A town has canceled its annual Christmas parade over fears that protesters and supporters of its inclusion ofwould clash. After more than 70 years, the town of Wake Forest, North Carolina will not have a parade at all this holiday season.
The Confederacy float has been a "peaceful" part of the Wake Forest Christmas parade for decades, the town said. Now, planned protests surrounding its participation have led to safety concerns by officials.
"The Wake Forest Downtown Board of Directors voted to cancel this year's Christmas parade due to the threat of violence by groups outside our community," Mayor Vivian Jones said in a tearful Facebook video Wednesday night. She said she was "angry, disappointed and heartbroken," but ultimately supportive, over the decision.
The Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy had planned to participate in the parade as usual. Town leaders said they received information that large groups of people — including both protesters and supporters of the confederacy — planned protests during this year's event.
"Sadly, times have changed and this year is different," Jones said. "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 outside Wake Forest, with innocent bystanders caught in the middle."
Wake Forest Police Chief Jeff Leonard said in a statement that a group that had planned to show up had grown in numbers from less than 10 to more than 200, sparking concerns that they may "show up, wreak havoc then leave."
"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," he 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 nearby Town of Garner canceled its parade last week over concerns that the participation by the Sons of Confederate Veterans could spark protests. Following its announcement, Wake Forest town leaders initially said its parade would go on.
"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," the town wrote on Facebook last week. "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."
On Thursday, town residents protested the cancellation, CBS News affiliate WNCN reports.
"It's just not right, it's not right," Robert Cooper told WNCN. "I've lived here all my life and we grew up with it and we never had a problem before. The kids love it and the town benefits from the parade, all the merchants, you know."
Town spokesperson Bill Crabtree told WNCN the town tried to continue the parade despite the threats, but ultimately failed to put a plan in place in time to guarantee everyone's safety.
"Obviously, this has not been a popular decision," he said. "We believe it was certainly not popular, but the right decision, it was the safe decision."
Protesters of Confederate participation took to Twitter to demand their removal from the parade, rather than the event's cancellation. But town leaders said they were "unable to exclude groups some may find objectionable."
Locals expressed concern that the protests would be an ongoing issue in the future. Mayor Jones said the town will begin planning in January for a 2020 Christmas parade.