I arrived at Riverside Park in Batesville where white nationalists were gathering for an anti-Shariah law demonstration, and took a few minutes to gather my thoughts and nerve before I approached them. I had never covered a race rally before and wasn't sure what to expect. It felt unpredictable.
"This probably isn't the safest part of your job, is it?" said Jordan Gould, one of the day's counterprotesters, who offered to jump in his car and lead me to the other side of the White River when my GPS couldn't find the way. My colleague, KASU-89.1 news director Johnathan Reaves, stayed behind to cover the counter-protest, and it was my job to obtain interviews from Billy Roper and his band of white nationalists.
The task was to obtain both some audio and some personal understanding of the rally members' agenda. My guide wished me luck and left, and I took a few minutes to observe the white nationalists before approaching them.
Since it was a few minutes before the rally was due to begin, the group at that time was a handful of men who appeared to be doing nothing more than standing around smoking and complimenting each other’s tattoos. They were outnumbered by the police officers who were there to keep a watchful eye over the rally. It was safe enough to approach them.
I’m a blonde with a skin tone comparable to a sheet of paper. Even as an objective journalist, it seemed to matter what I looked like, at least in this setting.
The scene felt a bit unreal, since I'm still on the learning curve for Arkansas news, history and culture, having arrived from suburban Boston less than six months ago. I had to be convinced that an openly racist rally was even possible. I speculated out loud that no one would show up for such as rally, or that they would show up but refuse comment. My editor and colleagues assured me this was not the case. "Won't anyone lose their jobs for being on the news for this?" I wondered. "Well, maybe they work for people who agree with them," pointed out KASU's Morning Edition host Brandon Tabor, a colleague who is African-American. I hadn't thought of that. This is as raw and as real as it gets, I realized as my first race rally assignment got underway.
Billy Roper was quick to approach me when he saw the Arkansas Public Media microphone flag and equipment I was carrying. Instinctively, we didn't shake hands. I would have in any other situation I was introducing myself and asking for an interview. Some would argue that interviewing him or any of his supporters amounts to "normalizing" their agenda. I knew that Johnathan would get a full response from the counterprotesters, but that I happened to have drawn this side of the assignment, and that it had to get done.
Roper is in his mid-40s and looks like he could be a high school science teacher. In fact, he did once work as a public school teacher. I was surprised by how polite and even mild-mannered he seemed. He quizzed me a little about where the audio would end up. Arkansas Public Media supplies news features for a statewide network of public radio stations, and that seemed to please him greatly.
“Would you like to step into the shade where it’s a little less hot?” he asked before the interview. He was more than willing to pose for as many photos as I wanted to take.
"What are we doing here today?" I asked, immediately regretting saying "we" instead of "you." I asked him to talk for a few minutes about anti-Shariah law and Muslim immigration, which was billed as the actual reason for the rally. It wasn't the most hard-hitting of interviews, since it was more about trying to understand the day's purpose. I also wanted to just understand myself who this Billy Roper is. Like it or not, he has influence over others, so I wanted to understand how and why. I asked for his response to his critics who were rallying on the other side of the river.
"Well, a negative and a negative is a positive, so they must be rallying in support of Shariah law," he said.
The counterprotestors said they were supporting all races and religions and promoting love for all people.
Roper said Shariah law, practiced in some mosques including some in Arkansas, is horribly abusive to women and gays. It promotes the buying and selling of child brides as if they were cattle, he said. (Actually, Shariah or Islamic law is interpreted very differently within Islam, just as Christian practices and prohibitions are very different across denominations, and modern Islam does not condone human chattel.)
He also offered arguments against Muslim immigration, some of which mainstream Americans might agree with, such as a need for secure borders and clear immigration policies.
"They’re going to be marching from the VFW up past the golf course," he said of the counterprotesters, "where they’re going to lecture the golf balls about being too white."
Roper's rally included a Muhammad drawing contest, an act clearly meant as inflammatory. While the Quran does not specifically forbid visual images of the prophet, supplemental writings accepted by many Muslims do not allow for any visual depiction. Cartoons and derogatory images of the prophet have spurred violence elsewhere. One of the drawings created at the event showed a Muhammad figure with devil horns commanding “come home, wife” while a tiny creature cries out, “but I’m only 5 years old.”
