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Black Lives Matter in a haven for white supremacists

The inside story of a historic protest march in a small town in Arkansas.

A armed man looked on as Black Lives Matter supporters protested in the Harrison town square.
A armed man looked on as Black Lives Matter supporters protested in the Harrison town square.Brent Renaud for the Boston Globe

HARRISON, Ark. — I arrived here 10 days after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, sparking massive protests around the country. The historic Harrison town square, with its memorial to the Confederate war dead, was already closed to traffic as I drove into the area. Civilian men with military-style rifles and sidearms peered into approaching cars as if it were a border checkpoint.

Armed men and a few women, some carrying American or Trump 2020 flags, were posted up around the square and on rooftops, waiting. A few patrolled the sidewalks as if it were an insurgent village. It was eerily quiet. I started to think maybe the protesters weren’t actually coming.

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Then a source texted “on the move to the square,” and I started recording video. I grew up in Arkansas and have reported from this town for years, and I was almost stunned by what I witnessed next. Coming down the hill toward the courthouse was a lone Black man, dressed in tactical gear, wearing a green military backpack and carrying a shotgun strapped with bullets. Marching behind him was a large group, almost all white people, waving protest signs and chanting “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, silence is violence.”

Here was a Black Lives Matter rally in one of the country’s most notorious havens for white supremacists.

Black Lives Matter protest in Harrison, Ark.
Black Lives Matter protesters marched along the town square in Harrison on June 5, passing by counter-protesters who were guided by police to hold back. (Brent Renaud)

WHEN MAYA HOOD was offered a basketball scholarship to play at North Arkansas College, she threw the letter in the trash right in front of the coach. She needed that scholarship badly, but North Arkansas College is located in Harrison, and as Hood put it, “growing up Black in Arkansas, you do not go through Harrison. You’ll get hung from a tree, or somebody will shoot you down at the gas station.”

For an alarming number of extremists, this town in the Ozark Mountains, one of the most beautiful places in America, is a white man’s paradise. For many Black people, it’s still referred to as a sundown town, a place you should never get caught after dark.

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When I was a kid growing up in Arkansas, we would pass by the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan adopt-a-highway signs on road trips near here. I’m white, but their casual existence terrified me. I would imagine men in long white robes getting filthy picking up trash along the highway at night, lit up by a burning swastika. Even today, a number of white power billboards stand prominently, one right under an advertisement for Jason Robb, the local lawyer who represents the KKK. His father, Thomas Robb, succeeded David Duke as the Klan’s leader in the 1980s. Many people in Harrison say they resent the billboards and the KKK reputation, but the message to outsiders is clear: This is our town.

On the way into Harrison, a "white pride" billboard and an advertisement for a lawyer who represents the KKK.
On the way into Harrison, a "white pride" billboard and an advertisement for a lawyer who represents the KKK.Brent Renaud for the Boston Globe

Remarkably, Maya Hood accepted that basketball scholarship in Harrison. It was the only offer she got, and she really wanted to play ball. Every day on the way to school she passed by those racist billboards. It made her sick to her stomach. In class, she says, three women told the teacher out loud “we’re not going to work with the brown girl.” Hood was studying to be a nursing assistant, and she experienced abuse from patients, who called her the n-word with an ease and entitlement she found shocking, until she just got used to it. One feeble old man, she recalls, refused to let her touch him even though he was stuck on the toilet and a white nurse wouldn’t be coming to check on him for four days.

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Hood wanted to quit and go home. Those first couple of years, she cried a lot. “I’m like, I’m literally gonna die, that’s what I thought in my head, how am I going to survive?” But she loved her basketball coach and her teammates, and even some of her classmates became close friends. And the mountains and the rivers — it’s all so beautiful. “I tell everybody, I’m like I honestly believe in my heart I was put in Harrison for a reason.”

HARRISON WASN’T ALWAYS a white town. After slavery was abolished a thriving community of Black people lived here along Crooked Creek. But in 1905 and 1909, after crimes were allegedly committed by Black citizens, white mobs seized the opportunity to storm the jail looking for prisoners to beat and torture. They lynched Black people and burned down their property. Eventually, on January 29, 1909, the Arkansas Gazette reported: “Negroes leave Boone County.”

For the most part, they have never come back. There are 37,000 people in the county, and 96 percent of them are white.

A number of years ago, in a back room of the Harrison public library, I interviewed a man named Mike Hallimore. He wouldn’t let me come to his house because he thought I was a spy trying to get a look at his white power publishing empire. He was old and deceptively harmless looking. After a home health aide helped him out of the passenger side of his car, Hallimore handed my film crew bumper stickers that expressed a vile sentiment about white women who “date outside of their race.”

