(Cover photo credit: Bryan Edward Creative)
One activist has made it her mission to fight for equality, even when faced with oppression.
In the days following the Neo-Nazi hate rally in 2017 Charlottesville, VA, Torrey Henderson listened to Willie Hudspeth speak about how he had been protesting the removal of the Confederate statue in Denton. That’s when she decided to take a stroll in her hometown in Gainesville, Texas. While her town was littered with Confederate references, she never really paid attention to them while growing up. In 2017, at the age of 24, what Torrey witnessed in Charlottesville stuck a cord with. She grabbed a notepad and pen and just walked around town.
On the Cooke County courthouse lawn, there stood a 20-foot tall Confederate monument.
While Torrey, a third-generation Gainesville resident, had lived there her entire life and had seen the statue perhaps thousands of times, she never once read the inscriptions at the base of the monument. Nothing could have prepared her for the words etched into it.
On one side of the statue, it read: “Oh, home of tears, but let her bear this blazoned to the end of time; No Nation rose so white and fair, None fell so pure of crime.”
On the opposite side, another inscription: “To the women of the confederacy, whose pious ministrations to our wounded soldiers and sailors soothed the last hours of those who died far from the objects of their tenderest love; and whose patriotism will teach their children to emulate the deeds of their revolutionary sires.”
She was floored. Here she was a Black woman in small-town Texas, where the Black population is only 3% of the total population. Right there on the lawn of the county’s halls of justice was a blatant ode to white supremacy. Not only that, but this ode to white supremacy had also been there for over 100 years.
That was the first time she reached out to the county judge Jason Brinkley about the statue.
With no plan or organization, still in college, and working full time, 2017 was not the year she dug her heels in for a fight over this racist monument.
Living Blue in Texas, has been covering the situation with the protests and the monument since July 1. We’ll continue to cover it, as long as Gainesville needs a spotlight in what’s happening in this small rural community. This week, I got a chance to talk with Torrey in great lengths about how PRO Gainesville got started and some of the things leaders have dealt with behind the scenes. I even got a chance to talk to her about her feelings on the controversy surrounding Jessica Luther Rummel.
There has always been racism in Gainesville.
If you’ve watched any of the live streams, city hall meetings, commissioner meetings, or read the postings of Gainesville residents online, you would know that racism is completely ingrained in this town. Yet, there is a large oppositional group of white residents who completely deny it and say they are only divided now because of these protests.
So, I asked Torrey.
“I have never felt comfortable here. While some of the racism I faced growing up in Gainesville and while going to school here wasn’t blatant in your face, it was more like micro-aggression. My sisters and I have been dealing with it our entire lives.”
(Torrey’s sisters, Jasmine and Amara together began PRO Gainesville with one of their friends, Justin Thompson.)
“Police abuse,” Torrey went on, “is a well known and common occurrence in Gainesville. Especially against the Black community.”
She referenced an ACLU report from 2013, which stated that Blacks are TWENTY TIMES more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts for marijuana in Cooke County. She also told me how three Cooke County sheriff’s deputies pled guilty to civil rights violations back in 2006.
But, that was before Sheriff Terry Gilbert was elected, back when Michael Compton was still the Cooke County Sheriff.
Want to know what happened to old Sheriff Compton? He’s still around and believe it or not, he’s interjected himself into the fight for equality in Gainesville. Here he is on Facebook just a few days ago issuing threats to the Black Gainesville residents who have been protesting the removal of white supremacist statue:
Yes. There is a white supremacy culture in Gainesville, Texas and it’s been there for a long time. We aren’t just talking about micro-aggressions either. Some of these older white folk in Cooke County think they are living back in the 1950s.
Then the George Floyd murder happened.
Shortly after the George Floyd murder, in early June, some local residents got together to have a prayer vigil. Torrey and her sisters attended. During the prayer vigil, they only mentioned George Floyd’s name one time. They mostly spoke about praying for the country and much of their focus was on the repercussions of the murder.
It didn’t sit well for the two Black women at a prayer vigil for another Black man murdered by a white cop to be in a room full of white people who seemed concerned more about the backlash than the cause. So, Jasmine stood up to speak.
She was in tears, crying to this group. “If police murder me in the streets, will you pray for me too?”
Standing behind Torrey and Jasmine was another local resident who was holding a sign that said, “Defund the police.”
At that moment, as Jasmine stood in a room full of her white neighbors, many who she knew her entire life, pouring her heart out about her fears and worries, the mayor stood and walked towards them.
But as Mayor Jim Goldsworthy got close to them, he didn’t offer Jasmine words of comfort or reassurance. Instead, he pointed to the man holding the sign behind them and said, “That’s never going to happen.”
In tears, Jasmine ran out of the meeting and Torrey followed her.
In the days following that prayer vigil, it came to Torrey’s attention that another local resident, Justin Thompson had started a petition to remove the statue on the courthouse lawn. It also came to her attention that Justin was receiving death threats for this petition.
