Sam Houston Park is a bucolic slice of the English countryside, improbably located in the middle of downtown Houston, almost directly underneath I-45. Founded in 1899, the twenty-acre park features a duck pond spanned by a rustic wooden bridge, meandering footpaths, and a series of historic buildings, all shaded by graceful live oaks.
Standing watch over the pond is a bronze statue of a defiant-looking angel, arms crossed around a sword, its wings brushing the rough stone pedestal. “To All Heroes of The South Who Fought For the Principles of States Rights,” reads a plaque affixed to the pedestal, along with the statue’s title: “The Spirit of the Confederacy.” It was erected in 1908 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and has stood largely ignored until last week.
On Saturday, several hundred protesters gathered outside Sam Houston Park to call on the city of Houston to take down “The Spirit of the Confederacy” after deadly violence broke out in Charlottesville last week over the planned removal of the city’s Robert E. Lee statue.
“These statues were put up to reinforce hatred, to emphasize Jim Crow laws, to emphasize segregation,” said Ashton P. Woods, the co-founder of the Houston chapter of Black Lives Matter, which helped organize the protest on Saturday. “This city is predominantly black and brown—we are the majority. We have a mayor who is only the second black mayor in the city. This statue needs to come down.”
Not everyone agreed. Thirty yards from the protesters, across a police-enforced no man’s land, gathered a smaller group of several dozen counter-protesters. Some looked ready for combat, sporting assault rifles and dressed from head to toe in camouflaged body armor. Confederate flags, Texas flags, and Donald Trump campaign signs were on display. One man had tied a yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” scarf over his nose and mouth to conceal his identity. “I have a good life and a good job,” he explained. “My bosses are socialites in Houston, I don’t want to get fired.”
Other counter-protesters were happy to identify themselves. Vince Powers was sitting on an Igloo cooler in the shade, wearing a Confederate States of America hat and holding a Confederate flag. He said that he had started “flagging” after Dylann Roof’s 2015 massacre in Charleston, which spurred South Carolina to take down the Confederate flag over its capitol. “That was so unfair,” Powers said. “Now the whole Confederacy is to blame? Any one of us would have popped a cap in [Roof’s] ass.”
Unlike in Charlottesville, no neo-Nazis or Klansmen appeared to be present. When a young man wearing a swastika T-shirt tried to join the crowd, he was forcibly expelled.
Across the police cordons at the main protest, a series of speakers stood up to denounce racism, the Confederacy, Nazis, the Republican party, Trump, and—in particular—the “Spirit of the Confederacy” statue. The protesters were a motley group, ranging from AK-47-wielding members of the Houston Socialist Movement to people using water jugs as makeshift drums. There were people in headscarves, yarmulkes, skullcaps, and black berets. Groups represented included Black Lives Matter, Showing Up for Racial Justice, the Democratic Socialists of America, the Houston Socialist Alternative, Indivisible Houston, and something called the Redneck Revolt (“Putting the red back in redneck”).
One woman, inspired by a recent Tina Fey skit on Saturday Night Live, walked through the crowd handing out slices of a cake emblazoned with the slogan “Resist.” A large black man wearing a KKK-style white sheet and Confederate flags tied to his ankles posed for photos. Some people yelled insults and provocations to the counter-protesters, who returned them. The police kept everything under control, monitoring the situation from the ground and from a helicopter that circled overhead.
Mostly, people sweated in the 95-degree heat and stifling humidity. It was too hot to fight. At one point, a police officer strolled over to Houston Socialist Movement member David Michael Smith, a middle-aged man with a white beard and an AK-47 (“The best tactical weapon in the world”) slung across his shoulders, to ask:
“Man, couldn’t you guys have staged this in November?”