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Confederate monument discussion causes tension at Commissioners Court meeting

Some people sitting in a packed courtroom squirmed in their seats when Denton resident Gerald DeMarsh Sr. used the N-word while addressing county commissioners Tuesday evening.

The 86-year-old man was one of almost 50 people at the commissioners meeting who wanted to speak about the controversial Confederate monument on the Square. Most speakers asked for its removal, while a few others asked commissioners to keep it on the courthouse lawn.

Because of the number of public speakers, County Judge Mary Horn had to shorten their time limit from 3 minutes to 2. DeMarsh, who spoke uninterrupted for the entire two minutes, started to talk about the monument then drifted into an explanation of the N-word.

"The University of Texas has been sued over the [Confederate] statues, and people warn against the rush to remove the statues," DeMarsh said while unfolding a document in his hand. "And here's where the president of Niger was murdered by his own guards over in West Africa. And that's where the word [N-word] originated from, was the province over there. I wanted to get that clear."

The meeting started at  7 p.m. instead of its usual Tuesday meeting time of 9 a.m. because commissioners have been holding public hearings about the proposed budget and tax rate for fiscal year 2017-18. They're holding evening meetings so more people have the opportunity to show up and speak about those specific items. 

But the Confederate monument discussion again took center stage as public comment, which is typically held at the beginning of the meeting, lasted about an hour and a half.  Most of the courtroom filed out when public comment ended. 

Typically, one or two people show up to commissioners meetings and speak for about five minutes.  But after violent protests broke out in Charlottesville, Virginia, three weeks ago, people are re-examining the meaning of Confederate monuments around the country, including the one in Denton.

People who want the statues gone say they represent a still-pervasive sense of racism in the United States. Those who want to keep them say their removal is an attempt erase or revise history.

People have been arriving at commissioners meetings with protest signs and T-shirts that read "Love, not hate, makes America great."

But Horn, who has maintained that she doesn't plan to consider moving it, rebuked DeMarsh's comments on Wednesday. She said she didn't have him removed from the courtroom when he said the N-word because she said she was "in shock." But she plans to address it before the next commissioners meeting, she said.

"I'm going to make it abundantly clear that that disrespectful language will not be tolerated," she said.

Some people submit their comments in writing before they speak, but Horn said she didn't receive a transcript of DeMarsh's comment before he took the podium.

She said he's previously spoken at commissioners court about various lawsuits.

"He has a hard time getting to the point, and since there was only two minutes to talk, I was trying to be polite," she said.

Messages left for comments at a number listed for DeMarsh were not returned as of early Wednesday evening. 

Horn said that despite the number of people showing up to speak on behalf of the monument's removal, she's been getting messages from residents who want it to stay.  Horn believes the monument is "for the soldiers," as she stated after last week's commissioners meeting. 

But the majority of people who spoke either wanted it completely gone, inside a museum or placed on the agenda for discussion. Former Denton City Council candidate Paul Meltzer argued for its removal. City Council members Keely Briggs and Gerard Hudspeth also were in attendance. 

Denton resident Laural Crawford said she doesn't want to celebrate the Confederacy, even though some of her ancestors were Confederate soldiers. 

"This statue supposedly represents my heritage — so some other people say — but it's a heritage of hate, bigotry murder and treason," Crawford said. "I'm not proud of this. I hate to see it glorified in such a prime place — maybe the most prime and beautiful place in our county." 

JULIAN GILL can be reached at 940-566-6882.