State police in full riot gear rushed a downtown street in this eastern Texas town Tuesday to break up a tense standoff between hundreds of Black and White protesters who exchanged screams of "Black power!" and "White power!"
A skinhead carrying a Confederate flag and a shirtless White man were arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct before the protesters separated peacefully, Paris police spokesman Lt. Danny Huff said.
The conflict began with a march through downtown by about 100 black activists who were protesting the state's handling of the case of a Black man who was run over and dragged by a vehicle. The demonstrators avoided a designated "protest zone" near the courthouse and marched to the town square to chants of "Black Power!" and "No Justice, no peace!"
Once there, the crowd ballooned to about 200 Black people on one side of a street. Across the street were about a dozen White supremacists, including four skinheads holding Nazi swastika flags. About 30 other White people were behind them, but it was unclear if they were protesting or watching.
The two sides shouted at each other while a dozen or so law enforcement officers were in the street keeping them apart. After several tense minutes of screaming and the groups inching closer together, about 35 Texas State Troopers wearing helmets and carrying shields marched swiftly into the crowd. No blows were exchanged.
The rally in Paris, about 90 miles northeast of Dallas, is the third courthouse protest over the death of 24-year-old Brandon McClelland, whose mangled body was found Sept. 16 on a country road outside of town after he was run over by a vehicle and dragged beneath it. A prosecutor cited a lack of evidence in dropping murder charges last month against two white men arrested in his death.
Some of the signs at the protest read, "Friends don't drag friends under pickup trucks" and "Who killed Brendon McClelland?"
Things grew tense early on when a member of the New Black Panther Party walked into the protest zone set up for White supremacists and stood inches away from a skinhead. The skinhead screamed at the Black man to go home as they two stood inches away filming each other with their cameras.
"We're not here for confrontation. We are peaceful people, but if necessary we are prepared," said black protest leader Jimmy Blackwell.
Rock Banks, who says he's the grand titan of the East Texas Ku Klux Klan, said his group met last week to discuss the event but decided not to hold a major rally because it would lead to more protests.
"If we showed up in force, with all of our robes on, they'd be back here in a month," he said.
Few of Paris' 26,000 residents watched the rally.
Prosecutors in the McClelland case initially charged two of McClelland's friends, Shannon Finley and Charles Crostley, with murdering him by running him over in Finley's pickup. They estimated that McClelland's body was dragged more than 70 feet beneath their vehicle. But a special prosecutor dismissed the charges last month, citing a lack of evidence, after a gravel truck driver came forward and said he might have accidentally run over McClelland.
This was the week Finley's trial was scheduled to start in a nearby town.
Previous protests over the case by the Panthers and the Nation of Islam were mostly peaceful and resulted in no arrests. A handful of White supremacists have showed up each time.
Protesters have said the McClelland case echoes the murder of James Byrd, a Black man who was chained by the ankles to a pickup by three White men and dragged to death in 1998 in the town of Jasper.
Authorities, however, have denied there was a racial angle in the McClelland death, pointing out that he was friends with Finley and Crostley. Authorities had said the trio were returning from a late-night beer run across the Oklahoma state line when McClelland died. They alleged the three were arguing about whether Finley was too drunk to drive, and that McClelland decided to walk home. Authorities said Finley then ran over McClelland.
Finley and Crostley, who were released after eight months in jail, have maintained their innocence.