Armed marchers at Stone Mountain prompt stir on social media

People stand in the parking lot at the Georgia Lautu Baptist Church in Stone Mountain Saturday, July 4, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

People stand in the parking lot at the Georgia Lautu Baptist Church in Stone Mountain Saturday, July 4, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Scores of African Americans, many armed with military-style assault weapons and other firearms, marched to Stone Mountain Memorial Park on the Fourth of July in what an organizer said was a demonstration of their Second Amendment rights.

Authorities said the event was peaceful. However, the participants, masked, clad head to toe in black, bearing weapons and marching from downtown Stone Mountain to the park, prompted a stir on social media.

“In Stone Mountain, Georgia earlier today,” tweeted @naomiruta, who filmed part of the march as she and her family were on their way to the park Saturday afternoon. As of late Sunday afternoon, the video had been viewed more than 6 million times.

John Bankhead, spokesperson for the Stone Mountain Park Police Department, said the marchers began with a rally in near downtown Stone Mountain and then decided to march on the park. While the majority of them were African American, a minority were of other races. Not every person was armed, but most were masked.

Bankhead said the group did not have a permit to march but that police decided not to stop the group.

“We’re aware there are certain sensitivities over what the park represents,” Bankhead said. “We felt it was better to let them give their speeches and leave. It was peaceful.”

The park is home to a large mountainside carving of three key Confederate leaders: Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson. Calls to remove the largest Confederate monument in the nation have only intensified this summer in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. The mountain was also site of the Ku Klux Klan’s rebirth in 1915.

No arrests were made in connection with Saturday’s march, although some people were overcome by heat as temperatures reached at least 90 degrees. Those stricken were treated either by EMTs or other marchers charged with providing medical assistance, Bankhead said.

While the recreational areas of the park have remained open during the COVID-19 pandemic, the amusement park, run by a private company, has been closed. It was to have opened partially Saturday for the holiday, Bankhead said, but closed hours before the marchers arrived at the park’s west gate. As the group approached the gate around 2:30 p.m., they were met by about two dozen police officers. Bankhead said the group didn’t have a specific destination in mind but decided to march to Memorial Hall on park grounds, about 2 miles from the west entrance. Police cars were in the front and rear of the column of marchers.

“They were actually a very friendly group,” Bankhead said. “Very pleasant. I spoke to some of them.”

According to the Facebook page of a man identifying himself as “The Real Grandmaster Jay,” who authorities said was a leader of the protest, Saturday’s march was supposed to have been one of two. Besides the Stone Mountain action, the other was scheduled for July Fourth as well in Phoenix, Arizona, according to the Facebook post. Based on news reports, however, it does not appear that the planned Arizona rally took place. The organizing group calls itself the NFAC, or Not (expletive) Around Coalition and began calling for the rally at least a week ago, according to the Facebook page.

Organizers said in at least one video of the event posted to Twitter that NFAC was not affiliated with Black Lives Matter but saw themselves as an armed militia.

Georgia’s open carry laws allow those with gun permits to visibly carry firearms into most public settings, though with some restrictions. This wasn’t the first time armed protesters held a rally in the park. In 2016, a group known as “three percenters,” a loose network of white men who also see themselves as a militia, were involved in pro-Confederate flag rallies at the park.

A speaker at Saturday’s rally addressed that group.

“I don’t see no white militia,” the man said. “To the three percenters and all the rest of those scared (expletive) rednecks, we here! Where the (expletive) you at? We in your house! Let’s go!”