George on Georgia – Heckler Watching
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Protest is good. Protest is healthy. Protest is necessary.
Riots may get Donald Trump reelected.
That’s a hard truth. It is not meant to diminish the necessity of protest or the legitimacy of anger. It’s just a fact, laying in the road like a stone.
People have been asking me why I’ve been so keen on observing protests of late. I was at the one last night downtown in Atlanta. I arrived just after someone spray-painted the outside of the Zone 5 police station. A cop went to arrest the guy, but people in the crowd snatched him out of their hands, then smashed a window – again – on the police station and set off fireworks as a distraction.
There’s a crew. They know what they’re doing.
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And that’s what I’m looking for. A sense of deliberation. Coordination. Intent.
Guns have been ubiquitous at street protests here, which creates a serious risk of the heckler’s veto on peaceful protest. A thousand people may be in the street marching in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, but it only takes one with lousy trigger discipline or poor impulse control – or malign intentions – to force everyone present to answer disingenuous questions about why they were at a “violent” protest.
All it takes is one person.
Policy wonks have been going back and forth over the last couple of weeks about the effect of protests on the election in light of comments made by David Shor, an influential Democratic data analyst. Shor said, basically, that public protests increase the share of votes for Democrats, but riots increase the vote share for Republicans, and that this should matter if Democrats want to win back the White House. Shor left his consulting gig two weeks later after activists decided this observation was a “cancelable” offense.
Injustice demands protest, and that shouldn’t be governed by poll numbers, people cried. And they’re right. But the ease with which a bad actor in an age of dirty tricks and media sensationalism can change perceptions should not be ignored.
It’s hard not to notice that the highest-profile police shootings of late have been in swing states. Minnesota. Georgia. And now Wisconsin.
Last night, I found myself in the company of James Tillman and his photogenic black militia. I caught up to them over by Peachtree and Pine, just after police began to scatter protesters. A group of twenty or so marched from there to Woodruff Park, rifles in hand, tailed all the way by an armored vehicle and a dozen or so state patrol officers. Every once in a while, the state patrol would get out and shout something about unlawful assembly, and everyone would take to the sidewalks.
No one there was interested in being arrested, or breaking the law. They weren’t part of the window breaking. They marched in a two-column line. They kept their fingers off their triggers. They generally had good muzzle discipline. And when they called for order, by and large, they got it.
They weren’t there to confront police officers. They were there to prevent the heckler’s veto, to dissuade a white supremacist from hunting “antifa” in their natural habitat.
Street violence has largely been a product either of confrontation between the far right and the far left, as we’ve seen in Portland, or of deliberate provocation, as we saw with the arrest of a Boogaloo boy – a white supremacist – as the “umbrella man” in a Minneapolis arson during the demonstrations there.
The horror, politically, is that assigning responsibility for violence honestly doesn’t actually matter for electoral purposes. More violence means more Republican votes.
I was looking for that when I went to the Stone Mountain protest and counter-protest on August 14th. The conditions for the heckler’s veto were perfect. Stone Mountain Park closed its gates at the last moment, throwing demonstrators from both sides together unexpectedly on the same local streets.
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A group of white southern conservative partisans took issue with a black militia – the NFAC – marching through Stone Mountain Park in force. Organized in part by American Patriots USA, a far-right organization with strong ties to the white supremacist movement, the protest on August 14th also attracted Three Percenter militia groups like the Georgia Security Force III% … which at this point consists of a single squad of about a dozen people, led – and I use that term loosely – by “General BloodAgent” Chris Hill, the Tazerface of militia monikers.
I had a short call with former DeKalb sheriff Thomas Brown that morning, early. Brown helps Stone Mountain out with police planning, among other things. He was pissed and calling in favors from every police agency he knew to try and manage things at the last moment.
Clint Monroe, a Stone Mountain city councilman, said that the park’s last-minute decision fundamentally damaged the city’s relationship with the park. “We don’t want to be associated with a monument that draws protests like this,” he said.
The park’s leadership appears to be considering changes – that they don’t want to talk about yet – to try to mollify critics.
DeKalb Police has been working on plans for the protest for a week, coordinating with the Marshal’s and sheriff’s offices and the National Guard. But their presence at first was hands-off. They kept their distance, generally, and let things flow.
As usual, the conservatives and militia folks were outnumbered four or five to one by counter-protesters. No real effort was made to keep the two groups separated. For the first time that I’ve seen since watching this stuff, people got in each other’s face in large numbers.
Chris Hill marched his group onto Main Street. An hour later, counter-protesters marched them 200 yards back.
Some of the folks who showed up were known, hardcore racists, sitting the back of a truck next to First United Methodist Church on Mountain Street, a shotgun in hand. Another white supremacist from Alabama appeared in an old rebel slouch hat waving a big Confederate flag. He showed up around 10 and lost it to the crowd by 10:30 or so as it burned in the street. A lot of flags got snatched, frankly. It was a sport at the end.
And it prompted fighting. I watched three different brawls erupt in front of me. Fists. Hair grabbed. Kicks. In one case, a baseball bat. In each case, two or three people went at it, surrounded by 20 people with cameras, themselves surrounded by another 20 people with guns.
I watched a Black man in a traditional Fulani conical hat exhorting the crowd. “None of you want to fight! What are you here for!” he shouted, to no avail.
Everyone wondering if this would be it – the thing that escalates conflict into a gunfight. But no one here wants to be the one who lights the match.
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