of a peaceful rally. The police, they stated, were unhelpful and “seemed apathetic”.
At one point, a car slowed down near the counter-protesters while the driver hurled slurs and white-supremacist slogans at the crowd. Carmen, a college student and community activist who attended the counter-protest, said the police did nothing about the hate incident.
“A car passed some of the counter-protesters and the driver started yelling at them. He was calling them ‘freaks’ and ‘queers’ and screaming ‘white lives matter’ and other stuff,” she said.
In spite of these incidents, it appears that law enforcement were more concerned with arresting counter-protesters for minor violations.
“I watched two very unlawful arrests of our people. It was extremely sad,” Micah remembers. Witnesses recount that the individuals who were arrested were not violating any laws. Some were arrested for allegedly blocking the sidewalk and jaywalking.
“The cops are part of the layers of white supremacy…I’m not surprised,” says Micah.
Increasing white extremist activity
More than ever, communities are seeking ways to respond to a spike in neo-nationalist and white supremacist movements.
This rally comes shortly after thousands of white nationalists and right-wing extremists gathered at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a Confederate monument, causing the death of a counter-protester and countless injuries.
In response, local communities and organizations called for the removal of Arlington Lawn’s own Confederate monument. The monument has a gruesome history dating back to the early 1900s, with two separate lynchings of black men taking place there.
“During the early 20th century, Hot Springs twice erupted into the kind of violence that has its roots in issues left unresolved by the Civil War, and both times, it happened right where that monument to Confederate soldiers stands today. Will Norman, a black man, was murdered there on June 19, 1913.”
— Guy Lancaster, the Arkansas Times
Other communities in Arkansas are also showing solidarity with the victims at Charlottesville by calling for their own local Confederate monuments to be removed. One example is Bentonville, where a petition to remove the monument is circulating — as well as a petition to oppose it.
“The creator of the Flag of the Confederate States of America, William Thompson, said, ‘as a people, we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race […] Such a flag […] would soon take rank among the proudest ensigns of the nations, and be hailed by the civilized world as the white man’s flag’”.
— Excerpt from petition to remove Confederate flags from downtown Hot Springs, quoting the creator of the flag as an example.
Though the Confederate Square Group denies any association with white nationalists and white supremacists, members of white extremist groups allegedly made a presence at the rally. Witnesses state that when pro-Confederate protesters crossed into their permit area, they passed out flyers with known white supremacist symbols (including the Celtic cross). These flyers used the phrase “White Lives Matter” and warned readers of “Black on White Violence”.
Many of these individuals wore yellow shirts and identified themselves as “the Hiwaymen”, a far-right political group that is strongly speculated to be a white supremacist organization.
In addition to the flyers, “the Hiwaymen” have been spotted in public photos using hand signs that have been associated with the white nationalist “alt-right”. However, the Southern Poverty Law Center originally attributes these hand signs to the “III% Security Force”, a loose coalition of right-wing extremist militias in the southern U.S. that has been categorized as an anti-Muslim hate group by many organizations, including SPLC.
“They can say whatever [they want] about their ideology. At the end of the day, the ‘patriot’ group Hiwaymen and the Confederate Square Group were there to protect the monuments and memory of the CSA (Confederate States of America)— a literal slave empire,” says counter-protester Arya Gilson.
One of the organizers of the pro-Confederate rally, Billy Sessions, seems to espouse much of the same extremist rhetoric and conspiracy theories that the “III% Security Force” does. Sessions recently made an unverified claim that the counter-protesters were being paid by organizations to protest, a conspiracy theory that is popular among other far-right extremists.
“They will put out Craigslist ads offering anywhere from $15 to $30 an hour — I’ve seen — [they] pay these people to get on buses and come up to your hometown and tear things up,” Sessions said. He has not yet provided evidence for this claim.
“It’s funny because Sessions mentions Redneck Revolt, BLM (Black Lives Matter), the Black Panthers, etc, when none of those organizations have the means to pay protesters,” says Arya Gilson in response to the interview. “ Everyone who was there was there of their own volition.”
Recommended Organizations & Fundraisers
Where to find resources and opportunities to help communities
Black Lives Matter Little Rock — The Little Rock chapter of the national #BlackLivesMatter movement, a racial justice organization that was formed in response to high rates of police violence targeting the black community
Center for Artistic Revolution — Grassroots & intersectional LGBTQ-centric organization based in Little Rock
inTRANSitive — Grassroots & intersectional activist organization focusing on transgender justice and resistance, based in Northwest Arkansas.
Lucie’s Place — A homeless shelter that specifically provides safety and resources for unsheltered and at-risk members of LGBTQ communities.
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