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Protest peaceful, conversations sometimes heated about Confederate monument in Gainesville
Law enforcement presence heavy during event
Gainesville resident Dwayne Lee, left, and Antonio Champion, center, have a discussion Aug. 19 during a protest about the Confederate monument in downtown Gainesville. - photo by David Barnes

No violence occurred at a protest of the Confederate monument in Gainesville’s downtown square.

Instead, the protest involved pockets of conversations between those who want the statue, referred to as “Old Joe,” removed and those who do not.

The protest, which began after 11:30 a.m. Saturday, was sponsored by three groups — the Metro Atlanta Democratic Socialists of America, its Gainesville-based Northeast Georgia chapter and Athens for Everyone, a social justice organization based in Athens. They received a permit for the event.

The groups were protesting the monument erected in 1909 by the Gen. James Longstreet Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Some of the conversations got heated, and a couple of people interrupted a speaker during a brief statement at the end of the event, but Sgt. Kevin Holbrook, spokesman for the Gainesville Police Department, said no serious issues were reported.

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Scott Pitts, who served eight years in the U.S. Navy, said the conversation he had with a man who wanted to see the statue removed went well. While they didn’t agree, Pitts said the discussion was good.

“I feel that it’s very beneficial to have this kind of dialogue where you’re explaining and trying to understand the left and right and what’s in the middle,” Pitts said. “Do I agree with him? No. Does he agree with me? No. But to have dialogue and express your opinions is what I fought for in the Navy.”

Holbrook estimated 150-200 gathered in the square. 

“It was peaceful as promised,” Holbrook said. “Everyone was civil; everyone was very cordial to one another, although there were a couple of emotional individuals or loud individuals.”

At one point, a Mobile Field Force Team comprising about two dozen Sheriff’s Office deputies and Gainesville Police officers arrived in helmets and shields and separated the crowd.

Holbrook said authorities monitored the crowd and decided to send the team to stop any threats or issues before they happened.

The show of force got varied responses from those at the event.

Dwayne Lee, who said he wants to see the statue stay in the square, was talking with a man who wanted to see it removed when the team separated the crowd.

“It sort of startled me,” said Lee, who said he didn’t think he nor the other man were feeling threatened at the time. “I don’t think it was necessary, but I’m not the sheriff or whoever was in charge. They’re here to do a duty, and I’m sure they’re here to do it to the best of their ability and what they think is right to keep people safe.”

Brad Lathem, a Gainesville resident and an organizer for the event, said he thought the show of force was “utterly excessive.”

“To me it seemed like an awful lot of force to break up a conversation,” Lathem said. “I didn’t feel any bit safer to say the least.”

Erin Parks, who is from the Atlanta area and part of one of the organizations behind the protest, said she thought the mobile field force team was “unnecessary.” 

“I understand because of what happened in Charlottesville, the police didn’t want that to happen here,” she said. “But I think there is a middle ground between making sure their presence was known and making sure their presence was felt. We felt their presence. The physical contact came from the police and not from either side of the protest.”

Parks added that the conversations “increased the dialogue between people with different views.

“I don’t think we changed any minds, but I think we opened people up to the idea of having the conversations outside of their circles, which is important,” she said. 

Many gathered had strong opinions about the statue.

“If the statue is torn down, I wanted to be here, because it honestly needs to be gone,” Steven Henry said. “It’s kind of a blight on Gainesville and the South in general. It’s commemorating something extremely racist. Our history is racist. We shouldn’t ignore it, but we shouldn’t have statues dedicated to it.”

Dwayne Smith felt differently.

“I’m not here to protest or counterprotest,” he said before the event. “I’m here because I’m concerned about Old Joe. It’s special to me. For the life of me, I can’t understand why someone would want to desecrate, tear down a piece of history like this.”

Brenda Vines has been a member of the Longstreet Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy for about 10 years, which was the organization that put up the statue more than a century ago. She said before the event that she came out of concern the statue would be harmed.

“When I found out they were going to have protesters here, even though they said they were peaceful protesters, I thought, ‘Well, you know, I really like Old Joe. I mean, he’s not causing anyone any harm up there.’ I’m not going to protest against. I’m not going to protest for. But I hope they don’t hurt him.”

After the event, Vines said she was “awfully glad they didn’t hurt Joe.”

“I think the law enforcement in the city, county and the state are to be highly, highly commended for what they’ve done,” she said afterward. “Their presence here today was awesome, and I think that had a lot to do with the peaceful attitude here.”

Holbrook would not release specific numbers of law enforcement at the event but said “we did have a large contingency of officers from many different jurisdictions.” The Gainesville Police Department, Hall County Sheriff’s Office and Georgia State Patrol were present.

Holbrook said law enforcement blocked off the square to vehicles for safety reasons.

“There were a number of different things that were put in place, and we obviously looked to see what the national trends are as well as trends worldwide,” Holbrook said. Among those trends, Holbrook said, was the violence at the protest in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 12 and a terrorist attack in Barcelona, Spain — both of which involved a driver using a vehicle to hit pedestrians in a crowd.

Lathem said the event was a response to the events in Charlottesville and that the national day of action was planned by the Movement for Black Lives and the national DSA.

“We were going to call it a successful event if some of us showed up and there was no violence of any kind, so it’s a success,” he said.

Holbrook said law enforcement accomplished its mission for the event.

“We appreciate everyone’s patience and cooperation with this,” he said. “Although we did have a show of force, it is important that the public know that we do have safety first and foremost in mind. Our No. 1 goal and mission was to protect lives and property. That seems to have worked.”

Gainesville’s Confederate monument doesn’t commemorate a specific general or person but instead commemorates “the defenders of the Confederacy” and “the record of whose fortitude and heroism in the service of their country is the proud heritage of a loyal posterity,” according to wording on the monument.

The statue sits on land owned by Hall County. When the statue was built, the land was leased to the Longstreet Chapter of the UDC for 99 years, according to the county. The lease was renewed in 2008 and lasts until June 30, 2033.