DOUGLASVILLE, Georgia — You might think it was over when the armed party-crashers drove their trucks, most of them bearing Confederate flags, away from the 6-year-old’s birthday party. Or when some of them were arrested months later. Perhaps it seemed like a tidy conclusion when two of the ringleaders were handed lengthy prison terms this week.
But it still isn’t over, not for the victims.
Melissa Alford, 47, who hosted the July 2015 birthday party still worries that it could happen again, or that someone might retaliate against her for pursuing justice. It’s affected her life, at work and at home.
“They terrorized us,” Alford told CNN. “They pulled out guns and knives, called us racist slurs and they threatened to kill us. And that was terrifying.”
Alford threw the party to celebrate her son’s 25th birthday, her grandson’s 6th birthday and the upcoming birthday of a 7-year-old. Many of the attendees were black. An armed group calling itself “Respect the flag” rode up uninvited. Words were exchanged, and the group brandished weapons.
This week, Kayla Norton, who loaded a shotgun during the altercation, and Jose Torres, who wielded it, were sentenced to six and 13 years in prison, respectively. Some observers have called the sentence harsh. Alford dislikes the characterization.
“What I do think is harsh is I that I’ve got to live and wonder, is this going to happen again?” she said. “For me to fear, not be able to sleep in my home, for me to have to look over my shoulders and make sure that nobody’s out there.”
She requested that CNN not film her home, fearing it might be targeted. She said she is scraping together funds to move.
An advocate who works with at-risk youth, Alford stopped visiting homes in the community in September, ahead of the trial of Torres and Norton. She said she doesn’t know what residents in this Atlanta suburb of 33,000 people think of the locally contentious ordeal.
“I don’t know how they feel now about me,” she said. “That’s harsh.”
‘You put it on these children’
Hyesha Bryant, 34, brought her three kids — her infant, 7-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son — to the 2015 party, along with a 15-year-old cousin. She remembers seeing the trucks pass as the kids were enjoying the bounce house and adults were playing cards. She and other partygoers were dancing to V.I.C.’s “Wobble.”
The Confederate battle flags mounted to the backs of the trucks didn’t faze her. She grew up in Douglasville, long before it was 45% black, and like Alford — who was raised in Luverne, Alabama — she considers the flag an unremarkable part of life in the South.
Torres’ shotgun is what startled her. That, and someone saying, “We’re going to kill some f’ing Ns today,” she recalled, censoring the racial slur.
She was further horrified when she urged the adults to get the children into the house and one of the party crashers said, “Nah, leave them; they can get one, too.”
“You put it on these children who are innocent, who don’t know what’s going on, who have nothing to do with whatever the issue is. Instead of keeping it at your age level, you took it here,” Bryant said.
While her infant was too young to understand what was happening and her cousin was old enough to get the gist, the 7- and 10-year-olds were confused, Bryant said. The incident affected how the family thought and lived for months afterward. She asked that CNN not publish her children’s names.
‘Mommy, are we safe?’
Bryant wept several times as she recounted explaining to her oldest kids what happened with “the bad people from the day of the barbecue.”
“This may sound crazy, but in a sense, I feel like that situation took away a piece of my children’s innocence because I feel like they had to grow up and know the meaning of racism and hate in 2015,” she said.
It was easier with her daughter, she said, who’s bubbly and has never met a stranger. She’d heard about racism in school but didn’t quite understand it. The youngster was quick to chalk up the incident to people being mean, and it crushed Bryant to tell her, “Not everyone’s your friend.”
The 10-year-old was a different story. He wanted to know why the white people were saying “that word you don’t let us say, the n-word.”
“We had to have a real moment of history,” Bryant said. “I talked about slavery, and I talked about the civil rights movement, and we talked about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. We talked about the walk to Selma, and we talked about lynchings.”
His response over the next few months was heartbreaking.
“For a while he was confused and he was scared,” his mother said. “He was like, ‘Mommy, are you safe? Mommy, are you protected? Mommy, are we safe? Mommy, I’m worried.'”
Boy questions family, friendships
It’s not a child’s job to worry about his or her safety, she said. That’s for parents.
But Bryant didn’t know if her kids were safe. She didn’t know if she was safe. Had the racists followed her home? Were they being watched?
For a while, she and her husband, Marcel, kept the kids inside. They couldn’t go to sleepovers. Trick-or-treating on Halloween, they stopped only at houses where they felt safe, she said.
“We did a lot of family everything, from the gas station to the grocery store, places that I should feel safe to go alone. I wasn’t. I didn’t feel safe,” she said.
Her 10-year-old, meanwhile, was putting up walls. He became less trusting, Bryant said. Despite having a white aunt and biracial cousins, he wondered if he was going to lose family members and “he felt like he didn’t know who was his friend.” Particularly disturbing to Bryant was when he asked her, “Mom, can I trust my teachers?”
Alford has 10 grandchildren, ages 3 to 12. She said she hasn’t addressed the incident with them because she feels they’re too young.
“I don’t want to confuse them,” she said. “I don’t think they would understand right now.”
Marine still upset
Asked if her grown children had to address the incident with their kids, Alford said her son — who was celebrating his birthday that day — is still reeling.
Through his mom, the 27-year-old declined to be interviewed, but his mother said that he completed two tours of duty fighting for his country and was shaken to see a US Marines emblem amid the Confederate flags flapping from the back of the trucks.
“For him to witness this and witness a Marines flag on that truck, it took him somewhere,” she said. “So I think he’s got to deal with what’s going on with him before he can deal with explaining to his child.”
The schools the children attend have no plans to address the incident. The altercation had nothing to do with the schools, a spokeswoman for the Douglas County School System said, likening the event to a murder being committed downtown — school officials wouldn’t talk to children about that, either, she said.
‘Wow, we have a voice’
Despite the lingering imprint the 2015 clash has left on her life, Bryant received some measure of closure this week. When Superior Court Judge Beau McClain handed down the prison sentences, she was in shock. Fifteen years ago, this wouldn’t have happened in Douglas County, the lifelong resident said.
“I was like, ‘Wow, we have a voice,'” she said.
She found herself saddened that the perpetrators, Torres and Norton, would miss seeing their three children grow up, “especially over something so stupid (that) could’ve been avoided.”
Still, she’s glad they’re being held accountable and she has no choice but to forgive them — not solely because she’s a Christian, she said, but because it’s best for her sanity. She told them so before their sentencing.
Because Torres and Norton are forbidden from contacting their victims and won’t be able to return to Douglas County when they’re released, Bryant “could not let them go away not knowing I forgive everybody involved. … I can’t waste my time and my energy hating or being angry.”
Alford is less magnanimous, though she said she forgives them for her own peace of mind as well. She’s glad the prosecutor charged them with terroristic threats and gang crimes and thanked McClain for throwing the book at them. The perpetrators weren’t children; they’re adults who premeditated their hateful acts, she said.
She isn’t at all moved by Torres’ and Norton’s sobs during sentencing. There was another meaning behind their tears, she said. “I’m crying because I should’ve took a plea. I’m crying because we finally got caught. I’m crying because now I’m going to prison,” Alford said.
“That crying don’t mean nothing to me because you loaded that gun,” she said. “No, that crying don’t work here.”