Beating a tambourine with the palm of her hand, Carol Williams wove through the thickening crowd forming around the downtown Gainesville statue of the Confederate solider. Her shouts became hoarse spasms.
“Rebel!” Crack. “Flag!” Crack. “Don’t!” Crack. “Mean!” Crack. “Nothin’!”
Only moments earlier, Williams had been in a shouting match with one of the 50 protesters who had come waving Confederate flags in support of keeping the statue.
“You’re a racist!” She shouted.
“You’re a racist!” He shouted back.
They had faced off this way, hurling insults, until fellow protesters linked arms with Williams and steered her away.
Though Gainesville-born and raised, Williams said she came from Washington, DC, to visit her sister, Faye Williams, one of the coordinators of the protest. Despite being on vacation, when she heard about the protest, she said she needed to attend.
“Ya’ll know what the Confederate flag means,” she said, scanning her eyes across the crowd. “That still hurts.”
More than 150 people gathered Thursday, July 9, around the Confederate statue, known as Old Joe, to either call for its removal or demand that it stay. The nearly three hours of speeches culminated in the two groups standing apart, volleying chants over one another until the police intervened.
The split protest has been developing since late June after the Charleston shootings, according to local activist Jesse Arost. Locals partnered with student groups like the University of Florida’s Dream Defenders, CHISPAS and others to call for the removal of the statue, creating a Facebook event titled “Remove the Confederate Statue! End White Supremacy and Racist Violence!” As of this writing, 248 Facebook users indicated they were going.
Those who wish to remove the statue will take a petition to the County Commission meeting on Tuesday, July 14, and speak during public comment. Because the statue is on county property, only county commissioners have the authority to move it.
Two opposing Facebook events surfaced: one called “Battle Flag Rally: Stop Southern Cultural Genocide,” the other, “Save the Confederate Statue! End Liberal Idiocy!”
Both, in addition to members of the Florida League of the South, who seek Southern independence from the United States and whom the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as a neo-Confederate extremist group, showed up Thursday night.
James Scillinglaw, a member of Sons of Confederate Soldiers, said the Confederate flag has been hijacked by hate groups, arguing it is not inherently a hateful symbol.
“Because it’s been hijacked by hate groups, the good guys — like you and me and the average citizens — are being punished because of what the hate groups are doing,” he told WUFT News.” And that’s the reason why I’m here today. I don’t want to be punished for what some idiot did.”
Protesters who wanted the statue to remain, like Scillinglaw, hovered at the peripheries of the protest, displaying flags and Southern paraphernalia – including a horse outfitted in period-appropriate gear.
Steven Ingram, spokesperson for the Florida League of the South, said members outside of Gainesville heard about the protest from a local member and came to support the statue.
On the other hand, Arost said the group wants to remove the statue from public property and put it in a new location, like the Matheson Museum.
Opposers of the statue said they believe it is a symbol of hate. Because of what it represents, Arost added, the group wishes to have it removed from public property.
It was first erected in 1904 with an inscription reading, “They counted the cost and in defense of right they paid the martyr’s price.
“These symbols are offensive,” said resident Kali Blount after speaking during the public comment period of last week’s city commission meeting. “Anything on public space must be acceptable to the whole public.”
Eric Brown, a UF political science major and member of Dream Defenders, said removing the statue will help send a message.
“To live in America as a black person is to live in constant vigilance,” said Eric Brown, a UF political science student and member of Dream Defenders. “It is important to send a message that ‘business as usual’ will not continue in Gainesville, continue in Charleston, continue anywhere.”
The crowd let out a cheer.
After each scheduled speaker delivered his or her message, Faye Williams, who helped coordinate the event, opened the floor to anyone who wanted to speak. She hugged a number of the speakers as they stepped up, including Yocheved Zenaida-Cohen, barista at Radical Press Café, and trans affairs coordinator at Wild Iris.
Zenaida-Cohen gestured toward the crowd and said to understand those who want the statue to stay, we need to know that many of them were taught a white-centered version of history.
“None of us are going to be able to dismantle white supremacy without first getting extremely uncomfortable,” she said as members of the audience applauded.