DeKalb County

DeKalb CEO says closing Stone Mountain Park ahead of violent protests put more people in danger

DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond says he is demanding changes after a decision to close Stone Mountain Park on Saturday ultimately routed violent protests into the nearby village of Stone Mountain.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Mark Winne was at those protests over the weekend and witnessed them firsthand.

Thurmond said the decision put more people in danger, but the head of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association said it was the right thing to do.

"I hope that the leadership of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association going forward would not put protecting a carving ahead of protecting the life and the safety of the citizens of Stone Mountain or DeKalb or the state of Georgia," Thurmond said.

Stone Mountain Memorial Association CEO Bill Stephens said he’s rock solid in his position that the state authority that runs Stone Mountain Park closed it Saturday to a militia group, its supporters, counter-protesters and the public in general to protect the public in the park.

Thurmond told Winne on Monday that the association’s decision effectively funneled the protests into the village of Stone Mountain with its business district that was severely impacted, and residences, and that the protests turned violent.

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"I was struck there were some incidents of violence of people throwing punches and other things taking place," Thurmond said.

Thurmond said he praises DeKalb County police, the Georgia State Patrol, the Georgia National Guard, Stone Mountain police and others who had to coordinate a suitably sizable response before clearing the streets without arrests or further violence.

“You also had two groups of heavily armed individuals carrying long guns and it could’ve been much more tragic than it was,” Thurmond said.

Stephens said the state authority made the decision to close the the park more than a week prior to Saturday’s protest. He said it was clear that if plans by a right-wing militia group and by counter-protesters to protest were not disrupted,

there was a risk of violence and property damage inside the park. Stephens said violence at an April 23, 2016 rally heightened concerns.

“If we had let them in they would’ve had 3,200 acres to roam,” Stephens said.

Stephens said the association did not ask permission from the county, but DeKalb police joined planning phone calls on Aug. 4 and 11, and local authorities had more than a week to plan for the likelihood that protesters would show up Saturday in the city of Stone Mountain instead.

“Going forward, there has to be some serious discussion within the Stone Mountain Park and with local jurisdictions whether it’s the village of Stone Mountain and DeKalb about how we’re going to address these issues going forward,” Thurmond said.

Thurmond told Winne that Saturday’s events were not the first time violence erupted around these kind of issues, and sadly it won’t be the last unless fundamental changes are made.

Stephens said he would be happy to engage in discussions.

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