The three sisters met up with Justin and PRO Gainesville was formed.
The first protests.
The very first protest that PRO Gainesville held was on June 13, 2020. Even from the beginning, they were met with anger. Torrey said when they first were out there, every once in a while they were approached by residents who tried to dialogue with them, but mostly the opposition stood across the street at the Red Fox Lounge and stared at them. A lot of people would drive past them on the road and holler obscenities.
As the day of the July 1 protest got closer, they started hearing that their protest that day was going to be met with armed resistance. They had no plans of backing down or canceling, by that time they had been on that lawn peacefully standing for the removal of that statue for weeks.
The week before the July 1 protest, a few of the PRO Gainesville members went to a protest for racial justice in Pilot Point. (There isn’t a monument in the city but the small community has a brutal history of systemic racism, including violent Klan activity, nonetheless.) That is where they met Jessica Luther Rummel and invited her to come to stand with them in Gainesville.
July 1, they were met with extreme hatred.
Many of us know about what happened on July 1, PRO Gainesville showed up that day to protest and were met with hundreds of white men with guns who were there to stand in opposition to them.
Within minutes of Torrey arriving, a man approached her and took her picture, then said, “I wanted to take a picture of you because you aren’t going to look the same afterward.”
During that protest, Torrey and the others in PRO Gainesville were spat on, they were called the n-word, they were called animals, they had guns pointed at them, and many death threats were hurled at them. While at this July 1 protest, many of the counter-protesters in attendance were from out of town, but some were people that Torrey knew her entire life.
I said to Torrey, “Spitting is assault. Why haven’t you tried to press charges?”
She said that she has tried, not just at that one protest, but for other things that have happened during these last few months. Since July, many PRO Gainesville members and supporters have endured death threats lodged against them dozens of times, doxxing, harassment, some have been assaulted. Many of them have tried to file charges or make reports.
The Cooke County attorney, Ed Zielinski refuses to prosecute any of them. He won’t prosecute assaults, he won’t prosecute harassment, and he won’t prosecute death threats. Gainesville and Cooke County officers have completely stopped taking reports from PRO Gainesville members and their allies, often citing the fact they the DA won’t even look at them.
This should outrage everyone. PRO Gainesville is led by Black women who have been terrorized in their own community and the people charged with protecting them and keeping them safe are refusing to do so.
Ed Zielinski’s office number is (940)668-5459. Everyone should call him and demand that he prosecute the people who are trying to harm PRO Gainesville for peacefully protesting against the statue.
The next morning, when Torrey woke up in her bed, it all hit her like a ton of bricks.
“While the July 1 protest was going on,” she told me, “the energy was so high, I didn’t really have the time to process what was happening. But the next morning, when I woke up I realized how much danger we were in that day. Of all of the protests we have had, that one is the one we were probably in the most danger. It was a sinking feeling in my stomach. Not only was I able to see how much hatred was against us, but that’s the day I realized that Gainesville PD was not on our side.”
Later that day, Torrey and a few others were at the courthouse square and they saw JP McWilliams coming in to meet with Judge Jason Brinkley. He was also carrying an envelope in his hand.
Torrey and other PRO members engaged with McWilliams in a three-hour-long conversation that day.
As it turned out, McWilliams claimed that he was called out by an official. Whether that was an elected official or a law enforcement official is still unknown at this point. Multiple people have been investigating who called him into action for months now.
JP McWilliams is an Oathkeeper, which is a far-right extremist hate group. This is the group that showed up on July 1. McWilliams is from Nocona and has ties with a Neo-Nazi fugitive, (also from Nocona), who attended the 2017 Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville.
During Torrey’s conversation with McWilliams, he offered to tell her which official called him if she would stop protesting the statue. Of course, she has way more integrity than that and it didn’t happen.
Gainesville and Cooke County officials.
Since day one, Torrey and other PRO Gainesville leaders have been meeting with Gainesville PD and Cooke County Sheriff’s Office weekly. They have spoken about the protests, they have spoken about Jessica Luther Rummel, and they have spoken about the things happening in the community.
At the very beginning, they spoke to Mayor Jim Goldsworthy, who told them they have a mob mentality and then refused to meet with them anymore. They also met with the county judge and commissioners when the protests first started, these people also refuse to meet with them anymore.
Their meetings with law enforcement haven’t been productive. At one point, Gainesville PD started giving all of their protest plans outlined in permits to the counter-protesters and encouraged these community members to come out and meet PRO Gainesville with guns and Confederate flags. They initially demanded that PRO Gainesville get a permit to exercise their first amendment rights. At first, PRO complied, but GPD just started denying them. PRO Gainesville no longer asks GPD for permission to use their constitutional rights, they don’t need it.
Although Gainesville police won’t take reports for all of the abuses and harassments PRO Gainesville has had these last few months, they will spend their time sitting for hours in front of Torrey’s house. They have followed her around town and even showed up at her daycare and followed her home.