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Hallimore came to Harrison from California in the 1950s because it had the right combination of anti-government fervor and cheap land. And most importantly for him, nearly everyone in town was white. For years, Hallimore was the world’s leading distributor of books on Christian Identity, a twisted theology favored by the KKK and Aryan Nations. It preaches that Black people are not human and that Jews are descendants of Satan. At least half of the material, he told me, goes out to prison addresses.

A man riding a dirt bike and wearing a rebel flag bandana pulled up over his face stared down Black Lives Matter protesters in the town square.
A man riding a dirt bike and wearing a rebel flag bandana pulled up over his face stared down Black Lives Matter protesters in the town square.Brent Renaud for the Boston Globe

In the 1980s, Hallimore persuaded the Christian Identity pastor Thom Robb to move the headquarters of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan from Louisiana to Harrison. Later Robb brought into his fold the neo-Nazi leader Billy Roper and the racist radio host Freeland Roy Dunscombe. Robb sometimes hosts rallies, youth camps, and church services on his compound outside of town, though these days he spends most of his time online preaching hate and peddling racist memorabilia like rebel flag bedspreads and KKK trucker hats and promoting Harrison’s outdated legacy. Hallimore once told me he was upset that a few Black people had started moving into town and that “one is too many as far as I am concerned.” Harrison’s racist reputation, he said, “serves the purpose to keep them out.”

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AMANDA CAMPBELL WAS thinking about that reputation in her home in Harrison while she watched nationwide footage of Black Lives Matter protests after the George Floyd killing. Campbell, 39, is white, a former Republican, and the mother to seven children. She said she suddenly felt an almost divine call to action. “Changing the image” of Harrison wouldn’t be enough, she said; it was important to draw attention to the fact that white supremacists are still in town. “This may not be a sundown town by law,” she said, “but it’s just barely out of that stage, you know.”

Campbell and a white friend, Amber Weaver, set up a group chat online to plan a protest in Harrison. Maya Hood was on there too. “My first thought was wow,” Hood said, “like, there’s no way that was going to happen in Harrison.” In the first post, Campbell wrote: “Remember to keep this with those you trust. Ideally we do not want our plans leaked out to the local white supremacist groups.” But within hours, someone did just that. The post went viral around town. “Family members, old coworkers, anybody that knew me was getting messages . . . it just went insane.” Her brother asked Campbell to stop using her maiden name on Facebook so people wouldn’t know they were related. She was called a cop hater and a criminal lover. One guy seemed to be threatening to shoot her. The jab that confounded her the most was that she was trying to turn the whole police brutality thing into a racial issue.

A group of white Black Lives Matter supporters protested in the town square in Harrison.
A group of white Black Lives Matter supporters protested in the town square in Harrison.Brent Renaud for the Boston Globe

Something else was making Campbell uneasy: It didn’t feel right for a white woman to lead a Black Lives Matter protest. But Harrison is less than 1 percent Black, and she wondered if it would be irresponsible to ask the few Black people she knew to risk coming out to this protest, much less to be featured speakers. Maya Hood, for one, didn’t think she could do it. “I said no because someone in my family said if you say anything you will have a target on your back,” Hood said. Her grandmother went further: “If something happens, and bullets were to start flying and you’re on the front line, they’re not gonna miss you. You know they might miss some other people, but they’re not gonna miss you.”

Someone in the group suggested Campbell contact Quinn Foster, a young African American man who started an organization called Arkansas Hate Watch. (He later changed the name to Ozarks Hate Watch.) He drives around the state monitoring white nationalist activity, in a pickup truck with the phrases “Nazi Go Home” and “Black Lives Matter” painted on it. There was just one potentially incendiary problem. When Quinn Foster comes to town, he brings his guns with him.

Quinn Foster, founder of Arkansas Hate Watch.
Quinn Foster, founder of Arkansas Hate Watch.Brent Renaud for the Boston Globe

“There is a racial culture in Arkansas that is destructive,” he said. The white nationalist groups in Harrison “consider this sort of their seat of power. I made a very clear point that if I did come up here to speak and if I did rally, I was not going to be unarmed.”

Campbell knew the white nationalists and the militia groups would be out there with military-style rifles, and she was afraid that having a Black man with a gun at the march would be like throwing gasoline on the fire. But Foster persuaded her otherwise. He told her he already was getting constant threats from racist groups anyway, and more importantly, they needed to make a clear statement in Harrison. “Let people know, ‘Hey, we will go as far as we have to to protect ourselves. We are not taking a step back anymore. We’re not giving you all the power that you guys enjoy, the reputation you guys enjoy, or the ability to continue this nonsense. It has to come to an end now.‘”

An armed man waited for the protest to arrive in downtown Harrison.
An armed man waited for the protest to arrive in downtown Harrison.Brent Renaud for the Boston Globe

ON THE MORNING of the protest someone opposed to the march spread a rumor that busloads of antifa protesters were on their way to burn Harrison to the ground. It’s a hoax that has cropped up elsewhere in the country too. This fired up more militia types to come out to the square, including Amanda Campbell’s own brother, who, she says, showed up wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a rifle.

