Over the three days Rob Bliss held the sign in the sweltering July heat in Harrison, a town known as a haven for white supremacists and home to the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, similar interactions happened again and again.
There was the man in a white Chevy who pointed at Bliss and yelled: “Get your ass out of town!” Or the two men who approached Bliss separately outside of a Walmart Supercenter. “I’m tired of seeing this,” said a middle-aged man, pointing at Bliss’s sign. “This right here is the biggest hoax there ever was.” An older man added, “It’s the next thing to ISIS.”
The most frightening interaction, Bliss said, was when a man in a cream-colored Camry drove by flipping him off and moments later returned to warn, “About 10 minutes, I’m gonna be back. You better be f------ gone.”
“That guy was definitely implying that he was going to go get his gun and come back, which is terrifying,” Bliss, 31, told The Washington Post.
Bliss is a director and producer based in Los Angeles and is known for making viral stunts aimed at socially conscious messages — including a video from 2014 when he recorded a woman being constantly heckled while walking around New York. Bliss captured his interactions in Harrison, and scores more, on a GoPro camera that he strapped to his chest and peeked out a hole in his T-shirt. He edited his footage down to a two-minute video, which he argues provides vivid firsthand evidence that racism is alive and well in parts of the country.
“People in the U.S. believe that there is only institutional racism or biases or subconscious racism,” Bliss said.
Bliss’s video swiftly went viral after he uploaded it Monday, with various uploads of the video on YouTube and Twitter receiving roughly 3 million views as of early Thursday. It also circulated widely on Facebook with the bold title, “Holding a Black Lives Matter Sign in America’s Most Racist Town,” and with a lead image of him holding the sign in front of a white supremacist billboard.
(The video below contains explicit language.)
Bliss is among many young activists who have brought the Black Lives Matter movement to unlikely towns. Three young women in southern Virginia, inspired by the activism of older generations at the protests around the country, started a Black Lives Matter chapter there. An analysis from The Post found that from the end of May through June, Pennsylvania had over 400 protests. And young people have led protests in smaller towns across the country, including in Aledo, Tex.; Canton, Mo.; and Woburn, Mass.
For Bliss, the decision to go to Harrison was simple: he felt like many of the protests were “preaching to the choir.” “These conversations should probably be happening in places where you wouldn’t expect them if you really want to take that leap and get people to better understand you’re fighting for,” he said.
In fact, his video isn’t the first Black Lives Matter moment in Harrison. In June, 10 days after George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody, a group of young people, almost all White, held a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Harrison. As they made their way toward the town square, they were heckled while armed White men patrolled the sidewalks and stood on rooftops.
Harrison, a northern Arkansas town of just over 13,000 people, is known for its connections to white supremacy, and its history is steeped in racism. Following the abolition of slavery, Harrison had a burgeoning Black community. But in 1905, when a group of Black men were put in jail for an alleged crime, a mob of White men broke in and beat them, sparking lynchings and home razings. The riots eventually drove out all but one African American resident, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
Today, Harrison still boasts white pride billboards, which some in town have tried to combat with competing signs saying, “Love Your Neighbor."
From Bliss’s experience, racism is alive in Harrison. “I am now a professional lip reader when it comes to ‘all lives matter’ and I have seen so many middle fingers I could draw them,” he said.
On average, he spent about eight hours a day outside holding his sign, he said. On July 9, his first day, he posted up at a busy intersection. The following two days were outside a Walmart Supercenter. In the video, Bliss shows an interaction with a manager at Walmart who asks him to leave. Bliss responded by showing him Walmart’s statement in support of Black Lives Matter, but the manager held firm.
In a statement, a Walmart spokesperson said the company is committed to racial equality.
“We stand in solidarity with the Black community, and are appalled some chose to express themselves in such a hurtful way,” the statement said. “The individual represented in this video was asked to leave the premises because we have a policy prohibiting solicitation and demonstrations on Walmart property for both individuals and organizations.”
Bliss said he was aware that his privilege as a White man allowed him to hold the Black Lives Matter sign without feeling constant threat.
“Because those people see me as one of them, because I’m a White male, it allows me to do things and say things in places that other people would not be able to,” he said. “I feel that’s a responsibility that I have.”
Bliss said some people tried to talk to him about his stance, but others were just angry. “I’d be ashamed to be a White boy carrying that stupid sign,” a man shouted from his white SUV.
His video, though, ends on a glimmer of hope. A young woman silently walked up to him, giving him a thumbs-up, and handing him a note of support. “Ignore the haters,” it said. “You’re being peaceful. What you’re doing is good.”
It was the ending Bliss felt made the most sense for the video.
“I felt it was symbolic that you have a video filled with people who are baby boomer-age and up who are coming at me pretty viciously,” Bliss said, “and then this pretty young woman, the future of the U.S., is handing me a note saying to not lose hope and that felt really powerful to me.”