With campaign staff saying they feared protesters planned to splash the “Deportation Bus” with paint, the launch of Sen. Michael Williams’ bus tour came to an abrupt end in Gainesville on Wednesday.
Williams’ final run into the May 22 primary was intended as a shock-and-awe campaign against illegal immigration: The Trump-channeling candidate this week unveiled a grayed-out school bus covered in anti-illegal-immigration slogans with a campaign ad on YouTube.
The bus has slogans calling immigrants in the nation illegally a group of “murderers, rapists, kidnappers, child molesters and other criminals” and encouraged people to follow the bus “to Mexico.”
The bus tour was scheduled to kick off with a noon event at Williams’ campaign office in Gainesville. Williams himself was set to deliver remarks to supporters before taking the bus on its tour to Clarkston, Decatur and Athens — communities dubbed “sanctuary cities” by the Williams campaign.
A fundamental disconnect deeper and wider than the bits of grass and concrete existed between the two groups gathered in Gainesville.
On one side, more than 30 people who saw the bus and its slogans as a symbol of racism and bigotry. On the other, five or six supporters of Williams who believed the bus made a hard point, but not a racist point, about illegal immigration in the United States.
Subscribers, join the Times Subscribers group on Facebook to view videos recorded live at the event.
“It’s just a terrible display of, I feel, xenophobia and racism,” said Elizabeth Casper, a 21-year-old Democrat from Gainesville. “It assumes that, first of all, all immigrants who are here that are undocumented are from Mexico, like it says on the back of the bus.”
Joe Webb, a Williams supporter, said his candidate was a good man who has worked his way to success and is now focused on “doing away with cronyism,” is a supporter of American families and would cut government waste and taxes.
As a newsmaker and attention magnet, the bus hit its mark. Williams earned statewide and national news coverage and a furious backlash from immigration groups and others. His campaign ad was banned from YouTube as hate speech, according to the campaign.
It was all part of the Williams’ campaign tagline, “Fearless Conservative,” he told The Times on Tuesday.
The Gainesville event went awry as it was approaching 12:30 p.m., about half an hour after Williams was supposed to deliver his remarks.
Protesters at the event outnumbered Williams supporters by about 5-to-1, and both sides chanted slogans at each other while waiting for the gubernatorial candidate.
But instead of talking with the group and delivering his planned comments, Williams left his campaign office in an unmarked SUV. An RV and the Deportation Bus left with the SUV.
The convoy regrouped at a gas station a short distance from Williams’ campaign office and then left Gainesville for Clarkston.
“We had word some idiots were going to try and throw paint on the bus,” Williams spokesman Seth Weathers wrote in a message to The Times.
One protest organizer, Marisa Pyle, said after the event concluded that she had heard nothing about plans to spray the bus in paint.
The protesters themselves appeared peaceful during the event, offering chants and criticizing the Williams volunteers and staffers but making no moves against them.
Protesters also pushed back against Weathers’ claim.
Brooks Clay, who was present for the duration of the event, said he thinks the claim was made up.
“I absolutely think that’s bogus, as the protesters peacefully organized,” Clay told The Times afterward. “There was not a single threat of paint. There was no paint present.”
He noted that protesters stayed off of Williams’ private property and didn’t block any vehicles’ access to or from the property.
The Hall County Sheriff’s Office had several deputies near the protest.
“In a proactive safety measure, several Hall County Sheriff’s deputies monitored the bus tour and protesters this afternoon,” spokesman Derreck Booth said. “Everyone involved remained peaceful, and there were no violations of the law.”
The bus tour made its first scheduled stop in Clarkston.
After the stop in Decatur, the Williams campaign released an announcement noting the campaign schedule had to be changed because of protesters who began “shoving Williams campaign staff, spitting in supporters’ faces, attempting to deface the bus,” according to Weathers.
The DeKalb County Police confirmed they received a 911 call about violent protesters at the campaign stop. But when they arrived, officers “did not observe any violence or criminal activity and no reports were made by Williams’ campaign or other attendees,” according to a statement from Andrew L. Cauthen III, communications manager with the county.
In an interview with Gateway Pundit, a website that in recent years has taken to espousing alt-right views, Williams misrepresented the actions of Gainesville protesters.
“There were already over two dozens (sic) protesters that were at our campaign office when we got there this morning,” Williams told Gateway Pundit on Wednesday. “The sheriff’s department showed up and actually had to chase off a few people that they thought to be MS-13.”
That claim is untrue. Booth confirmed his initial report of the Gainesville event — that it was peaceful and deputies were present only as a precaution — was accurate.
Even before Wednesday’s event, Williams’ bus and his campaign announcement insulted many in Gainesville. His announcement of the bus tour launch claimed that “(Casey) Cagle's own hometown of Gainesville has developed a reputation for turning a blind eye to criminal illegal aliens.”
Matt Smith, chairman of the Hall County Republican Party, said the claim was “kind of a slap in the face to call Gainesville a near-sanctuary city without any kind of support for that. I think it’s dangerous — I think it’s just a crazy statement.”
Meanwhile, Latinos Conservative Organization leader Art Gallegos said his group would no longer work with the Williams campaign after seeing the bus and ad.
“Our city is better than that,” Gallegos said of Williams’ comments about Gainesville on Tuesday.
Frustration with the bus tour persisted through Wednesday.
On the other side of the political aisle from Gallegos, local restaurant owner and Stacey Abrams supporter Gabriel Velazquez Jr. said Williams’ bus tour offered a threatening message for Georgians.
“It puts a target on an immigrant of a certain color. We have a lot of Canadian immigrants, that’s our northern neighbor, no one is going to question that,” Velazquez said as protesters chanted in the background. “But if you see me walking down the street — and I’m not an immigrant, I was born in Los Angeles — I would most likely get questioned about that.”
An earlier version of this story included inaccurate information about the scene in Decatur.