James Gray has lived in Weatherford his entire life, but Saturday night was the first time the local historian said he felt compelled to sleep alone on his couch while clutching a shotgun. The things he’d seen earlier that day while protesting the Confederate statue on the courthouse lawn scared him.
“There were men walking around with axe handles,” Gray said. “There was a man in the bed of his truck with a sniper rifle and pointing it at us on the lawn of the courthouse. There was another man kneeling across the street from us in the ready position with a rifle in his hand. I’ve never experienced anything like that. It felt like they were waiting for something to happen so we would give them a reason to shoot.”
The fear from that day combined with death threats he has received in recent weeks prompted Gray to send his wife and children to stay with relatives. His faith in local law enforcement had fled along with his sense of well-being. He saw too many Weatherford police officers ignoring the physical assaults and gun waving from counter-protesters, he said.
“We don’t feel like the Weatherford Police Department protected our right to peacefully assemble and exercise our First Amendment right,” Gray said. “We were there to peacefully protest and were met in certain cases with violent opposition.”
Gray estimated about 60 to 70 protesters had gathered near the courthouse to demand the statue’s removal, something they have protested about a dozen times in recent weeks. Previous protests had drawn a few armed counter-protesters, but nothing like the numbers seen on Saturday. Gray estimated his group was soon surrounded and outnumbered four to one by counter-protesters.
“The sheer number of people, the weapons, how aggressive the crowd was — I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life,” he said.
The counter-protesters were motivated in part by social media reports that out-of-town extremist groups such as Antifa were coming to Weatherford. Those reports led to conjecture that rioting might occur. Locals, some carrying guns, showed up ready to protect their town and statue.
“I didn’t know if they were going to try to burn down our town or not,” said Jim Merritt, a longtime resident and former city council candidate. “I was very proud of the show that was there standing for the statue. We had a good show from Weatherford people.”
Unlike Gray, Merritt said he left the courthouse that day feeling relieved and appreciated that no property was destroyed and nobody was seriously hurt.
“I was afraid it was going to turn violent,” he said. “I didn’t know who was there from out of town to riot. It didn’t turn out like that. I’m glad it didn’t. I’m glad it was peaceful.”
Maybe the protesters, especially those from out of town, will think twice before threatening the peace and historic heritage of Weatherford, he said.
“I hope this got the message across real good about how people feel about everything,” Merritt said. “If this doesn’t, I don’t know what will.”
Kwame Osei Jr., a co-founder of Enough is Enough Fort Worth, said his group was invited by Parker County Progressives, the group that initiated the protest. Some Enough is Enough members typically wear vests, protective gear, and carry guns to provide security at protests. They don’t instigate violence, but are there as a safety net when aggression is directed their way, he said.
“We exercise our Second Amendment right along with our First Amendment right, which is freedom of speech,” Osei Jr. said. “Our security detail ensures the safety of our group. Our protesters include women, it includes children. In Fort Worth, there have been times where people would rev their engines or act as if they were going to run us over. The guns are to make sure we are safe.”
Enough is Enough members have been protesting in Fort Worth for two months without rioting or destroying property and came to Weatherford to protest peacefully, he said. The clashes occurred because right-wing groups were spreading lies and rumors on social media that left-wing groups such as Antifa and Black Lives Matter were coming to riot, Osei Jr. said, and the counter-protesters jumped to conclusions and came to a peaceful protest looking for trouble.
“We didn’t instigate any of the violence, but we got water thrown at us, we got called the N word, and we got assaulted with fists and confederate flag poles,” he said.
Merritt estimated there were 30 people protesting against the statue and all but a handful were from out of town. Merritt said one of the local organizers has lived in town his entire life and could have protested long before now but is capitalizing on current trends for ego purposes.
“Why does he wait until now that the country is in turmoil for that statue to be bothering him?” Merritt said. “He is just wanting to cause trouble and be a big shot. If there was anybody hurt, it would have been on him.”
The local African-American population has been small and without much of a public voice in Weatherford for much of its history. This isn’t the first time protesters have complained, it’s the first time anyone has paid attention, Gray said.
“That statue has been a thorn in the side of the black community here for as long as I remember,” he said. “I’ve been to several NAACP meetings since I was a kid and remember that statue being brought up.”
