After a Black Lives Matter march turned tense last weekend in Maggie Valley, organizers have already planned a second event — one that’s got the town scrambling to find a better way to handle a potentially volatile situation.
Prior to last weekend’s march, protesters expected some resistance, but the sheer number of counter-protesters caught them off-guard. At times, it seemed like the situation could spiral out of control.
The prospect of a second protest on Saturday, Aug. 1, has forced town officials and law enforcement to forge plans to ensure everyone can be safe and free of harm while also ensuring their Constitutional rights.
The organizers of the march last weekend, Dylan Davis and Karley Simmons, spoke with The Mountaineer about the upcoming march. Davis said he expects to walk from the town hall park all the way down to the fire station and back, a total distance of about 2.2 miles.
Davis said he was generally happy with his group’s behavior last weekend.
“Given what we went through, I think we handled ourselves well,” he said.
“The people that were there, they didn’t want us there,” he added. “But there were still a couple people it seemed like we were opening their eyes.”
“I feel like because of what the media has put out there about the whole Black Lives Matter movement, people feel like we’re there to cause problems, and that’s not our intention, and that’s what we were trying to explain,” she said.
“We all live in the same community, so why not as a community stand together to fight any injustice not just racial injustice?” she added.
Simmons said that come Aug. 1, things on the protesters’ end might look a little different. Notably, she said they want to foster “healthy conversations” by having dedicated areas where people can dialogue. However, she said the group will also make a more focused effort to ignore those who have no interest in talking.
“For the ones that don’t want to learn, they will not be acknowledged,” she said. “We faulted last time because we did respond to some of the hatred.”
Davis is expecting a larger group on Aug. 1, and said the protest is returning to Maggie Valley for the same reason they were out there in the first place: to go where they believe their message is most needed.
“We’ve done two in Waynesville now and one in Canton, and we have other things planned,” he said. “But we had a lot of people request, townspeople and locals, request that we come back out.”
Simmons wanted to make it clear that the purpose of the march will be to raise awareness.
“We’re locals making no money doing this. We just wanted to make change,” she said. “We are going to stay peaceful, and this is something that’s not going to go away … there will be change.”
Many of the counter-protesters who showed up to the first march have been conflicted over how to handle the Aug. 1 march. On social media, some have made it clear they plan on showing up again, while many have said it would be best to stay home and simply not engage.
Brandon Barnes was one of the more vocal counter-protesters last weekend at the town hall park. He said his plan is to not engage this go-round. He noted that after last weekend, once he saw that the group marching wasn’t an actual threat to the town, he isn’t as concerned.
“The problem to me … is the Black Lives Matter group is basically split up into five or six different groups or parties,” he said. “Some want justice, some want peace and some want destruction. You’ve got so many groups coming at America from the NFAC to Antifa to Black Lives Matter. We didn’t have a clue who was coming. We didn’t know if people were going to come in and attack cops. When we see that they’re not trying to burn loot and start fights with people we’ll let them do what they want to do.”
Barnes admitted that some of the counter-protesters became too heated last Saturday, including himself.
“I was so amped up over what I’ve been watching in the country over the last two months … and I love this town with everything in my heart,” he said. “I think everybody that was there had a right to be there and be made heard.”
However, Barnes still said they didn’t think anything was accomplished by the last march through Maggie, and he doesn’t think anything will be accomplished Aug. 1.
“Basically, this town is just a vacation town,” he said. “People love each other, we love all colors, we love everybody. We’ve never had problems with Black people, Asians, Mexicans. Everybody’s been welcome here with no problems.”
While Barnes has softened his language about the initial protest, he wanted to make it clear he wasn’t equivocating.
“I would like to say that Black lives do matter … but I think we need cops,” he said. “I love and respect cops and law enforcement officers all around the world. The majority of them are doing an amazing job, and I think judging five or six bad cops and grouping all of those into one category it is just like grouping all of us in the same category of the gentlemen at the protest who wanted to fight. I don’t know of anybody in this town that’s wants a rematch.”
But there are still those who have promised to show up for a counter-protest. Patrick Smith heads up a group out of Swain County called “Armed Patriots.”
That group hosted a pro Second Amendment rally last weekend that kicked off just as the Maggie Valley protest finally cleared out. Smith said he expects 15-20 people from his group should show up, but added that they do not plan on carrying any firearms out of respect for the town and the police.
“We want to bring everybody out and let these protesters understand not everybody thinks the way they do,” he said. “They don’t have the majority they think they do.”
Smith said he feels the need to come over to Haywood to back his “fellow Western North Carolina counties.”
“We will stand up for ourselves,” he said. “My thought would be they’re doing it anyway. Whether we say or do nothing, they’re still doing it, and if you don’t acknowledge it’s happening then they’ll keep doing it.”
Smith said he believes there is not a systemic racism problem in this country and that many of the marchers’ claims were trumped up to propagate a false ideology. While he said some from his group will be present, they are not planning on engaging with protesters.
