Within hours of Saturday’s deadly terrorist attack on protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, more than 300 people gathered in front of the Nathan Bedford Forrest monument in solidarity with the Virginia town under siege by white supremacists.
Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church Pastor Earle Fisher, a familiar presence in Memphis’ grassroots activism community, called for a swift condemnation of white supremacy and criticized President Donald Trump for taking a moderate approach when addressing the attacks.
“These times do not call for silence,” said Fisher in the downtown park that once bore Forrest’s name.
Following the attack in Charlottesville, President Trump did not blame white supremacy for the violence and chaos taking place during “Unite the Right” demonstrations, but instead deferred blame to “many sides.”
The president’s neutralitly didn’t sit well with Fisher.
“You’ll either be on the side of justice or injustice,” said Fisher. “Pick a side.”
“Pick a side” evolved into one of the many chants heard at the early evening rally, their words carrying extra significance as the crowd chanted them under the bronze equestrian statue of Forrest, a slave-trader, Confederate general and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Forrest monument has been central to an ongoing citizen-led push for the removal of monuments that glorify the Confederacy and its leaders.
The deadly violence in Charlottesville occurred after demonstration in which hundreds of white supremacists, many of them armed, protested the city’s plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from public land. As the demonstration broke up, a gray Challenger plowed through a crowd of peaceful protesters, killing Heather Heyer, 32, of Charlottesville, and injuring dozens more.
A helicopter carrying two Virginia state troopers crashed en route to the car attack, killing Pilot Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates. By Saturday evening, police announced the arrest of James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Maumee, Ohio. Fields was charged with second-degree murder in connection with Heyer’s death.
— Oren Segal (@orensegal) August 13, 2017
The violence in Charlottesville is a physical manifestation of threats that Memphis-based activist Tami Sawyer said she receives regularly.
On Saturday afternoon, Sawyer put out the call on social media for the evening rally. A few hours later, she stood in front of a crowd of several hundred people, most of whom were white.
“We asked that in Southern States especially, for people to gather in front of their Confederate statues,” she said. “The amazing thing is how many people had a place to go.”
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, also made an appearance at the rally, echoing Fisher’s criticism of the president for his failure to condemn white supremacy as the cause of the violence in Charlottesville. Cohen was the only local elected official present.
“I am truly afraid of what’s happening to our nation, and it starts with Donald Trump, and it ends with Donald Trump. He has encouraged people to come out of hiding, and display their racist and anti-American attitudes,” said Cohen.
Like many public rallies in Memphis over the past year, Saturday’s gathering was held under heavy police presence.
No arrests have been made for violence at recent protests involving people of color. Yet as the rally ended on Saturday with an impromptu march up and down Union Avenue, those marching passed dozens of marked police cars and one vehicle equipped for multiple arrests.
Rally attendee Cole Bradley, who is white, said that white people in Memphis and beyond have a responsibility to show up at events like Saturday’s rally.
“This is our heritage of hate,” said Bradley. “We still benefit from this system, we still perpetuate the system, and it’s our responsibility to be here as white people.”
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