A man carrying a loaded semiautomatic rifle confronted local activist Willie Hudspeth on Monday night as he held a sign protesting the Confederate soldier memorial on Denton's downtown Square.
Police quickly came to the scene, and a bystander said the man with the gun forfeited his ammunition to law enforcement before leaving the scene with his rifle.
The man identified himself as Stephen Passariello in a comment on a Denton Record-Chronicle Facebook post about the confrontation. Passariello said he took a loaded gun with him "to make a point." He never intended to shoot anyone, he said.
Hudspeth, 69, said he decided to protest at the memorial again when he saw Monday that it had been vandalized overnight. He carried a sign reading "Please move statue to Confederate museum. God said 'Love everybody.'"
Passariello approached Hudspeth and the small group that gathered around him from East Hickory Street, Hudspeth said.
"He walked up while I was talking to this guy right here," Hudspeth said, pointing to Denton resident Adam Rinkleff. "He [Rinkleff] had a civil way of telling me his thoughts. We were dialoguing. That's what you do. We were having a good conversation."
Passariello made Hudspeth nervous enough to dial 911, Hudspeth said, and Rinkleff said he urged people nearby to move.
On Facebook, Passariello said Hudspeth, who has lived in Denton since 1970, was "ignorant of history."
Rinkleff said Passariello strode up to them, armed and shouting, "Counterprotest!"
In a video of the confrontation, the man can be heard asking Hudspeth why he was protesting the memorial now. "I've been out here every week for the past 22 years," Passariello says in the video, adding that he'd never seen Hudspeth at the monument before.
But Hudspeth has been a longtime protester of the memorial. He's lobbied county commissioners on and off since 2000 to move the monument. In 2005, Hudspeth changed his mind about removing the monument. Instead, he lobbied the county to let him repair and plumb the two water fountains on the memorial. "Let's let it stand here and everybody take a drink," he said then.
None of his efforts have resulted in the memorial's relocation. Even as Hudspeth held his sign on Monday night, a man rolled down his window and thrust a thumbs-down sign from behind the wheel of his pickup. When a group of men left a nearby restaurant, they smiled at Hudspeth's sign and one said, "I love everybody."
Bystanders said Passariello appeared unreasonable and agitated.
"He was like angry and he was jostling [the gun] like this," Rinkleff said, motioning as if moving a gun at the hip. "I didn't know if he had the safety on. I didn't know if that gun was going to go off at any moment. I would say he was pointing the muzzle toward people as he talked. I was worried."
Rinkleff said he had a calm conversation with Hudspeth before Passariello appeared.
"To me, this is a memorial. Not a monument. The people didn't put this here to celebrate the Confederacy," he said. "They put it here to remember boys who died, boys who were conscripted to go fight in a war."
Rinkleff said he thinks there is a way to leave the memorial where it stands and satisfy residents who find it a painful vestige of white supremacy.
"Maybe they could remove the word Confederate and change it to our Southern soldiers?" he said.
Hudspeth said he isn't a member of Dentonites Against Racist Traditions, a local group founded shortly after nine black church members were killed in last month's mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. The local group hopes to convince officials to move the memorial.
Hudspeth said he thinks the odds are good that elected officials will listen as more voices rally to take the memorial off the courthouse lawn. He said they needn't move it far.
"There's room for it in there," he said, motioning to the Courthouse-on-the-Square Museum behind him. "Put it in there. I don't know how much it will cost, but there's room in there for it."