The statue, which has stirred controversy in the city for years, is a 40-foot high obelisk topped with an anonymous Confederate soldier that was erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1899. An inscription reads: “Lest we forget our Confederate dead.”
On July 4, SATX4 led a rally calling for the statue’s removal, and later that month, two City Council members — William Shaw and Robert Treviño — submitted a request for the city to consider relocating the statue to a museum. Their request calls the monument a reminder of the “second-class citizen status attributed to people of color — part of the cult of The Lost Cause.”
But hundreds of people, many armed with semi-automatic rifles, came out Saturday to defend the monument — led by a group called This Is Texas Freedom Force. The event coincided with the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where at least one person died and nearly 20 others were injured Saturday after a person drove a car through a street of counter-protesters.
“Our motto is ‘protectors of all things Texas’; we are big proponents of Texas history and preserving it,” said the group’s vice president, Brandon Burkhart, aka ‘Milkbone’, who said he was formerly a Republican Party precinct chairman in Bexar County.
Burkhart said the group launched in mid-May and now has an online membership of about 5,000. Their rally Saturday was guarded by heavily armed activists wearing fatigues and body armor who turned away multiple journalists who tried to enter.
“At any type of rally we hold, we always encourage people to bring their rifles,” Burkhart said. “The opposition gets way out of hand and people get hurt, so we want to make sure people can defend themselves.”
Burkhart said the group’s members testified before the San Antonio City Council in support of the statue, and planned to launch recall campaigns against members who voted to remove it. He also claimed his group was responsible for Senate Bill 112, filed last month during the special session by Brandon Creighton, a GOP senator from Conroe, which would prevent the removal of Confederate monuments — along with any statue on public property that is at least 40 years old — throughout the state. The bill was not referred to a committee.
This Is Texas Freedom Force was joined Saturday by militia groups, descendants of Confederate veterans groups and the so-called Proud Boys, an alt-right group that recently marched at a “freedom rally” in Austin. Attendees carried Texas, Confederate and American flags — organizers specifically forbade “KKK, Skin Head or racist flags” at the rally.
Lamar Russell, a member of the organizing group and the Alamo Militia, performed two hip-hop songs with pro-gun rights lyrics while waving a Confederate flag. Russell, who is black, told the Observer his family served in the Confederacy.
Joseph Gonzalez, who wants to keep the monument in place, held a sign reading “Tejano Mexicans fought with Confederates.” A San Antonio native, he argued the South did not secede over slavery or racism, but rather over taxes. “Most Tejanos here probably have a family member who fought in the Confederate army,” he said.
The state of Texas’ 1861 “declaration of causes” makes clear the state seceded to maintain slavery, which it called “mutually beneficial to both bond and free.”
On the other side of the park, masked “antifascist” activists armed with sticks and shields squared off with police as activists gave speeches and the group occasionally chanted: “Show me what democracy looks like,” and “No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist U.S.A.”
Denise Hernandez, an activist with the group Maestranza, read a statement sent to her by Representative Diego Bernal, a former San Antonio city councilman whose state House district includes the park. “We are better off because the Confederacy lost,” wrote Bernal. “Whatever value keeping the statue in the park provides (I don’t believe there is much), is far outweighed by what we gain by removing it.”
A previous effort to remove the statue in 2015 failed, in part due to opposition from then-Mayor Ivy Taylor, the city’s first black mayor. Some activists said they were hopeful the new mayor, Ron Nirenberg, would be more supportive.
Three other council members signed onto the July 31 request by Shaw and Treviño, totaling five out of 10 members who support it.
“We’ve got council members still on the fence, so we have to be out here harnessing momentum,” said Mike Lowe of SATX4. Lowe led the crowd into the street for a march that was swiftly surrounded by police. Lowe and other activists said the police seemed unduly concerned with their unarmed demonstration.
“A black man, unarmed, nothing but a megaphone, is perceived as more violent than Bubba over there with the AR-15, a MAGA hat and a Confederate flag,” Lowe said through a megaphone in front of a line of officers. He then kicked off a chant: “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?”
The crowd was largely dispersed by 6 p.m.