Garbage trucks sat on each corner of the downtown Gainesville square. Barricades divided it in two. Gainesville City Police loomed nearby as protesters of the Confederate monument called “Old Joe” stood peacefully talking amongst themselves, anti-racism signs in hand.
Fewer than 15 protesters, many from such groups as the Socialist Organization of North Georgia, the Party for Socialism and Liberation and the Metro Atlanta Democratic Socialists of America, occasionally interacted with counterprotesters who outnumbered them. The latter group showed up on their side of the barricade with red “Make America Great Again” caps and small Confederate flags.
“I’m not looking to pick a fight,” said Troy Mason, a Gainesville resident and retired Marine of 21 years who served in Iraq in 2004. “I’m here mostly because I thought it would be a fun thing to do on a Saturday.”
But Mason did want to talk to the protesters about socialism. He said, “I don’t actually care about the statue one way or another.” Getting his point across about the politics of socialism caused a few brief arguments that were more filled with sarcasm and mockery than argumentative standoffs.
“We want to stand up against symbols of white supremacy in our community,” said Adam Staudacher, an organizer with the Party for Socialism. “And I think that the position of (Party for Socialism) and some other groups up here, the only way we are going to deal with the legacy of racism in America is to confront it and to deal with it directly.”
Pressure to take down monuments honoring slain Confederate soldiers and the generals who led them picked up steam a year ago when a protest erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Confederate monuments at public parks, county courthouses and college campuses were brought down in many places after a speeding driver ran down and killed a woman and injured dozens more plowing into a crowd. He stated his goal was to protect a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee.
At least 30 Confederate monuments have been uprooted in the year since the Charlottesville clashes, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Uprooting Old Joe wasn’t the goal of the protest in Gainesville, though. Protesters on the downtown square confronted the situation, handing out bright yellow flyers with information on what they were hoping to accomplish. Some counterprotesters accepted the flyers, some didn’t. The protesters weren’t advocating for the removal of Old Joe. They said they wanted the Confederate flag removed and the inscription modified.
After the changes, they said they hoped to ask the community what the new inscription should say.
Small disagreements broke off to the sides of the protest. One was on the morality of war, another on the issue of mocking the other group. Such disagreements led to the protest ending after just 30 minutes. Protesters walked away, saying they had done their job by “raising political consciousness.”
“I don’t think there’s necessarily a lot of value in arguing with reactionaries who are really just here to try to aggravate us and try to provoke a conflict,” Staudacher said. “It’s very much not what we want. Part of being an anti-racist is being opposed to violence.”
The same group showed up on the square last year, seven days after the events in Charlottesville. After closing surrounding roads, law enforcement were stationed around the square and in the Main Street parking deck, looking over it all.
“We just want to make sure the public is safe during an event like this,” said city spokeswoman Nikki Perry. “We don’t expect anything to happen, but we just want to make sure public safety is our top priority.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report