Counter-protesters use a megaphone to out-shout White Lives Matter demonstrators.
Photos by Matt Hembree (C’20).
By Jasmine Huang
“No Nazis, no KKK, no fascist USA!”
“Blood and soil! White lives matter!”
White Lives Matter protesters stomped and hollered down the street in full regalia; some had the Confederate flag tied around their shoulders, while others pounded on shields as they yelled. Across the barricades, counter-protesters caused an equal amount of uproar. Speakers in tow, they answered by blasting Beyoncé’s voice through the crowds of people. Eventually, “Sorry, I ain’t sorry” and “Middle fingers up, put them hands high” drowned out the slogans of the alt-right.
Behind barricades and a Confederate shield, White Lives Matter demonstrators yell back at counter-protesters.
According to the event page, the purpose of the Shelbyville rally on October 28 was to protest refugee resettlement in Tennessee, bring awareness to the Antioch church shooting by Emanuel Samson, and express anger at the Trump administration for removing Sudan from the travel ban list.
Equipped with megaphones, boisterous energy, and a colorful array of profanities, counter-protesters organized various responses. When the white nationalists marched an hour later than scheduled, the Jeopardy theme song mockingly played in the background alongside collective ridicule from counter-protesters.
A counter-protester holds up the black power fist.
Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” delivered its own clear message amidst shouting. Counter-protesters sang songs, clapped, and danced. In this crowd stood Matt Hembree (C’20) and first years Lala Hilizah, Amanda Bell, and Jasmine Huang.
For these Sewanee students, attendance meant a combination of observation and expressing their beliefs. “I felt like I definitely needed to be a part of voicing my opinion, and to survey. You always hear about these people but you never see them in real life. It’s a mix of anger and curiosity,” said Hilizah.
Weeks earlier, students had already begun preparing for the protests at Shelbyville and Murfreesboro when David “Chief” Johnson (C’19) brought the matter to light through social media. They arranged meetings in McClurg Dining Hall and held impromptu discussions between classes. With each gathering across campus, the team progressively grew bigger. After reaching out to friends and connections at Tennessee Tech, University of Memphis, MTSU, and the NAACP who also planned to observe or counter-protest the rallies, the group decided to convene with other student representatives.
Jorden “Juice” Alan-Lane Williams’s (C’18) purpose for going stemmed from his own set of beliefs as a black man growing up in Chattanooga, TN. “People of color have been targeted since they were kids. You’ve had the odds set against you since the beginning, you have nothing to lose.”
The next day, Bell and Huang met Hilizah in the common room of Hoffman Hall as they waited for Hembree to come pick them up. Unable to attend the morning rally because of previous commitments, Johnson, Alan-Lane Williams, Davenport, Burless, Miles Martin (C’20), Dillon Spann (C’19), and Benjamin Mills (C’20) would meet the four of them at Murfreesboro along the rest of the people.
The student activists from Sewanee, MTSU, University of Memphis, and the NAACP who attended the White Lives Matter rallies at Shelbyville and Murfreesboro.
Following an hour of driving and two rounds of security checks in Shelbyville, more heavily-armed officers dressed in all-black came into view. With helicopters, drones, K-9s, and snipers stationed on rooftops and streets, police stood between the two factions in a full display of force as people yelled back and forth.
In spite of counter-protesters’ efforts to override the rhetoric of the White Lives Matter display with music, guest speakers from the alt-right still managed to get their points across. Over the noise, one spokesperson asserted, “Diversity is another word for white genocide.”
Another claimed that their group was not made up of “Nazis.” Over to the speaker’s right, a man in the all-black uniform of the Traditionalist Worker Party held his hand out in the Heil Hitler salute, smiling behind a barricade.
A White Lives Matter demonstrator does the Heil Hitler salute.
Although the demonstration was mostly peaceful, one participant was arrested for displaying “threatening behavior,” according to an interview with USA Today and policeman Lt. Brian Crews. Multiple news outlets have varying information on his identity and affiliation to any organizations, but the arrest was done on the side of the White Lives Matter protesters.
While Hembree’s group drove to Murfreesboro, the remaining seven waited in line for approximately an hour to get through security. Alan-Lane Williams recalled “roads blocked off, heavy artillery, SWAT team, snipers, cops on horses, and tanks blocking off everywhere. No bandannas allowed, no backpacks.”
He commented, “The fact that it took one hour to get in shocks me because we’re not the ones who have been hurting people. We’re protesting something that’s been damaging the lives of people of color for so long and it takes us 1 hour to get in.”
Police officers told them that there were 23 people affiliated with the White Lives Matter rally in the square, but the number had narrowed down to two people once they crossed the checkpoint. Subsequently, they learned from officers that the rally had been cancelled due to security’s long line and the White Lives Matter organizations having “nothing to gain” in Murfreesboro.
In spite of the cancellation, Davenport was able to engage in meaningful dialogue with other counter-protesters, including three veterans. Recording the whole process on her phone, she asked for their opinions on people kneeling during the National Anthem. Nodding his head, one of them agreed: “I totally support it, that’s entirely their constitutional right.” Another said, “I may disagree with what you do, but I wholeheartedly support your right to do it.”
Davenport stated, “I wanted to go to see how these people actually feel. I have a lot to say but I can’t expect anyone to listen to me if I don’t listen to them.” Later on, she affirmed, “I am curious to see how you can hate someone solely based on skin color, on the things you’ve heard, and the things you’re taught. I know a lot of the things you’re taught as a child you don’t question, but as a grown human being I feel like you should feel uncomfortable around this.”
Reflecting on the day’s experiences, Alan-Lane Williams pointed out, “I’ve learned that there’s a false conception of a post-racial society, and there’s really instead a post-segregated society. Some people preach that they want equality, but they’re not at the forefront. As a lot of activists say, protesting is the first step.”
Both Hilizah and Alan-Lane Williams spoke of the divide instigated by the White Lives Matter rallies in relation to Sewanee. “That experience and this experience is similar,” he emphasized. “I feel like it’s more coded here at Sewanee, because they’re trying to be ‘liberal,’ but everything founded on Sewanee’s campus is from the Confederacy and basically founded on racism. It’s not going away, and you’ll see people who are attracted to that.”
“We need to have more conversations about racism because both sides don’t like to talk about it and fulfill our EQB motto,” said Hilizah. “Right now, I don’t feel like we actually fulfill that.”
Ultimately for Burless, Sewanee is the place for them to bring about progression. “We all go to Sewanee. For us, meaningful dialogue has to start here, on campus, in some way shape or form, and it has to start on each side and each side taking their position on either changing or collaborating. It has to start here.”
A counter-protester holds up a particularly relevant sign above the crowd.