“We’re not going there to disrupt the public, but we’re going to defend the people who do not want that activity there,” he said. “One of our messages to them is we would like everything to be peaceful but we understand they don’t care about how we think. Their idea of dialogue isn’t really dialogue.”
The Mountaineer spoke with Maggie Valley Police Chief Russ Gilliland and Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher last Wednesday as they were wrapping up a meeting to discuss how the Aug. 1 protest will be handled.
Looking back at last Saturday, Gilliland said that while it was hard to know how many people would show up, he was happy with the job his officers did controlling the crowd. Despite all of the heated rhetoric and tense moments, there were no physical altercations and no one was charged with any crimes.
“I felt like the numbers we had as far as law enforcement there worked really well for the amount of people we actually did have,” he said. “I felt like we addressed it pretty well. I do believe that if they had double the numbers there we would need to do something as far additional man power.”
As the situation developed last Saturday, Waynesville police officers and Haywood County Sheriff’s deputies were brought in for additional support. Christopher said in situations where municipal departments request deputies for backup, it can come either in the form of those already on duty or those who are authorized emergency overtime, depending on the situation.
“What we have to do is look at our schedule to make sure we still have people to cover our calls,” he said. “As long as our calls throughout the county are answered, and we have enough man power for that, we may utilize those other guys and girls are ones who are working. Sometimes, we will take a look at the situation and we may think that we need more people.”
Last Saturday, those who showed up were on duty, including the weekend on-call detective.
Some protesters last Saturday said they felt law enforcement didn’t do a good enough job of addressing what they viewed as harassment and threats. In addition, they said officers unfairly issued warnings at the use of foul language.
“That’s something you have to expect out of two different groups of people protesting on different lines, that there’s going to be that emotion and that loud language,” Gilliland said. “You just have to watch the crowd to make sure it’s not getting out of hand. Obviously it got very heated and I think when we intervened, it was at the right times.”
“Law enforcement has to use their judgment and look at the totality of it,” he added. “How is the scene going? You’re going to have that occasional curse word that comes out. But when it looks like someone is going to assault someone, that’s when we have to take action.”
Gilliland and Christopher both had words for protesters and counter-protesters alike that they hoped would be heeded.
“I would like to see a lot more calm than we had last time,” he added. “You have to allow for emotional response and that type of thing, but just to respect each other and have the drive to have a better dialogue. That would be what I would suggest. Just be courteous.”
“If somebody wants to express their opinion, by all means, here in the United States we have that opportunity, but we want it to be done in a way that is safe,” Christopher said. “We want our personnel to be safe, and we want the protesters and counter-protesters to be safe at the same time so everybody gets an opportunity to express their opinion, but at the end of the day they all get to go home like they’re supposed to.”
One of the crucial items law enforcement is looking at in conjunction with the town of Maggie Valley is a potential way to keep protesters and count-protesters physically separated — a challenge made more daunting by the fact Maggie Valley has just one main road.
In addition, Town Manager Nathan Clark said the town attorney is currently hard at work figuring out “a structural framework for how demonstrations would work.”
“We don’t quite yet know what that would look like,” he said. “Safety and protection of First Amendment rights is what we’re working toward preserving and protecting.”
Clark confirmed that, to the best of his knowledge, the protest for Aug. 1 is on. He said while there’s a possibility that a special-called meeting may be held for aldermen to vote on an ordinance or resolution prior to that, he isn’t sure it’ll be ready soon enough.
Mayor Mike Eveland said he too believes the town will come up with a new plan to address this situation — one he noted has never come up in Maggie Valley.
“I think the police department, based on what we thought we knew was coming, did an excellent job … this is one of the things we’ve never encountered before,” he said. We might be arguing with our neighbors and having a discussion but generally speaking, we’ve never had anything like this happen.”
“It’s obvious to us that we have to have some type of blueprint on how these things should go and what the police should be doing. There needs to be a better way of handling things than what we did Saturday,” he added.
Eveland acknowledged the issue is complicated, though. Like others, he made it clear he wanted to balance the preservation of individuals’ First Amendment rights with the safety of those people, those around them and the town as a whole.
The Maggie Valley mayor also wanted people to know that he believed what occurred last Saturday — which he saw through videos posted online — is by no means a reflection of the town.
“The vast majority of the people that were involved on both sides were not Maggie Valley residents and a lot weren’t even from the county,” he said. “I could honestly say that was not a representation of Maggie Valley on Saturday. It was on our property and there were people there, but that wasn’t us. You can’t hide who you are and that’s not us.”
Eveland said he felt disappointed in the behavior displayed by both protesters and counter-protesters. His final message was simply a reassurance to Maggie Valley residents.
“If and when they come to town, there will be an opportunity for them to do what they came to do,” he said. “But we won’t make that mistake twice. We’re going to work hard to make sure to let people know that wasn’t who we are.”