September 5, 2020 7:01:11 PM
GULFPORT -- A protest around a Confederate monument in Harrison County turned tense Thursday night after a militia group wearing bulletproof vests and carrying firearms arrived on site.
The protest was attended by both advocates for keeping and removing the statue, which has stood outside the courthouse in downtown Gulfport since 1911, the Sun Herald reported. Some protesters, both for and against the monument, also carried guns. Members of the militia group the Southern Defense Force arrived slightly after the protest started, when activists were giving speeches, the Herald reported.
The Southern Defense Force is a "constitutional conservative" group with membership spanning throughout Mississippi and the South, according to the Herald.
Members of the group spread out on either side of the monument, keeping some distance from protesters. At one point, as demonstrators calling for the monument's removal were yelling criticisms of the militia, a member rushed towards the group around the monument and yelled that they were a "great disgrace" to the country. The militia's leader pulled the member back, the Herald said.
Jeremy Bridges, a board member of Black Lives Matter Mississippi, came to the demonstration to show support for the push to remove the monument. According to the Herald, he saw people standing at the top level of the parking lot above the monument, positioned like snipers.
"I'm trying to figure out what the guns were for," he said.
Activists have sought to remove the monument since June, but the Harrison County supervisors have not yet held a vote on the matter. Protesters and counterprotesters have gathered for at least one other protest since the start of the summer.
Jeffrey Hulum III, one of the organizers of Thursday's protest, told the Sun Herald he was tired of waiting on the board to act.
"To us, it seems like the can is being kicked down the road, because they refuse to even take up a vote on it," Hulum told the Herald. "If they move it, and they don't have no place to put it, they can put it in a warehouse. At least give the community and the citizens a vote, and respect the vote. If they vote not to move it, we'll respect it."
John Whitfield, pastor of Morningstar Baptist Church, told the Herald the statue, erected following a period of increased economic and political power for Black Americans in the South, was intended "to send a message to African Americans ... that you are not considered part of the citizenry."
Supporters of the monument say it pays tribute to their history.
"I don't think this statue should be offensive to anyone," Bruce Roberts told the Herald. "He was, like my ancestor, a common, simple man."
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