PARIS, Texas - State police in full riot gear rushed a downtown street in this eastern Texas town Tuesday to break up a tense standoff between hundreds of black and white protesters who exchanged screams of "Black power!" and "White power!"

A skinhead carrying a Nazi flag and a shirtless white man were arrested on a misdemeanour charge of suspicion of disorderly conduct before the protesters separated peacefully, Paris police spokesman Lt. Danny Huff said. There were no reports of injuries.

The conflict began with a march through downtown by about 100 mostly black activists who were protesting the state's handling of the case of a black man who was run over and dragged by a vehicle. The demonstrators avoided a designated "protest zone" near the courthouse and marched to the town square to chants of "Black Power!" and "No Justice, no peace!"

"We're going to be boxed in?" said protest leader Jimmy Blackwell of the Tarrant County Local Organizing Committee. "No, we're not your slaves!"

Once at the town square, the crowd ballooned to about 200 mostly black people on one side of a street. Across the street were about a dozen white supremacists, including four skinheads holding Nazi swastika flags. About 30 other white people were behind them, but it was unclear if they were protesting or watching.

The two sides shouted at each other while a dozen or so law enforcement officers were in the street keeping them apart. After several tense minutes of screaming and the groups inching closer together, about 35 state troopers wearing helmets and carrying shields marched swiftly into the crowd. No blows were exchanged.

The rally in Paris, about 90 miles (145 kilometres) northeast of Dallas, is the third courthouse protest over the death of 24-year-old Brandon McClelland, whose mangled body was found Sept. 16 on a country road outside of town after he was run over by a vehicle and dragged beneath it. A prosecutor cited a lack of evidence in dropping murder charges last month against two white men arrested in his death.

The protest was led by members of the Houston chapters of the Nation of Islam and the New Black Panther Party. The Panthers, headquartered in Washington, advocate exemption from taxes and military service for black Americans. They also call for all blacks to be released from prison.

The Southern Poverty Law Center considers the Panthers and the Chicago-based Nation of Islam black separatist groups and hate groups.

Few of Paris' 26,000 residents watched the rally, which drew several dozen spectators.

Prosecutors initially charged Charles Crostley and Shannon Finley with murdering McClelland by running him over in Finley's pickup. They estimated that McClelland's body was dragged more than 70 feet (21 metres) beneath their vehicle. But a special prosecutor dismissed the charges last month, citing a lack of evidence, after a gravel truck driver came forward and said he might have accidentally run over McClelland.

This was the week Finley's trial was scheduled to start in a nearby town.

Previous protests over the case by the Panthers and the Nation of Islam were mostly peaceful and resulted in no arrests. A handful of white supremacists have showed up each time.

Protesters have said the McClelland case echoes the murder of James Byrd, a black man who was chained by the ankles to a pickup by three white men and dragged to death in 1998 in the town of Jasper.

Authorities, however, have denied there was a racial angle in the McClelland death, pointing out that he was friends with Finley and Crostley. Authorities had said the trio were returning from a late-night beer run across the Oklahoma state line when McClelland died. They alleged the three were arguing about whether Finley was too drunk to drive, and that McClelland decided to walk home. Authorities said Finley then ran over McClelland.

Finley and Crostley, who were released after eight months in jail, have maintained their innocence.


Associated Press writers John McFarland and Schuyler Dixon in Dallas contributed to this report.