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WAKE FOREST — One week after the town of Wake Forest announced plans to proceed with its annual Christmas parade despite the participation of a local Confederate group, the board of directors for the nonprofit that sponsors the event - with town support - has decided to cancel the parade over concerns about public safety.
Earlier Wednesday, during its regular monthly meeting, the Wake Forest Downtown Inc. Board of Directors voted to cancel this year's parade due to the potential for violence. Moments earlier, board members heard from Wake Forest Police officials who reported receiving credible information in recent days that growing numbers of outside groups plan to attend the parade to either support or oppose the Sons & Daughters of the Confederacy.
According to Wake Forest Police Chief Jeff Leonard, only one group has notified the town of its plans to protest, but the department is concerned about outside agitators that show up, wreak havoc then leave.
"Groups that contact us about their plans to protest tend to follow our rules and regulations," said Leonard. "We're concerned about outside agitators that don't notify us. Radicals don't typically call ahead. These aren't area residents we're talking about. These are professional protesters who have no regard for the safety and well-being of others."
As one example, Leonard said his department received credible information that in less than two days, a group that planned to "show up" at the parade grew in number from less than 10 to over 200.
"We aren't happy telling kids they can't attend or participate in this year's parade - but it's better than trying to explain to a parent whose child was injured why we chose to proceed despite so many warning signs," he said. "No matter what side of this issue you are on, our focus is public safety and at this point, the risk of moving forward with the parade simply outweighs any possible reward."
Wake Forest Mayor Vivian Jones said she was "angry, disappointed and heartbroken" to learn of the parade's cancellation but ultimately supports the decision.
"For most of us, our annual Christmas parade is about spending time with friends and family and celebrating the spirit of the season," she said. "Yet there are some outside our community whose sole purpose is to use the occasion to promote their political agenda without any regard for the health and safety of our citizens. The WFD Board made the wise decision to deny these outside agitators the opportunity to use Wake Forest as a platform to spread hate and incite violence," she said.
In a video message to the community, Jones emphasized that the decision to cancel the parade is in no way a reflection on the "Wake Forest community."
"I love Wake Forest, but even more I love the people of Wake Forest," she said. "(The decision to cancel) is an unfortunate consequence of what happens when outside agitators use local events like ours to sow hate and spark chaos."
Officials say they will begin meeting early next year to develop plans for scheduling future parades with the goal of eliminating potential distractions by outside groups.