A massive display of law enforcement from multiple Tennessee agencies, including additional assistance from Mississippi and Arkansas, greeted protesters concerned about the recent removal of Confederate statues from two Memphis parks.
The rally organizers, through a Facebook page called Confederate 901, originally planned to meet at the Memphis welcome center Downtown and form a motorcade past the parks where statues of Jefferson Davis and General Nathan Bedford Forrest were removed in December.
Instead, demonstrators were met with roadblocks at each destination. An armed security force made Downtown travel difficult, if not intimidating.
Fourth Bluff Park on Front Street was encircled with crime scene tape and festooned with white signs advertising the park's closure. In addition, a wall of police vehicles kept people from entering the property.
At Health Sciences Park, where an equestrian monument to Confederate general and slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest had been removed, several layers of barricades--from parked dump trucks to iron rails--forced traffic detours off of both Union and Madison Avenues. Small groups of protesters and counter-protesters were corralled at opposite ends of the park, out of both earshot and eyeshot of each other.
Billy Roper, coordinator of the white nationalist Shieldwall Network, stood with a small contingent of men in combat boots in one protest area. Those seeking access to their demonstration were searched for weapons by Memphis police and given wristbands.
"I led the largest gathering of white nationalists at the U.S. capitol in 2002 and they had less security at the capitol than they do today in Memphis," Roper said. "I want to thank them for their professionalism. But I do not thank the city council or the mayor because it was their illegal and unethical practices which made it necessary for us to be here."
State law prevented the City of Memphis from removing its Confederate monuments without a waiver from the Tennessee Historical Commission, but the commission rejected a timely hearing process. City leaders felt the racially tinged statues of men who fought for slavery should be removed before the forthcoming commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in April.
Memphis bypassed both the commission's authority and state law by selling the parks, statues and all, to a private non-profit organization committed to maintaining the properties for public use. State government would have no control over a private entity's disposal of the statues.
"The city council and the Mayor of Memphis definitely violated the spirit of the 2014 act passed by the state legislature," Roper argued for the pro-Confederate side. "They violated their own sunshine laws which regulate how public property can be divested to a private entity, and they violated the desecration of graves act, because under that pedestal lies the bodies of Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife."
Some groups, such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who repudiated the rally because of the white supremacist element, are exploring a civil lawsuit against the city.
A small group of counter-protesters said they were unhappy with the city's "kettling situation" that separated demonstrators based on their viewpoints.
"We as taxpaying citizens are being forced to go into certain areas in order to express our freedom of speech," said Dorsey Malina with the Tennessee Women's Faith Collective. "I'm shocked at what Memphis has done to peaceful nonviolent protesters. I'm also concerned with how the Nazis and the white supremacists are being treated. The streets are shut down because of them. Businesses are shut down. So I have a concern about that."
At an early press conference, Memphis police director Michael Rallings told the media that no pro-Confederate group had requested a permit to hold a rally or protest for Saturday.
When travel and demonstrations Downtown were effectively thwarted by police, most of the pro-Confederate group spent about two hours driving the I-240 loop around the city, in a caravan of between 20 and 50 cars. Police on motorcycles wove in and around the vehicles.
After the day's events, city, county and state officials congratulated themselves for the operation that resulted in no damages, injuries or arrests.
"Safety was maintained," said Mayor Jim Strickland. "And that was the No. 1 priority the entire time."
"I want to thank the public," he added. "We were pretty unanimous in saying 'stay away', and therefore, there was little conflict to navigate."
County Mayor Mark Luttrell added: "I think we have been served well by law enforcement, and I think that other cities around the U.S. can take measure from what we have done here and follow the example we have set and get through these difficult times together."
Director Rallings said that the costs of the day's events have yet to be tallied.