Unofficial Business: How fiery Stone Mt. protests hit some by surprise

Park operator warned only of ‘free speech activities’

Some families who paid to enter Stone Mountain Park on Saturday had no idea what they were getting into, in part because the business that operates the gates and attractions didn’t tell them.

Well, unless you think a sign out front that said “free speech activities are occurring around the park today” was sufficient hint that there was hate brewing and expectations of trouble with three different planned protests, including one by “white power” dorks. (It actually was some counter-protesters marching with the group All Out ATL that apparently violently confronted police.)

Now, Stone Mountain officials are looking for options to prevent or control volatile events in the future.

Saturday the mess became violent. No regular guest were hurt, apparently, but the park’s attractions were closed as the problems spread.

The events and a spate of other recent rallies at Georgia’s Stone Mountain Park highlight the delicate position faced by Herschend Family Entertainment, a Norcross-based business that operates at the sprawling state-owned Confederate memorial park, once a gathering ground for the Ku Klux Klan.

Family-owned Herschend is the same company that recently bought the Harlem Globetrotters. (It also operates Dollywood, Wild Adventures in Valdosta and other venues around the nation.)

The Gwinnett County company’s guests at Stone Mountain include many African-Americans, who pay to enter a park that offers lots to do — much of it under a carving honoring Confederate leaders.

Herschend says one of its goals is that “each and every guest leave with two things: a smile and a deeper connection with each other.”

The company’s past CEO even penned a book titled “Love Works: Seven Timeless Principles for Effective Leaders.” Herschend’s online site says it operates in a “manner consistent with Christian values and ethics.” Annual employee reviews include a kindness rating, according to another book.

But I can’t shake my questions about whether the company downplayed sharing the potential for ugliness on Saturday to avoid scaring off customers and losing business.

I tried to reach company spokespeople for comment about what had happened Saturday. None had responded as of late Monday afternoon. Before the weekend, I had asked to speak to the Norcross-based company’s top leaders but was told they were unavailable.

Herschend paid the state $10.24 million last year to operate at the park, according to the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, the state-created entity responsible for developing, managing and protecting the park as a Confederate Memorial and public recreation area.

But Herschend doesn’t get to decide what free speech rallies are or aren’t allowed inside the public park.

John Bankhead, a spokesman for SMMA, traded emails with me Monday in the wake of the weekend troubles.

“We are further examining the options that might be available under park ordinances, Georgia law and Federal law to prevent or control such volatile events in the future,” he wrote. “We will be looking at all additional options available to balance the safety of the public vs. the right to freedom of speech.”

Law enforcement officials had hoped to limit the potential for violence before the Saturday events, and the AJC and other media outlets had reported about the expected gathering.

Not everyone reads the local news, though.

I spoke to several families with young children in the park on Saturday morning. All the parents expressed surprise when I told them about the rallies that were about to start.

Chuck Carlin from Alpharetta said he might not have brought his children for a hike up the mountain if he had known.

Another family from Aiken, S.C., pulled up in a minivan at one of the attractions and kids poured from the vehicle. The parents and friends meeting them from North Carolina looked shocked when I used the phrase “white power rally.”

They hadn’t known what to make of the park’s “free speech activities” sign, one of the father’s told me. He said when he asked a front-gate attendant about the reason for lots of police stationed nearby he was told only that it was for “events.”

Does that sound sufficiently transparent and illuminating for guests paying $15 per vehicle for parking and about $27 per adult and $21 per child for an attractions pass? (Not including taxes or higher fees if you pay at the gate instead of online.)

“It sounds like they are more business people than anything,” the Aiken father told me.

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