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Fear of vandalism from protesters muddles start to 'Deportation Bus' tour
Republican gubernatorial candidate Michael Williams starts tour at Gainesville campaign office
Deportation bus
Protesters and supporters of gubernatorial candidate Michael Williams gather Wednesday, May 16, 2018, at Williams' office on Monroe Drive in Gainesville. Williams launched a campaign tour in Gainesville that includes a bus covered with anti-illegal-immigrant rhetoric. - photo by Scott Rogers

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 “back to Mexico.”

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 Gainesville Times on Tuesday.

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.

However, the 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 3-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.

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 will make its first scheduled stop in Clarkston, where Williams intends to give interviews and make his first remarks for the tour.