Last week I travelled to Little Rock to observe The Satanic Temple’s (TST) rally for religious freedom. Many media outlets framed this event either as an incident of goofy trolling or an attack on Arkansas’ Christian majority by deviant outsiders. I found that Arkansas is far more diverse and more thoughtful about the establishment clause than senator Jason Rapert and his supporters would have us believe. I also found that while the event was festive and not devoid of humor, the threat of violence was quite real.
I arrived in Little Rock Wednesday night and observed a planning meeting with about 30 TST members and their security detail. There were serious concerns that violence might break out between antifa and either neo-Nazis affiliated with Billy Roper or the KKK led by pastor Thomas Robb, both of whom promised to show up. Several members of the Arkansas chapter were present. A Satanist from Little Rock dismissed Roper and Robb as “local yokels” and announced, “I’m tickled pink y’all are here.”
Hollow Axis, TST’s security consultant, stressed the importance of non-violence and cooperation with police, “We’re here to be an example of civic engagement and good citizenship.” Axis related a conversation with the chief of the capitol police who wanted to know why TST had requested a trashcan for their rally. The chief asked whether they were going to “fill it with blood or something.” Axis answered that the trashcan was so Satanists could pick up any litter after the rally. In fairness, Axis pointed out, “We’ve had weird performances in the past.”
Thursday morning I watched organizers set up for the rally. The capitol police were reinforced by state police and the Little Rock Police Department. I saw a team take position on top of a nearby building. Some masked antifa demonstrators showed up and passed out color flyers with the faces of known white supremacists. Pastor Robb arrived escorted by four elderly white men, one of whom wore a t-shirt that read, “Diversity is a genocidal scam.” They found a spot well behind the crowd where they brandished a confederate battle flag as well as some Christian flags.
As I chatted with Hampton Roy, a Little Rock resident who showed up with an anti-Nazi sign, I asked him whether he thought there would be violence. He answered, “This morning I wrote a living will and left it on my desk.” Roy had explored many religious communities in Little Rock and pointed out the Buddhist Ecumenical Society on the opposite side of the capitol. He felt that Arkansas politics used to be more cognizant of the establishment clause, citing the backlash against governor Frank White when he signed a bill mandating creation science in public schools.
A pastor who did not wish to be named had a similar view. “This is a religiously plural city,” he told me. “If you name the faith, I can direct you to the house of worship.” When asked about Pastor Robb he answered, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than going to a parking garage makes you a car.” When I asked why he had come, he leaned in and whispered, “I came to watch the shit show.”
The statue of Baphomet arrived on a flatbed truck and circled into position. I watched a leather-clad Satanist carry a trash bag over to a group of Christian demonstrators to ask if they had any garbage. An elderly man joked, “That statue is garbage!” The Satanist smiled and answered, “Well I can only take garbage that fits in this bag.”
Ivy Forrester of TST Arkansas took the podium and began introducing the rally’s five speakers, which included TST spokespersons Sadie Satanas and Lucien Greaves; Fleetwood Thomas of the Saline Atheists and Skeptics society; Chad Jones, a minister for Arkansas Progressive Christians; and Tonya Hartwick Burt of The Gideon International. Jones spoke on the importance of the establishment clause and the myth of Christian persecution. He said if there had to be a religious monument at the capitol, he would prefer the beatitudes adding, “But then our legislators would have to live by what Christ said and they didn’t want to do that.”
Near the end of Jones’s speech, a young man—whom I had seen earlier engaged in Christian apologetics—approached the stage with a large stick and a ski mask shouting, “You are no more a Christian than all the demons in hell!” (A local NBC affiliate incorrectly described the heckler as a Satanist, apparently because he was yelling at a Christian.)
Hartwick-Burt’s speech, delivered in her heavy Arkansas accent, was especially poignant. She argued that one can only become a Christian through the Holy Spirit, not the power of the government. She cited the gospel of Matthew in which those who hear Jesus must choose whether to follow him. “As God allows us to choose,” she said, “We should allow others to choose.”
When all the speakers had finished, the statue was prepared for its trip back to Salem and the crowd began to disperse. At least one person had collapsed from heat exhaustion from the 102-degree temperature. I’d assumed that Billy Roper’s neo-Nazis had failed to show, but I learned that this wasn’t the case.
Hollow Axis explained that because the site to the rally was so secure, the real threat lay in bringing Greaves safely to the rally and escorting him out without being followed. As he approached, Axis spotted teams of men near the capitol grounds communicating on hand-held radios. They appeared to be carrying concealed weapons and never went onto the capitol grounds where concealed weapons are illegal. A camera man for Vice confirmed in an email that he had seen suspicious men who dispersed when he started to film them.
Some men attempted to block the flatbed truck with the Baphomet statue from circling into position, which may have been an attempt to start an altercation. After the rally, two vehicles followed the truck for about two miles before the driver lost them. In a blog post, Roper boasted that his group had been at the rally photographing TST members and their vehicles.
Sen. Rapert has made much of the fact that TST members use pseudonyms, responding to the rally, “They’re not serious, and they’re not even real.” But with neo-Nazis attempting to intimidate TST members by collecting information about them and their loved ones, the use of pseudonyms seems more like common sense than evidence of illegitimacy.
Cases alleging violations of the establishment clause often involve harassment and intimidation of the plaintiffs, which is why they remain rare. The plaintiff in Van Orden v. Perry (2005), the case that inspired the monument controversy in Arkansas, was a homeless man who declared, “I don’t have anything to lose.” By contrast, TST members have a lot to lose. It seems unlikely anyone would take this kind of risk for a cause they didn’t consider serious.