The group Take 'Em Down NOLA led a peaceful march of more than 1,000 people through the French Quarter on Saturday afternoon to show opposition to a white-supremacist march last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, that ended with the death of one woman.
The New Orleans march, which originated at Congo Square and ended at Washington Artillery Park, across Decatur Street from Jackson Square, was one of dozens of protests that took place Saturday in cities across the country.
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After the crowd of marchers had left the Quarter and moved back to Congo Square, a few stragglers standing on North Peters Street got into heated shouting matches with counter-protesters wearing Nazi emblems and carrying large American flags, who were armed with holstered billy clubs and sheathed knives.
New Orleans Police Department officers defused the situation by physically standing between the two sides and, at one point, having mounted officers ride between two men to shut down a potentially volatile argument.
Some of the dozen counter-protesters had originally arrived carrying guns, said NOPD spokesman Beau Tidwell. “They responded to warnings from our officers and put their firearms away,” he said. The city has a law banning guns at such protests.
Tidwell said that, despite the size of the turnout, no arrests were made. Police issued a summons for a fight unrelated to the protest, he said, and paramedics responded to two cases of heat exhaustion.
The Police Department later sent out a Twitter message saying: "No one in the country handles mass crowd events like the NOPD. No arrests, no major violence. No accident."
No one in the country handles mass crowd events like the NOPD. No arrests, no major violence. No accident. pic.twitter.com/yDxQpQ20dn— NOPD (@NOPDNews) August 19, 2017
The Take 'Em Down Nola marchers said that basic concerns compelled them to march despite the stifling-hot August weather. “In these weird, murky times, we want to know who our people are,” said Kamari Stevens, 28, who carried a maroon sign that read, “Bury white supremacy.”
Audra George arrived at the protest with a group of friends, many of them schoolteachers, and penned a small sign for herself. “Terminate hate,” it said. As she drove to the march, she said, that thought had been on her mind. “I was thinking how hate has dominated the conversation for far too long.”
Nana Nantambu, 68, spoke at Congo Square, telling the crowd that their efforts were part of a larger civil rights struggle that African-American people have been involved in since long before the Civil War. “We must appreciate that we’re standing on the shoulders of so many who came before us,” Nantambu said.
At the outset, some marchers were concerned about a possible repeat of the violence seen at Charlotttesville, where white supremacists waving Nazi flags and chanting racist slogans turned out in large numbers to protest plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
That event turned deadly when a pro-monument protester rammed his car into a group of counter-demonstrators, injuring about 20 people and killing one, Heather Heyer.
Before the group left Congo Square, leaders instructed them that the day’s protest was meant to be peaceful.
“Engage, don’t rage,” instructed Michael “Quess” Moore, asking the marchers not to respond to rhetoric, no matter how hateful, that came from any white-supremacist or neo-Nazi protesters who might meet them at Jackson Square.
As he’d prepared for the day’s rally, Moore said, he had focused himself on one central message. “Stay strong. Stay peaceful,” he said.
Nearly everyone seemed to heed that advice, though it soon became difficult to tell who was part of the actual march. As it proceeded, the large original group was joined by many tourists and residents who had not heard the instructions at Congo Square.
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As they walked down St. Ann Street, the marchers were visually diverse. College-age kids in dreadlocks and women wearing headwraps walked in step with elderly marchers, a few of whom used canes to walk.
A red-haired veteran named Sharky who carried a spray bottle of anti-mace antidote in his back pocket walked behind a curly-haired professor who pushed a cart of sound equipment, to be sure that the group’s message could be properly heard.
Several people in clerical collars walked next to a pair of rainbow-haired lesbians holding hands. They were flanked by a group of mothers who had arrived in a light-blue minivan, followed by a few people who wore bandanas across part of their faces, a look associated with "antifa," or antifascist, protesters.
Jackson Square Park was locked for the protest, so the group passed by its gates, chanting, “We won’t get no satisfaction, till we take down Andrew Jackson,” a reference to the park’s equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, a slave owner.
Members of Take 'Em Down Nola spent the last few years pushing the city to remove monuments honoring Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Gens. Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, and the Reconstruction-era militia known as the White League.
After legal delays, protests and much controversy, those statues were taken down this spring.
In the wake of last weekend's events in Charlottesville, other cities such as Baltimore began to take down Confederate statues, arguing that most of them were erected long after the Civil War not as memorials to war heroes but as part of a policy of promoting segregation and white supremacy.
The issue has become a national flash point. President Donald Trump has maintained that Confederate monuments should remain, calling them “beautiful.”
Leaders of Take 'Em Down Nola have said their work will not be complete until all statues, street names and schools honoring white supremacists have been removed or renamed.
In a draft ordinance released Thursday, the group proposed removal of 13 statues in the city, including the equestrian monument to Andrew Jackson in Jackson Square.
That monument, which commemorates Jackson's victory at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, has been a particular target of the group because Jackson owned slaves and, as president, was responsible for violently forcing Native Americans off their land in what came to be known as the Trail of Tears.
If the ordinance is passed, the city could be faced with renaming more than 100 streets, parks, buildings and institutions that were named for slave owners or supporters of the Confederacy.
The effort is a backlash against many years of white-dominated society and the new Trump administration, said Ashleigh Johnson, 27, a Southern University graduate.
“Trump really is making America greater — but not the way he thought,” she said. “After all,” she said, pointing at the crowd gathered on Decatur Street, “look who came out to support America today."
About an hour before the large body of marchers gathered at Congo Square, a different protest rally drew about 25 people to City Hall to call on Mayor Mitch Landrieu to resign or give up his role in managing the Sewerage & Water Board.
The group blamed Landrieu for the pumping problems that contributed to widespread flooding in the city during a heavy rainstorm Aug. 5. Landrieu has said he was not aware of the broken pumps and other problems, and he has since moved forcefully to overhaul the leadership of the S&WB and bring in outside contractors to help fix the problems.
Reporter Helen Freund contributed to this story.