The protest rally on June 13 “really opened a lot of people’s eyes,” said Billy Stamper at the June meeting of the Marion Town Council two days later. “It needed to be done,” he said. “I just wish it had been done better.”
By better, he may have been referring to the profanity and verbal confrontation between Black Lives Matter protestors and counter-protestors in front of the courthouse toward the end of the event. A rumor had gone out that the protestors were going to try and take down or damage the statue to the Confederate dead on the courthouse lawn and a group of armed people showed up to surround the statue.
Some of the protestors said they had no intention of damaging the statue, but the confrontation grew heated until most of the protestors left the area.
Stamper said a video of him raising his hand like Hitler cost him some friends, but the video did not show him also raising a fist like the protestors. He offered an apology to Travon Brown and David Sparks, present at the council meeting, for any trouble caused by any hand gestures he had made and said he is not a racist person.
Sallie Moss said she was proud of Brown and Sparks and how they led the protest. She thanked the town for allowing the protest rally, and was proud of how law enforcement handled the event.
“I felt safe the whole time,” she said.
That rumor about the statue was not true, said Sparks. He thanked the town, the council, the mayor and Ken Heath, director of community and economic development, for their support which helped keep the protest against police brutality as peaceful as possible.
Brown also thanked the town for its support and apologized for the bad language. He said he takes responsibility for that, never intending for the protest to get verbally abusive.
“We want you to hear our voices, not destroy buildings or statues,” he said. “Even though I don’t like it [the statue], I don’t want you to change it.”
Brown said he and Sparks had met with Marion Police Chief John Clair before the protest to understand the role law enforcement would play.
Brown also commented on the appearance of a cross burned in his yard early Sunday morning. He said such a gesture does not frighten or deter him from continuing his efforts to protest police brutality. “It only makes me stronger,” he said.
Clair told the council that the protest was “loud, vulgar, boisterous, disruptive, and absolutely lawful.” He said his department and the leaders of the protest met early on a safety and communication plan, and it worked.
“We will probably see something like this again,” Clair said.
That prediction was borne out on Sunday afternoon at a press conference when Brown announced another protest rally scheduled for the afternoon of July 3 at the Marion Farmer’s Market.
The council was presented an ordinance for consideration regarding protests in the town limits. It would empower the chief law enforcement officer to “regulate, restrict, or prohibit any assembly of persons or the movement of persons or vehicles if, in their opinion and with the agreement of the town manager, there exists an imminent threat of any civil commotion or disturbance in the nature of a riot which constitutes a clear and present danger.”
Town Attorney Mark Fenyk was concerned about having someone determine what is an imminent threat and what constitutes a clear and present danger while Town Manager Bill Rush said that somebody has got to make that decision.
“Somebody’s got to say it’s going too far,” said Rush. “We’ve never had something like this before. What do you do when it goes south? And I pray that it never does.”
Clair said, “If I’m going to be responsible, then I’m going to ask you to give me the authority to do the right thing. The responsibility falls squarely on me.”
Clair said if this ordinance had been in effect the protestors wouldn’t have been allowed near the courthouse and the counter-protestors wouldn’t have been allowed on the lawn because that is where it started.
Fenyk reminded the council that the courthouse is county property and there was another law enforcement agency (the sheriff’s office) present there.
“I will take the boldest action to make sure what happened Saturday doesn’t happen again,” said Clair.
The council decided to get more legal opinion on the proposed ordinance before further discussion.
In other business at the meeting:
There was no comment on the town’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2020-21. The budget is set to be adopted at a meeting on June 30.
Clerk of Court John Graham administered the oath of office to re-elected council members Jim Gates, Larry Carter and Bill Weaver.
Ken Heath said there is more money available for small business loans in the town and encourages small business owners to apply.
Cecil Hicks in the engineering department said farewell in the last meeting of his 32 and a half years of service to the town. “It’s been a wonderful trip for me,” he said. “I’ve worked with some wonderful people. I’ve been really blessed. I just want to thank you for believing in me and letting me serve the town.”