TYLER — A small group of people listening to Hank Gilbert of Tyler, a Democrat running for Congress against incumbent U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, felt they were attacked Sunday by a large crowd with Trump signs and shirts. There was also criticism against the way the Tyler Police Department handled the altercation.

Tyler police, Gohmert, also of Tyler, and Take America Back organizers explained their side of the incident on the downtown square.

Gohmert denied having anything to do with the incident.

“I have no firsthand knowledge of what went on, because I was not there, did not organize it, didn’t know about it until it was taking place, and I was going to catch a plane back to Washington,” Gohmert said. “But what came to my mind is the violence Democrat leaders paid to create at Trump campaign events in 2016, followed by Democrats then claiming Donald Trump incited violence. They created the mess, then blamed candidate Trump. There are Democrats and Marxists doing the same thing this year, as well. It is difficult to tell, from what I understand today, who started what.”

Gilbert applied for a permit for his 2 p.m. Sunday rally.

However, a Back the Blue Rally started at 12:30 p.m. on the downtown square. Gilbert said he supports the police but was against federal agents not in uniform taking people and putting them in unmarked vehicles in Portland, Oregon, during protests.

As Gilbert spoke, a crowd waving Trump signs got closer and closer. One man tried to keep the people chanting “Trump” and “Louie” within 6 feet of the speakers, but failed.

When the three speakers ended, the arguments began as one person was choked, a woman said she was punched and Gilbert’s campaign manager was cut in the face, bleeding and said someone took his phone. The Trump supporters say they were provoked. The incident overshadowed other pockets of people in the square on opposite political sides having an open dialogue about issues.

Wendi Rees of the Take America Back Tyler chapter said they formed the counterprotest in response to Gilbert’s protest.

“We are a group of Patriots that are completely about peaceful protesting. We are here in case there is anything against the police, against the courthouse, against the monument,” Rees said. “We stand behind the police; we are a civilian action group. We feel America is going in the opposite direction our founding members intended it to do.”

A large number of people, many in military gear, carried weapons, but did not use them other than to wave them in the air during celebration moments.

“We believe the federal government has the right to defend properties. So we are here to make sure it doesn’t go the way of other places,” Rees said. “We think there needs to be changes, but we also believe the federal government has every right to defend federal property. People are taking down statues for people who fought slavery and we don’t understand why.”

Gilbert said his campaign manager, Ryan Miller, “was attacked by at least four protesters, some of whom were armed.”

He said Miller was hit in the head and other parts of his body and got a large cut under his eye.

He said the incident occurred as officers from the Tyler Police Department drove around the square idly, waving at the Blue Lives Matter counterprotesters who had come to support his opponent.

He said Gohmert’s supporters disrupted the rally by shouting, “Louie! Louie! Louie!” repeatedly, including while Miller was attacked.

However, Caroline Artmire said in a public statement on her Facebook page that Miller tripped and was not attacked.

“No, he was not beaten, he got shoved and then tripped himself, because he was trying to defend the stupid guy that called me a name,” said Artmire in her statement. “Don’t let the dems fool you. All these men stood up for me, a young woman because I was disrespected by a 50+ year old. Apparently us gun toting Republicans are ‘thugs w guns,’ well Mr. Ryan Miller don’t forget to let everyone know you were trying to argue with everyone about ‘40% of the world not having internet and that it isn’t fair!’ Why would you even bring that up when it’s completely irrelevant. And Mr. Ryan don’t try to defend an uneducated SOB who tried to come at me sideways for no reason. You are a sheep,” she posted.

Tyler Police Chief Jimmy Toler said like other protests the last few months, the department had extra personnel on duty Sunday. He defended the way his officers handled the situation and responded.

“Everyone (protesting) had the potential for protesters and counterprotesters. We hope they keep distance and we make sure nothing happens. When it does we have a speedy response to make sure nothing additional happens,” Toler said. “Yesterday, when the pushing and shoving started, officers were on scene to stop it and it seemed to deescalate quickly.”

As for Gilbert’s complaint that officers were driving by waving at the Back the Blue Rally members, Toler said they wave to everyone to let the public know they are there.

