On one side stood armored protesters with shields, poles and Confederate and white nationalist flags. On the other side were chanting crowds wearing summer clothes and holding signs. Between them, a line of barricades and New Orleans police officers kept watch.
And above it all towered the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
The scene late Sunday afternoon in Lee Circle was tense as about 500 protesters who had marched from Congo Square with the group Take 'Em Down NOLA faced off against fewer than 100 pro-monuments protesters from around the country including white supremacist organizations, paramilitary groups and those simply looking for a fight with the left-wing protesters known as “antifas,” short for anti-fascists.
But the stand-off led to little more than shouting, even as some protesters supporting the city’s decision to remove the Lee statue and three other Confederate monuments climbed over the barricades, arguing face-to-face with pro-monument folks who had come expecting a fight.
Despite advance efforts by some groups to hype up the protests as a showdown between hard-core groups on the left and right, there was little violence at the rally that had been organized by Take 'Em Down NOLA as a celebration of the removal of the first of the Jim Crow-era statues, a monument to the Battle of Liberty Place.
The remaining statues — honoring Lee, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard and Confederate President Jefferson Davis — are expected to come down in coming weeks, almost two years after Mayor Mitch Landrieu first called for their removal.
Anti-monument organizers urged the several hundred people who had gathered at Congo Square to march to Lee Circle not to engage with anti-monument protesters or white supremacists.
Angela Kinlaw, an organizing member of the Take 'Em Down group, said they were “celebrating” the continuing removal of the monuments, not arguing their case before any opposing factions.
“It is imperative that we be one voice, one sound,” Kinlaw said. “That we not try to convince anyone along this journey, of anything. No need to argue what you know is right.”
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As they marched, the group chanted “Take 'em down! Take 'em down!” and held a variety of signs, including ones that said “Power to the People,” “End White Supremacy” and “Justice for Alton,” referring to Alton Sterling, the black man killed by Baton Rouge police officers last year.
Meanwhile, pro-monuments protesters at Lee Circle had been preparing for a fight for hours.
Groups of protesters, many wearing body armor, wooden shields and helmets and carrying bats and flags that could easily be converted into clubs, had been gathering throughout the day.
Largely made up of people from out of town, the protest groups had come to the city in response to calls from alt-right organizations and white-supremacist sites promoting the march as “The Battle of New Orleans” and urging their followers to use the same kind of violent tactics seen at a protest in Berkeley, California, last month.
At one point, one of the protesters shouted that there would be “antifa blood” on his flagpole by the end of the day. “There’s going to be no mercy today,” he said. Others held signs saying, “I’m only here for the violence.”
At least one protester wore a shirt with the Nazi SS logo and a stylized swastika, while others sported patches with white supremacist iconography. At various points, arguments between the two groups ended with shouted racial slurs.
League of the South President Michael Hill said at the rally that he had come from Alabama, where he formerly was a professor at the University of Alabama, because he considered the removal of the New Orleans monuments to be akin to "cultural genocide" and to advocate for the white race.
Many in the pro-monuments group, however, said they were opposed to those in their midst advocating white supremacy.
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Lee Circle's somewhat absurdist air was only heightened when a man wearing devil horns pulled up to take in the spectacle while speakers on his tricycle played jaunty covers of pop songs that seemed more at place in a seventh-inning stretch than at a protest.
The NOPD maintained a large presence at both protests throughout the day, with dozens of officers standing watch at Lee Circle; local, state and federal snipers watching from nearby buildings; and more officers escorting the Take 'Em Down march. While SWAT team members could be seen on the fringes of the protest throughout the day, police did not don tactical gear, apparently in an attempt to avoid inflaming tensions further.
Police had announced they would ban masks — typically used by antifas to cover their identity — and guns, which many pro-monument protesters have been carrying at daily vigils at the Jefferson Davis monument. No one was arrested for violating those prohibitions.
Despite the heated words, there was little actual violence. Two fights did occur at Lee Circle before the anti-monument protesters even arrived.
The more serious involved solely those there to confront the Take 'Em Down marchers. It began when a pro-Donald Trump protester wearing gleaming metal armor and an American flag as a cape knocked down flags belonging to the white nationalist League of the South and began arguing against white supremacy. The man, who later gave his name only as “Van,” said the protest should be about patriotism and anti-communism rather than racism.
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When he tried to lead a chant of “U.S.A.,” he was drowned out by a thunderous chant of “C.S.A.,” short for the Confederate State of America. He was then attacked by some people apparently with the League of the South. Three men who attacked Van were arrested and booked on disturbing the peace.
Van later expressed little interest in the monuments themselves and said he had come in from Los Angeles solely to “stomp out” the antifas, whom he implied he had fought at protests in California.
A second scuffle between those who had come to support the monuments and a man who did not appear to be with any group was broken up quickly and did not lead to any arrests.
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The NOPD also reported that a woman was transported from Lee Circle by EMS late in the day for heart problems unrelated to the demonstration.
Staff writer Gordon Russell contributed to this report.