Donald L. Holt, who described himself as a “concerned citizen,” wrote an impassioned letter to city officials, the Democrat and others after Saturday’s protest. He said he was appalled that police allowed too much aggressive behavior from counter-protesters and failed to control the scene based on numerous videos being shared since then on social media.
A video being shared online shows a counter-protester holding a knife in his hand while confronting protesters. When he sees a woman standing nearby and videotaping him on her phone, he slaps the phone out of her hand. Gray said the man had pulled his knife after slapping a female protester across the face and being confronted by Gray’s brother. Police did nothing about either assault, Gray said.
Holt described the actions he saw on video as deflating.
“I have been a citizen of Parker County since 1996, and have never been so embarrassed to be a part of this community as I am currently,” he wrote.
“People should have the right to protest without fear of being harmed or silenced, and that is not what I saw on these videos,” he said. “Both groups should have been kept separated, and both groups should have been told that any acts of aggression would be met with an abrupt arrest and prosecution to fullest extent of the law. Permitting such displays of weapons and the assaults that I viewed surrounding those armed individuals, and the poor response by law enforcement I viewed, is the reason I feel the need to voice my opinion as a taxpayer and homeowner.”
Chris Crawford, Weatherford deputy chief of police, said the protests were held largely on county property, which was patrolled by deputies. The two arrests were made by deputies. Police officers were patrolling the street and surrounding quadrants, Crawford said.
“We had no Weatherford police officers on the courthouse grounds,” he said.
Police made no arrests, but Crawford has heard no reports that police officers were ignoring crimes. Nobody has filed a police report accusing anyone of assault from the event, he said.
“Our main goal is to provide a safe and secure environment for people to peacefully protest,” Crawford said. “How that’s done when you have 500 or 600 people out there — pretty difficult task. There were instances where there were people on both sides that were agitating the situation.”
JB Black said he and other local residents planned to attend the courthouse event that day after word spread that Enough is Enough protest members from big cities to the east were coming. Local protesters have been lawful and peaceful in the past, and counter-protesters have stayed away for the most part, Black said.
What kicked the counter-protest contingency into a higher gear was when the local protesters invited outside members to attend, he said.
“If [protesters] would have kept to their local group, you wouldn’t have many” counter-protesters, Black said.
Black said his group wanted to make sure there was no havoc or disruption to businesses here.
The protest had been going smoothly for the first part of the day, Black said. Protesters and counter protesters were waving signs and yelling back and forth but remaining civil.
“For the most part it was just bickering back and forth,” Black said. “Some people were laughing. It wasn’t tense and angry.”
The mood changed after outsiders arrived that afternoon, he said.
“They got there around 4:30 or 5,” Black said. “They were dressing in full tactical gear, which is vest, face masks, all black, and they unloaded a trunk of a Honda that had nothing but long rifles in it.”
Black estimated one-in-five protesters carried weapons, but news media makes it look like only the counter-protesters were armed and aggressive, he said.
“Every story you see coming out is one-sided,” he said.
Police didn’t arrest any protesters but arrested two counter-protesters, based on reports.
“They were completely right to arrest the people from our side who were causing a fight,” Black said.
Protesters said monuments like the one near the courthouse honor the Confederacy, which was based on white supremacy and racism. The statue’s description reads: “In honor of the United Confederate Veterans of Parker County 1861-1865”.
“A memorial that is absolutely steeped in racism and white supremacy should not be on government property,” Gray said. “We asked for it be removed. Not once have we ever tried to destroy that statue. We’ve been up there protesting 10 times and hadn’t touched it once. Our goal is to have it moved off government property.”
Counter-protesters said the monuments describe history and honor fallen soldiers and should be left alone.
“We can’t change history,” Merritt said. “I know they want to. The statue needs to stay there. It was put there for a reason. We are proud of our past and don’t want to change it.”
Nobody is trying to memorialize oppression, he said.
“Nothing honors slavery, it honors the soldiers,” Merritt said.
Little seems honorable to Gray about memorializing the Confederacy.
“My family has been here for 165 years,” he said. “I have ancestors who were enslaved here. I also have two ancestors who were lynched on the courthouse lawn in 1861. It’s personal to me that a statue that represents the Confederacy is on government property.”