“We are neutral parties in this whole thing, and that’s what law enforcement should be,” Toler said. “We are there to make sure nothing happens. We are courteous and professional, and you saw that yesterday. They took a report, and now there is a current investigation going on. That’s what we’re there for, and that’s what we are supposed to do.

It’s not known if the police report is for Miller or Nancy Nichols.

Miller was cut below his eye and was bleeding, and he said his new iPhone was taken by a Trump supporter.

Nichols, 65, who was there with her husband, Mike, to help register voters, said she got punched in the chest during some of the physical violence.

As one man was choked, Tyler police showed up. No other physical altercations took place.

Toler defended the rights of citizens to legally carry firearms.

“Anytime a weapon is at an event or protest, it’s a concern,” he said. “But the laws, the way they are written and the laws and beliefs the way they are written in Texas, you have the right to carry, open or concealed. (But) any time you bring weapons to a protest or a counterprotest, you have to be concerned and aware.”

Toler said the other issue is preventing COVID-19 spread and officers catching the virus.

“We’re also dealing with the spread of COVID and keeping officers safe and protected. You see individuals not wearing masks and social distancing, you are introducing another level of harm to officers and others,” Toler said.

Toler said Tyler is “not a violent community” and said the last two to three months have shown residents can engage in conversations about issues on the national level without violence.

“But anywhere (in America) you draw individuals from other areas of the region (combined with) local people who have political views on both sides ,and law enforcement seems to be put in the middle of that,” Toler said.

Toler said even though the downtown square is county property, it’s under city jurisdiction for patrolling. If the incident would have escalated, he said the Tyler Police Department has a “great relationship” with the Smith County Sheriff’s Office and would have used their assistance.

Artmire said violence could have been prevented, but she was being defended.

“Yes, violence occurred and it should have been handled another way, but these men and MY DAD stood up for me and I see nothing wrong with it,” Artmire said in her statement. “The opposing side is just full of uneducated snowflakes and they are the problem with our country.”

Gilbert appeared to have fewer than 20 supporters on the packed square.

A consultant for Gilbert said his supporters were afraid to show up.

“We had more than 100 people RSVP to participate in this protest and were flooded with calls, texts and emails in the 20 minutes before it began with folks telling us they would not be getting out of their cars after seeing the mass of armed counterprotesters who had descended upon the square,” Vince Leibowitz said.

Gilbert called on Gohmert to denounce the violence his supporters engaged in.

“Louie Gohmert needs to immediately denounce the violence that occurred in his name in downtown Tyler today,” Gilbert said. “When your armed thugs are shouting your name as they beat the hell out of a 21-year-old political operative, you need to get your people under control. Gohmert also needs to get his disgusting rhetoric under control, because, just like Donald Trump, the vitriol that spills out of his mouth leads to violence. This time, against a 21-year-old college kid.”

Gohmert said he does not promote violence and supports President Donald Trump.

“I have consistently condemned violence which is why I supported President Trump’s efforts to stop the rioting, violence, vandalism and mayhem being created and encouraged by violent leftists around the country. When I talk about fighting, it is in a war of words where truth is the best weapon, not these mean-spirited Democrat strategies to provoke violence,” Gohmert said. “It is unfortunate that extremists wanted to bring the violent protests and riots we’ve seen around the country to our peaceable area here in East Texas. This weekend alone in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, dozens of police officers were injured in the violent protests and several people were apparently killed, including in Austin, Texas. The goal of the Marxist groups is to destroy this great nation through violence and intimidation, which calls into question why anyone of sound mind would want to support and replicate these violent activities in Tyler. That comes from either terrible judgment or an intent to use Bolshevik or Mao tactics.”

Around 2:45 p.m. a Black Lives Matter group formed on the sidewalk on the corner where protests have taken place almost nightly since May 27, two days after the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. One man waved a Confederate flag on the street as they chanted and others armed who were part of the Back the Blue Rally stood behind them without incident. Another group about 15 yards away chanted “blue lives matter” between chants. Those groups, separate from the ones near the monument, continued peaceful discussions about local and national issues after the police department left the scene.

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