Amid the many racist and mocking comments made about a 3-year-old black boy in a Facebook thread in September — which ultimately ignited a viral backlash — was one hashtag: "#BlackLivesMatter."
The Atlanta man who wrote that, Skylar Felton, said he doesn't believe that his friend Gerod Roth, who originally posted the photo attached to the thread, is a racist.
But Roth, who also goes by Geris Hilton, clearly crossed a line in going along with the other commenters, Felton told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
"It was just a joke gone wrong, when it came to responding to the comments," said Felton, who is black.
Roth's photo was posted on Sept. 16 without a caption, Felton said — proof that it was an "innocent" image.
The thread of comments quickly turned nasty, according to screenshots. Users compared the boy, the son of Roth's coworker, named Cayden, to a slave, and Roth to a slave-owner. They referred to Cayden as "Kunta Kinte" and "Sambo."
At one point, Felton interjected with "#BlackLivesMatter" to help correct the tone of the thread, he said. (Roth "liked" the comment, he said.)
There may have been as many as 80 comments from a dozen people, Felton said. Roth responded at one point with, "He (Cayden) was feral," according to screenshots.
In a screenshot that appears to be from a Facebook Messenger conversation, someone asked, “Why is he feral though?”
An avatar that appears to match Roth's said, “Because he was abandoned in the atlanta projects, to fend for himself, he is deaf mute, ca’t (sic) properly communicate and is in and out of a shelter home, that is the definition of feral," according to a screenshot.
But Roth said that comment was made by a fake account, according to an emailed apology he sent to Cayden's mom and his former coworker, Sydney Shelton, which was obtained by Fox 5.
Roth told Fox 5 the screenshots purposefully exclude a comment where he told a friend to stop, and his "feral" comment was in response to a comment not seen in the screenshots: "Oh, you mean to tell me that you just have wild kids running through your office building?"
“I really feel upset, not only with myself, but also with the character that was based off of the comments that my friends made,” he said. “I feel as if, not only has poor Cayden been victimized, but also myself for being targeted.”
The AJC has been unable to reach Roth for comment.
Roth "made a mistake," Felton said, and was spurred on by the other derogatory comments, as a kind of one-upmanship of what they thought was funny. (Felton said he was previously unaware of the comment Roth is accused of making in the Facebook message.)
The thread was "definitely out of character" for Roth, who has spoken out numerous times on his Facebook about racial and marriage equality, including in support of the Supreme Court's decision legalizing gay marriage, Felton said.
Roth is preparing a public apology, Felton said. The two recently spoke, and Felton has decided to forgive Roth, to give him the opportunity to make things right, though he said that doesn't mean everyone has to.
"If we do forgive, we can work together. We can stop perpetuating this hate," he said.
Roth's former employer, Atlanta-based Polaris Marketing Group, said it was "disgusted" by his post.
"The comments were horrible," Polaris President Michael Da Graca Pinto told the AJC. "What Sydney was upset about is that he referred to her son in slanderous ways and didn't defend him."
Roth was fired from PMG on Sept. 29 for unrelated reasons, Pinto said. Shelton told the company about his post in October, he said. Shelton told the AJC she is relieved Roth is gone.
“Every morning, he would speak to me. Every afternoon when I came back with Cayden, he would speak to us and he never said a word about it,” Shelton told the AJC. “If he knew this was happening and he knew they were talking about my child, why not say something to me? If you didn’t mean it or you didn’t believe it, why didn’t you say something about it to the people posting?"
"Cayden is a child," she said. "He is not abandoned. He is not mute or dead. He is loved."
This story has been updated.