A City of Healing
“It’s a free country” is a childhood taunt kids learn on playgrounds and in lunchrooms. Despite that most Americans can’t explain the Bill of Rights, we’re possessive of our freedoms. Except when it means Neo-Nazis can pay a fifty-dollar permit fee to march into town and hold a hate rally in the park. Outrage becomes the immediate response.
Dissected by Interstate 85’s gray concrete river and populated by a mix of transplants and locals, Newnan, GA is a thriving Atlanta suburb southwest of Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. It’s also the worldwide headquarters of Southern Fried Karma. When the social media jungle drums began beating about a National Socialist Movement (NSM88) rally scheduled for Saturday, April 21st in the Greenville Street Park, righteous indignation and pig-headed denial ran through town. The “no way” sentiment was shared in grocery store lines and bank lobbies. This had to a bureaucratic bungle. But back to the Bill of Rights thing… There was no legal argument for the city to deny the permit. After reluctant acceptance settled into the community’s bones, the discussion shifted to two questions: “What are we going to do about it?” And, “Why here?”
Determining appropriate public safety became the primary issue for city officials. Police Chief Douglas “Buster” Meadows encouraged town residents to stay away from the park that day. Downtown shops and restaurants decided to close on Saturday, which would mean a considerable loss of revenue. With the images of the Charlottesville tragedy a click away, Newnan’s civic leaders teamed with state officials to plan a law enforcement strategy. There would be an overwhelming show of force to discourage violence and quickly respond to any clashes. City officials had access to skilled resources, which made addressing the dilemma of “What are we going to do about it?” a professional process.
The question of “Why here?” has sharper edges.
According to Politico, in the 2016 election, President Trump won nearly seventy percent of the vote in Coweta County, which was far above the state and national numbers. Locals aren’t merely “clinging to their guns”—they’re sporting .357 Magnums at the meat-and-two restaurants. The area also has a vibrant Civil War history and mythology. In front of the old courthouse, there’s a memorial to Confederate hero William Thomas Overby, who was a member of John Mosby’s “Gray Ghost” rangers. At 24 years old, Overby was captured and executed by federal troops after refusing to provide rebel locations. The memorial was erected in 1956, amidst the fervor of the anti-segregation movement, and there’s never been a serious public debate about removing the polished granite monument from the center of a downtown square lined with gift shops and clothing boutiques. Similarly, the reasons for a group of Yankee skinheads choosing Newnan was never much of a discussion. It was overrun by chatter.
As it became apparent that the left-wing street group Antifa (short for Anti-fascists) planned to mount a counter-protest, panic reverberated in all corners. The police grew concerned that thousands of hooligans would converge at the park to battle the Nazis. Hysterical fear-mongers suggested manning front-porches with shotguns and “making sure your homeowner’s insurance is paid up.” Fortunately, calmer souls moderated the gossip. When approached by an Atlanta news station for a reaction to the rally, one serene resident quoted the Taoist parable of the old man and the white stallion: “Good thing? Bad thing? Who knows?” The allegorical story offered an essential lesson on perspective and an individual’s response to an apparent calamity. A concerted effort to not allow hate to identify Newnan flourished.
The local newspaper helped communicate law enforcement’s aggressive approach to crowd control. There would be helicopters. There would be drones. Armored SWAT vehicles would be on hand. Hundreds of police officers in full riot gear would surround the park to maintain control. The Friday night before the protest, a #NewnanStrong rally was planned to support downtown merchants, and a “Peace in the Park” event was scheduled for the day after the protest to reclaim the area and cleanse the space of hate; however, in the final few days before the protest, the town’s fears were rekindled.
By Thursday, white and orange water barricades lined the streets. A temporary chain-link fence enclosed the park. The shiny silver barrier was conclusive evidence that the protest wasn’t only a topic of coffeehouse conversation—it was really happening. Arriving along with this visual proof was a social media post from a person claiming to be a former member of Anitfa. The inflammatory post warned residents to remove American flags from their homes and offices lest they become targets, and it again advocated guarding your homes with firearms. The authenticity of the post was questionable, but there was no denying the consequences: Formerly calmer souls were now scared. The escalating dread served as a warning beacon to Southern Fried Karma. It was our “Bat-Signal” hanging in the sky.
Our offices were squarely on Anitfa’s route to confront the Nazi’s. We had choices to make. First of all, we fly an American flag at our building, and there is a blue ribbon attached to the pole to show our support for local peace officers. The flag was not coming down no matter the cost. Likewise, we had no intention to sit in rocking chairs on our front porch, armed with 12-gauge shotguns and 9 mm pistols. That’s not who we are. We decided to express who we are by decorating the sidewalk in front of our office with positive messages of peace and love. On the morning of the march, we left out bottles of water and nourishing snacks for whoever walked past our building. We wanted those who were hungry or thirsty to be replenished. We wanted to share the love.
Fortunately, other than a few arrests for minor charges, the event was a dud—the M-80 that failed to explode. The Nazis were almost an hour late to their own rally. The positive energy created on Friday night at the #NewnanStrong rally continued on to Saturday, as a series of ecumenical unity services convened throughout the city. The massive police presence safely squelched any violence. The town escaped with only a skinned knee, but still, the community faces questions.
NSM88 and Antifa have threatened to return. The Coweta Sons of Confederate Veterans’ annual reenactment of the Battle of Brown’s Mill set for late August provides a foreboding irony and the potential for a real clash. Yet, the affecting aspect of the Confederate’s victory over Federal troops wasn’t that it protected the town’s antebellum mansion, but that the family homes were being used as field hospitals by both Northern and Southern soldiers. Today, Newnan is home to the Cancer Treatment Center of America and a large regional hospital. Perhaps our civic slogan should change from the “City of Homes” to a “City of Healing.”
A drenching all-day rain forced the rescheduling of the Peace in the Park rally to the weekend after the protest. Mother Nature cleansed the space herself. Late on a sunny Sunday afternoon, a small group gathered to sing a few songs and listen to a series of short talks by community leaders from a variety of backgrounds. One of the speakers, an energy healing practitioner, reminded listeners of a song she learned as a young girl, “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” Taught in Vacation Bible schools throughout the South, the gospel song’s message of unity is timeless, despite its outmoded lyrics. The real challenge lies ahead for us all. Will we embrace the moment and build upon our new sense of communal strength, or will we backslide into silent indifference? Viewing everyone as the same, connecting with all sentient beings as family members, only comes through the daily diligence of practicing love and kindness. When we attune ourselves to the essence of our fellow travelers, our fears dissipate. This awareness is what the Nazis brought to town.