By Matt Aiken, Jake Cantrell & Greg Finan, Jr.
The usual sights and sounds of fall tourism season in downtown Dahlonega were replaced by barricades, bag-checks and boots on the ground as rally-goers and counter protesters filled opposite ends of the Public Square on Saturday afternoon.
On one side there was local resident and former KKK member Chester Doles who presided over a pro-Trump rally that consisted of several dozen attendees who gathered in the shadow of the chamber visitors’ center.
“We are here to honor our President Donald Trump and to raise awareness on the growing dangers of socialism here in Dahlonega and across the nation,” he said through a small speaker system as his supporters waved bright blue Trump flags.
Controversy surrounding the rally had simmered for weeks as the event was heavily promoted on white supremacy websites and ultimately included a guest speaker with ties to Neo-Nazism.
On the other side were approximately 100 counter protesters who ranged from Atlanta residents to locals. The counter-rally had been organized in part by members of the Socialist Coalition of North Georgia.
Atlanta resident Atlas Raymond Ursen said he isn’t affiliated with any specific group, but he came to Dahlonega to make sure his voice was heard.
“Some people are here by themselves, some people are here with a friend...but we’re all here for the same thing,” he said. “We don’t support Nazis. We don’t support KKK. We don’t support any sort of bigotry, racism, anti-LGBT-plus. We’re just all against it. So we show up."
In between the two groups, a massive assemblage of law enforcement officials stood at the ready.
The most noteworthy of forces were the more than 150 members of the Georgia Department of Corrections Tactical Squad who took turns encircling the Dahlonega Gold Museum. Dressed in full riot gear, the troopers chanted "We rock this house" and marched in precision during shift changes.
Ultimately it was a peaceful affair, as neither side clashed.
Sheriff Stacy Jarrard credited the highly visible police presence for that.
“I think it went well,” he said. “…It’s amazing the overwhelming support that came from the state of Georgia to help out our community.”
That support consisted of nearly 600 officers from the state, local and federal level and included an armored vehicle parked a few yards from The Fudge Factory and ever-present police drones buzzing overhead.
Jarrard and City Marshal Jeff Branyon worked together to coordinate the effort.
On Saturday, those who wanted to enter the separate protest areas had to make their way through airport security-style lines, bag-checks and pat-downs. Everyday items like water bottles, balloons and umbrellas were not allowed. Though guns were permitted, a newly passed city ordinance allowed officers to confiscate ammunition.
On the east side of the square, Doles waved a colonial American flag with 13 stars on it as he addressed a group of supporters and reporters.
He warned of the rise of socialism, illegal immigrants and criticized the University of North Georgia which he deemed a “piranha with Antifa professors.”
He also directed heavy criticism towards the media, which included The Nugget.
“The Dahlonega Nugget is a socialist organ for the Communist Party,” he said. “It’s not even an opinion. It’s a fact.”
Doles also announced his intention to run for U.S. Senate in 2020.
Throughout the proceedings, Emmett and Cindy Gilbert watched the rally from the outside of the circle of supporters. The Habersham couple said they made the drive to Dahlonega for one reason.
“Trump,” said Cindy. “We came for Trump.”
They both said they were not bothered by Doles’ past association with the KKK.
“So what?” said Emmett. “What’s that got to do with the price of rice in China?”
“For what we heard he’s not here today for that,” she said. “…We’re here to stand up for Trump and yes, in a way, our white rights. We think we should be able to come out and do this peacefully just how they [the counter protestors] should be able to go and do their things peacefully, without thinking we’re white supremacists.”
COUNTERPOINTS AND PROTESTS
On the west side of the square, a much louder sound system pumped music as a mass of protesters clutched signs with a wide variety of slogans ranging from “No Hoods in My Woods” to “I Hate Robo-calls Not People.”
Atlanta resident Estevan Hernandez stood amongst them. And he said he came to town to protest fascism.
“[Doles has] invited known Nazi speakers and he’s trying to meet people and get a foothold in the conservative community, legitimize his politics, which is Nazism and fascism, so that he can recruit and grow,” he said. “And we’re out here to make a stand against that, to show that the community is not just going to sit by and let any Nazis walk in our streets.”
Dawsonville resident Alexander Burga said he wasn’t there to protest but wanted to witness the scene. But when it came time to choose a side to stand on, he instinctively went with the counter protesters.
“I just wanted to witness the event I guess,” he said. “ The side that we are on right now…we are supporting the side of love. I would say the opposing side would be the side of hate.”
Sharon Bennett was one of the few protesters to be seen in both groups throughout the day. With the many news cameras on hand, she said she was using the media spotlight to spread her own message.
“I’m for neither side actually,” said the Dahlonega resident while holding a sign that said ‘Lower Prescription Drug Prices.’ “I just want to bring it to everyone’s attention that I’m old, I need help and they need to do something in Congress. I’m giving equal sides because that’s the reason I’m here.”
UNG student Blaine Hensley watched the Trump rally from a distance and said he had no affiliation with either group as well.
Though the university had issued an email alert recommending that students stay away from the square during the demonstrations, he and his group of self-described “gamer” friends said they had to see what was going on.
“I’m just here to see how wrong both sides are,” said the sophomore. “…Both sides are caught up in the heat of the moment.”
Hensley took note of the many golden streamers that had been tied around trees and light poles Friday night by a grass-roots group called Lumpkin Loves. An online statement issued by the group said the ribbons were placed by those who are “united in standing together against racism and hatred.”
Hensley said that’s the Dahlonega he knows.
“I think that’s a wonderful idea,” he said. “I think we welcome everybody. And we support everybody here.”
INCIDENTS AND ARRESTS
The double demonstration lasted a little less than two hours and resulted in a total of three arrests.
Two of the arrests occurred when a pair of counter protesters, Racheal Scott and Ronald Watson, walked through the pro-Trump side chanting “KKK go away.”
They were met with shouts and jeers from rally-goers. Before the confrontation could get too heated numerous officers swept in and escorted the pair from the scene.
Scott and Watson, both 22, were charged with inciting a riot, according to law enforcement officers.
Another arrest occurred earlier in the morning when Joshua Palmer, 26, walked on the University of North Georgia campus, which was closed to the public for the day. Jarrard said he decided not to comply with officers and was also carrying a weapon.
Palmer was arrested and charged with obstruction and carrying a weapon in an unauthorized location.
THE PRICE TAG
After the dust settled, the question remained: How much will this cost local taxpayers?
City Manager Bill Schmid said the city is still working out the numbers, but he doesn’t anticipate any sticker shock.
“These costs have not been tallied, but are not significant in the grand scheme of things,” he said. “Most costs were covered by individual agencies as part of mutual aid for law-enforcement, and much of the rest is covered by our insurance.”
He added whatever the cost is, it will be worth it.
“I believe we received good value from law-enforcement, emergency management, communications resources and equally hard-working city public works staff in protecting our residents, businesses, guests and the brand name of Dahlonega, which has been built over decades,” he said.
Mayor Sam Norton agreed.
"With public safety, it is always better to over prepare than under prepare,” he said. “So, we will except any criticism as a compliment."
After the event came to a close the barricades that had divided downtown were disassembled and the square was reopened to normal fall season foot traffic.