Jenna Bernstein and Qadree Williams argued in front of the Confederate monument in the Oxford Square just after the protest on Saturday afternoon, voices raised.
“If you have respect for your culture, then we are on the same side,” Bernstein said.
“If that’s what we want, then why can’t we do it together without sitting, empowering a symbol that justifies (racism)?” Williams asked.
Minutes before, they were on opposite sides of Van Buren Avenue chanting, chanting about whether the monument should be moved, about what the statue means, about which side was more hateful.
Bernstein, a first-generation Floridian and a Jew, was in the crowd around the monument. She was there to protect the honor of veterans, she said. She argued that Confederate veterans hold the same status as all other U.S. veterans, so the monument should remain as it is.
Williams, a U.S. Army sergeant who lives in Oxford, stood with the counterprotesters in the drizzle, wearing a black hoodie, jeans and a gold chain. A Taurus 9mm handgun was holstered on his right hip, which he brought out after asking a police officer if it was allowed. He didn’t want anything to happen to him because of miscommunication, an accident or discrimination, he said. He thought back to the history of African-Americans in Mississippi as the protesters waved their flags and sang “Dixie.”
“There are people that have suffered. There are ancestors that have suffered,” he said, thinking of his grandmother and great-grandmother who lived in the Mississippi Delta.
“So this, this right here,” Williams said, gesturing toward the Confederate and Mississippi state flags flapping around the monument. “I would almost be a complete fool for me to not be out here to rally against them because of what I know they’ve been through and what I’ve been through, even facing the University of Mississippi.”
Bernstein, in the crowd around the statue, was thinking about her Jewish heritage. Her rain boots had Confederate flag stickers on them, like the pins on her hat. She remembered the minority members of the Confederate army, saying she was there to celebrate “black Confederate history month.” She especially wanted to celebrate the legacy of her hero, H.K. Edgerton. He protested alongside her, a black man wearing a Confederate uniform and carrying the flag.
“I’m just glad H.K. could go and have his speech; it’s very eloquent. He tells the truth of people of color that served in the Confederacy,” she said, adding that Edgerton and she are now being subjugated “by (their) own people.”
Edgerton is an activist for Confederate symbols and a media fixture, making displays like marching through major Southern cities to spread his message.
“I mean, it’s his day, so I don’t do my whole Jewish thing, but 12,000 Jews served,” Bernstein said. “This is ridiculous. We are both two people that know about the subjugation of our peoples.”
Qadree Williams’s cousin, Jamie Williams, studied history at the University of Mississippi and was part of the counterprotest.
“(Edgerton) does not know history,” Jamie Williams said. “He does not know the truth behind the Confederacy and that hatred toward enslaved Africans. The primary issue of the Civil War was slavery, and the fact that he’s ecstatic about marching around in Confederate gear and waving the Confederate flag just shows that he does not know the history. He does not have a clue of the hatred.”
Edgerton said his heritage is rooted in history, and his entire family agrees with his crusade for Confederate honor.
“You can’t understand what injustice is if you’re fighting for it,” Qadree Williams said. “But, I feel like he gets a sense of accomplishment from what he’s doing because of the fact that he has people surrounding him, telling him that it’s OK. Regardless of the hate that we see, regardless of what’s going on even five feet away from him, I feel like he has an individualistic mindset. I don’t feel like he sees things as an individual African-American but as an individual.”
Jamie Williams said he believes the Confederate groups keep Edgerton around as a “token.” As long as they have him with them, they can claim they aren’t racist, he said.
The cousins said protesters were focused on them because they were among the few black people who were members of the counterprotest. According to Qadree Williams, one of the protesters, who was wearing a Hiwaymen shirt, used racist epithets toward them. Another counterprotester later verified the account. The police officers who were standing just feet away did nothing, Qadree Williams said.
Bernstein said she was not racist. She told some counterprotesters “I love you” and “God bless you.” After, she implored them to look at pictures of documents and books she kept on her phone as evidence for her arguments.
She eventually walked with a few other protesters to the Circle to join the others. On the way, her blue eyes opened wide, as if she were hearing Edgerton’s story for the first time. Bernstein entered the university grounds and felt like she should sing “Dixie,” because that’s what this campus is, she said.
“God bless Jefferson Davis,” she said when she exited the metal detector and saw the monument on campus.
Qadree Williams eventually left the Square to join the protest on campus, where there was a large buffer between both sides. He said he felt the police were only out for the protection of the protesters. Bernstein agreed, saying she felt the police were there to protect them from the counterprotesters.
Qadree Williams followed the protesters back to the Square when they left campus, and he eventually went back to his home in Oxford. The next day, he said his mind wasn’t changed.
“My feelings only intensified by the end of the day,” he said, explaining that the people he talked to, including Bernstein, were “ignorant, meaning a lack of understanding about the issues.”
Bernstein believes she is just speaking out for the truth and the South.
“This is a precedent. We are giving a precedent that we are the silent majority,” she said.
Qadree Williams did not believe that the silent majority agreed with Bernstein, though. Many people, including him, believe they should not even protest, he said.
“Honestly, if you can’t make a decision as a university or as an actual official to shut down anything that caused harm to people physically, mentally or emotionally, I don’t feel like you should be in power. I feel like that should be taken away and given to someone with some sense,” he said.
Qadree Williams acknowledged the protest was legal but said it was not what he, or many others who believe in freedom of speech, wants.
“Cornelius Victory, he’s in Kuwait right now; he’s been there for a year. This is not what he’s fighting for,” he said, referring to a friend.
He did, however, say that when he saw the Ole Miss basketball players kneeling, he didn’t feel anything negative.
“I don’t see any type of military disrespect,” he said. “I’m glad that people with a platform are using it to make change.”
Check out our full coverage of the weekend protests here.