History is a story we tell ourselves; how that story is told is an inherently political act. Since the history we choose to celebrate is just as important as what we choose to ignore, it must be understood that the monuments we erect to the past represent the values of the present and are messages to the future. Or as Candice Webber, a Black Lives Matter Houston organizer, said, “We can’t erase history, it is stained on this country.”
On Saturday, Aug. 21, Webber and about 200 other protestors gathered on Lamar Street outside of Sam Houston Park in Downtown Houston to protest the Spirit of the Confederacy statue. The ‘call to action’ that Black Lives Matter put out initially stated that the protest would be in the park in front of the statue.
In the days leading up to the demonstration, rumors circulated online that the demonstration would also be a march to City Hall. Due to a scheduling SNAFU, City Hall was busy hosting the Houston Food Fest — which led to questions about whether the demonstration was going to be the first race riot with an official beer sponsor.
Even before the speechifying and chants of “hey ho, this racist statue’s got to go” began, counter protestors arrived. Unlike Charlottesville, Berkley and some of the other skirmishes and flashpoints that recently thrust white supremacy into the national spotlight, the few dozen, mostly white people who showed up to stand with the statue, were almost all from the Houston area.
Mike Gowling, one of the counter protestors, sat on a bench — sporting a “Come and Take It” t-shirt, a Camel burning between his fingers — facing the Henry Staiti House and gave an impromptu press conference to half-a-dozen reporters.
“The problem with standing against BLM and ‘antifa,’” Gowling said, using abbreviations for Black Lives Matter and anti-fascists, “is that everyone immediately assumes you’re a white supremacist. I hate Nazis, I just don’t want anyone whitewashing history.”
Although Gowling came to the park to “show support” for the statue, he was quick to point out that he didn’t come looking for a fight.
“I hope it remains peaceful and I have faith that HPD will keep things safe,” Gowling said, before he was interrupted by a journalist who wanted to debate him on the text of Texas’ declaration of secession and the document’s references to slavery.
At the other end of the park, across from the library, Sophie Cox — a young woman dressed in black, with bandanas around her wrists and a knife and a can of mace in her pocket — stopped beside two men in Socialist Party t-shirts with AK-47 style rifles across their chests.
“Too many times white people are afraid to put themselves between the alt-right, white nationalists and minorities,” Cox said. “I think that’s something that I can do here today.”
As the afternoon wore on and the protestors, police and media gathered beneath the shade of a century-old Live Oak, Ashton Woods grabbed a bullhorn. Woods, another of the Black Lives Matter Houston organizers, tried to explain the reason for the demonstration, as well as what the group hoped to accomplish.
“We want to send a message to Mayor Sylvester Turner: The City of Houston needs to stop positively reinforcing racism,” said Woods.