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Peaceful Kennesaw protesters confront controversial shop owner; end it with a handshake

A demonstration in sharp contrast to the tense Atlanta streets over the weekend showed that peaceful dialogue can exist, even among very different sides.

WASHINGTON — As demonstrations around the U.S. were ignited by the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis after he was pinned at the neck by a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, Atlanta was no exception. Over the weekend, Georgia's capital experienced heated protests of its own.  

One place near the city could have turned violent, but it didn't. A little confederate land mark of sorts, in nearby Kennessaw, could have become the next target of outrage, but things took a more peaceful turn. 

The city is home to the Southern Museum of Civil War, Kennesaw State University, and Wildman's Shop, a store described as "Best Little War House in Kennesaw," as it says on its website. The shops owner, Dent Myers, has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a "racist" shop owner who has been embraced by the community. 

It's an odd juxtaposition to have his world butted up against that of the progressive students on campus at nearby Kennesaw State University. But, as the Southern Poverty Law Center writes, "the town seems to have wholeheartedly embraced him, despite the racist and Confederate flags that have plastered his two-story storefront since he opened for business in 1971."

Kennesaw State student Austin Goodsell knew tensions in the area were rising after the death of George Floyd.

"I wanted to show my support, I've grown up here and I agree that what happened to George Floyd is horrible, but I believe in peaceful protesting, not violencem" Goodsell said. 

He says he believes tweets seen online about the shop prompted the idea.

Goodsell said, "I was told by somebody, hey, look up on twitter in your local areas and see what's trending" and that's where he saw word of the protest and where it would be. 

Students planned to march from KSU Green, which is a meeting point on the Kennesaw State University campus, to Wildman's confederate memorabilia shop in downtown Kennesaw. 

Goodsell says about 100 people showed up, mostly KSU students, but some who he says couldn't have been students. 

"The crowd was pretty peaceful, no one got very crazy," he said. Goodsell didn't see any protesters getting arrested.

As the protesters arrived to Wildman's, Myers met them. As Goodsell describes it, there was tension in the air, but it was quickly diffused. Myers is an older white man, and definitely a unique character. 

Goodsell said the protest group faced the shop owner, who is well known in the area, and said "there were about three of them talking to Myers, and they were giving their viewpoint, and he was explaining his life and his background and everything like that. By the end of this he basically gave the only guy who shook his hand something from the store."

Video of the handshake that Goodsell captured gained attention on social media. An unexpected moment of peaceful dialogue during a heated week in America. 

The group had about a five minute or so conversation and then the crowd started moving and people started going into the store.

Credit: Austin Goodsell

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As the Southern Poverty Law Center describes Myers, and as it well known in the area, his shop sells some incredibly racist memorabilia. He has owned it since 1971. Even with that, the Kennesaw Historical Society, in 1993, awarded Myers his first Historic Preservation Award. With no mention of his racist items. 

Goodsell also described other interesting exchanges with the Kennesaw Police Department that day. He said at one point, someone who didn't appear to be a student, or from the area, became "rowdy", Goodsell said. 

"He stopped his car in the middle of the street, telling the cops, don't shoot."

Goodsell says police weren't paying much attention to him, but he continued to make a scene. He says an officer then offered the man water as a gesture of peace, and that's when the two began talking. 

Credit: Austin Goodsell

In another moment, Goodsell describes a scene where an officer from the Kennesaw Police Department was sitting with a group in a park. He says the officer told someone that he saw the sign saying "Black Lives Matter." 

According to Goodsell, the officer told them he saw the "Black Lives Matter" sign and said, "blue lives, black lives, when you hear somebody, I know when I see your signs saying Black Lives Matter, that don't mean that my life don't matter too," Goodsell said.  

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