The club members were planning a peaceful discussion about race relations Friday evening at Swift Park.
The local Sierra Club, which usually focuses on nature conservation, is comprised of mostly female members ranging in ages from 65 to 80 and led by local storyteller and member of the Rogersville Arts Council, Guerry McConnell.
Their Friday meeting was intended as a dialogue between the local black and white communities and was originally planned for a nearby church, but it was moved to the park to accommodate social distancing for the estimated 15-20 people who planned to attend.
Swift Park is located in Rogersville's predominantly African American neighborhood on the campus of the former segregated Swift College and high school and across the street from the former segregated Price Public School, which is now a community center and museum.
When McConnell heard about the social media firestorm that was surrounding her small event, she immediately postponed it.
“Information circulating on social media is false”
How did an outdoor meeting of the local Sierra Club morph into warnings of BLM protesting in downtown Rogersville? That's simple: social media.
One post that was widely circulated stated “BLM protesters (rioters) obtained a permit to demonstrate in Rogersville [no date or time]. People need to be ready at the last minute and line the streets and greet demonstrators, make a presence; especially in front of the war memorial. Pass the word/share.”
The Hawkins County Sheriff's Office sent out a message on Facebook on Friday afternoon stating it and the Rogersville Police Department had confirmed that no permits had been issued to groups for a BLM protest.
“Information circulating on social media is false,” the HCSO report stated.
Still, scores of bikers, veterans and other concerned citizens — many of whom were armed with handguns holstered on their hips — surrounded the Hawkins County Veterans Memorial in front of the courthouse Friday evening in response to a perceived threat of a BLM demonstration.
Whether the reported BLM demonstration was a hoax or just a misunderstanding remains unknown. But one thing that can't be disputed is the public response to the perceived threat.
Hawkins County Mayor Jim Lee posted on Facebook Friday evening, “I'm not worried about the thugs destroying our town with all these vets out here. This group knew there were no protesters coming but decided to show their support. This is not a black and white issue. There are as many white people as black burning down cities. Watch the news and all the videos.”
“It was just going to be a peaceful gathering”
McConnell told the Times News on Tuesday she was very upset by Friday's “fiasco”
“It was just going to be a peaceful gathering at Swift Park for those who wanted to start a conversation — just to see what's happening in our black and white communities and how we can strengthen the community and communication,” McConnell said. “The black women I was working with at Price Public (Community Center) said, ‘You need to be sure to call the police department and tell them what's going on.’ So I called Chief Nelson and I called Mayor Sells, and I called the three county commissioners over this district. And I got in touch with Nancy Barker, who is over the Chamber of Commerce and is also a commissioner.”
McConnell added, “Nancy asked me, ‘You're not bringing anybody from out of town, are you? We don't need that.' Actually, I had invited somebody who is with the Black and White Dialogue in Johnson City. I've been attending their programs and discussions, and I'm very impressed. Nobody gets riled up. We just discuss things.”
McConnell said she doesn't pay attention to social media, but on Friday morning she received a call from RPD Assistant Chief Travis Fields, who informed her that Facebook was “blowing up” due to misinformation about her event.
“We were scared to death”
“He read me some of the posts, and one of them said we were bringing in bus loads of protesters from Johnson City,” McConnell said. “Oh my God! That was so wrong and so not what we were doing. Who started that rumor I don't know, but it was a hoax. But Travis asked if we could possibly postpone it, and I spoke to everybody in our group, and they were all in agreement.”
McConnell added, “Then someone posted that 'the protest is canceled.' I said, 'It was never a protest, and it was never coming to town.’ Somebody just got real excited and perpetrated this hoax. They were going to come to town with assault rifles to protect downtown. We were scared to death.”
While the counter protesters were making their presence known in downtown Rogersville, there was a small demonstration at Swift Park by members of the Hasson Street Christian Church that held a 15 minute group prayer.
“They just felt that God told them they needed to do that, so they did,” McConnell said.
“It was a pure hoax, and they fell for it”
When asked what her reaction was to what occurred downtown, McConnell said, “It disappoints me that we'd have that reaction here. I would have expected some push back and comments, and that would have been all right. Why incite a riot and endanger people? They didn't check out the facts. They just heard a rumor and ran with it. It was a pure hoax, and they fell for it.”
Members of local law enforcement who spoke with the Times News about the counter protest said that for the most part it was peaceful.
The only disturbance occurred when a woman who was driving through town stopped and claimed someone in the crowd called her a racial slur. Police said that woman, who reportedly went to school in Rogersville but now lives in Morristown, engaged in a heated discussion with some of the counter protesters for about an hour.
Two high ranking members of law enforcement told the Times News Tuesday, however, they are concerned that Friday’s anti-protest could potentially instigate violent groups to target Rogersville.