Savannah man in court after white power rally at Stone Mountain

A 21-year-old Savannah man made his first court appearance Sunday in DeKalb County on aggravated assault charges stemming from what turned into a boisterous white power rally at Stone Mountain, authorities said.

Joshua Taylor Taft appeared via video before a judge in DeKalb County Magistrate Court at 10 a.m., said Tim Nelms, deputy clerk for the court. Authorities arrested him Saturday for allegedly throwing a smoke grenade at law enforcement officers who were posted at the rally. Taft was one of nine anti-white-power protesters who showed up and allegedly escalated what had been an already tense and controversial, white power rally.

The other eight arrested in the counter-protest group were: Donald Ragin, 25; John A. Cubas, 26; Joshua D. Hughes, 25; John D. Nicholson, 30; Joshua Mascharka, 23; Benjamin S. Passmore, 32; Anthony J. Argento, 23; David McCormick, 37. All were charged with wearing a mask or hood, wrote Stone Mountain Park Police spokesman John Bankhead in an email. The charges are misdemeanors and carried $100 bonds. All eight paid bond on Saturday and were released.

Taft, who appeared at the video hearing from the DeKalb County Jail, posted his $2,500 bond Sunday afternoon. He is to appear in state court at a later date. If convicted of the charge, Taft could face up to 20 years in prison. The group allegedly set fire to a barricade and threw fireworks and rocks at Stone Mountain Park Police and Georgia State Patrol officers. DeKalb County Police and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation were also providing security for the event.

Only about two dozen white power activists with Confederate flags showed up for the rally and were preparing to leave when a man showed up with a large Ku Klux Klan flag. The activists told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that they did not want to include the Klan in the rally.

As the group was trying to leave the park, which is a memorial to the Confederacy, the fracas involving Taft’s group ensued. The park stayed open, but the attractions were shut down.

In Rome, Ga., about 80 supporters of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement also held a rally Saturday. That event didn't turn violent, but police said two counter-protesters were arrested for disorderly conduct.

At the Stone Mountain rally, however, the counter protesters numbered in the hundreds. Some told The AJC that they did not want to be associated with anything that wasn’t a peaceful counter protest. Some of them began leaving the park when the protest took an ugly turn.

The Confederate flag has become an ever volatile symbol since last year’s massacre of nine African American worshippers in their Charleston, S.C. church by a young white supremacist. In various social media posts before the killings, Dylann Roof, who is charged with murder, had swaddled himself in Confederate flag iconography.

Pro-flag supporters at the Stone Mountain event, however, said the flag symbolized their heritage, not hate. The flag, and its meaning in the shared history of Southern blacks and whites will continue to be debated and, likely, protested.

Stone Mountain has been at the center of the flag debate in Georgia since the Charleston massacre. There has been a campaign to erect a bell tower honoring Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., atop the mountain. It would be in reference to a line from King's "I Have a Dream" speech given at the March on Washington. "Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia," King said during the landmark 1963 event.

Some have suggested the bell tower could promote racial healing. Park supporters, however, have said the memorial, by law, is meant to honor the Confederate dead only.