Opposing Rallies at Pensacola’s Lee Square Monument Kickstart a Community Discussion
by Jeremy Morrison
Some pretty surreal moments went down Saturday in Lee Square as dueling rallies played out beneath Pensacola’s Confederate monument. Some moments shared between those wishing to preserve the monument and those hoping to remove it laid bare the community’s cultural and racial tensions. But other moments almost offered hope — a plenty hard commodity to come by at the intersection of such darkened crossroads.
These moments weren’t kumbaya. They weren’t peace pipes, or ponies and rainbows. They were kind of strange. But they were something. A dialogue of sorts.
Like when leather-clad biker R.C. Pittman leaned into a handshake with Jermaine Williams and made an offer to a group of black men who had crossed Palafox Street and engaged in a discussion about the potential removal of the Confederate monument as well as a myriad of other topics that such a conversation inevitably leads to.
“Hey, you asked me where my drinking hole of choice is?” Pittman growled. “It’s a little place called The Spot, over in Milton, Florida. And you’re welcome to come have a beer with me. Hey, and you won’t get run out because of your color, ‘cause it ain’t racist.”
It was a provocative invitation that led to some casual banter about local high school football. And some hugs. And a suggestion that the opposing groups form delegations so that — for whatever reason — more formal debate could occur. And then, maybe, “at the end of the meeting, if they want to fight, hell, we can fight, I don’t care.”
“I think we’re having a good conversation, I actually think we’re having a good conversation,” Wendell Savage, one of the men who crossed the street to talk, had said earlier when another man intervened during a particularly heated moment to break the discussion up.
But there were other aspects of the Aug. 26 rally and counter protest that were more awkward. Like shrill calls to remove monuments to Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Or the pro-monument signage that employed Nazi iconography. Or the talk about how “if you look at the Antifa flag it’s modeled on the ISIS flag.” Or the sign screaming “Your Hate Feeds Me.”
Or when Pittman — who founded the local chapter of Bikers for Trump — began insisting that “there were more black slave owners here in Northwest Florida than there were white slave owners.”
“Look it up,” he said.
Other exchanges veered into more aggressive waters. Such as the constant shouting volleyed back and forth across a barricaded Palafox Street, or screeching arguments unfolding at the monument’s foundation. Or, ultimately, when a pro-monument man was arrested after he knocked a megaphone out of a woman’s hand. Effectively ending the day’s conversation.
But the conversations between individuals with wildly differing views were the most interesting element to come out of a day that had put the Pensacola community on edge in the wake of events in Charlottesville, Va., where an Aug. 12 gathering of white nationalists protesting the potential removal of a statute of Confederate general Robert E. Lee led to violent clashes with counter protesters and a fatality. And these conversations might well be considered a preview of what is to come as the city wrestles with its own Confederate monument.
Pensacola began to focus on the monument in Lee Square as the country was reeling from images of openly-racists protesters marching through Charlottesville by torchlight and a vehicle plowing into a group of people. An online petition was launched in support of removing the monument, others in support of keeping it. Mayor Ashton
Hayward went on the radio and announced he wanted it gone, then pointed to procedural logistics that would need to be satisfied before anything of the sort could actually happen.
Rallies at Lee Square were likely inevitable. And soon enough Thomas Olsen, from Milton, had planned one in support of the monument.
“I feel that those people over there, the left, are trying to destroy my family heritage, they’re trying to destroy everyone else’s family heritage, the city’s history, this country’s history,” Olsen said Saturday at the rally. “We are sure as hell going to fight to the end to make sure it stays up. We will take it to the city council, we will take it to the mayor and we will even take it to attorneys if we have to.”
A counter protest to the pro-monument rally was announced online via social media. Participants were encouraged to wear black and bring signs, ready to get the message out that “these monuments have no place in a progressive society that is moving towards a revolutionary society.”
In the days leading up to the opposing rallies, the city’s police department considered how best to facilitate a safe event. Mayor Hayward took a beating in the daily’s editorial pages for throwing fuel on a fire with his call for removal without a ready plan to facilitate such. And the local Sons of the Confederate Veterans chapter freaked out at the thought of being associated with Nazi’s and asked everyone to stay away.
But as the rallies began early Saturday morning, Lee Square seemed almost sleepy. Everyone was still easing into a tense day. Soon, the chanting would be louder, the barbs more pointed. But for a moment, the tense murmurings warming up the day almost melded with the sound of passing Palafox traffic as it coasted slowly through the eerily unfolding scene.
Stationed near the base of the Confederate monument, still and quiet, almost statue-like himself, Henry Clay Hudson surveyed the scene. He sported the Confederate-getup he wears during Civil War reenactments. Grey coat, kepi cap. Tattered pants giving way to bare feet.
“All hand sewn,” Hudson smiled. “Even my underwear.”
Pointing up towards the soldier atop the monument, Hudson explained that he decided to attend the rally to support, as the inscription at the base of the monument reads, the Confederate dead.
“I’m here to represent these soldiers,” he said.
Hudson pointed out that many soldiers who fought for the Confederacy did not own slaves — “It was a poor man’s fight and a rich man’s war” — and contended that removing Confederate monuments equated to disrespecting veterans and erasing history.
“I just think this is history,” he said. “We can’t remove it.”
Along the barricades lining the sides of Palafox, the opposing rally attendees were staking out their respective positions. The echoes and squeals of competing bullhorns bounced off each other as an increasing amount of signage appeared on the front lines.
On the monument side of the street, supporters waved Confederate flags and signs espousing “heritage.” They yelled across the street that it was Democrats who had started the Ku Klux Klan.
