Hundreds of people in T-shirts reading "Art is the voice of freedom" fanned out along either side of Massachusetts Street in Lawrence, Kansas, Saturday in anticipation of a so-called Defend the Flag demonstration.
Clay Mead, owner of Hog Holler Saloon in Ozawkie, Kansas, organized the Defend the Flag event, which he told KCUR, was not a demonstration or a protest.
"We're just walking with the flag, that's it. Showing it honor and respect. It's not a protest against anybody else," Mead said.
Mead sat on a bench in South Park with a group of about 10 people wearing red, white and blue T-shirts, sunglasses and hair pieces. They waved American flags.
"I think that the American flag is the one true symbol of unity that we have in America," he said. "People of every social group you can divide us into have sacrificed life, limb, loved ones, and this is a symbol of that sacrifice toward freedom."
They gathered partly in response to an art installation at the University of Kansas: a mock U.S. flag with black marks on it. The art piece flew from a flag pole on campus in early July, and was then moved by university officials inside the Spencer Museum of Art due to “public safety concerns,” after calls from Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer.
The piece by New York City-based artist Josephine Meckseper looks like an American flag, altered with stains and adorned with one child's sock. It's part of a nationwide public art project exhibiting commissioned flags intended to reflect the current political climate.
Playwright and community member Darren Canady said the art was definitely a spark for Saturday's turnout.
"Arguably all art is political, but what concerns a lot of people is the silencing of the ability to talk about American identity," he said.
Another reason the community turned out in such large numbers, according to counter-protest organizers, was because of a previous demonstration in February, which reportedly got heated after people showed up with Confederate flags, despite instructions from Mead and other Defend the Flag organizers not to.
"There was a lot of fear," Canady said.
Organizer Courtney Shipley said Lawrence mobilized after February's event to take a stand against hate groups.
This Saturday's event in Lawrence also came on the anniversary of a decisively confrontational Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, attended by white supremacist and white nationalist groups, which turned deadly.
"Those rallying and walking into this peaceful community... that you take advantage of people's pain and you whip up people's fear on the anniversary of Charlottesville, you are looking for a violent engagement, and we need to be an nonviolent society," said Eleanor McCormick, associate pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church.
Mead told KCUR he knows "nothing" about what happened in Charlottesville last year, only what the media reported. But, he said, he doesn't associate with white supremacist or nationalist groups. As for the timing, Mead said it never crossed his mind, and that they decided to gather today because of a community safety fair for children happening at the same time in South Park, where dozens of law enforcement and first responders set up at booths.
"We decided we'll carry the flag, invite anybody who would like to join us, it's not about any political leaning or social group. Everybody's invited in unity," he said. "I guess some didn't believe us."
Meanwhile, the hundreds along Massachusetts Street assumed Mead's group would march up and down the street like they did last time, so they waited in silent protest, with instructions to remain peaceful. Both groups expressed that they didn't want confrontation, and on the whole, the gathering and counter-protest were uneventful.
Counter-protester Sam Beeson, 25, from Baldwin, Kansas, said though she wasn't expecting fights, she definitely thought more would happen.
"It feels great that we're getting together in a nonviolent way," she said.
Mead's group remained on the benches in South Park waiting for more people to show up. At one point, an older woman approached and asked Tina Montgomery if her granddaughter could see the flag she was holding, saying she'd never seen one up close.
"This is the American flag," Montgomery told the child. "It stands for freedom and all kinds of stuff."
Another member of the group, Amy Baughman, said she stands up for the flag because she feels like it doesn't get the showing of support she feels it deserves.
"We still should be proud of our country. Everything doesn't have to change just because some things can change," she said. "I see our world changing a little too much. I think we still need to keep some of our old-fashioned values."
By mid-day, Mead's group left, and the hundreds along the street began to disperse, after walking up and down and hugging to celebrate a peaceful demonstration.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly referred to Massachusetts Street as an avenue.