Hub City not Immune To Protests

By NIKKI SMITH,

The tragedy that struck Charlottesville, Virginia, last week has left much uncertainty and disarray in its wake. The aftermath of the white nationalist rally resulted in one death and approximately 34 injuries.

The fallout has not been solely physical. Protests have broken out across the country, and Hattiesburg is no exception.

The rally, which was organized in opposition of the plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, sparked a nationwide conversation about racism.

Still, Pine Belt natives gather weekly to stage their own protest against The University of Southern Mississippi’s removal of the Mississippi state flag from campus in the name of inclusiveness. The group has become a fixture on the front of campus each Sunday with no time off following the events that unfolded in Charlottesville.

However, a group of students from Southern Miss gathered to counter protest with a message of love and equality on Sunday and have plans to meet again this weekend as well.

Anna Beth Rowe, a Hattiesburg native and graduate of USM, said this was not her first time to participate in a counter protest of the flag.

“Sunday was my fourth counterprotest action against the flaggers,” she said. “My first was on Sunday, April 29, the day before the racist embarrassment of a holiday, Confederate Memorial Day.”

But Rowe was fearful of going alone to protest Sunday.

“I was not emboldened enough to stand against them alone that day,” she said. “The next two counterprotest efforts involved me gathering a group one Sunday in May to take action together with signs and singing.”

“One of the apparent leaders of their group did an open carry protest with a rifle across the street. He also had a knife in his boot,” she added, explaining why she would be afraid.

“He walked right past us, armed, looked at my large blue sign that says ‘Deport the KKK’ and asked if ‘we even knew names in the KKK. I do.’ It was like, ‘You don't know the KKK, little girl.’”

“We sat and had silence and meditation,” she said. “The need for a unified front for an inclusive Hattiesburg against racism was clear. The flaggers are a symptom of a larger problem, which we must tackle. They are armed, dangerous, violent racists associated with the KKK and other neo-Nazi groups.”

Richard Farris, the protestor in support of the state flag who was accused of threatening someone with a knife, emailed the following statement to members of the media on Tuesday: “I did not ‘brandish’ my deer knife in a threatening manner  – I merely did a simple brief ‘show and tell’ action (knife remained closed at all times) in response to the unprovoked but very threatening and menacing talk, look and body language of the physically large young man Justin Thrash.”

Farris said he carries the same knife each day and that he is a “peaceable non-violent man.”

“Yet, we also know American Law provides that every American Citizen has the Right to Self-Defense when violent physical attack is reasonably perceived to be potentially imminent,” he said.

Two students from Southern Miss who planned to attend Sunday’s protest now intend to stay home out of fear following the knife even being pulled out in a “show and tell” manner.

 “Of course these self-proclaimed ‘socialist democrats,’ precisely what ‘Nazi’ stands for in German, are premeditated and deliberately disruptive agitators and intentional instigators. That is their modus operandi nationwide,” he added in response to Sunday’s counter protesters. “(Thrash) was closer to me than 12 or 15 feet and he did call me a ‘snowflake’ and voiced other disrespectful insults. I was in an emotion of Righteous Indignation and felt imminent potential physical danger when he made deliberate direct eye contact with me.”

Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker released the following statement following the week’s events:

“Yesterday, we played a Bob Marley song for Communion. I first heard ‘Redemption Song’ in the days following Soundgarden front man Chris Cornell’s death, when an old recording of him on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon surfaced on social media. (By the way, our rendition of it in no way came close to either Marley’s or Cornell’s.)

In the waning hours of Saturday, as the images of Charlottesville inundated our screens, ‘Redemption Song’ kept coming to mind. It seemed like an appropriate song with which to consider both Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation and His teachings to confront injustice in the world.

I’ve struggled with what to say, not wanting to espouse typical political talking points that usually follow an event such as this. I even confess that my first reaction was ‘Please. Not again.’

However, I believe events that occur nearly 900 miles away can still teach us lessons and call us to think.

Instead of simply dismissing or ignoring voices of hate and extremism, I think we have to weigh whether that posture should shift to one of direct yet civil confrontation. I think we have to weigh the possibility that remaining silent actually allows divisive messages to go unchecked and therefore pass as acceptable.

I believe, at some basic level, that we all know that hate and prejudice are not O.K. I believe we all possess the ability to examine our own feelings and reactions to things. Surely, we have the capacity to own our flaws and attempt to be a little better the next day.

Because I’ll be abundantly clear. While I respect the rights of any person to voice his or her viewpoint on any political issue, Hattiesburg will be a city that protects and values each and every individual. We will not condone discrimination, nor will we buy into inflammatory or divisive rhetoric.

Regardless of what the rest of the nation or state does, our city will rise to the occasion. I’ve seen us do it so many times, and I have no doubt we will do it again. Let us believe the best about each other. Let us be unafraid to ask ourselves the tough questions. But most importantly, let us see that we share a common destiny and walk boldly toward a rich, vibrant future.”