HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (KTHV) -- With so many eyes in Arkansas focused on a small square in Hot Springs National Park, the city declared victory after opposing groups faced off over Confederate monuments.
The group that seeks to preserve Civil War and southern heritage displays meets regularly in the city, but the first rally since the deadly unrest in Charlottesville, VA seven days earlier would not go unchallenged.
It began as a peaceful morning in a national park with men of prayer including Bishop Anthony Taylor of the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock all watching anxiously. By mid-morning, the reason for the anxiety arrived, when about 20 people dressed in yellow shirts or some in military garb began the Confederate Square rally led by James Del Brock of Hot Springs.
“This demonstration is the 29th demonstration we have held in Hot Springs, Arkansas,” Brock said at an impromptu news conference. “It started July 4, 2015. We've had them every month.”
But in the wake of Charlottesville, the sidewalks along Bathhouse Row filled with those clearly opposed to the rally. They first marched as a large group chanting “You are not the master race. Punch a Nazi in the face” and “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA.” They were stopped by park rangers who informed them they would need to breakdown into smaller groups of less than 25 people if they wanted to continue.
The Confederate Square Group had secured the permit to be on national park grounds a week before what happened in Virginia, but the national park made its presence known, along with law enforcement from Hot Springs and Garland County. Even a state police helicopter hovered overhead.
Inside the closed off area, Brock insisted he wanted no hate groups in his movement.
“We do not support supremacy of any kind and I do mean any supremacy,” he said to building applause from his supporters. “We are all equal under the Constitution of the United States.”
The larger group of counter-demonstrators did not believe him. The NAACP of Arkansas gathered the loosely connected groups. They secured permission to demonstrate in Hill Wheatley Plaza at the opposite end of Bathhouse Row from the Confederate Square Group. They broke into smaller groups and circled the rally. That led to heated but peaceful arguments.
“We have to let organizations like this know that there are people who oppose them,” said Rozelle Aaron, president of the NAACAP of Arkansas. “If they go unchallenged, then they eventually begin to think that they are right about what they're talking about.”
Some in Brock's group chose to leave their permitted area and move to the Confederate Monument they hope to protect. It sits several blocks south of their area and the march took them past the counter demonstrators. The highest tension of the day came when the march reached the corner of Central Ave. and Reserve St. A handful of counter demonstrators crossed the street to confront and block the Confederate group. As they chanted “Black Lives Matter,” Hot Springs police opened a small gap in the crowd and the marchers went through without saying anything to the protesters.
Two people were singled out to be taken into custody for not sufficiently making space. Maya Williams of North Little Rock and Thomas Bemberg of Hot Springs both face disorderly conduct charges.
The “preservationists” continued to the monument to hold a ceremony simulating laying flowers at the base. They were trailed by an equal or larger group in opposition. They returned to their permitted area without further incident.
National park officials emerged encouraged that the day unfolded as it did.
“Our hope is that everyone peacefully exercises their constitutional rights,” said Park Superintendent Josie Fernandez.
About a dozen permit holders took up spots along Central Ave. on their side of the barricades. They engaged in several debates with people with opposing views across a six-foot space marked by a hedge. Some arguments got heated, but plenty of police and rangers on hand kept things from getting overheated.
By late afternoon most of the crowds had dissipated, mostly due to heat. City officials said they treated three people for heat-related ailments.
© 2017 Associated Press