A pro-Confederate rally in Richmond, Virginia, planned around a controversial statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee put many Virginians on edge this week, with many wondering whether the action would serve as a grim second act of the deadly riot in nearby Charlottesville on August 12th. But as the crowds gathered and police massed on Saturday, the neo-Confederates were comically outnumbered.
Members of a group called The New Confederate States of America claimed that approximately 70 members would attend, but only five were visible holding banners and signs at 10:30 a.m., half an hour after the rally began. Hundreds of protesters milled around with a handful of pro-statue locals mixed among them.
"My heritage and my ancestors and what that monument stands for," Bill Miller, wearing a shirt with a Confederate battle flag, told The Daily Beast. Miller is not a member of the New Confederate States of America. "It's a memorial. Like a big headstone for all the soldiers who fought and died for the south. Quite a few of them, sixty, were my ancestors."
Miller agreed that African Americans are entitled to rights and roles in society that are equal with whites and other races.
Miller's views were in the minority among the crowd that filled a section of Monument Avenue and several side streets.
"I felt an obligation make sure I showed up, this is actually my first protest but I knew having been a resident of Richmond for the last seven years that if they showed up and we didn't show up it would be bad," said Luke Meeken, a local teacher. "So I got outside of my comfort zone and came down."
Japharii Jones, leader of a Black Lives Matter group (which is unaffiliated with the national BLM organization) called BLM 757 described a position between those of the Confederates and most protesters.
"I'm for the reasoning behind the statue," Jones said. "It's here and I would rather build above it [the statue]. Knowing the means it would take to destroy it, there are bigger issues in the world. Awkward as it is, the other side does have a point."
Jones broke off his interview suddenly to run to catch up with a contingent of about a hundred protesters who began to erupt into noise around several pro-Confederates, including a man wearing a "don't tread on me" T-shirt with a pistol on his hip.
The debate in the middle of the street devolved into accusations between different groups of protesters, some of whom accused Jones of being too willing to engage with political opponents. As a black woman yelled at Jones (who is also black) and closely engaged with him, police officers in riot gear grabbed hold of her and led her away in handcuffs. The exact charges are not known.
The crowd became enraged at the woman's arrest and even Jones began to chant "let her go!" with a raised fist.
Protesters later gathered in Stuart Circle, several blocks from the Lee Statue, and began a long march through the streets of Richmond. Led by scouts on small, fixed-gear bicycles, a group of about two hundred and fifty marchers chanted slogans and paraded down Broad Street, Richmond's main thoroughfare.
A Mini Cooper with the Red Bull logo stopped at an intersection as the procession passed. The driver opened the trunk and began to hand out free cans of cold Red Bull to protesters, journalists and police.
As the parade arrived back in Stuart Circle, tensions rose when police in riot gear closed in but chose not to disperse the crowd. Two more arrests were made when masked people on bicycles arrived on the scene. It is a felony for an adult to wear a mask in public in the city of Richmond without certain causes.
"You should never feel like you're going to be in a fight when you come to a protest," Jones said. "We are history breakers. We don't want to make history, we want to break history... people can like like they want, sleep with who you want to, eat what you want to. Who is anyone to tell you how to live your life?"