Bluff City: Despite promises of large groups, few show to protest Memphis statue removal

Memphis is known as the “Bluff City.” But, the biggest bluff may have come from a neo-Nazi from Arkansas and a group wanting to protest the removal of two Confederate statutes.

Despite promises of up to 20,000 people, white nationalist Billy Roper led a dozen people on Saturday afternoon to a police-blocked street near Health Sciences Park in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, to demonstrate against the removal of a memorial honoring early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest.

And, a second protest never even got into downtown.

A group called Confederate 901 spent the entire afternoon driving around the Interstate 240 loop, which creates a circle around part of the city.

The protests, such as they were, came in response to Memphis officials selling two parks to a private entity — Memphis Greenspace — which then took down statues of Forrest and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

When protest time came around on January 6, police, who outnumbered Roper’s crew by roughly five-to-one, used cars and city-owned dump trucks to cordon off several blocks around Health Sciences Park at the corner of Union Avenue and S. Manassas Street and created a block-long pen for Roper and his followers to stage their protest.

Anyone entering the area was scanned for weapons and all bags were left outside the blocked off area. Despite his complaints, Roper was required to remove a Kevlar vest he wore underneath his coat in the 38-degree weather.

Roper’s protest amounted to little more than the neo-Nazi making a short speech to assembled television news crews as his supporters held up Confederate battle flags and a sign saying “Diversity = White Genocide.”

“This flag did a lot of good for a lot of people,” said a woman who would only give her name as Caroline and said she was from Arkansas.

Along with the speech, Roper led his followers in a chorus of “Dixie,” singing into a bullhorn pointed toward his followers a couple of feet away.

As Roper’s theatrics took place downtown two miles from the Mississippi River, Confederate 901 drove loops around part of the city with an escort from Memphis Police, never getting within three miles of the disputed parks where the monuments were removed.

The ride, featuring trucks toting the Confederate battle flag, looked a bit like an oversized carnival ride as the drivers spent several hours cruising in a counter-clockwise circle around part of the city.

Afterward, the group celebrated the circular drive and noted that no one was cited for any traffic or legal violations.

“This is the beginning of many great things for the south. Thanks to all the patriots that made today a success. We proved that we are resourceful and with grace dignaty [sic] and honor we will defend our heritage and never forgot those who sacrificed all for us!” Confederate 901 posted on Facebook.

Two people who wanted to hold a counter-protest against the neo-Confederates went to City Hall for a rally organized on Facebook, but finding no rally spent the time tossing a Frisbee.

Roper and his small contingent were followed away from the protest site by several Black Lives Matter demonstrators, who documented license plates from Georgia, Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee, but there was little interaction between the groups.

Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings told The Commercial-Appeal that no arrests were made and no damages was done.

“We didn’t anticipate any acts of violence and as expected, the demonstration occurred without incident,” he said.

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