Members of the New Panther Initiative — a Black Lives Matter group — and other supporters gathered at Covered Bridge Park in Elizabethton to protest racial inequality and injustices. Counter-protesters, many of whom wore shirts, hats and flags supporting U.S. President Donald Trump, jeered at the protesters as they entered the park, with several shouting racial slurs and obscenities at them.
One protester, Miranda Knight, said that was exactly why they were out there protesting.
“I have seen my friends, black and brown, that have been victimized multiple times systemically by the people that you see standing on the opposite side saying ‘white lives matter,’ and they’re really missing the point of Black Lives Matter,” Knight said. “Whenever they say ‘all lives matter,’ they’re missing the point — Black lives are being attacked, and we have to stand with them.”
Prior to the protest, there was some fear of violence, with at least one video circulating online of a man pumping a shotgun and calling on people to stand against the protesters — mistakenly believing the protesters were coming to burn the Covered Bridge or destroy statues in the city.
On Friday, the Elizabethton Police Department issued a statement calling for the protests to remain peaceful, and asking people to leave guns — particularly rifles and shotguns — at home.
“I respectfully ask all those peaceful law-abiding citizens that plan on coming to Elizabethton tomorrow to refrain from bringing rifles and shotguns,” the statement said. “After conference with the District Attorney’s office on these weapons laws and in the interest of public safety, our officers will be watching for persons carrying rifles and shotguns in our public spaces and have the duty to stop and inspect such rifle and or shotgun to insure it is unloaded and check the person for ammunition in the immediate vicinity.
“Please help us by not coming to town with long arms to display. Lawful permitted carry of handguns is always welcome in Elizabethton, and concealed carry is preferred,” the statement continued.
At least one person at Saturday’s protest was carrying a rifle, while a multitude of counter-protesters were openly displaying handguns.
One of those carrying a pistol, Danny Minton, said he was there to protect the bridge and monuments from being destroyed.
“(I came out here) for this,” Minton said, gesturing toward the protest. “To protect my Covered Bridge and our monuments, because they’re taking them down everywhere in every part of the country. We’re not going to have it here, they’ll tear up nothing.”
Counter-protesters swarmed a group of demonstrators as they made their way into the park and took a knee, with police officers working to make sure nothing escalated past shouting.
The protests, however, remained peaceful throughout. While there were some shouting matches, with one counter-protester gesturing toward the pistol he was carrying as he spoke to a man, much of the day was heavy on dialogue, as protesters and counter-protesters spoke at length throughout the day.
A particularly powerful moment came early in the night as New Panther Initiative members Arron Valentine and Andre Johnson spoke with the man who posted the widely circulated video with the shotgun. Similar conversations took place throughout the protest, as the group tried to explain how they feel and bridge gaps between each other.
“We came here to cause uncomfortable conversations with you guys,” one protester said to the counter-demonstrators.
Things began wrapping up just before 7:30 p.m., as demonstrators began leaving the park following an eight minute and 46-second moment of silence as some counter-protesters chanted “all lives matter” and “Trump.”