Quinn Foster was starting to worry. He said he had gotten threats from local white supremacist groups. What if this went spectacularly wrong? To try and mediate things, Foster reached out his opponents — not as a Black Lives Matter protester, but as a fellow pro-Second Amendment guy, a believer in openly carrying guns. They assured him that they were ready to go down fighting if things went bad, but that they wouldn’t shoot first. He took them at their word and decided to proceed with the rally.

Maya Hood was an emotional wreck. She hadn’t told Campbell yet, but she had decided that if things didn’t turn violent, she wanted to speak. “It’s not like Martin Luther King speaking at the Capitol or something, but I’m just like, I have a chance to speak in a place where Black people were hated and ran out of this town, and I now have the chance as a 22-year-old Black woman to stand on this stage and speak for Black lives.”

Maya Hood, one of the few Black participants in the Harrison rally, spoke to protesters.
Maya Hood, one of the few Black participants in the Harrison rally, spoke to protesters.Brent Renaud for the Boston Globe

AROUND 4:30 P.M. on June 5, Foster led the protest into the Harrison town square, past flag-waving armed militiamen, past a guy on a portable speaker yelling “why do Black lives matter?,” past a pro-life activist carrying a sign showing an aborted fetus, and past groups of people who seemed to be there for no other reason than to show their support for Donald Trump. Amanda Campbell was right behind him, fist in the air, yelling the familiar chants of Black Lives Matter movements everywhere.

The police held back and quieted the counter protesters. One cop told a group of men and boys waiving Trump flags: “Come on guys, let’s let them have their day.” I wonder if things might have gone very differently in Harrison had the protesters’ opponents not been so willing to please the authorities.

The Black Lives Matter group made their way to the south side of the square, facing the road that was still open to traffic, and waved their signs to a mixed bag of supporters, curious onlookers, and outright detractors like the man on a motorcycle with a rebel flag bandana pulled up over his face.

Of course, busloads of antifa protesters never materialized. A handful of people gave speeches, and it was almost over within an hour. Campbell had promised the police department and the mayor that they would clear the square by 5:30 p.m., a concession she now regrets. But she also knew some of the protesters wanted to be out of the town before dark, and so she asked if anyone else wanted to say something before they left. Hood raised her hand.

“My name is Maya and first off I just want to say how proud I am of this town,” she said. “Growing up where I grew up, they tell Black kids don’t go to Harrison.”

“That’s a lie!” A woman in the crowd yelled.

Hood raised her voice to speak over her, and made it through a few more sentences. “All lives cannot matter until Black lives matter.” Then she froze up.

“I was just overwhelmed with emotions,” she recalled later. She thought of not just the white woman yelling, but also her stressful job treating heart patients at the hospital, the Internet trolls harassing her, the pressure to be the voice of Black people everywhere. “I wasn’t doing it for the attention, I was doing it because I knew the attention would be there, and I knew that my voice would be heard by somebody you know.”

For a few long seconds, Hood just stood there quietly. Campbell and the other women organizers came forward and gave her a group hug. The crowd cheered. Hood wiped her eyes and went on: “It has to start with each and every one of us. It has to start here in our hearts, it has to start in your mind. Educate your children, educate the people around you. Do not stay silent, silence is violence. Say their names, and now go, and get the job done.”

It was one of the bravest things I think I have ever seen.

Organizers hugged Maya Hood as she broke down in tears while speaking to protesters.
Organizers hugged Maya Hood as she broke down in tears while speaking to protesters.Brent Renaud for the Boston Globe

A COUPLE OF days after the march, the KKK leader Thom Robb responded via a sermon posted online, entitled “Troubled Nation.” He told his worldwide Internet audience that the sermon was meant for the white people of Harrison.

“I know many people stood in the square in Harrison … with your weapons to demonstrate that you would not let this bunch of cultural terrorists destroy our city,” Robb said. “They don’t fear just the idea that you have a gun, but they fear your commitment and loyalty to God, race, and nation.”

Robb showed video from the march and posted still pictures of the protesters on the screen, and encouraged people to confront them if they saw them in town. “Every one of those protests have been designed to create hatred for law enforcement. That’s the purpose. Why? Because law and order is one of the most fundamental characteristics of a white society.”

I asked Campbell and Hood what they thought of Robb’s sermon. Campbell said: “You know the majority of people in Harrison are not racist, are not KKK, but that minority, even though it’s small, is the loudest. That’s what people hear. They hear those voices screaming hate. That’s what they hear all over the country. We want to drown that out.”

Hood took the question more personally: “Even if they had a gun to my face, I still don’t believe that I would be scared. We are literally living through history, you know like a textbook. And it’s like, I’m a part of something that can possibly be one of the greatest things to ever happen, you know?”

Brent Renaud is a writer, filmmaker, and photojournalist from Little Rock, Ark.