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Protest leader: ‘It’s not racism’ — Group outside Brookhaven cinema says they’re there for the crowd, not movies

One of the leaders of a group of Christian protesters said they chose to picket at the “Black Panther” premiere in Brookhaven Friday night because of the large crowd, not because of the movie’s content.

“I was going Friday no matter what was playing,” said Rev. Terry Bonin of Bethel Word of Life in Brookhaven. “Most of the time I don’t even know what’s on the screen.”

Bonin said he goes when he can to the UA Westbrook Cinema 4 — mostly on Friday nights — with his daughter and son-in-law with signs to minister to people going in and out of the theater.

“Black Panther,” with its largely black ensemble and a black superhero, played Friday along with “Jumanji,” “Fifty Shades Freed” and “Peter Rabbit.”

“Black Panther” earned a record-setting $192 million in its debut in U.S. and Canada theaters. The Marvel film from the Walt Disney Co. blew past expectations to become the fifth-highest-grossing debut ever, not adjusting for inflation, following only “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” ‘’Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” ‘’Jurassic World” and “The Avengers.”

A Facebook Live video of the protesters Friday night has gone viral and a Jackson television station said the premiere drew protesters because of its subject matter.

Brookhaven Police Chief Kenneth Collins said he doesn’t believe the protesters singled out “Black Panther.”

“They’re out there most every Friday night,” he said.

Bonin said that is correct. He was planning the protest, but because he expected large crowds for the opening, he brought in more protesters to help.

“It’s not racism in no way shape or form,” he said. “If I was a racist I couldn’t be a Christian. We are all one race; we come from Adam.”

Bonin said his daughter told him that the movie would bring a lot more people out to the theatre than a typical Friday night.

“We knew it was going to be packed,” he said.

That’s why he asked his friend Bro. Britt Williams of Consuming Fire Fellowship of Centreville to help them so they’d be able to reach more people with their message. Bonin said 41 people protested, including himself and his two family members.

Protesters in Bonin’s group have carried signs with messages such as “Stop sinning against God” at that spot since 2004. They stay on the patch of grass between the theater’s parking lot and Brookway Boulevard, he said.

Pastor Philip Sterling of Grace Community Church was offended by the yelling Friday night as he took his grandsons — a fourth-grader and a second-grader — to see the movie.

He’s seen the protesters at the theater before, but noticed it was a larger group.

“I’ve noticed the same group for years, but there have never been as many as there were Friday night,” he said.

He said people should have the right to protest peacefully, but shouldn’t be able to yell at people. He said they shouted, “All of you are going to hell.”

Bonin said they don’t single anyone out with their message.

“We are loud,” he said. “They call it screaming. We believe that it’s preaching.”

As a Christian pastor, Sterling believes Bonin’s message gets lost.

“You bring people in, you don’t drive them away,” he said. “It is irritating when you step out of a movie and you’re attacked with all these insults.”

He said “Black Panther” was a “great movie. No profanity. No nudity. There are a lot of messages in the movie.”

Sterling said many of the people who attended the showings in Brookhaven Friday came from other areas like Hattiesburg, Monticello and McComb, who may not know about the group’s regular protests.

That’s why many felt it was a racial protest and the audience for “Black Panther” was targeted.

“If you’ve got 30, 40, 50 people (who are) all white, saying you’re going to hell, yes, it looks like racism,” Sterling said. “None of this would have occurred if they’d just held the signs. If you’re God-sent how can you stand there and insult people?”

Sterling said he wants to believe that it wasn’t a racist incident.

“Because they’re there all the time,  I cannot say it was racism,” he said. “The group was extremely large so it appears to be racism.”

Bonin said he and his family and sometimes Britt’s church members protest at Westbrook on Fridays because it’s the only theater in this area.

“So everybody comes there,” he said. “We talk to people from all walks of life there.”

Bonin said they don’t judge people, just share scripture — loudly — with people going in and out of the theater.

“If I’m wrong in what I’m doing, I’d ask any church person to Biblically show me I’m wrong,” he said. “I’m led by the spirit and led by the word. I’m not there to protest the movie theater. I’m there to preach the Gospel.”

Bonin said he hasn’t decided if he’ll protest again Friday. He said he’ll pray about it, but if he goes it will be just him and his son-in-law and daughter.

“More than likely, we will,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what we do, they’re going to think we’re racist.”

Bonin said he loves the people he tries to reach in the parking lot.

“I have to leave this house (on Fridays) with forgiveness in my heart and love these people,” he said. “I’m not out there to hurt people. I’m out there to share the gospel.”