In a Wednesday night video message, Wake Forest Mayor Vivian Jones announced that the town’s downtown board of directors voted to cancel the Dec. 14 Christmas parade out of concern that “outside agitators” would show up to protest or defend the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy, who planned to march in the event.
The decision in Wake Forest, located less than 20 miles outside Raleigh, comes almost a week after another nearby town, Garner, N.C., announced it was canceling its Christmas parade over possible protests of a float sponsored by a local Confederate group, the Raleigh News & Observer reported.
By the end of her video announcement, Jones was fighting tears.
“Based on information we have received in recent days, this year’s event has the potential to be one marked not by marching bands and Santa Claus but instead by protests between clashing groups from outside Wake Forest, with innocent bystanders caught in the middle,” Jones said. “It is due to these concerns that I support the decision of the Wake Forest Downtown Board of Directors to deny these outside agitators the opportunity to use Wake Forest to spread hate and incite violence.”
Wake Forest Police Chief Jeff Leonard said in a statement that one group had notified the town of its plans to protest, but that the police department was worried that more agitators would “show up, wreak havoc then leave.” The town had received “credible information” about a “growing number of outside groups” planning to attend to either defend or oppose the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy, according to a statement. The town had not received any threats, officials clarified, but Leonard and Jones said they still believed safety could be put at risk.
“We aren’t happy telling kids they can’t attend or participate in this year’s parade, but it’s better than trying to explain to a parent whose child was injured why we chose to proceed despite so many warning signs,” Leonard said. “No matter what side of this issue you are on, our focus is public safety and at this point, the risk of moving forward with the parade simply outweighs any possible reward.”
The cancellations in Wake Forest and Garner come in the wake of continuing tension over the fate of Confederate monuments and history across the United States. The debate is notably playing out 40 miles west at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where groups have protested the decision by the UNC System’s Board of Governors to pay a Confederate group $2.5 million to move the Silent Sam Confederate statue off campus as part of a legal settlement.
One of those activist groups, Move Silent Sam, helped spark a conversation last month about why Garner was still allowing a Confederate group to participate in this year’s Christmas parade.
“Is the Town of Garner trying to send the message that racism is welcome in the community?” the group wrote on Twitter. “Is this Raleigh, North Carolina suburb going to allow Confederates in this year’s Christmas parade??”
The Raleigh chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America piled on. “Hey @TownofGarner, how about not having a racism float this year? Signed, Everyone who is not racist,” the group wrote on Twitter.
The social media discussions also got the attention of town officials. While no one made any threats in their online posts, the possibility of protests was enough to sway officials to decide on Nov. 27 to cancel the event in the interest of safety, seeking to avoid “disruption,” officials said in a video.
Nobody was happy — activists and Confederate supporters included.
“Instead of canceling the Christmas parade, the Town of Garner could have disallowed divisive and hurtful symbols such as the Confederate flag,” Move Silent Sam wrote in a statement.
Don Scott, commander of the Col. Leonidas L. Polk Camp No. 1486, a Sons of Confederate Veterans group, told the News & Observer that he “feel[s] so bad for the children.” He said the group was disappointed — it used the event as a recruiting tool — but that the kids were most important.
The paper asked whether the group might have considered voluntarily bowing out of the parade, though Scott said that decision would be left to Sons of Confederate Veterans leaders. (A Wake Forest-based spokesman for the North Carolina Division of the group couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on either parade.)
“But if it were up to me personally, if it came down to being in the parade or having it for the kids, I would choose the latter,” he said.
The same day Garner announced its decision to cancel the parade, Wake Forest vowed in a statement that its parade would go on — and, by law, that the Confederate group would be allowed to march in it. Officials noted that last year, as “local and national debate” about Confederate symbols was boiling over, town leaders had asked their legal counsel whether they could exclude certain groups from the annual Christmas parade.
“Make no mistake about it — the Town of Wake Forest is extremely sensitive to the emotion the confederate flag stirs among those on both sides of this issue,” officials wrote in the statement. “We recognize that for some the flag represents racism, hatred and bigotry, while others see it as a representation of Southern heritage protected as a matter of freedom of speech/freedom of expression.”
But because Wake Forest sponsors the parade — which is officially put on by the downtown board — legal counsel advised the town that it had “no legal basis” to exclude groups based on their beliefs or signage. A town spokesman told the News & Observer that turning over the parade to a private entity ― the downtown board, a nonprofit — could allow different rules for who is allowed to join.
“We recognize that some may find this news difficult, if not impossible, to believe — much less accept. Still, the uncomfortable fact remains there are no easy answers and no convenient solutions to an issue affecting communities like ours throughout the U.S.,” officials wrote. “We know that some will disagree. Still, can we disagree without being disagreeable?”
One week later, Jones announced the parade was canceled.
As she teared up toward the end, she assured residents that the cancellation was not a reflection on Wake Forest residents but on the out-of-town protesters seeking to “sow hate and spark chaos.”
“Anyone who knows me knows that canceling our parade goes against everything I believe in,” Jones said. “I don’t like bullies, and I don’t like feeling as though we are bowing to their tactics. But at the end of the day I must set aside my personal feelings and focus instead on what’s most important, and that is the well being and safety of parade attendees and participants, many of whom are our children.”
She said a 2020 Wake Forest Christmas parade was already being planned.