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A Small Mississippi Town, ‘Asking for a Breath’ After Mayor’s Remarks Unleash Protests

2020-06-09 15:19:51
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PETAL, Miss. — In what has become a morning routine, Lorraine Bates walks the seven-tenths of a mile to City Hall from her house in Petal, Miss. In the first days of demonstrations, she joined some 200 other protesters, many of them white, chanting and waving “Black Lives Matter” posters. But there were also times when it was just her and a groundskeeper who mowed around her.

She would keep coming, she said, until the mayor of Petal resigned, or at least exhibited something like genuine remorse for what he said about George Floyd after his fatal encounter with the Minneapolis police, including, “If you can say you can’t breathe, you’re breathing.”

“As long as I’ve got my health and my strength, I’ll be out here every day,” Ms. Bates, 70, said as she sat on her rolling walker on the front lawn of City Hall. She said her persistence was informed by earlier civil rights fights, recalling the stamina of the activists who had influenced her as a young black woman rooted in the Deep South.

“I’m here because I have six grandsons,” she added. “When they put their knee on George Floyd’s neck, they might as well have put it on my grandson.”

The nation has been unsettled by the tsunami of fury and despair that Mr. Floyd’s death helped set off, unleashing mass demonstrations and a forceful response from law enforcement in cities across the country.

That wave has reached small towns like Petal.

“I think the same way that George Floyd was asking for a breath, this city is asking for a breath,” Justin Powell, 29, a black systems engineer, told the mayor, Hal Marx, during a recent board meeting. He wore a red Petal High School Panthers polo shirt and said that he had been in Mr. Marx’s government class. “We need you to step down, sir.”

Mr. Marx has remained defiant. He has acknowledged the criticism provoked by his comments, which he posted to Twitter and then deleted. “I regret being insensitive to a man’s death,” he said in an interview.

But he has refused to resign.

“You shouldn’t lose your livelihood over a stupid remark,” Mr. Marx, who is white, said.

Still, some residents said his words had what were most likely unintended consequences: Mr. Floyd’s death probably would not have reverberated this way in Petal, a mostly white city of some 10,000 people, if Mr. Marx had not said what he said.

“We wouldn’t be here,” said Michael McCullum, a 24-year-old lifelong Petal resident.

Mr. McCullum and other black residents contended that it would be wrong to define Petal as overtly hostile toward them. Instead, the sentiments expressed by the mayor betrayed the gnarled history that lurks just below the surface in Mississippi and the countless ways that legacy reveals itself. “He’s exposed an issue in Petal that’s been covered up for so long,” Mr. McCullum said.

It has been similar in other smaller communities across the country, including in Georgia, Alabama, Montana and North Dakota, reflecting the depths to which Mr. Floyd’s death has resonated and the overflowing reservoir of exasperation it has tapped into. In some towns, people are organizing or attending demonstrations for the first time.

Protesters in Petal had gathered outside of the mayor’s house, and one man held a constant vigil there.

“It made us look bad,” Lisa Foster, a longtime resident of the city and a military historian, said of Mr. Marx’s comments. “It made headlines all over the world, and people aren’t happy that he’s made our city look terrible.”

But Ms. Foster, who is white, said the response from residents has been different. “This,” she said, “has restored my faith in Petal and even in humanity.”

She pointed out the power of watching the city’s aldermen, all of whom are white men, as a series of black men and women stood up during the public comment portion of recent meetings. The speakers used their allotted three minutes to go beyond imploring Mr. Marx to resign.

Some called for the Petal Police Department to put body cameras on its officers. A mother told of her son’s frightening run-in with an officer when he was pulled over after a late dinner at a Waffle House. One after another, they sought to illuminate the stresses and fears associated with life as African-Americans in small-town Mississippi.

The fury now has also brought renewed attention to the death of Marc Davis, a black man who was killed in 2017 by a white Petal police officer responding to a car crash.

For the Rev. Anthony T. McCullum, the pastor of Piney Grove Baptist Church in Petal, the mayor’s words rekindled memories of an uglier time. In a city meeting, he described discrimination he had faced growing up in the town: the baseball league that would not let him play, the scuffles he got into when he was younger because other boys had called him racial slurs. He recalled as a child seeing hooded Klansmen standing along a main road.

And yet, it was also the place where classmates at Petal High chose him as one of the friendliest and most handsome students in the class of 1984. He raised his children in Petal, including Michael McCullum, who joined his father and other family members at the meeting.

“I’m an educated man,” Pastor McCullum, 54, said. “I could have went anywhere, did anything I wanted to do. We chose Petal.”

About 85 percent of Petal’s residents are white. The town, its streets lined mostly with ranch houses on big, pine-covered lots and some of the highest-performing public schools in Mississippi, was built as a bedroom community for Hattiesburg, where more than half of that city’s population of 45,000 people is black.

The protests in Petal started last month when Mr. Marx wrote on Twitter that he “didn’t see anything unreasonable” in the video showing Mr. Floyd pinned to the ground by a police officer’s knee. He suggested that Mr. Floyd had died of a heart attack or an overdose.

Mr. Marx’s posts were widely condemned, including by the city’s police chief.

The city aldermen held a special meeting in which they took a vote and unanimously urged Mr. Marx to resign. He rebuffed their request, saying at the meeting, according to The Hattiesburg American, “I will never surrender to the mob mentality.”

Some residents said they abhorred the spectacle his comments stirred as much as the comments themselves. And he had some defenders.

“Hal and I never got along, but I do know that he regrets what he said,” said Jim Cavazos, who is white and has lived in Petal for 38 years.

Mr. Marx, the mayor since 2009, believed that he had become an avatar for the protesters’ larger discontent. “They’re trying to project that onto Petal itself, and that’s not Petal,” he said of the national friction over race.

“It’s easy to paint me as some uneducated bigot that doesn’t care about the lives of black people,” he said, adding that the perception was inaccurate. “You almost stereotype yourself as a racist when you say you’re not a racist, but what else can I say?”

Mr. Marx, whose father was a trooper with the Mississippi State Police, grew up in the city. He worked as a reporter and a managing editor for a newspaper in the nearby town of Laurel, and then taught government and economics at Petal High for 11 years before entering politics.

The recent upheaval, he said, had been painful yet revelatory. “I have had a dose of humility,” he said. “It’s not that I thought everyone always agrees with me, but I didn’t realize it did hurt people in a way that makes it a personal injury to them even though it wasn’t about them.”

He said he had received messages that were threatening and hateful. But he added that his resistance to resigning was a matter of principle: He was exercising his right to free speech. It was also practical, he said: He has to work another year before he can collect his retirement, and he refuses to jeopardize that.

“Let’s go ahead and have a conversation,” he said, referring to people demanding change. “Is there something we can do in these next 12 months while I’m still mayor? Let’s have a conversation beyond ‘Hal Marx must resign’ because Hal Marx isn’t resigning.”

Some are coming to terms with that.

At a recent aldermen meeting, Pastor McCullum declared that he had forgiven the mayor. It was not an easy decision, he said, but it was the right one. Ms. Bates did not agree. The fight was not over. She left the meeting knowing that she would be walking back to City Hall in the morning.

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