The following is a retelling based on contemporary accounts of a confrontation in Charlottesville between two middle fingers and a Confederate flag.
According to his family history, Allen Armentrout’s great-great-great-great grandfather once put on a Confederate uniform and went off to war for the losing side of the U.S. Civil War.
More than a century and a half later, Armentrout, in his early 20s, has repeatedly argued that the cause his ancestor fought for has been distorted.
First by a “tyrannical government” that wants to erase Confederate history, and through “lies spread over decades that would simply say the war was over slavery, and North was right and the South was wrong,” as he once lectured to city officials in Florida, where he attended Pensacola Christian College.
More recently the Confederacy was besmirched in Charlottesville, by people who “misappropriate Robert E. Lee and the Confederate flag for their personal agendas,” Armentrout told the Daily Progress. He meant those white supremacists who rallied at the rebel general’s monument two weekends ago, provoking violence and horrifying the country.
So Armentrout decided to defend his concept of history. Last week he picked up his rebel flag, slung a rifle across the back of his faux-19th century uniform, and drove to Charlottesville to show the world what he felt the Confederacy stood for.
He couldn’t have known it, but he was driving straight into the Great Middle-Fingered Standoff of 2017 — a viral conflagration that would cause hardship on both sides.
Lara Rogers didn’t know Armentrout’s family history, or Armentrout, or anything thing about him.
She was driving to work last Tuesday when she saw his flag peeking from a crowd of gawkers gathered around Lee’s statue in Emancipation Park — just a few days after white supremacists had marched on her city beneath the same banner.
“The Confederate flag kind of throws up a whole lot of traumatic imagery very quickly,” Rogers told The Washington Post. So she pulled over.
Her memories of the scene match descriptions that have run everywhere from the Daily Progress to CNN: Armentrout in his uniform with his gun and his flag, reverently saluting the image of a Confederate general as the crowd of residents around him grow larger and louder.
“I said many things to him,” she said. “Our community is traumatized, this is wildly inappropriate, the flag you’re carrying is a call to violence.”
Armentrout’s response, Rogers said, was the same one seen in so much footage of his demonstration: nothing.
No retort, she said. No eye contact. He just keep saluting the general he would later call “the greatest American that ever lived.”
“It was a lost cause,” Rogers said.
So out they came: fingers three-of-five and eight-of-ten, which Rogers held inches from Armentrout’s face for the duration of his public reverence.
“Me standing in front of him with my middle fingers up was a half-hour,” she recalled. “And a good part of it on my own.”
Neither of them backed down.
Armentrout kept saluting and Rogers kept flipping him off as the crowd around them chanted: “terrorist go home” and other things.
And still, as some chants turned into anguished, angry screaming.
And still, as a woman implored Armentrout at the point of tears: “You have a home to go to. You have people. There are people who are dead here, or injured.”
Only after police officers took Armentrout aside and whispered in his ear did he leave the shadow of Lee’s statue.
And even then Rogers followed him, berating him as he loaded his flag and gun into a police vehicle: “Can’t walk out of the park by yourself? So proud and brave.”
And even after that, when he had departed Charlottesville and she had gone back to her job and family in the city, there would be consequences.
Reverence and revulsion
In popular retellings (i.e. on Twitter), Rogers was the middle-fingered hero who thwarted a one-man epilogue to the previous weekend’s public racism.
And rather than restoring Robert E. Lee’s dignity, Armentrout became the subject of ridicule himself. Tweeters reimagined the student’s demonstration in the voice of soldiers from the Civil War:
“If I should fall on the field of battle, tell my dearest mother that I loved her and that she mustn’t look through my browser history.”
Okay, this is like my favorite thread ever!!, so I wanted to see what it would look like merged with a Ken Burns-ish voice reading. pic.twitter.com/E2frNNahFH
— Reetae (@Reetae27) August 19, 2017
Armentrout, who did not return a message from The Post, tried his best to separate himself from the extremists who came before him.
“I hope that man serves time,” he said to CNN of James Alex Fields Jr., who is accused of driving into a crowd of counterprotesters on Aug. 12 and killing Heather Heyer.
And he tried to explain, not for the first time in his life, his devotion to Confederate history.
“I went up there to represent what I believe is right,” he told the Pensacola News Journal.
But he didn’t make much headway with his critics.
“He’s misguided and miseducated if he believes the Confederate cause was for states rights,” Rogers said. “It’s all white supremacy. It’s all violence on black and brown bodies. It’s just as bad.”
And as the News Journal and other outlets reported, after the demonstration Pensacola Christian College apparently kicked the student out before he could begin his senior year.
“I have been released from my school and will be unable to return to college to finish my senior year,” Armentrout told WXII News 12 in North Carolina, his home state. “I’m processing this and making adjustments to my life to compensate for this scrutiny.”
A relative who didn’t want to be named confirmed to The Post that Armentrout had been expelled, although the school said it couldn’t comment on individual students.
“Pensacola Christian College recognizes the dignity and value of all people and we respect the history of America,” wrote a spokeswoman for the school — which publishes curriculum used by fundamentalist Christian families and forbids female students from wearing pants.
“We encourage individuals to exercise discernment and seek to build reconciliation, especially during a time of mourning like Charlottesville is experiencing.”
When Rogers learned of her opponent’s travails, she did not feel much sympathy.
“I’m honestly surprised a Christian college in Florida did this, but I do think those things need to happen,” she said. “It’s normalizing white supremacy culture if they don’t.”
And besides, she has faced her own retribution since Tuesday’s standoff.
Entire threads on far-right message boards are now devoted to attacking Rogers. One included a photo of her two-fingered salute, titled “What would you have done to Lara Rogers, if she was doing this to you?”
You can imagine the suggestions.
“I’m being doxed big time,” Rogers said. “My home address, and maps to my house where I live with my husband and three children.”
And email after email filled with hate, a recent sampling of which she shared with The Post.
“Really thought you’d get past just being a c—, huh?” a 3:30 a.m. missive begins, before the author hits on Rogers, insults her, attacks black people, and condemns her defiance of “that young man who was standing for what he believed in.”
“We’re now going to make sure he makes it into and through whatever school he wants,” the man writes.
Sarah Pulliam Bailey contributed to this report.