Hundreds expected for protests in Texas dragging death case

JEFF CARLTON,Associated Press Writer

Members of a black extremist group began assembling Tuesday morning near the courthouse before planned demonstrations in a town where murder charges were dropped against two white men accused in the death of a black friend run over by a vehicle and dragged beneath it.

About a dozen members of the New Black Panther Party were gathering in a parking lot near the courthouse, dressed in black cargo pants, black shirts, black vests and black berets. A separate “protest zone” was set up across the street for white supremacists and other counter-protest groups, but none had arrived shortly before the scheduled start time of the demonstrations.

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. A prosecutor cited a lack of evidence in dropping murder charges last month against two white men arrested in his death.

Interim Paris Police Chief Bob Hundley said officers and sheriff’s deputies would be handling security. The protest zones were cordoned off by rope and yellow police tape, but no officers were in the streets just before the protest.

The demonstrations were expected to pit members of the New Black Panthers and Ku Klux Klan against one another. Others, including members of the Nation of Islam and a local group, the Concerned Citizens for Racial Equality, were also expected take part.

The rhetoric began well before Tuesday’s rally.

“Caucasians in Paris must understand that they are the reason for Paris being the center of unsavory attention,” one black protest leader, Jimmy Blackwell of the Tarrant County Local Organizing Committee, wrote in an opinion piece published last week in The Paris News. “We welcome the KKK because we want the world to see how real Americans act.”

One rally flier said “suspected hate crime killers” were set free by “racist Texas courts.”

But most of Paris’ 26,000 residents are likely to steer clear of the courthouse steps on Tuesday, said Marva Joe, who helps chair a diversity task force set up to address racial issues in the community.

“I guess I am like most people in Paris,” Joe said. “The majority of people in Paris don’t agree with the way they do things. Most people are not happy about the groups, about the people who are coming.”

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 truck driver came forward and said he might have accidentally run over McClelland.

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.

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