GRAYSON After two contentious and ugly clashes between Black Lives Matter activists and right-wing paramilitaries in Grayson, protesters and counter-protesters did something they haven't done before: talked.

Before the protest started at 2 p.m., about 75 counter-protesters — almost all white and mostly male — carrying rifles and toting guns on their hips took positions at the corner of Main Street and Carol Malone Boulevard in Carter County’s seat.

On one corner, a gentleman from St. Louis set up a booth, vending Trump paraphernalia and souvenirs — the vendor said he was out to show his support for the town.

About two dozen Black Lives Matter activists — some from Grayson, some from Huntington and others from Ironton — began congregating at the small park on Carol Malone.

One organizer, 16-year-old Mayala Gunn, said she had attended her first protest this year in Huntington, a peaceful demonstration in response to the police killing of George Floyd. A quiet and reserved young lady, Gunn said she's usually not one to speak out.

Until now.

After spending a month and a half “down in the dumps about everything going on in the world” getting her bearings, Gunn said she wanted to show support for protesters, who have been outnumbered and derided by counter protesters in Grayson.

“I had never been to a protest like that before,” she said. “You're not always going to be met with the kindest words. It's hard for people to change and people can be stubborn. It can be hard for them to put their pride aside. Even me, I had to put my own pride aside — I was mad at the world.”

Darius Clay, a Cincinnati-based activist, has been marching the streets of Grayson since his friend Dee Garrett reached out to him. With experience stretching back to the Occupy days, Clay said he's “going to keep fighting this fight until I die.”

Last week, Clay said he got sucker-punched when he stepped in to prevent a counter-protester from pulling a young woman's hair. He was then kicked in the face.

But that didn't stop him from coming out again.

“One thing we're fighting against is the racism that's going on; obviously you see this backlash because they don't want to have unity with the Black people,” Clay said. “They want to call people N-words and all that.”

Despite the altercation last week and the frenzied armed mob two weeks ago, the protesters decided to have a cookout. With chef Daniel Murphy manning the spatula, they cooked enough hamburgers and hot dogs to feed a platoon.

Then a small group — including Clay and Gunn —walked across the street to speak with counter-protesters.

Unlike in prior demonstrations, voices were barely raised — the larger group of counter-protesters didn't shout the BLM activists down, nor did they continually interrupt them. In fact, both sides talked — and they each listened.

Carter County Sheriff's deputies stood by at the ready, occasionally stepping in to have folks take a couple steps back from one another.

Clay invited the counter-protesters over to eat some food and to “engage in an open dialogue.”

While at times heated, the two groups civilly debated the merits of “All Lives Matter vs. Black Lives Matter” and just what it means to “defund the police.” The counter-protesters brought up the portrayal of their town as racist and the alleged threats levied against them by Garrett.

Garrett was not present at the march due to an arrest just after midnight Sunday in Louisville. Charged with first-degree riot and traffic offenses, The Daily Independent was unable to reach the Louisville-Metro Police Department Sunday for more details regarding his charges.

Clay mentioned there had been threats on Facebook against the marchers as well.

As the discussion continued, counter-protesters and protesters began shaking hands — some even hugged.

A few even followed the protesters back across the street to the pavilion. One took a picture with the protesters and stated he was “with them 110%.”

As the cooked burgers began piling up, the counter-protesters dwindled away. By the time they said grace, the gentleman from St. Louis was taking down his wares.

In the middle of all this, a group called “Extreme Tour” — a Christian ministry from Nashville that was making a stop in Grayson on its way to the east coast — was setting up to play. One member, Jerry Fees, said the purpose of the tour is to bring “hope, love and unity” to small towns across the country.

That group stayed out of the conversations down the street and it didn't appear they had much of a turnout by late afternoon.

But maybe a bit of that message rubbed off on the town that day.

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