And on September 2, they issued arrest warrants for Torrey, her sister Amara, and Justin. Why? Because during the 10 blocks march held that previous Sunday, they left the sidewalk twice. Once to avoid a giant puddle, the second time to avoid counter-protesters standing on the sidewalk with guns.
It was a class B misdemeanor. Police went to each of their homes to arrest them on this misdemeanor warrant. They weren’t there, although they turned themselves in the next day.
Many in PRO Gainesville have tried to file open records requests for emails, 911 calls, reports, and records. Gainesville PD has not been transparent about anything. Some of the requests were denied, but most of them have been completely ignored.
Jessica Luther Rummel
As an anti-racist activist, when she has witnessed groups of white people standing across the street from PRO Gainesville, waving Confederate flags, screaming obscenities, and holding weapons, she has been blunt and called them the white supremacists that they are.
There is no question in anyone’s mind in PRO Gainesville, the Gainesville Black community, or from anyone on the outside world watching, these “counter-protesters,” have displayed extremely racist behavior, acted in racist ways, said racist things, and ARE racist.
This has really upset the good ol’ boy culture in Gainesville, who wants things to remain as the status quo. I’ve discussed this phenomenon on my blog multiple times, the white people who say racist things or act in racist ways and then completely deny being racist.
Many in the white community in Gainesville weren’t upset when their Black neighbors were being harassed, assaulted, and denied their rights. In fact, they stood on the side of those doing that. Yet, as soon as they are called racist, oh em gee, the entire world is coming apart.
These people have taken to Facebook and made Jessica Luther Rummel their number one enemy. They claim that Gainesville was peaceful and there was no division before Jessica came to town, even though the first day Jessica was there was also the same day JP McWilliams and his Oathkeepers showed up.
Some in the white community have also been trying to gaslight PRO Gainesville regarding Jessica. They say to them that they would have more support if they made Jessica go away. But where was that support in June or on July 1? It wasn’t there.
If those people really cared about Black lives and inclusion, they would stand with PRO Gainesville. They would stand with them if Jessica was there or not. Plus if they were standing with PRO Gainesville, instead of the opposite side holding guns and yelling racial slurs, Jessica would never call them racist.
To clarify, the only thing that Jessica has done in Gainesville is to call people out on their words and behavior when it is racist. Someone needed to. However, this has now made her Gainesville’s #1 villain. The obsession and hatred that white pro-Confederate Gainesville has with Jessica is obscene and like something out of a movie. All she has done is call out racist behavior which the Black community has been dealing with since forever.
How does PRO Gainesville feel about Jessica Luther Rummel?
Torrey told me, “She’s passionate, which is what I love about her. We should all be passionate when it comes to human rights. I live here in Gainesville, my kids go to school here in Gainesville. I can’t speak on my feelings and experiences. And I can’t tell these people who I have known my whole life, the anger I feel or the hurt I have gone through as a Black woman in Gainesville. But Jessica can. She says the things many of us feel to these people standing against us.”
“Jessica has done nothing but shown us genuine care and concern for our safety and well being. She doesn’t tell us what to do or how to express ourselves. She is here to document. I look at it this way, the people in the Black community have been uncomfortable a long time in Gainesville. White comfort hasn’t brought us any change or progress. If the white community has to be uncomfortable right now so that change can happen, then that’s what has to happen.”
The community changes since PRO Gainesville began protesting.
Unfortunately, the white supremacists in Gainesville have been pushing back against PRO Gainesville and the racism has escalated.
While in town, on several occasions, Torrey has been approached by white men who will say things to her like, “I hope you make it home safely.” Walmart has become a place of discomfort, especially. She said she is even apprehensive about going to Walmart alone because she doesn’t want to be accosted while simply trying to pick up laundry detergent. The glares of hatred and anger have met Torrey and other PRO Gainesville members all over town, as they are frequently stared down at any time they are out and about.
Gainesville residents have now also weaponized the Confederate flag and Trump flags all over town. Before the protests, people had these flags in front of their house, but since the protests, they’ve been spreading to houses all over Gainesville. On the street Torrey lives on, four separate houses started flying the Confederate flag in the last few months.
Just this last week, someone spray-painted “Fuck BLM,” on the streets in front of some of the PRO Gainesville members homes and on the roads they marched on last Sunday.
Torrey, the mother of two young sons, a college graduate, and a Gainesville resident wants her children to live in a world better and more inclusive than the one she and her sisters grew up in. PRO Gainesville is standing for what is right, just as Rosa Parks stood for what was right and just as the lunch counter sit-ins stood for what was right. They will continue to do so, every week until the racist monument on the lawn of the halls to Cooke County justice is moved.
Please join them this Sunday or any Sunday after that at 6:00 pm at the Cooke County Courthouse steps, they need all of the allies they can get.