The diverse crowd marched from City Hall to the sidewalk outside the park, across from the "Spirit of the Confederacy" statue of a naked, winged man with a sword. In 100-degree heat, the protesters hoisted signs that read "Black Lives Matter," "Destroy white supremacy!" and that denounced President Donald Trump. They yelled, "Hey hey! Ho ho! This racist statue has got to go!" and they sang, "Which side are you on, my people, which side are you on?" When they converged outside the park, along Lamar Street, they did not engage with — and most did not even acknowledge — the group of a few dozen counter protesters, separated from them by a sea of pavement and police barriers.
"Their voice has been heard and their voice has always mattered," Ashton P. Woods, who organized the protest with Black Lives Matter: Houston, said of the counter-protesters. "It's time for black voices to be uplifted and for all the marginalized voices in Houston to be uplifted, because the fact is, the statue sits in the shadow of the second black mayor ever in the city's history. Mr. [Sylvester] Turner, tear down that statue."
The protest against Houston's Spirit of the Confederacy statue comes just one week after hundreds of white nationalists, white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Klansmen marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The two-day protest turned fatal after a white supremacist, according to police, intentionally drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors who had come to stand against racism.
On Saturday, a heavy police presence lined the perimeter of the protest and the inside of Sam Houston Park, which was closed to the public; Lamar Street from Bagby to Walker was also closed to traffic. Houston Police Department spokesman John Cannon said there had been no incidents and no arrests. While some in the pro-Confederate-monument group were armed and in militia gear, the protest remained peaceful. Organizers with Black Lives Matter, Indivisible Houston, the Houston chapter of Paintsuit Republic and SURJ HTX — a group that rallies white people to speak out against racism and oppression — took turns speaking through a megaphone about why Saturday's rally was "more than just a protest," as Woods put it.
"When we say black lives matter, we say black lives matter too," Kandice Webber told the crowd. "And isn't it a damn shame that we have to say, hey guys, we deserve to live? I've said it earlier, I said it many times, and I'm gonna say it again: My grandparents fought this fight already. I'm fighting this fight right now. But I'll be damned if my grand-babies fight this fight again. You and I are the people that are gonna change that. It will be understood that black lives matter. It will be understood that my flesh and blood means more than metal [statues]."
The Spirit of the Confederacy statue was erected in 1908, during the Jim Crow era, by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and was dedicated to "all heroes of the South who fought for the Principles of States' Rights." It stands directly across from City Hall. Mayor Sylvester Turner announced last week that the City of Houston would be "taking inventory" of all Confederate monuments in Houston to study whether they should be removed, saying Houston does not tolerate racism. But Woods said the city shouldn't need a commission to study whether the statues — including one dedicated to Richard Dowling, a Confederate officer from Houston — should come down.
Those who support the monument argue that removing the statue equates to erasing history and is even revisionist history, as President Donald Trump has said. Trump, after initially failing to explicitly condemn the white supremacists who converged on Charlottesville, later doubled down on his comments that protesters on "both sides" were to blame for the violence, causing some to argue he had placed Klansmen and Nazis on the same moral plane as people fighting racism.
Trump then said on Twitter, "Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!"
The counter-protesters on Saturday prominently displayed a large "Make America Great Again" Trump campaign sign, draped over the police barrier. They waved "Come and Take It" flags and Confederate flags. They chanted in support of the Confederate statue, but over the hundreds of voices on the other side, they could only faintly be heard.