On the other side of the street, protesters chanted “No KKK, No Fascist USA,” and “Take Down Robert E. Lee, Set Us Free.” They held signs heralding the need to “Smash White Supremacy.”
As the opposing sides attempted to drown each other out, Greg Miller jumped onto the base of the monument with a megaphone.
“Let’s face them. OK, ready?” he said, before leading monument supporters in a rendition of America’s national anthem.
The song — sung passionately, if off key — was uncomfortable at best. Probably because it was a little difficult to tell if lyrics hailing a “star spangled banner” — as Confederate battle flags flew in the breeze — were being sung tongue-in-cheek or simply with an unavoidable sense of irony.
“If you’ll notice, during the National Anthem, everyone on the other side knelt,” Miller said afterwards, complaining of the Colin Kaepernick-style knee the protesters had taken in rebuke of the anthem being sung by supporters of the Confederate monument.
Later on, protesters would turn their backs on the monument entirely, as they listened to a series of speakers over a bullhorn. The speakers spoke to the issue of the Confederate monument, but also about a larger, systemic problem woven within the fabric of the country’s culture.
“These monuments have to go. But not only do these monuments have to go. This system has to go. Because, see, they can take the monuments down and say, ‘We satisfied all of those loudmouths. All of those protesters,’” one man said, urging people to become politically engaged on the local and state level, and to explain to their family and friends why they had decided to venture out to such a protest. “Hey man, we ain’t down here just talkin’, we ain’t down here just making noise and acting like we’re un-American and all of that stuff. What we’re trying to do is get rid of a system. We’re not just trying to get rid of some statues made of stone. Please, please do not think that this is the reason that we are here, to take down statues that are made of stone. We’re here to get rid of a system.”
Many attendees protesting the Confederate monument declined to speak with the media. It was a pre-planned, agreed-upon policy of sorts —with leaflets distributed advising participants to decline interviews — assumably due to concerns about their positions being misconstrued.
“Stop bothering them!” one particularly watchful protester would scold upon spotting an attempted interview.
But as the morning wore on, some protesters did decide to venture across Palafox and engage in conversations with supporters of the monument. These conversations — at times weirdly amiable, but also veering off the rails into hot-August blowups — offered a window into debates not often given a public airing. It felt a little like the municipal town halls that will surely come — without a three-minute speaking limit and “Robert’s Rules of Order,” but with the unsettling, outside chance of a full-on brawl.
Discussion mainly centered on the debate between whether Confederate monuments, and symbolism in general, are an ode to heritage and history or a glaring public symbol of oppression and hate, and a glorification and honoring of a shameful aspect of American history. While it didn’t appear anyone was changing their positions on these issues, most of the conversations enjoyed a strained cordialiality.
Eventually, the area directly underneath the monument became a mesh of supporters and protesters, with their competing signage and viewpoints. The park hummed with hesitant conversations fumbling desperately for some hint of common ground, and sparked with heated arguments with no intentions of any such resolution.
Watching the spectacle play out were Jacob Pace, who is white, and his wife Antoinette Pace, who is black. And their small child, Zeb.
“For me, obviously we have a mixed kid that still lives in a hateful environment,” Jacob said, holding the child in his arms. “We came out today —”
“To let him know,” Antoinette jumped in, “you have to stand — if you don’t say anything you’re pretty much standing for what is wrong.”
The young mother explained how she recently took her child to Ferdinand Plaza in downtown Pensacola, where there is a bust of Andrew Jackson, a controversial figure for numerous reasons, including his removal of Native Americans from their native lands, as well as his support of slavery. She recalled how it was jarring that a monument would be erected to honor such an individual.
“I thought, what am I going to say to him one day about this?” she said, noting that her son would be growing up in a world that seemingly celebrates individuals who had outlooks that modern society finds morally offensive.
Antoinette said she’d like to see monuments such as Pensacola’s Confederate memorial removed. She doesn’t buy the logic — oft espoused by pro-monument supporters at the rally — that removing the statue will “erase history” or somehow doom the country to repeat the mistakes of the past, and feels future generations can learn the country’s history without homages to the Confederacy dotting the skylines of communities across the South and beyond.
“There’s a difference between telling him and him having to be reminded of it everyday,” she explained, nodding at her son. “You don’t even need [that monument] to know that slavery happened. You know it happened.”
A few minutes later, Antoinette would present that rationale to a supporter of the monument. She suggested relocating the monument to a museum, where people who wanted to see it could visit.
“I don’t want to have to see it everyday.” Antoinette said.
“You can turn away,” the woman suggested.
Like the other conversations around Lee Square, this one was painfully awkward. And absent much hope of resolution.
“You can say slavery was a long time ago, but my brother-in-law’s grandparents were slaves, that’s not a long time ago.” Antoinette told the woman.
“I know, it was horrible,” the woman acknowledged solemnly.
“So how can you tell somebody like that, who’s family was slaves, that they should look away from that when that is —” Antoinette slaps the veins in her wrist, “that’s like in their blood!”
“They wouldn’t have a choice, you would have a choice to turn away,” the woman answered. “You’re gonna tear it down and I’ll never have a choice to see it again.”
“I feel like I’m speaking to a wall,” Antoinette said, asking what the woman thought she should teach her child in regards to the monument and Southern history in general.
“Sit over there in a chair and teach your child well,” she said, pointing over to the Confederate monument, where other conversations were reaching their boiling point. “Teach your child what you just told me, in the shadow of that monument. Teach him well.”
“What do you want me to teach him?” the mother asked, exasperated
“Teach him your side,” the woman replied. “Teach him the truth.”