“Sure, I’m probably already on some list anyway,” joked Caleb Hall, when I asked whether I could take a picture of him with his Muhammad drawing. I wasn't so sure though that I wanted to take a photo or that it would ever pass Arkansas Public Media's editorial process. It didn't.
(Arkansas Public Media is not publishing the photo in keeping with NPR's standards and practices. Here's what NPR senior editor Mark Memmott wrote to us in an e-mail: "As you may recall, we chose not to post the images that Charlie Hebdo published." And here's why: "Much of our thinking at that time was based on how offensive they were, but we also knew full well that posting any image of the prophet would offend many people. Our policy on offensive language applies to our thinking about images as well.")
Caleb's drawing was the least of it when compared with the other drawings. He also seemed to have far milder views than other ralliers, so I pressed him a little about why he was at the event. He said he often sees both sides of controversies and had friends who were on the other side of the river at the counterprotest, and that they'd all still be friends afterwards. He said he often makes fun of other people and religions but also makes fun of himself almost daily, which he seemed to find essential to well-being. He doesn't go too far into anything really disturbing, he said.
"Like, I'll do blonde jokes, but I won't do rape jokes," he offered as an example.
“Anyone here who’s Muslim gets a free slice of bacon,” Roper shouted jeeringly into a megaphone during a picnic of German-themed foods that accompanied the drawing event.
Orthodox Islam, like Judaism, forbids pork.
A sound from the rolling river sounded like a gunshot. I still don't know what the sound was, but for a split second I thought it was a bullet being fired. My mind instantly went back to Billy Roper's claims that multiple people had threatened to kill him at the rally.
"That is who is really intolerant. Those are the real haters. I haven't threatened to kill anyone," he said.
After that noise, it seemed like a good time to leave. I was relieved to have the material I needed and be ready to start putting the broadcast story together. I lingered in the car for a time, enjoying the air conditioning, texting my colleagues and wondering if the GPS that couldn't find the other side of the river could now find a Starbucks drive-thru in Batesville. I was writing the story in my mind and glad the information-gathering part was over.
I had almost driven away when I had the feeling something was wrong and checked the rearview mirror. The group from across the river had arrived to confront the white nationalists. Police were intervening. I went running back.
A wall of police officers including local, state and auxiliary, stood in between the two groups. No subject was off-limits as they shouted back and forth. Race, nationality, religion and sexual orientation. Soon, it was just insults. “Hey, does your girlfriend like your haircut?” Roper shouted at a woman.
“Yes, she does,” the woman shouted back. “What about you? Have you ever even had a girlfriend?”
"This is my wife," he said, gesturing to a woman who was holding up one end of a banner that read, "Diversity = White Genocide."
"Well, I feel bad for her," the woman shouted. A man repeatedly made obscene hand and mouth gestures that simulated a sex act, and pointed at Roper. The groups grew more and more agitated.
"Moo, moo," a white nationalist called out to a woman who was overweight, throwing some old-fashioned body-shaming into the mix of race- and religion-themed insults.
It seemed that when every line had already been crossed on race and ideology, out came the most basic of human insults: "You're fat." The man's friends egged him on to continue with the cow noises.
"Bet your parents are proud of you," someone shouted back.
Roper, who could barely keep a smile off his face during the confrontation, sang a few lines of the Justin Bieber "Baby" to an opponent in the crowd he repeatedly called Justin Bieber. (He didn't particularly look like Justin Bieber, that I could tell..)
"Baby, baby, oohh baby," crooned Roper into his megaphone.
I doubt that I'll ever hear that song again without thinking of this day.
The confrontation, as ugly as it was verbally, never turned physically violent. The wall of police officers held steady.
The officers stood stonefaced, making it very clear that no one better even think of breaching their line.
One of them, an African American, seemed to stand for protecting free speech and even the very people who would use it to devalue him. He seemed to notice the microphone I had placed on the ground while snapping photos. He quickly nodded and smiled at me, which I took as a small act of friendship and acknowledgement that we both had jobs to do, this Saturday in June.