Thomas Buhls, the only participant in Saturday’s Confederate Heritage Rally, stood on the Monroe County Courthouse Square and wielded a cardboard sign reading,
“Celebrate your white heritage. Be proud of your white identity.” But Buhls was not alone.
A mob of counter-protesters surrounded Buhls, shouting, “Fascist scumbag, go home. Bloomington doesn’t want you. Get the fuck out of our town.”
Bloomington, IU and Monroe County police officers surrounded the crowd, demanding they stay on the sidewalk and off the street.
“Very un-American scum that is right here,” said counter-protester Ed Vazquez inches from Buhls’ face. “What are you going to do? Are you going to bomb a building? Are you going to kill children?”
Despite Vasquez’s direct questions, Buhls remained silent, wearing a tan overcoat, black Oakley sunglasses and a fedora.
Most of the counter-protesters were dressed in black, several with bandanas pulled over their faces. One counter-protester carried a sign mounted to a black baseball bat that read, “celebrate punch a racist day.”
As the mob tightened around Buhls, several counter-protesters tried pulling Buhls’ sign from his grip. One counter-protester scribbled on his sign with a black marker.
“I’m half Jewish,” one counter-protester said. “What do you think of that?”
Buhls didn’t respond.
“That’s an interesting point you bring up,” said counter-protester Jerry Bellow, who was also rubbing up against Buhls. “I want you to explain to this man why you want to put him in an oven. We’ll all be quiet. I want you to explain to him why he belongs in an oven.”
Still, Buhls remained silent.
“My mother married a Jew,” Bellow continued. “This is your chance to tell me why the world is a better place with my mother in an oven. Come on. You can do it, articulate.”
“That’s not what I’m here to talk about today,” Buhls replied. “I came here to celebrate.”
“To celebrate what,” Bellow said, “the loss of the Confederacy? The Confederacy lost.”
The crowd directly surrounding Buhls multiplied. Several pushed Buhls, reaching for his sign. Buhls tried pushing his way through the crowd to a different location on the square, telling counter-protesters not to block his path.
“Excuse me, you cannot confine him,” BPD Sgt. Jeff Canada said.
But the mob did not cease, with one protester eventually grabbing the fedora from his head and throwing it onto the courthouse lawn. The hat was never returned. Sunlight reflected off Buhls’ bald head.
Canada talked to Buhls and said the crowd was becoming angrier at his presence. Buhls replied, saying he would continue his celebration until 1 p.m. as planned.
Buhls said he was demonstrating Saturday to celebrate his white heritage because “I love who I am.”
“I see a lot of people who came out here to show support, not necessarily for my celebration, but to be perfectly honest, I didn’t invite them,” Buhls said. “They’re welcome to come and go as they please, and in fact I think it’s great they’re out here. They are exercising freedom of speech. I know a lot of people don’t appreciate this message, but if you’re an American or claim to be, the Civil War is a big part of your heritage and history.”
The protest was not about white supremacy, Buhls said, it was about respecting himself and his identity.
He said he was alone because of his impromptu organization. Although he originally advertised the event on Facebook, he said he did not realize the Facebook event was open for everybody to view.
“But it’s great so many people showed up and they are so adamant about what they believe in,” Buhls said. “But we’re all Americans. We have that right to believe in what we want.”
IU student Fred Haley was one of the few African-Americans walking around the square. He said he heard about the rally and decided to check it out.
“I almost feel bad for him,” Haley said of Buhls. “It’s kind of pathetic. This is just embarrassing.”
Although Haley said he does not know for sure, he assumes his ancestors were first brought to North America on a slave ship. But he said he did not feel offended or threatened by Buhls.
“He is just dumb,” Haley said. “What did he think was going to happen? It wasn’t the best spot. Not here, maybe a little farther out, but definitely not in the middle of downtown. It’s a college town, everybody’s liberal.”
Buhls declined to comment on his affiliation with white supremacist organizations. Court records do not show Buhls has a criminal record in Indiana. However, he was arrested in Martinsville in 2011. After Buhls left copies of a Ku Klux Klan publication at a Martinsville appliance store and the owner complained to police, Buhls was arrested, according to the Associated Press. But a Martinsville City Court judge found Buhls not guilty because the law allows people to hand out material regardless of whether others agree with it, the AP article said.
Still, counter-protesters said they felt threatened by Buhls’ presence in Bloomington.
“I do not like this guy because he represents genocide and terrorism,” Vasquez said. “That (Confederate) flag was used during church bombings. It was used in the 1950s. It was used during slavery. He wants to bring back the Confederacy, he wants to bring back slavery, he wants to enslave people. The way his demeanor is going, he may just bring a gun some time and just start shooting up people because this is what they do.”
Jonathan Taylor grew up in Bloomington but moved away 25 years ago. Although he is now a geography professor at California State University, Fullerton, he visited Bloomington last weekend. Originally downtown to shop at a used bookstore, he said the commotion made him curious.
Although he said he shares similar views with the counter-protesters, he said he thought they should have shown more class.
“I earlier saw the quote anarchists, whom I normally support, punching and beating one of these KKK guys,” Taylor said. “I think anarchists are generally advocating free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of the assembly, and it’s really hypocritical for them to prevent someone from exercising their right to free speech. I think they should tone it down.”
He said the best approach would have been to pass out literature about the KKK and inform the public of the KKK’s history of violence and crime.
Ned Powell agreed. Standing among the crowd while wearing a red clown wig and a black robe, Powell held a wooden cross with a roll of toilet paper on the top. “Wipe Power. Ku Klux Klowns,” his signs read.
“I don’t particularly care for this style of confrontation that’s going on,” Powell said. “When you get down in the mud with pigs, everybody gets dirty.”
Eventually, Buhls’ sign was completely shredded by counter-protesters. Chants against him continued.
“No Nazis, no KKK, no racist USA.”
“Terrorist, get the fuck out of here. He supports a terrorist organization. Go the fuck home,” one protester screamed as Buhls pushed through the crowd toward the intersection of South Walnut Street and East Kirkwood Avenue. Without his fedora or sign, he casually walked east on Kirkwood with his hands in his pockets.
Counter-protesters followed. Some blocked him from walking, others continued chants of “Go home!”
Once Buhls reached the corner of Kirkwood Avenue and North Lincoln Street, he began to panic. He told Sgt. Canada he needed help.
“Get a car to Kirkwood and Lincoln right now,” Canada said into his radio.
“They’re fucking sending a car for him,” one protester yelled, followed by laughter.
Again, chants against Buhls intensified.
“I don’t care what car, just bring something,” Canada said into his radio.
“The cops are protecting the KKK,” another protester said.
A black-and-white squad car pulled up on Lincoln. Buhls opened the back door and hopped inside, and the car drove away, 40 minutes earlier than he had hoped, as he had planned to protest until 1 p.m.
After a brief cheer, the crowd of counter-protesters quickly dispersed.
“Let’s declare victory and get some Chinese food,” Bellow said.