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After clashes between armed protesters, locals paint a different picture of life in Stone Mountain

By J.D. Capelouto, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga

At the end of a summer defined by widespread protests combating racism, Stone Mountain once again found itself in the national spotlight for the wrong reasons.

Chaotic clashes on city streets, just outside homes and businesses, saw far-right militia members shouting at and sometimes fighting with counterprotesters from a broad coalition of anti-racist groups. Many of those who traveled into Stone Mountain on Aug. 15 were heavily armed.

During the confrontations, neighbors watched the drama unfold. Business owner Anita Jordan made sure she was nowhere near the city.

“Every year it gets worse,” said Jordan, who has an artisan glass business located on Stone Mountain’s Main Street. She didn’t open up on the day of the recent protests. “That’s not good for the city.”

Residents and business owners in the small city of Stone Mountain have largely been left out of the broader narrative and discussions that surround the mountain, which many know only for its giant carving honoring the Confederacy and past connections to the Ku Klux Klan. But residents said the clashes and arguments over the carving, which have become more frequent since 2016, don’t represent reality in the DeKalb County suburb, which is now a diverse and generally peaceful place.

“The people that were protesting and doing all that, they’re not part of our community. … I wish they’d go elsewhere,” said Mark Keyton, who has lived two blocks from Stone Mountain’s Main Street for over three decades and walked over to observe the confrontations on Aug. 15.

The protests in town, he said, may have only magnified internal and ongoing racial tensions within the city as it grapples with its history. Within the community, “it really has changed around here a little bit,” said Keyton, who is white. “Underlying tensions, I guess.”

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While the clashes may have hurt the reputation outsiders have of Stone Mountain, many locals said they remain focused on solving more subtle issues surrounding race and inclusion in their own community.

Since 2016, groups including white nationalists have used Stone Mountain Park as the setting for demonstrations and occasional encounters with counterprotesters. But on Aug. 15, the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, the state authority that runs the park, closed its gates and the protests moved into the nearby city.

A tense meeting in downtown

In recent years, white extremist groups have marched inside the park in support of the Confederate carving. In 2019, before the Super Bowl in Atlanta, the park decided to close its gates ahead of a planned white supremacist rally. In the end, only some counterprotesters showed up in the city and it did not result in a major clash.

Aug. 15, 2020 was a different story.

The park announced a day ahead of time that it would close its gates on the day of the planned demonstrations. The park released a terse statement the night before citing “security concerns.” Although both the park and city had denied permits for the protest, on social media both sides moved ahead with plans to meet in Stone Mountain anyway.

The city of 6,000 had few options. There was some last-minute coordination with the county and state, and a largely “hands-off” approach from the park, Stone Mountain City Manager ChaQuias Miller-Thornton said.

Along the main business corridor and on neighborhood streets lined with residential homes, a coalition of armed, anti-government militia groups known as “Three Percenters” as well as several white supremacists clashed directly with counterprotester-protestersfrom left-wing groups, ranging from the NAACP to antifa groups and socialist political organizations, some of whom were armed as well. Militia members sprayed several counterprotesters with hornet killer or pepper spray, and several individuals on both sides were knocked to the ground. They argued face-to-face about racism, the Confederate flag and the carving.

By the end of the day, no arrests or serious injuries resulted, but many saw it as another blow to the city’s reputation.

“If you close the park to violence, then you open up our city to violence. You put that violence in the front yards or backyards of our citizens and businesses. I don’t think that was the right alternative,” Miller-Thornton said.

Stone Mountain Memorial Association spokesman John Bankhead said the park had been talking with the city for more than a week before the protests, and the local officials had adequate time to prepare.

Miller-Thornton said she hopes to improve communication with the park moving forward; the city recently met with park officials to discuss the issue.

The city had already been trying to improve its reputation and shed the negative stigma of its past in an attempt to attract visitors and revitalize its Main Street corridor.

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“People still remember what Stone Mountain used to be like. And so in a lot of people’s minds, they’re thinking that Stone Mountain is still like that,” Jordan said, while packing up the items in her shop to put them into storage. She’s moving her business out of Stone Mountain due to high rent; she hopes to go somewhere more “community-oriented.”

‘Just below the surface’

Residents agree the recent protests do not accurately represent the city or its residents. Today’s Stone Mountain, they say, is not the same as the Stone Mountain of the past, which was led in the late 1940′s by a man who went on to be the imperial wizard of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan for 25 years.

Today, the city is more than 75% Black, and “everybody gets along in Stone Mountain,” said George Coletti, who has lived in the city for 80 years. He’s known as a local historian around town.

“We’ve never had a race riot,” said Coletti, who is white, adding that he believes the city gets often unfairly “caught up” in the negative history of the mountain.

But like so many American communities, some racial tensions persist, several residents and business owners said. Much of it surrounds people’s willingness, or lack thereof, to address and grapple with the problematic history many associate with Stone Mountain and how it still affects the city’s Black residents, said Samuel Mosteller, who was a reverend at a chapel in the city for over 20 years.

“It’s not an overt issue where they’re arguing back and forth. … It’s still just below the surface,” Mosteller said, adding that he sees a divide between longtime Stone Mountain residents and some of their newer, more progressive neighbors. “It’s the same fractures and fissures that we have all across America.”

Last year, a group of citizens lobbied the city to rename “Venable Street,” which had ties to the former Stone Mountain mayor who was a prominent KKK member, to instead honor a mother-daughter duo who were advocates for the city’s historically African-American neighborhood.

Neighbors proposed a resolution recognizing the name change that specifically mentioned the KKK and their marches through Stone Mountain. In the end, some criticized the city after they said the resolution was converted into a proclamation that eliminated those references.

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Ironically, many of the discussions about race and history in the city don’t revolve around the Confederate carving that sits on the mountain next door. Many residents and business owners are used to it and do not feel passionately about whether it should be removed, said Bill Leavell, the gallery director of the ART Station Theatre in the city.

“I don’t think that the residents really argue about it,” said Leavell, who is Black, adding that “there is some underlying racism that definitely goes on.”

Michael Thurmond, the county CEO who has a background as a historian, thinks the tensions within the city — and the negative stigma it faces — stem back to the park’s handling of its Confederate-laced history. Thurmond, who has served on the board of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, has pushed for the park to showcase a fuller and more honest portrait of itshistory.

“All the history, it doesn’t always show us as human beings in the best light,” Thurmond said, “but through history, particularly the things that might embarrass us or hurt us, you can learn from it. And work not to repeat it.”

The city has taken steps toward healing the racial wounds that still exist; Miller-Thornton, the city manager, said officials are discussing the creation of a diversity and inclusion committee.

She was relieved there were no serious incidents during the Aug. 15 clashes. But she and other residents don’t think that will be the last one.

“When the next one comes to town,” Keyton said, “I’m gonna avoid it.”

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