Sometime in the early 2000s, Petal High School teacher Kim Paola was at a faculty meeting when someone raised the possibility of a support group for the school’s LGBT students—a controversial idea for the conservative Forrest County, Miss., town. A man who, like her, taught high school politics and government, began giggling.
“Who would sponsor it?” she recalls the teacher, Hal Marx, saying, as if everyone in the room knew the notion was absurd.
“I would,” Paola said defiantly. “This school is for all students—not just the straight ones, not just the Christian ones—the gay ones, the atheist ones, whoever.”
Paola shared that story with the Mississippi Free Press on Thursday. Marx later became the mayor of Petal, which residents call “The Friendly City,” in 2009. He still holds the office today, and drew national headlines this week for tweets he sent about the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died in Minneapolis, Minn., after a police officer used his knee to pin the man to the ground by his neck.
“Please, please, I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe, officer,” Floyd can be heard moaning in video footage of the incident in Minnesota, while the officer’s partner looks away. After several minutes, Floyd stops speaking and becomes motionless, the white officer’s knee still on the dead man’s neck.
‘If You Say You Can’t Breathe, You’re Breathing’
Though the video of Floyd’s death drew widespread condemnation from across the political spectrum, Marx, a Republican, sided with the officer and his partner, whom the Minneapolis Police Department fired after the footage emerged.
“Why in the world would anyone choose to become a police officer in our society today? #backtheblue #ThinBlueLine,” Marx tweeted on Monday night.
Jason A. Darby, a resident of nearby Hattiesburg, just across the Leaf River, challenged Marx.
“Once he went unconscious and remained on his neck, do you feel that was warranted? … It’s hard to deny that was a bit excessive, especially at that point,” Darby replied.
Marx told the Hattiesburg resident that he did not “see anything unreasonable” in the graphic video.
“If you say you can’t breathe, you’re breathing. Most likely, that man died of overdose or heart attack,” Marx said, making a baseless claim. “Video doesn’t show his resistance that got him in that position. Police being crucified.”
Earlier today, the City of Petal announced a special meeting at 7 p.m. tonight to “address concerns and how to move forward after recent comments made by Mayor Marx.” Petal will livestream the City Hall meeting on Facebook.
Marx did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
The Petal mayor’s tweets sparked a firestorm among local residents, a number of whom took to Twitter and Facebook to call for the longtime Petal mayor’s resignation.
‘He Shut Down Students Who Didn’t Feel the Way He Did’
Though she grew up in Petal, Paola says she quit teaching and moved to Ovett, a small town around 10 miles away, before residents first elected Marx as mayor. She still shops in Petal frequently and uses a hairstylist there, she said, and sides with those who say the mayor “has gone too far and needs to step down.”
“It’s horrible. I can’t say that I’m surprised, though, honestly, I’m not,” she said.
Paola first learned about Marx’s tweets after getting messages from more than half-a-dozen of her former Petal students who remembered him. While speaking with the Mississippi Free Press, one former male student, whom she described as white and politically conservative, messaged her with a simple description of his feelings toward Marx: “God, he sucks.”
As someone with more progressive views than most of the school’s faculty, Paola says she made a practice of “allowing the students to do most of the talking” and not talking “much about (her) own beliefs.” Marx, who also taught a journalism class, was the opposite, she recalled students telling her.
“Even when he didn’t do it outright, he shut down students who didn’t feel the same way he did,” she said, adding that “he acted like everyone else who is white, and everybody who looks like him, thinks the same way he does.”
Still, Paola said she does not recall ever hearing about any instances where “Hal Marx was out-and-out racist to a student.”
“But if you go and look through his social media and what he shares, they’re all misogynistic, they’re homophobic, they’re mean, they’re extreme,” she said.
Marx Laments ‘Polarized and Intolerant’ Society
Since yesterday, Marx has deactivated his Twitter account. But screenshots show a number of abrasive comments, including one in 2018 to this reporter in which Marx wrote that “[t]he greatest threat to young, black males in the inner city are other young, black males. Let’s protect their lives by going after the criminals, not the police.”
In another tweet in 2015, Marx argued that the U.S. should inflict mass civilian casualties in the Middle East in the war against the Islamic Statement. “In WWII, we leveled German and Japanese cities full of civilians. It worked. Time to do so against ISIS. Total war,” he wrote.
After then-Hattiesburg resident Sam Adcock replied that such sentiments were the militant group’s “biggest recruiting tool,” Marx reiterated his calls to kill civilians: “You know who can’t be recruited? Dead people,” he wrote.
On Wednesday, all six of Petal’s city aldermen distanced themselves from Marx’s remarks about George Floyd in a statement.
“The comments made on Mayor Hal Marx’s personal Facebook page are not representatives of all of our city leaders. We understand the frustrations his statements have caused,” the statement reads. “Those comments are his personal views and he has the right to share his views on his personal page. We strive to love everyone and care for people from all walks of life and backgrounds here in the Friendly City. We are saddened by the events which led to this post.”
Marx defended himself in a Facebook post Wednesday afternoon, writing that “tolerant progressives can’t tolerate a simple statement of fact and a request not to rush to judgment.”
“It’s sad our society has become so polarized and intolerant of different opinions,” the mayor wrote. “Anyone who truly knows me knows I treat everyone as an individual. I don’t treat you as a white man or a black man or any other demographic. Each person is an individual child of God and is created in His image. I don’t, however, subscribe to the racial politics and progressive view of history. For some, that’s a crime.”
Paola told the Mississippi Free Press that she rejects Marx’s notion that progressives must be “tolerant” in every circumstance.
“I don’t tolerate racism or homophobia or misogyny,” she said.