The “This Is Texas” rally, held Saturday at Hermann Park, didn’t go as planned.
The event was billed as a showdown with “Antifa,” or anti-fascist, protesters. A Houston branch of the left-wing group had allegedly called for a protest June 10 demanding the removal of the Sam Houston Monument on the grounds that Houston was a slaveholder. That appears to have been a hoax, as the Houston Press previously reported. On Saturday, no Antifa demonstrators showed up, disappointing some of the more than 200 counter-protesters who spoke to the Press.
Instead, organizers of This Is Texas clashed briefly with a small faction of protestors carrying Confederate flags. The organizers kicked the group out of the main demonstration, and the Confederate flag bearers retreated to a different protest site across the street.
“They tried to fight us,” David Amed, who organized the This Is Texas rally, said of the Confederate clique. “They wanted to march through our event.” After he’d kicked them out for the first time, he said, a few of them went around the back and tried to enter again. Amed was furious. He thought he’d made it clear Confederate flags weren’t allowed. “I am not about to have a bunch of hateful racist bastards infiltrate this thing and screw it up,” he said.
Amed insisted his protest was strictly about the Sam Houston monument. “You can’t destroy history to make people feel good,” he said. He pointed out that Houston’s record with slavery and race relations was more nuanced than that of the Confederate leaders honored in statues in New Orleans — some of which were taken down last month. (Houston was the only Southern governor to oppose the Confederacy, a position that cost him his job.)
With no Antifa in sight, it became increasingly unclear what people were protesting. Still, speakers addressed the crowd for about 45 minutes from the edge of the Jones Reflection Pool, though they were difficult to hear owing to a weak public address system. A few of them taunted the nonexistent Antifa protesters, inviting people in the crowd to give suggestions as to why they hadn’t arrived.
“They missed the bus!” one woman shouted — an apparent reference to the conspiracy theory that shadowy elites hire professional protesters to sow discord against President Donald Trump.
“Their mommies couldn’t give them a ride!” another woman said.
It was a scene of stark contrasts. Several attendees went on screeds about “liberal media” and refused to give their names, only to chat casually with Houston Press. Kenneth Maybom, 21, wandered around in a Trump visor and a dashiki. A first-generation immigrant from Cameroon, Maybom had come to support Trump’s tough immigration policies. He was joined by his friend Ray Derosa, also 21, whose family is from Mexico.
Of the 200 or so people in attendance, many carried pistols and rifles. They'd come to support all kinds of causes, ranging from mainstream Republican talking points to downright absurd ones. One man identified as a gay Gamer Gate activist. A trio of teenagers, who described themselves as trolls, said they’d come to demand chicken tenders.
The Houston Press spoke to roughly two dozen people at the event. While the ambience was often relaxed and at times even silly, some protestors brought extremist messages. Shirts and signs with the words “CNN is ISIS,” produced by the conspiracy website Infowars, abounded. And though almost everyone with a Confederate flag was kicked out, there were still a number of pins, T-shirts and hats with the controversial symbol.
One man, who gave his name as Boston, said he’d seen a tussle between a Confederate sympathizer and another person. Shortly after that, he said, the Confederate group had set up its own protest across the street.
Boston had come in full military attire, with a flak jacket, a radio earpiece and an AR-15. He was disappointed there were no Antifa members to demonstrate against. And while he was glad some people had taken a stand against the pro-Confederacy group — he referred to them exclusively as “those racist fucks” — Boston, who is white, thought the charge that populist conservative movements had racist undertones was a slander invented by liberal media outlets.
When extremists show up at a conservative rally, Boston argued, the news media makes generalizations. “All of a sudden, every single one of us is a Bible-thumping racist that hates niggers,” he said, though it was unclear why he chose a racial slur to make his point.
None of the people at the Confederate counter-counter-protest were willing to speak with Houston Press on the grounds that a reporter might be a member of Antifa. Then, they made a concession: They would speak to the reporter, but only if he could bring them some representatives from Antifa.
That wasn't possible. One woman, noting that she supported the Sam Houston Monument, suggested that This Is Texas was itself an Antifa front group. Another man tried to get the reporter to hold his Confederate flag. “It ain’t gonna bite you,” he said.
Around noon, the rally started to die down. Though some of the attendees alluded to rumors about liberal tycoon George Soros hiring busloads of protesters, some attendees left in their own shuttle buses.
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If it was hard to pin down the event, that's only because it so perfectly captured the weird tumult of the Trump era that scholars and pundits have yet to figure out. Sure, many came to support Houston, a founding father of Texas. But the Confederates, fascists, trolls, white supremacists and conspiracy propagators muddled the message.
Although the This Is Texas organizers say they disavow racism and extremism, the rally could not help but attract Americans on the fringes of the political spectrum.
While waiting to interview David Amed, the event's organizer, a Houston Press reporter struck up a conversation with Henry Graves. A self-described “independent journalist,” Graves runs a blog on which he frequently writes about what he calls “the Jewish problem.” Graves's blog had started as a personal project. But it became popular and was now making him money, he said, adding that he also sometimes posted poetry.
Asked what kinds of poems he liked to write, Graves said, “Angry poems.” He was only half-joking.